GUEST POST: Constructions of Gamer Identity in Popular Television

Editor’s note: We’re trying a new experiment here at The_Critical_Is: guest posts. Today’s guest post is by Amalia Charles, a writer out of Massachusetts.

Misogyny and abhorrence of the non-normative in online gaming communities is not a rare occurrence. I am a self-identified female gamer, who has been harassed, mocked, alongside having her sexuality and gender questioned by multitudes of male voices over my headset while I still played on Xbox Live. (I have since discontinued this pastime). As has already been noted by previous blog posts, this phenomenon of the misogynistic tendencies of some online gamers is not unique to myself. In the light of the (almost) daily updates about threats of sexual assault and/or mortal harm against Anita Sarkeesian, as well as other female gamers and video game critics, it is important to note how popular televisual media constructs of the identity of the gamer/geek both perpetuates and is informed by mainstream understandings of who is allowed to hold the identity of gamer.

The late 2000s saw an increase in shows that depicted geeks/gamers in a favorable light. In 2007, The Big Bang Theory (2007- ) appeared with a plot that followed a friend group of male geeks/nerds. Two years later, Community (2009 – ) began running with two of the main characters being self-identified geeks and with many of the show’s themes using different tropes of geek culture. Post-2005 “nerd/geek” shows appeared to target nerds/geeks as part of their intended audience, but they fell into new stereotypes about the gaming community, and began to represent a combination of the worst stereotypes and -isms of social geekdom, including racism, sexism, and ableism and by doing so validated those nerd subcultures that continued to practice these harmful behaviors and microaggressions. They were shows about “Nerds,” but many negated half of the population of nerds with the stereotypical portrayal of who nerds/gamers/geeks were “supposed” to be and what they were supposed to like, thus perpetuating the myth of gamers solely being white, male, able-bodied, neurotypical, and heterosexual.

One of the biggest contemporary issues for gamers is the idea of who gets to claim said identity. Popular culture paints a simplistic picture of the gamer by consistently only portraying characters with this identity as white, male, and normative. As Christine Quail notes, “one must acknowledge that a gay or black or female nerd needs to have such modifiers, which is emblematic of the racial and sexual assumptions of nerd identity.”[1] So, who is a nerd or a geek? Who can hold the label without a modifier? As Lauren Sele describes, “the archetypal computer nerd…he wears glasses, sports oddly parted hair, and is a genius in front of the screen. He is also only male.”[2] When asked for the stereotypical geek/nerd/gamer, a group of students from Smith College described a social geek as: a white male, with no social life and disposable income. He most likely lives with his parents still, is not sexually desirable and is nerdy but not necessarily a nerd.[3] The stereotype that comes to the forefront of all of these examples is that the typical geek/nerd/gamer is a straight white male. Perhaps one of the most iconic representations was in the South Park episode, aptly entitled “Make Love Not Warcraft.”

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As noted, and portrayed, during this particular South Park episode, geeks/gamers during the late 20th century were stereotypically portrayed as desexualized beings, their natural habitat their parent’s basements and the comic book store. While many of the contemporary post-2005 television shows do not employ the desexualization/undesirability of particular main character nerds/geeks, the undesirability of the geek/nerd is still a prevalent trope of shows, often found when looking to no line extras and as the butt of jokes. In The Big Bang Theory, this is highlighted whenever there is a scene at the local comic book store.

This scene represents the stereotype of the white male gamer, as other than Raj, the token person of color of the series, every other geek in the store is a balding, skinny white male, more often than not with bad eyesight. This stereotype of the socially unfit white male nerd carries on into contemporary big-budget television shows and continues to erase nerds that do not fit into this very narrow category, specifically nerds that are people of color, women and LGBTQ identified. Even in Community (2009-2014) this trope is carried on when the group gathers to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons, with a peer who is on the verge of suicide because of the constant teasing for his weight, which can be attributed to his geek identity. However, the show differs here from The Big Bang Theory, because it shows a group of people gathered together to help a friend in need, with both men and women, and most importantly, the two main character geeks being people of color.

While Community does better than other contemporary representations of gamer/geek culture, many of the most popular shows lack representation of female, people of color, and other “minority” gamers and nerds, and when they do include them, they portray these minorities with worse stereotypes than their white male counterparts. Positive representations of female geeks in popular large network television shows very rarely happen. The wildly popular series The Big Bang Theory scarcely represents the female gamer or female geek, and only does so in an extremely negative light. Penny serves as such an example whenever the writers and creators of The Big Bang Theory wish to show a female “gamer.” In season two episode three of TBBT, Penny—currently the only main female cast member—becomes addicted to a World of Warcraft type game that the other four main characters of the show also play. However, her playing the game transforms her character from the bubbly, not-so-smart hot chick into the sexually undesirable “gamer chick.”

