Let me tell you a story of my tribe:
At its heart, the word “gamer” doesn’t just mean somebody who plays video games. It’s an identity, a tribe.
I was a bookish kid with bookish interests growing up in a small rural town in Mississippi in the 1980’s. Like so many others with similar stories, I was bullied in one form or another from kindergarten until I left to go to college. Bullying, harassment, verbal abuse were and are common. You don’t have to be gay to be called a faggot every day.
As far as dating goes, you can almost forget about it. I did date a girl for one semester during my senior year, but that’s a lot better than a lot of my tribe gets. Women do not, as a general rule, want nerdy pariahs who are constantly reminded of their place in the social order.
I was bullied and harassed by people who would never admit to themselves, even today, that they were capable of such sadism and evil. By people who think of themselves as good Christians who were always good Christians. By people who’ve friended me on Facebook (hint: just because I’ve accepted your FB friend request doesn’t mean we were ever friends).
Fortunately, I was and am extremely tall, so I didn’t suffer the physical abuse so many did. But the exclusion and hate stay with you. They change you, hollow you out and leave an acid furnace where your self-confidence should be. The paranoia stays with you for a long time: will this new friend be true, or will they betray you like so many others had?
In these cases, an identity, a group, a “tribe” can be a literal life saver. Those who withdraw into isolation, who either don’t find a tribe or who lose touch with it without establishing other, stronger ties, will often be lost to depression and suicide. A tribe isn’t just a social group you hang out with, but something you put enough effort and time into that it becomes a part of your identity.
And gaming is one such tribe.*
In my day, it was pen and paper games (RPGs and relatively complex boardgames) and the NES. In time, computer games became a bigger part of things, and we even ended up playing Goldeneye on the N64 in the college dorms. We even had conventions like Coast Con where we awkwardly met up with other geeks whose social skills were similarly stunted by the exclusion and abuse they’d suffered. Many of us even wrote our own games, or modified existing games when possible. This was a hobby you could put a lot of creativity into, and it gave us a shelter from the shit storm of high school.
In our day, this had to happen in person. The Internet was too new and too slow to really support online gaming.
Now the “Gamer” tribe has moved more and more online, just like every other aspect of our lives. And I think that has further harmed the social skills of gamers, just like it’s affected everyone. But the key is that “gamer” is still a life-saving identity, a tribe that takes a bullied, excluded outcast and gives him (usually him) a home.
But now another development has happened that threatened that identity. The Nintendo Wii and the growth of mobile computing led to an explosion of female-friendly games, including many that were casual and easy to pick up and play quickly. This changed the face of “gaming.”
It’s an attack, not on video games, but on an identity. The Gamers, the identity gamers, they see their own name, their own tribe being co-opted in the media to mean anybody who plays anything. Your grandmother is a “gamer” because she plays Farmville on Facebook. The same kids who abused you for being a gamer, well now they’re “gamers” too, because they play Angry Birds or Cut the Rope. The same girls who rejected you as a gaming geek are “gamers” because of Just Dance for Wii.
And then the identity gamer sees the cheerleader playing Angry Birds or Castle Saga on her sparkly-cased iPhone during halftime, while he’s lugging a massive tuba onto to the field, and something in him just breaks.
“No! You can’t have that, too! You have money and cars and respect and dating and popularity. You have everything. You can’t have the ONE THING THAT WE HAVE!”
And that acid furnace that’s been burned into the bullied kid’s heart just explodes. Desperation and fear drives the eruption, but once it’s flowing, rage burns bright. It burns with the righteousness of self-preservation, of revenge, of a starving man fighting a glutton over the last morsel of food.
It feels like life and death. It isn’t, but it feels like it.
Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m excusing misogynistic domestic terrorism, which is what I think the death and rape threats against Zoe Quinn, Vivian Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian (and the Doxxing of Felicia Day) and others are. These are serious crimes and should be investigated and prosecuted by the authorities and denounced by everyone else.
And I don’t want to imply that the self-righteousness felt by the GamerGaters is actually real righteousness. It isn’t.
But I do want to shed some light on what might be motivating some of the attackers, and some of the gamers who are standing by and doing nothing.
It feels like a life and death struggle, a struggle for the identity that has preserved their sanity and even lives.
But as an older man than they, I’ve found that while these identities may shelter us and protect us when we’re at our most vulnerable, they also bind us. We can’t grow while we’re encased in metal. We have to move on, to have our own families, our own friends beyond our gaming circle – true friends who have proven themselves loyal, but who don’t share all our interests – our own accomplishments, whether in careers, academics, or service and good works to others.
It’s time for Gamers, and GamerGate especially, to step out from their shelters. But it’s also good, perhaps, for us to understand them.
* [If you’re asking why Christianity didn’t serve as my “tribe,” despite my longstanding and continuing association with and identification as a Christian, I can speculate two reasons.
1) Where I grew up, everybody at least claimed to be Christian, including the most virulent bullies, so it meant nothing
2) As a church, we honestly didn’t do enough for it to matter. Sure, we went to church on Wednesdays and Sundays, but that was about it. It’s not like we were spending our afternoons and weekends building Habitat for Humanity Homes or feeding the hungry or even doing in-depth Bible studies.
As a family, we did more. For example, Dad and I would read the Bible together every non-church-night, and I cherish and am very grateful for those memories, but that was immediate family, not the church as a whole].