Toxic Stereotype Is Toxic

There are a lot of conversations and opinions about the portrayal of and reception of women in gaming and the effect that those things have on women. As both a woman in the industry and the mother of a 10 year old girl, this is certainly an important issue that I spend a good bit of time thinking and reading about. It’s also not the aspect of gender stereotypes in gaming that I want to discuss here.

I’m also the mother of a 9 year old boy, one who really seems to be getting into gaming. And, honestly, I’m worried about the effect on him of the stereotypical portrayal of men in gaming.

Let’s consider the stereotype of the socially backward, under or unemployed, unattractive, 30 something year old gamer living in his mother’s basement. He’s barely ever talked to a woman besides his mom, let alone had sex. Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be an extreme example put out there for humor’s sake, an easy laugh on a TV show or comedy program. But it’s pervasive, even in supposedly geek-friendly venues. It’s not just outsiders laughing at us–we make these jokes ourselves (yes, I could dig up examples, but I don’t want this conversation to become about dissecting specific examples).

Worse yet, it seems apparent that lots of people marketing to this group believe this stereotype. This is where it gets intricately tied up in the portrayal of women. That socially backward man will supposedly do anything to get near a woman–he’ll wander into the booth with the friendly boothbabe. He’ll buy the book with the improbably proportioned scantily clad warrior on the cover. He’ll respond to the sexy woman in peril and want to play the knight in shining armor who saves her and wins her over. And so these stereotypes of women recur to appeal to these stereotypes of men.

Maybe there are men like that, maybe even enough to warrant marketing like this. But my experience suggests differently. The guys I know don’t fit that stereotype and are typically made uncomfortable by it. Many of them are married, lots have kids, quite a number are downright gregarious, none of them live in their parents’ basement, and all of them treat me like an equal human being. But a defense of men isn’t really where I mean to go here, either.

Here’s my issue: stop feeding this crap to my son.

He’s too young for this to be that much of an issue yet, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that someday all too soon he’ll be a 13 year old who likes girls, doubts his attractiveness, and is unsure of himself in social situations outside his close circle of friends. The last thing he needs is the perpetuation of the stereotype that tells him that, for guys in the hobby he enjoys and shares with his family, that’s a state of being and it doesn’t get better. It won’t matter that his dad obviously doesn’t fit this stereotype–just as airbrushed models feed our fears that we’ll never be thin and beautiful enough, negative stereotypes we identify with feed our fears that we really are as bad as our worst self perceptions suggest.

And what happens when his hormones kick in? He’ll be facing 1. images specifically designed to evoke a response from him and 2. a backlash against such images and the guys who respond to them. I’m not suggesting that such a backlash isn’t warranted–for the sake of both my children, I’d like to see those images eradicated and replaced with more inclusive, healthy, etc. etc. images. (And what if turns out that he likes guys? This aggressive heterosexual “normality” implicitly makes that less acceptable.)

Basically, I just want to raise the question of what these stereotypes are doing to boys growing up in the hobby. As my girl faces these issues, she’ll have a lot of support–other girls and women fighting those stereotypes along with her, and the many guys who feel women deserve better. But I fear that many aspects of the gaming hobby are going to tell my boy that he really is the antisocial, unattractive pig he fears he is in his darkest moments (don’t we all have those fears as teens?). How can you be proud of being involved in a hobby that does that to you?

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16 Responses to Toxic Stereotype Is Toxic

  1. Thanks.

    Our daughter will be five in September and in the middle of grocery stores proudly declares, “I’m a DORK!” while she monkeys around and goofs. She loves space, nature, science, and gaming. She has a mom who is a nerd and a dad who is not. Dad loves mom, mom loves dad, it’s all great.

    Our son is 2, and I watch him, and it’s pretty apparent based on his interests that he’s going to follow me too.

    People keep telling me since he’s so big he should go into football. People who don’t watch him take things apart and put them back together. Or see his love of the Bat Signal. Or watch him watch intently as his sister plays video games.

    Know what’s sad? At one point I thought to myself, “Well, if he is a geek like me at least he’ll be big enough that other kids might not pick on him.”

    This conversation is a must have. Thank you.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I’m always torn when I watch my kids proudly geek out in public. On one level, that’s awesome. On another, I dread the day when they realize not everyone thinks this is cool. In fact, some people think it’s really *not* cool and in fact very weird. I wonder if they’ll resent the fact that I didn’t warn them how others might look at this. And yeah, I hope they’ll have strategies to stand up for themselves.

      I do think this is changing a bit (as Jess points out in another comment), but I also think perpetuating the stereotypes, even as jokes or marketing strategies, sets us back.

    • Lugh says:

      Why exactly do you consider gaming/geekery and football mutually exclusive? Why can’t he do both?

  2. Filamena says:

    It’s an important point to keep in mind and goes far to counter the ‘well, but there aren’t that may girls playing, so why worry about them?” (Which, also, by the way, not true.)

    But more to the point, I have no sons, I do have a brother nine years younger I introduced to the hobby when he was very young, probably around eight or nine. I remember all the books I had to avoid because the cover art showed a little too much or I knew the interior art would be too much. (This was, of course, during the D20 boom, so there was A LOT out there.) I remember trying to take the typical ‘save the princess’ or ‘kill the horrible witch-queen’ stories and adapting them to messages to give these boys a better chance thinking level about women in the future.

    Fairtales and fantasy tropes exist, and in a lot of ways, when we fall back on these traditional stories, as gamers or as parents, we run the very real risk of perpetuating a socity that no longer exists by telling stories with their morals. We can take the parts of those stories that are universal and retell them with modern sensibility. We have to. To fit our society. To perpare our children for a socity even more equal and progressive than the one we live in. (I’m an optomist. That’s what our kids will have, damnit.)