Penny exemplifies the stereotype of the desexualized female gamer—she has not showered in days, has no idea what day it is, and feels no shame in eating stale Cheetos out of her unbrushed hair.[4] This desexualization of Penny is unique to her, as Raj, Leonard and Howard who all play the game, express themselves vocally at all costs about their desire for coitus. Sheldon is painted as constantly confused by sexuality and undesiring of it, but it is never attributed to his nerd/geek-ness. The men are portrayed as having a normal, healthy obsession with the game and thus keep their sexuality, while when Penny plays it, and is sucked in, she loses hers because, as Sheldon says in an earlier episode, “no one can be that good looking and good at video games.”[5] More than that, this show overlays a laugh track, like most sitcoms, making it nearly impossible for the audience to create another reading of this female character. This is where the show erases female gamer identity and sexuality, and thus whenever Penny plays a video game her character must deny the identity of gamer/geek, or lose her sexuality and desirability.[6] The representation of the desexualized female gamer is just one more way that popular representations of nerd culture erase the existence of any social geeks that differ from the trope of the white male gamer.

There are no female geeks/gamers in The Big Bang Theory. There are though, female nerds.[7] The implications of this differentiation between female nerds and female gamers/geeks is that women can be smart and passionate about their work; but in the realm of science-fiction, comic books, conventions, etcetera and most specifically, video games, women are not allowed unless they are “one of the guys.” The same holds true in Community. The women all are passionate about their academic work, and for the most part don’t understand Abed and Troy’s geeky passions.

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By doing so, geekdom/gamer identity becomes a gated community, a sacred space where only the “worthy” can go.[8] With the popularization of the geek/nerd community, the “target audience” of geek/gamer-type things becomes more vocal about who a “real” geek/gamer is and who a “fake” gamer/geek is.[9] Often those identified as “fake” gamers/geeks are female gamers—as if the lack of a Y chromosome makes any person any less of a gamer.

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The continuation of stereotyping nerds as all male, predominantly white and all heterosexual through popular media and displaying it as an acceptable norm will allow for the continuance of the view that this type of stereotyping is acceptable from male gamers who, because of gender, sexuality or race, feel entitled to more privileges than those they have characterized as “minority” gamers.

There is a glimmer of hope however, towards changing perceptions of who a geek should or shouldn’t be, and what they should or shouldn’t look like. When Anita Sarkeesian originally started her Kickstarter back in 2012, the outpouring of support in the wake of the horrendous online attacks against her, including releasing her personal information and hacking or reporting her various accounts, highlights this shifting perception. People are tired of the gaming community being gated, secluded, and sequestered for any but the most privileged in our society: the white, straight, middle class male.

While she continues, to this day, to be attacked for her criticism of problematic tropes in the gaming industry, the continued support and even the recognition of some game creators/companies indicates that these thought processes by a small subset of the community (albeit extremely loud section) are slowly starting to be ignored in favor of a more inclusive, more representational of who gamers are—which is anyone who wants to pick up a controller, play a game, and claim that identity for themselves.

NOTES

[1]: Quail, “Nerds, Geeks,” 463.
[2]: Lauren Sele, “Talking Nerdy: The Invisibility of Female Computer Nerds  in Popular Culture and the Subsequent Fewer Numbers of Women and Girls in Computer Sciences” Journal of Integrated Studies, 1.
[3]: Student generated list from class discussion in FLS260: New Media/Participatory Culture at Smith College on April 24, 2013.
[4]TBBT, S02E03, 13:40-13:47
[5]: TBBT, S01E07 “The Dumpling Paradox”
[6]: Seen in The Big Bang Theory Season 1 Episode 7, “The Dumpling Paradox.” Penny inserts herself into playing Halo, and when invited to play in a tournament with Leonard the next weekend she dismisses it as something that people do who don’t have a life.
[7]: Bernadette Rostenkowski, a biologist, is introduced in Season 3 Episode 5, “The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary.” Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist, is introduced in Season 3 Episode 23, “The Lunar Excitation.” Both women hold PhDs in their respective fields. Both are introduced as love interests of one of the main male characters, Bernadette for Howard Wolowitz and Amy for Sheldon Cooper.
[8]: Andrea Spain, Personal correspondence, May 8, 2013.
[9]: In a letter to Bioshock, after the release of Dragon Age II in 2012, a straight male gamer complained that by including more romance options, i.e. a gay option, that the creators were driving away their audience, the “straight male gamer.’ see http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8

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