I’m trying to get back up on the personal blogging horse and ride again. The last 6-8 weeks have been busy and my blogging has suffered. When I have been writing, it’s been a series of TV episode reviews for a web site that some friends have operated for better part of a decade. While that remains a worthy effort, it does little to document what’s been going on in my day to day life. There have been some ups and downs there, and I’ll need to write about them, hopefully shortly.
In the mean time, I want to comment about a rather contentious subject of the moment: GamerGate. That’s a tough bronco to ride first time out of the gate in a while. Anyway, here goes…
In the autumn of 1993, I had just received a Masters in Computer Engineering and was just embarking on a Ph.D in Computer Science. I also spotted William Gibson on the cover of issue 1.4 of Wired, and bought it. Leafing through its pages, I read articles aimed at the general public on topics that I had previously encountered in grad school computer labs (fractal compression, wavelets, Kibology.) After years of occasionally referring to myself as a geek and nerd, I remember thinking “Wow. Someone has decided that what I am doing with my life is cool. What does that mean?”
There have been a lot of different answers to that question in the intervening two decades. The short answer is that geek culture won, and got a seat at the big table of cultural influences and national priorities. STEM degree holders are seen a pathway to a prosperous future for the United States. The big summer tent pole movies are now based on comic books. Video games are ubiquitous. World of Warcraft took FRPGs out of basements and back rooms to the tune of 100 million accounts created over the lifetime of the game. From Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, the geek billionaire inventor is now a type, and more importantly an aspirational target. Television shows like Big Bang Theory and Scorpion are full of characters that embrace geeky or nerdy characters in a largely positive ways. The terms “geek” and “nerd” have changed in the last few decades. Someone I know is creating a line of Pilates Nerd merchandise, and she (if memory serves) was a high school homecoming queen.
There is a darker side. Geek culture is still largely male and some of those men are not making women welcome as equals at the table. That’s shown up in a news item I read last Spring, about the failure of a pilot for a TV reality show called “Game Jam” in which two woman game developers (Zoe Quinn and Robin Arnott) walked out over hostile, sexist comments made by a member of the production staff to promote on camera “drama” (among other professional concerns.) It came up again when I heard about verbal and physical harassment of women who cosplay at San Diego Comic Con this summer. And this week, I’m reading a lot about GamerGate. At the heart of that scandal, Zoe Quinn was forced to move from her home due to threats and harassment after an ex-boyfriend claimed that she slept with a member of the game press to get better reviews of one of her creations, and Anita Sarkeesian also moved from her home due to threats because she created a YouTube video series entitled “Tropes vs. Women In Video Games” that leveled some intelligent feminist criticism against video games and the video game industry for their portrayal of women. More recently, Ms. Sarkeesian also had to cancel a lecture at Utah State University when she discovered that the University could not prohibit hand guns (when the owners had permits) in the lecture hall because of Utah state law, in spite of death threats made against her person.
The levels of vitriol aimed that these women baffle me. The nerd culture types I’ve generally encountered are scientists and engineers, who despite the Steve Jobs hippie image, are a little more often social conservatives than flaming liberals. That tendency has got to do with some of it, but it only goes so far. My mother and her sister were both professional chemists when second wave feminism was happening, and there’s at least one female computer programmer among my cousins in the years since. My sister has degrees in biology and library science… so I come from a very women-in-science-positive background. Geek culture is a better place with more women in it, in my opinion.
The one explanation that’s really resonated with me is a commentary on GamerGate called Why I Feel Bad For – And Understand – The Angry #GamerGate Gamers by Devin Faraci. The crux of his analysis of why there is such hostility and misogyny in the gamer community boils down to a consequence of the notion from over 20 years ago that geek culture was now cool:
Let me tell you where these kids are coming from, because I used to come from there. The first thing that’s happening is that they’re mostly males who are socially unaccepted. They’re outsiders, losers, weirdos and freaks. And most of them aren’t just male, they’re white males. What’s happening is that these men are feeling powerless in their own lives, and then along comes someone like Anita Sarkeesian telling them that as white men they are the MOST powerful group in the world. And that they should be aware of this privilege and they should be careful how they exert it.
Imagine the confusion this causes. These kids feel like the bottom of the heap, ignored and hated and mocked and here comes this woman – who is successful and admired and gets Joss Whedon to retweet her videos – telling them that they’re actually part of an invisible system keeping her down. This simply can’t compute for these guys.
What was once a safe haven for the socially marginalized members of a privileged group has now become mainstream enough that a) some of the people who previously ostracized members of geek communities now want to visit them and share in them, and b) geek communities are big enough and powerful enough that they are legitimately open to examination and criticism from other stakeholders in society.
While I can’t say that I have ever been an outcast, I’ve always felt I’m better with machines than people in certain ways. I’m a pattern introvert, and not blessed with a life of the party personality. My approach to life is more about understanding and using the rules of human behavior, than demanding attention or preference through physical dominance. Interacting with people can be draining at times, and at those times I can feel completely alone in a crowded room. People and their motivations can feel opaque. Machines don’t have these problems for me. If there’s something I don’t know, I just figure it out… and when I build something that works, that achievement speaks for itself.
So, I get how geek culture can be a bit of a refuge. I can see how you can get invested in the world of comic books (though I didn’t) and rejoice that you’ve got an event like San Diego Comic Con that celebrates what you love. I can also see how you can get anxious about losing something unique when Comic Con becomes so mainstream that Paris Hilton now puts in a media appearance there. I can even see why if you’re an awkward guy that’s had nothing but romantic rejection from women suddenly get nervous when women suddenly start showing up in your mostly male community.
None of this is an excuse for what is going on now.
Things change, and more inclusiveness ultimately means there are less people telling you what you should do and how you should act. This exchange from the West Wing comes to mind:
Major Tate: Sir, we’re not prejudiced toward homosexuals.
Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: You just don’t want to see them serving in the Armed Forces?
Major Tate: No sir, I don’t.
Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: ‘Cause they impose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion.
Major Tate: Yes, sir.
Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: That’s what I think, too. I also think the military wasn’t designed to be an instrument of social change.
Major Tate: Yes, sir.
Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: The problem with that is that’s what they were saying about me 50 years ago – blacks shouldn’t serve with whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I’m an admiral in the U.S. Navy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff… Beat that with a stick.