There and Back: Gamer Spaces for Men

This is an article I wrote a long time ago (almost 2 years ago!) that I think is worth revisiting. After reading it again, I realized some of my ideas about gamer spaces for men have changed. For one thing, I’m no longer sure I believe we need a new space for “good” men. I’m more of the mind that we need to reform the current one claimed by “real” men — which includes shrinking it down, filtering the harmful from the beneficial and then dealing with things from there. In other words, there is a vast gamer space for men. We just don’t want to clean up all the garbage laying around …but that’s the only way to reclaim ourselves and our community.

Without further ado:


No, I haven’t turned my blog into strict social commentary. It’s just that, as they say, I “can’t unsee”. Once you become aware of something you start to recognize how much of it is around you. In my case, blogging about it is simply a recent thing; for years I’ve kept out of these discussions, relying mostly on others to do the hard work of speaking up. I also don’t expect I’ll keep talking about games the same way I did when I was 24 (I’m 33). I’m pretty sure I’ve done a lot of growing, learned a lot of things, and have changed. Plus, there’s no games out right now that are worthwhile to write about. That makes it a good time to focus on what we’re doing as gamers other than playing games.

As a male, a white one, I hear others making statements all the time about how things are made for me, for my “type.” And I get that. I totally get that and I understand what’s being said and I completely agree; it’s the truth. The irony though is that there actually don’t exist any gamer spaces for straight white males who despise the societal privileges we receive. There’s no safe space where we can express ourselves in the same way people of the margins do (people of color, homosexuals, transgenders, women, and even children). I’m not glorifying their position in this: there’s a reason they speak from what is referred to as the margin. They don’t get the same attention nor audience being a straight white male allows me and, at best, they are believed to actually play games. That’s part of the irony. Men like me, once we’ve been given our audience, if we dare speak out against traditional masculinity, the silencing begins along with the shaming. There are no safe places where we can speak the truth. We’re not acceptable because even while men are criticized for not changing their ways, very few men find people willing to accept a changed man. This includes women (even some feminist women) and probably especially so. Yet, it’s not anyone’s fault but our own that we have precious few spaces or, depending on your geography, none at all. We haven’t dared to create them. That’s hard work.

Consider all that any one of us has seen or experienced from the shoes of the straight white male gamer.

Sexist, racist jokes are, as many among us would say, par for the course. Expectations of female sexual fantasy characters are also normal. There are those of us who sit in these groups of “dudebros” quietly, not quite thinking the jokes are funny but knowing we aren’t supposed to object. We’re supposed to accept that this is what “guys” do. We talk about women as though we date so many and revel in dick jokes and talk about how gay something, someone, or some event is. And we all quietly accept this.

We tell ourselves things like “this happens to everyone” and “no big deal” and “it’s common” and “welcome to the internet” and other things which suggest there’s nothing to be done about it. The underlying attitude, the underlying value that’s being asserted in most cases is that this is how men act. And that we’re supposed to act this way, supposed to be stoic, uncaring, or hard enough that such things don’t matter to us. The truth is that it burns. It makes many of us madder than hell to feel so powerless in the face of such ignorance. We don’t speak because we fear being emasculated; being called soft, weak, or gay. We don’t want to be the object of our own ridicule. And we want others to laugh as though something’s funny about this. We don’t question “normal”, straight white male. It’s too hard. And truthfully, a lot of us believe in it and would die for it.

It’s a vicious cycle that ensures we never have a safe gamer space to truly be ourselves without pressure or rejection. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because we continue the same choices out of sheer fear.

What Brought About this Article

Izzy Sparks in 2 different costumes. Epitome of cool.

The other day I gathered with two of my best friends for a round at Gears of War 3. I, personally, really only enjoy the single-player campaign, but I do appreciate time with friends to compete for sport. Once we were done with Gears we put on Guitar Hero 3, a classic favorite of us all. I always play Izzy Sparks. For those who aren’t aware, he’s by far the coolest rocker in the whole franchise! He’s a glam rocker and his costumes are second to none! Hair, boots, make-up, tights, and a sassy guitar …fun as all hell for me. Now that you know how hardcore a fan I am of Izzy, you can predict the feedback I get from “the guys”. It’s all in good fun, friendly jests that none of us take to heart. But the predictable comments are “you’re a closet cross dresser” and “you like men?” and other jokes about how feminine Izzy is and how feminine I must be. I don’t mind the teasing to be honest because I am fascinated with my obsession with Izzy. I haven’t understood why I think he’s so damn cool, but it’s actually quite simple: he’s expressive. He’s free to be whatever he deems himself to be, just as old 80’s glam rockers were. If he wants to doll up and rock out, he does it. Gay jokes don’t get in his way. If he wants to wear purple, lace, polka-dots, and eyeliner, he does it. And when he does it, it’s mega cool to me!

