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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