    What’s sad is that so much of game art and module and even setting writing fall back on these tropes. They’re easy and familiar and are ‘easy to sell’ because everyone knows them already. But that doesn’t mean they’re doing us or our kids any favors. Plus, as I’ve said elsewhere, whatever ‘isms’ they may suggest, not changing anything, not doing something new is just bad, lazy writing. I wish more games could and would support us, as parents, preparing our children for our morals and their future. But, you know, I’ve probably talked for too long.

    Great post, great argument made!

    • ayvalentine says:

      I studied fairy tales for my masters degree (for real!). One thing people seem to forget is that these stories were very much products of their time, passed down through oral tradition and adapted to suit whatever the modern sensibilities were. As brutal as the Grimm tales may seem, for instance, they’re responsible for the evil stepmother because they felt these things were too awful for biological mothers to do to their kids. So when people rely on these tropes without adapting them to our modern sensibilities, they’re actually flying in the face of what these stories were intended to do.

      Or, you know, they *do* adapt these stories and we apparently get a very busty and barely clad little mermaid wrestling with tentacles…yeah, not where I hoped they’d go with that.

  3. Jess Banks says:

    Obviously, this is my business too, so thanks for putting some of these thoughts down. :) A big part of me says that, even as people still exercise these stereotypes, they’re on their way out. Geeks have inherited the earth in a way they could never have envisioned in the days when it was still okay to not shower for the entire duration of Gen Con, and we’re seeing both the pride and the power that geeks of all kinds can now claim. They certainly haven’t had to conform to the old boardroom standard of appearance or style, but while it’s now okay to wear Converse with a suit, the best role models of this out there show how cultivating your appearance can smooth the way to your goals, even as you let your geek flag fly.

    And, with the generation of guys who are caricatured so mercilessly age out of the general population, so, I think, will the worst of the Boris Vallejo boothbabe caricatures of a gamer’s ideal woman. I don’t think this progress is dependent on the gamer population being that much more evenly split between (among) the genders, though the generation of kids being born to the folks wearing the BabyBjorns to Gen Con for the last decade will certainly be influenced in their choices of future gaming groups by having seen their moms, aunts, and friends around the table their whole lives.

    In short (too late), I just think the times, they are a-changin’, and the unwashed gamer and his busty dream date may be an image which strikes our teenaged sons as just as dated and goofy as Revenge of the Nerds looks to us now.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I hope so. Perhaps what I’m seeing right now is the death throes of these stereotypes. It just feels like I see and hear them all over the place as my kids are moving beyond the confines of our home gaming table and actively entering this world. I suppose it’s partially knowing that we will no longer be the only examples they have that makes me hyper-aware of them.

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  5. Lugh says:

    It’s not only detrimental to the boys, but to the hobby. There are so many men out there “rediscovering” D&D (Ethan Gilsdorf most notably), who had set it aside when they went to college. The reason? They wanted to have a chance to date girls, and the hobby was going to shoot that in the foot. The stereotype pushes boys to feel they need to choose between gaming and being popular, and popularity will win almost every time.

    This is one of the reasons I rail against movies like Gamers (note: NOT the Dead Gentlemen production). It is supposedly made by gamers for gamers, and yet it depicts loser gamers continuing to lose. I mean, at least Revenge of the Nerds lets the nerds win in the end! I’m not sure I can name a movie that actually depicts gaming in a positive light. The best they manage is neutral. (Admittedly, I haven’t seen some of the latest crop of LARP films such as Monster Camp and the upcoming Knights of Badassdom.) Why can’t any of these “by gamers for gamers” films make me feel good for being a gamer?

    • ayvalentine says:

      I appreciate that being a geek in general seems a bit more acceptable – for instance, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have both been known to break out their d20s on TV without apologizing for it. But I agree that all too often–and way too often from fellow geeks–the tired stereotypes are dragged out. And now that people have learned that you can make a lot of money marketing to geeks (we turn out for those movie premieres!) I think it’s all the more important not to let that market get defined by stereotypes that just don’t fit the vast majority of us. As you point out, that will turn away those who might want to return and it will be hard for the next generation to want to stay in the hobby.

      • Lugh says:

        It also makes it so much harder to “evangelize.” I mention to people that I’m a gamer, and I get nervous laughter and shifty eyes. And I point out that I’m still the successful professional and happily married man I was ten minutes ago. But I’m dragging this way off-topic.

        Back on-topic, I also feel that the cycle of male gamer stereotypes is at least partially to blame for the toxic atmosphere in most MMO’s these days. Misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc. run rampant. Video game companies see that large demographic, market to them, thereby validating them, and the next micro-generation assumes that that behavior is the norm. Breaking that cycle becomes hard, because it’s tricky for any other conversation to find a way in. It is either a case of an adult speaking out against their favorite game, or the game designers changing their message, caving to “the man”, and driving that demographic to other games. We have to work to either change the culture as a whole, or at least work to marginalize the hate.

        (As a relevant aside, I did see this post shared on Twitter earlier today. At least one developer is speaking out, however anemically.)

        • ayvalentine says:

          Thanks for sharing that post–I was rather horrified by some of the comments on there, but I’m glad that the designers are taking on that issue. And with luck, that approach, while somewhat anemic, will hopefully encourage change from within which is more likely to stick. I hope.

  6. Bart Bechtel says:

    I have an 8 year old son. I am trying very hard to filter things for, this being the largest.

    If you don’t mind I’d love to put a link to this piece on my website for others to see.

    • ayvalentine says:

      Sure, Bart! I’ll keep an eye on your site as it develops – it looks like we share a lot of interests!

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