I am learning everyday to be that guy in my personal life. No, I don’t enjoy polkadots and lace; I’m not what anyone would describe as fashion conscious. I just want to be able to feel and be felt on a genuine human level, to be me without strings attached. I strongly dislike what’s expected of masculinity. It’s damning and the pressure is relentless when every male in your life, even the ones you don’t know, assume things about you based on your sex and sexuality.

However, in my own life there are no gamer spaces (other than this blog) where I can be that expressive without ridicule and shaming. Sure, I and other guys like me, can shrug it off and continue to do what we want, the way we like it. And for the most part, we do. That doesn’t mean the ridicule doesn’t get old, unfunny, or even irritating depending on the circumstance. In all cases, there’s social, systematic pressure present to get all men to conform to a certain standard. The standard is the problem. It’s hard to believe more men don’t reject it because it’s so very limiting. I can tell you, we don’t benefit from it in the ways we think we do.

The Manly Standard

What’s a 21st century man? This can’t be it …

I’ve gone over this in some detail in the past, so I won’t rehash too many of the details here. The short of it is that to be manly is to be unaffected, distant, tough, cold, and (when appropriate) angry. Manliness is defined by our ability to dominate. We do this through coercion of some sort. It’s not always physical. Coercion can be incessant teasing. Shaming is the most common form of coercion we use to get males to act a certain way.

It’s undeniable. I ask any one of you males who are reading this who are prone to disagree: what does it mean when people say “man up” or “be a man”? It means exactly the things I’ve described above. I know why we try to deny it though. Because we’re caught up in it without a lot of spaces where we can legitimately break away. There are no acceptable spaces in our gaming community (or society at large) where men can feel, be real, expressive, soft, feminine, emotional, and honest. We live the lie that we’re unemotional biceps. Sure, we can break our individual selves free of it like most people of the margins do, but unlike them we have no solidarity outside of traditional masculinity. Rarely, if ever, do we seek solace in community, a fact that allows us to continue to hold on to traditional masculinity by convincing ourselves that by acting independently, we’re “strong men”; that philosophy adheres to the tradition. But we feel trapped in the lie. Society doesn’t accept us. It only accepts manliness and deviations from this sacred mold are chastised literally to death. There’s no scarcity of murder against homosexual men, no small amounts of abuse hurled at men deemed too feminine, wimpy. There’s no playground any one of us can visit at this very moment where we won’t see little boys acting out against others who “act like girls”; no little boys who believe they can safely play with a barbie doll. There’s a reason for that.

The Manly Standard is that reason. It’s this unrealistic standard that all men are expected to live up to. That counts doubly so in our gamer spaces, where fantasy and acting out is supposed to be welcome. Men aren’t allowed by their peers to choose Izzy Sparks in the pink and purple garb, lace gloves, knee high heel boots, white hair, and sparkly white star guitar (my favorite get up!). I was surprised in my google search for images of Izzy in his various costumes to find that the most popularly posted image was not Izzy the Glam Rocker. It was Izzy in black leather attire with the spiky cuffs, football pauldron, and black sunblock under his eye. It was the “manliest” Izzy available.

Values = Choices

…same goes for looking/acting “manly.”

How did we get here? How did I arrive in a culture where my friends and I can’t share a session of gaming without talking about our manhood? If I’m truthful, I’ll have to admit that we rarely discuss much else and especially not how we feel. Over the past year, that’s changed somewhat as we’ve all been asking ourselves the hard questions about our identity (thanks to other strong, persistent people in our lives who love us). But in aggregate, what we mostly talk about boils down to 3 things: work , women, and dicks. These are our chosen values.

We talk about work because work ethic is highly prized as a sign of manhood in our culture. It symbolizes our independence and power. A working man is a real man, this value is unmistakable. We know this for sure by the evidence: men everywhere believing that men who don’t work aren’t real men. Furthermore, work is defined by hard work, industrial work. Iron Chef’s are definitely not what your average guy would consider manly work. Male gamers are also considered “weaklings” of some type by men who don’t play games.

We talk about women because that’s what men are supposed to do in our culture: obsess about sex. And we don’t talk about actual women, we just talk about whether there’s sex involved. “Oh the wife is holding out” we’ll say or “you need to get laid” we’ll chide or “<insert latest porn>”. Worse, we’ll talk about one of our sexual adventures, careful to describe only tits, ass, and positions. We’ll discuss how long we did it to her, how potent our erections are, how and where we ejaculate. This is the stuff of men.

