— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Some of you may remember the “GamerGate” scandal of summer 2014: a female game designer was revealed to have been in a relationship with a games journalist. She immediately came under heavy fire and became the target of enormous criticism; unignorably mysogynistic criticism. This extreme response prompted a second backlash against gamer culture in general, with much digital ink spilt about the mysogyny rampant in gamer culture — and the merits of gamer culture more broadly.
It’s worth pointing out that this issue of skewed perceptions and treatment of women in gamer (and nerd culture more broadly) is nothing new. The issue of mysogyny among gamers had been longstanding, and critiques of the unrealistic depictions of women in games (and comics) have been here for even longer.
Things struck home this time, though, when I came across the essay in Jacobin magazine entitled “Death to the Gamer“, which argued, in essence, that gamer culture is a culture based on collective consumption, and is thus a degraded culture. I was a gamer for many years (virtually the entirety of my childhood and adolescence). I identified strongly with gamer culture for over a decade. Degraded? It hurt.
It hurt because it was true. Gamer culture is a culture based on continual, collective consumption of media. It is a culture that requires nothing from its participants beyond this consumption. Given these skewed foundations, it should come as no surprise that the culture exhibits some extreme behaviors. It is out of balance.
Let us consider a second example.
For several years, I lived and worked in a large student housing cooperative. A democratically-run organization of 1300 members, it was in many ways a micro-nation, with its own politics, culture, power, and history. The critical factor there, though, is that the overwhelming majority of those participating were between the ages of 19 and 23, as well as being self-selected and having personal ethics and politics tending towards the experimental and anti-authoritarian. As a result, the organization’s membership tended to value style over substance and excess over restraint. While there were many benefits of this highly skewed human base, having the entire organization governed by people coming from only that small slice of life led to cyclical, systemic crises as members would regularly elect incompetent leadership. Crises would tend to be followed by a 3-4 year periods of stability, after which those with memory of the crisis would graduate and the quality of leadership would decline, until a subsequent crisis helped revitalize the spirit of order in the system.
This pattern is a consequence of this organization having an “imbalanced” culture.
Of course, this concept of “imbalanced” can have no meaning without a corresponding concept of “balanced”. What does it mean to have a “balanced” culture?
An initial attempt at a definition could be the following:
A “balanced” culture is one that:
1) Contains an understanding of the entire human life-cycle, as well the ways in which that life-cycle may differ based on sex and gender.
2) Has memory of the experience of existential threats, as well as the ability to attempt to protect itself against such threats.
3) Is stable and self-sufficient, capable of both governing and securing adequate resources for itself, over a multi-generational period of time.
As such, a “balanced” culture understands what it means to raise children and care for the elderly; to plan for the future, to deal with both scarcity and abundance, to work for peace, to defend itself against aggressors.
In general, we can think of the major “world” cultures as being balanced, although it is certainly true that even major and very old cultures have deep flaws — the valuation of women in most major cultures, for example, has generally left much to be desired. Treatment of the weak and vulnerable is far from perfect. Yet, direct contact with life on earth exerts a calming effect on these cultures, rounding edges and tempering extremes. Embedded subcultures are insulated from this direct experience.
By analogy, consider how we stigmatize the trust-fund brats and praise the self-made. The former is ignorant of the world, the latter is in intimate contact with it.
In the case of the student cooperative, the absence of both young children and the elderly meant that the culture could favor intense extremes, as there was no need to exercise the restraint needed in order to care for vulnerable members of the community.
In the case of the gamers, the fact that the culture is based on escapist consumption means that necessarily gamers must be situated within another, larger culture in order to survive — they participate in that larger culture to acquire resources, which they then pour into the gamer subculture. This dependency on an outside culture means that gamer culture can be extremely self-selecting and thus perpetuate extreme views — specifically towards women — which would not be tolerated in a larger and more diverse culture.
Now, none of this is to say that imbalanced cultures are necessarily bad. Quite the opposite — they allow for the cultivation of different points of view, and are often the source of insight — artistic, scientific, political — which is ultimately embraced and incorporate into the larger host culture. In some ways, these imbalanced cultures are necessary for the vitality and growth of the whole. However, the partialness of experience which they reflect has consequences, and these consequences should be understood and anticipated.