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With the recent fiasco of gamer girls actually being tossed out of a convention, the state of the gaming community seems rather unclear. Is geek culture only welcoming to people who think and feel a certain way, or is it a robust hobby for anyone, from any walk of life? Are there truly people that the community doesn’t want and won’t accept? There is no concrete answer to these questions; instead, they are going to vary based entirely on your own perception.

How a community is perceived is important to how well it grows and can also dictate what sort of people would even contribute to the growth of that community, while also determining who will refrain from bothering with it.  The scary part is that none of this has to be based in reality. Real facts and evidence are hardly required to make someone feel like they are unwelcome, and a lack of real evidence seems to be a huge cause of turmoil in the gaming world.

The gaming community has assuredly taken on a distinct reputation over the years, and the way it is perceived changes depending upon whom you ask. Everyone is familiar with the old stereotypes, and the emphatic accusations of sexism, racism, and dozens of other phobias are hurled ceaselessly towards this hobby.

The actual evidence shows that gaming is socially beneficial, with friendships made in online communities resulting in positive effects in the real world. Gaming acts as a common factor to bring together people who would be very unlikely to meet outside of it, let alone form a real friendship. In this way, gaming is a unifying agent with the power to bring all kinds of people together, and the nature of online interactions can even help those with social anxiety to branch out and meet others.

Actual evidence, however, is woefully inadequate for dissuading people who are firmly entrenched in an opinion. Studies have shown that the way any issue is originally perceived is often ingrained in a person’s mind, even when evidence appears that contradicts this original belief.

“Misinformation stays in memory and continues to influence our thinking, even if we correctly recall that it is mistaken. Managing misinformation requires extra cognitive effort from the individual…Most importantly, if the information fits with your prior beliefs, and makes a coherent story, you are more likely to use it even though you are aware that it’s incorrect.”
-Colleen Seifert, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Once a belief is held, it becomes hard to shake.

The gaming community is no stranger to misplaced accusations. It is often accused of promoting, causing, supporting, instigating, and glorifying violence and sexism, and gamers are frequently labeled as hate-mongers and harassers.

An interesting study performed last year by the Pew Research Center shows how the perception and reality of the gaming community are not aligned. While this study somehow got passed around as definitive proof that online gaming is a cesspool that is unwelcoming towards women, a closer look reveals that gaming is only perceived as a negative space for women – the area where harassment occurs most frequently is actually social media. 66% of the participants had their latest incident of harassment over social media, while only 16% claimed gaming as the latest site of harassment. Despite this, social media was perceived as much friendlier towards women, while only 3% of the participants believed gaming to be friendlier towards women than men.

As mentioned, this ingrained perception is difficult to shake, even while harassment is more prevalent in other online avenues. The narrative that gamers are evil harassers is not making anything better, and the more it is pushed, the less likely the gaming community is to see any real increase in diversity. No, online communities are not perfect, and there probably are some people who could learn to ease up on newer gamers, but by no means are gamers unanimously as barbaric as they are made out to be.

The longer these accusations go unopposed, the more entrenched they will become, and the less effective contradictory evidence will become.

Why is this a problem?

Because a fearful environment is not somewhere anyone wants to be. If non-gamers are led to believe that entering into gaming is going to get them harassed, stalked, threatened, or doxxed, then their interest in the hobby is going to take a sharp decline. If women are constantly and aggressively told that gaming is full of misogyny, then nobody can blame them when they have no interest – and why would they? This narrative of fear and shaming makes gaming appear to be an unwelcoming place, even if the participants themselves are extremely welcoming and open to new people partaking.

When social media – the area that is perceived as having little harassment while actually containing the largest percentage – is full of accusations of how gamers are exclusive, creepy, toxic, and hateful, then the likelihood of non-gamers picking up these extreme opinions as fact is quite high. When it is believed that gamers do not want them there, and that gamers will harshly criticize and harass anyone who does not immediately fit in, then getting new people to join the community becomes exceedingly difficult. Presenting evidence to the contrary is ineffective once these ideas turn into ingrained beliefs.

And this is even starting to affect women who are already participating in geek culture. Coming back to the women who were ejected from an area that is a supposed safe haven for nerds and nerd enthusiasts, is there really any way to make someone feel less welcome than to literally remove them? These women were treated unfairly not because of anything that was actually done, but because of an ingrained belief convincing people that they must have been up to no good. These women held the wrong beliefs, the wrong stances, and were punished for it. Actual evidence has no bearing.

What are other women – both those who do and do not participate in this culture – supposed to take away from this event? The message here is becoming very clear: if you want to take part in this culture, you better be on the right side, in the right place, and at the right time.

Gaming, to me, has always been an inclusive place for anyone, but recent events have me wondering if my own perception has been biased because of my own personal positive experiences.

I really don’t want that to be the case, so what can be done to make the gaming community into the safe haven that many of us believe it can be?

I don’t have the answers to that, unfortunately. However, so long as gamers are continually labeled as hateful and misogynist, damage is being done to the community as a whole. The truth needs to be spread that the gaming community certainly is a town that’s big enough for everyone, and there is enough variety and depth that anyone can find a space if they really want to.

What are your thoughts of how the gaming community is perceived, both from inside and outside? Is the community represented unfavorably? Are recent events just a sign of things to come?

Clint Smith

I'm an ex-carnie who has been gaming and writing since I was a kid. Lately you can find me over-thinking in RPGs or failing my way through a plethora of indie games.