This leads directly to dicks. Once the sex talk is over we’ll move on to some other insignificant topic, like sports or games. We’ll talk about Mario Brothers and why Princess Peach is named Peach (wink, wink). We smile and giggle at Aphrodite in God of War. We call Anya Stroud a “stupid bitch” while grabbing our dicks and criticizing how she handles a gun. Name a game and “guys” will find a dick joke in it. For a bunch of so-called straight men, we sure do love talking about the penis. There’s a reason for that as well, but it’s outside the scope here.

The choice is yours. Don’t be a Troopa.

So many make statements to the effect that this is normal for “guys”. “Guys” are born this way, it’s nature, what do you expect? We’ve all heard this tired excuse. As a guy, I feel embarrassed and insulted when other men boil our sex down to well-groomed monkeys who aren’t able to think, feel, or act any other way. As if there’s no choice involved and we’re slaves to biology, creatures who don’t have agency in our daily lives. Few will acknowledge TO THEMSELVES that these are daily choices we make. The cumulative effect of continuing to “act like a man” is the current state of affairs: men everywhere trapped by living the lie. Trapped into not creating spaces where we can express ourselves without shame.

Stranded in the gaming community with no spaces to truly indulge our greatest fantasies of self expression.

The key here though is the choice. Yeah, it’s a sucky situation. Yeah, to a greater or less degree we’ve been groomed for this role since boyhood, something that was beyond our control in our youth. But as grown men, we can make a different choice. Victims we may have been, but continuing in this way doesn’t make us continued victims. It makes us apologetic fools. Once we know the situation, it is up to us to turn it around, to make different choices, to create these crucial spaces. Without them, we remain bound in the web of Man Standard, unable to express, not allowed to show our full humanity, repressing our true spirit.

Making Choices in Modern Times

Too many of you are preparing a retort which will go something like this:

“You should be comfortable enough in your own sexuality to play Izzy,” or ” You shouldn’t worry what other people think,” or “Real men do exactly what they want,” (never questioning why they believe this or why this is true) or “You should be happy with who you are, forget other people,” or something similar.

These are convenient statements. They completely ignore what’s actually being discussed, which isn’t my comfort with Izzy or his sexuality. The topic at hand is the Man Standard and what’s wrong with it. We can hem and haw about how this doesn’t exist, but we know that’s a lie. Again, what do we mean when we say “be a man” if the Man Standard doesn’t exist?

This angers men. It’s one of our many secrets. It angers us because we feel a total lack of control and, as we understand it in our culture, men are supposed to be totally in control. That’s our M.O. We’re the creatures god made who can control our emotions, control our actions, control other people. But we discover more and more each day that we don’t actually control any of this. It’s an illusion. To chose things other than what is defined as masculine, is to blatantly state you’re not man enough, to open the door to rejection, and to face ourselves. It’s scary.

Still, despite lacking spaces today, there’s a brilliant horizon in our near future. I don’t believe all is lost; not in the slightest. Despite all these awful barriers to creating spaces many of us are trying and, though few, succeeding.

In modern times, things are a lot better than even 10 years ago. Everyday I see men making choices to reclaim themselves from the Man Standard. They are choosing everyday to reject conventional masculinity. This ought to be celebrated more, but it’s so very difficult to get men to even admit that this exists. That adhering to the standard is extremely problematic and traumatic to ourselves. That there is something very wrong with acting like humans who don’t feel, who can’t respect individuality, who are so angry that they get joy from shaming and ridiculing others. It’s far, far easier to let the dick jokes prevail, to denigrate homosexuals for a laugh, and pretend we’re laying different women every weekend; if everyone else is keeping up the ruse, then admitting the truth has no known rewards. There is a horrifying problem there that we, men, don’t dare discuss because it’s scary to imagine that’s what we’ve allowed ourselves to become.

We can all chose to make spaces for ourselves outside the Man Standard. Society doesn’t want us to and has succeeded in many ways in preventing it. For some reason, the gamer community seems notorious for sexist and racist behavior, yet I have known far too many awesome people to believe this is all we’ve got. As the years wear on, more men awaken to this reality and challenge it. It’s slow and painful, but it’s progress.

As far as gaming with friends go, at least 2 other friends of mine are open to the idea of having a space where we can establish continuity; a space where we don’t have to change gears and hold our dicks to uphold the Man Standard. We can just be ourselves, exactly as we are. We can laugh AND CRY. Wow!
Scree Tags: #trredskies #gamertalk #sexism

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