Playing Masculinity

How stigmatization, feminist critique and a crisis of masculinity push male players towards the alt-right.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

“I used to be a leftist, you know.” The words were accompanied by a sad smile and the eyes of my interviewee opening wide to underline his surprise. We had been talking about the video games of his youth, difficult times at home, the changes of console generations, and now we had come to the issue of feminist critique of digital games and their portrayal of gendered bodies. As a teenager, he told me, he had been struggling with Christian conservatives blaming games for violent behavior and questioning the moral compass of their players. He was used to defending his hobby and dealing with stigma and stereotypes connected to it. And he was used to the critics’ lack of understanding of the medium.

He was also in the process of getting used to feminists blaming men – as he perceived it – for pretty much everything. “There is nothing positive about being a man anymore”, he said, not talking about his own experience of course, but about the positions of whom he called the “internet-feminists”.

Masculinity in industrialized societies, as Raewyn Connell analyzed in the 1990ies, is confronted with a formerly unknown need to legitimize its privilege. Men – as many studies, including my own, have shown – continue to struggle with this situation. And some of them are fighting for spaces where they can live up to concepts of masculinity that have not changed as quickly as social expectations. Spaces such as digital games, where masculinity is not only, in many cases, still portrayed as heroic aggression exercised from the moral high ground of masculine individuality, but also where rough language, dominant behavior and sexual harassment face far less objection than in many social spaces around them.

It is this overlapping of experiences of stigmatization as gamers, and growing pressure on long unchallenged concepts of masculinity that lead to uncompromising opposition to any form of criticism against gaming culture. Internet-Feminism, as portrayed by this specific interviewee, is hysteric propaganda, which sees sexism and toxic masculinity everywhere. And the political left he used to identify with is now threatening the freedom of expression.

However, as typical for the “stigmatized” (as Goffman describes them), this interviewee and others whose argumentations followed comparable lines of thought were careful not to leave the realms of the acceptable altogether. And the hard to grasp mixed realities of digital games provided them with the perfect excuse. They seamlessly switched from argumentation to what was presented as playful provocation or trolling. Serious anger about perceived intrusion of feminist propaganda into their games was quickly followed by the claim that it was all “just about games” which, as such, were described as strictly apolitical.

This argumentative use of trolling, combined with the opposition to feminism and liberal agendas, thus seems to have been the door opener for actors of the alt-right, who were quick to realize that specific communities closely related to digital gaming provided them with the promising fishing ponds they were looking for. By playing with provocations and claiming not be to be serious when attacked, they use the volatile realities of digital play to push the limits of what can be said without having to face strong opposition – taking those who are open for their arguments along on the ride.


[Photo by Nicholas Martin]


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