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Thinking Thursday: Gaming Culture Part 3 – Language And Insults

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(Photo: Flickr user db Photography | Demi-Brooke)

A few weeks ago I began this series on gaming culture with how women are portrayed in gaming, then last week I continued the series with how women are treated as gamers. This week I am going to be changing the focus somewhat and looking at the way gamers communicate with each other. Are gamers actually just a bunch of foul, racist, misogynistic individuals? Should we stop our analysis at the Internet Dickwad Theory, or is there something deeper at play here?


If you have ever lurked in a video game forum, accidentally left your mic on in Call of Duty, or been anywhere relatively near /v/, you know exactly the sort of language used. It's easy to look at the casual use of offensive language, call these people closet bigots who only have the courage to say these things online, but that's academically lazy. I'm more curious as to why this language is used, how gamers defend it, and why it's an issue.

One of the most common and most interesting defenses of foul language and the hostile atmosphere is that this language stems from the inherent desire to keep gaming a small, insular group. Sites like How Games Save My Life prove just how strong many players' emotions are in regards to our medium. Much like the Refuge of the Damned in The Simpsons, gaming is its own safe haven.

With the continual growth and expansion of the audience, I believe many "hardcore" gamers feel threatened by what they have begun calling "casual" or "social" gamers infecting the market.

Just look at the timeline of games and how the people who play them have been defined. To be a gamer, it used to just be a matter of owning and playing the consoles. Sure, there were feuds about which system was better (Editor's note: SNES.), but no one on either side of that battle could deny that everyone involved were gamers. 

As the market expanded, we saw the definition of "real gamers" shrink to those who own specific systems or play specific types of games. Eventually, the term "gamer" was deemed too all encompassing and we came up with the notion of "hardcore gamer" and created our own box of exclusion.

Through trying to create an insular group we have developed our own language that has become the badge of the "true gamer". It has a lot of overlap with what happened and continues to happen on 4chan. We became as offensive and off-putting as possible.

Dropping into a chat and chanting racial, homophobic, or sexist slurs served not as a way to push other "gamers" away, but as a way to push away anyone who wasn't already a part of the "in" group. It wasn't "actually" racism or homophobia. It was merely an expression used to raise the "hardcore gamer" flag. If you weren't offended by the language or if you properly reciprocated, you were a member of the club.

The barrier for entry is incredibly steep and a thick skin is necessary to recognize the difference between an insult and a greeting.

For proof of this theory in action, just look at what happens when new people honestly look for advice in games like Counter-Strike:Source or Starcraft. Browse through the forums and the comments on Team Liquid, or look at EVE Online's "TEST Alliance Please Ignore". Each of these communities are hostile to newcomers, and in the case of the latter I've seen more than one complaint of a new person trying to join and getting offended. In fact, TEST's own FAQ has this disclaimer:

"Dreddit/TEST is not for everyone, we've had many complaints of people getting offended at some comments people have made, you have to remember that we're a large corporation of four thousand members, you will hate at least one or two people."

We can now see a strange case of "hardcore" gamer and non-gamer cultures clashing much the same way Anonymous clashed with the public during its first public outreach: Project Chanology. Here, we saw Anonymous try to get into activism, but when the media and the outside world looked at the culture they were horrified at the language and the in-jokes. While Anonymous members tried to reason that the words took on different meanings to them, in the end it didn't matter. The Project Chanology section, and indeed all future public activism from Anonymous had to take on a different, lighter tone.

This is what is happening with the "hardcore" gamer crowd. They want to be respected by the outside world as a cultural force, yet they don't want to give up that language. It can't happen both ways, and I believe it's time that people who subscribe to this defense give it up. We can't become a cohesive group enjoying a hobby if we are continually trying to isolate ourselves from the "others". We need to put away all the conditions to be "gamers" beyond "someone who plays games". If you find someone online who doesn't share the same taste in games as you or has  a more casual approach, that's cool. Just keep in mind: They're gamers too.

If players aren't consciously or subconsciously raising this "hardcore gamer" flag, some are taking part in what one of my commentators last week called "comedic biggot[ry]". Comedic Bigotry is essentially "mak[ing] race or sexist jokes with people who are perceived to be capable to take said joke."

The root of comedic bigotry is pretty simple. It's the idea that saying offensive things is okay as long as it's only used in joking terms. It's the difference between "Oh yeah, that guy? He's an asshole, and that's why we love him." and "I'm going to curb stomp that asshole." The context is what makes it offensive, not the words themselves.

The defense of comedic bigotry can't work, though. What is defined as offensive and not offensive varies based on the listener. You can try to figure out what will offend someone and measure your words by that, but all in all you will still be offending someone in the end and chasing away a part of the gamer audience. You can't always know what will be considered offensive, or if your joke will go over well. No matter how well meaning you are, it's probably best to just avoid it all together.

As far as trash talking goes, it's true: everyone gets trash talked. The problem is that the trash talking is demonstrably worse for certain groups. Fat, Ugly or Slutty, Not in the Kitchen Anymore, and Go Make Me a Sandwich are all fine examples of the sort of language seen online varies wildly when addressed to different groups. In these particular cases it's directed at women, but that is by no means an exhaustive list of sites, and women aren't the only people marginalized by language.

The insults flung at women, people of color and homosexuals are often worse simply because of the baggage associated with them. Calling a woman a "bitch" is actually much more offensive than calling a man a "dick". Other male specific insults just don't have an appropriately low equivalent for women.

We as a gaming society need to re-analyze and be more aware of the language we use. The defenses we use to defend our language are invalid simply because of the result: In the end our words and our actions have been driving away and making specific groups of people feel unaccepted.

As gaming continues to grow we need to be self-aware and continually questioning ourselves. What are the end results of even our smallest actions? Is this who we want to be, and how we actually want to be viewed? Next week I am going to try and analyze the long term affects and results of the marginalization of women and minority groups on our industry. Are we stuck in a vicious catch 22? Until then, happy gaming!

Gaming Culture Part 4

Gaming Culture Part 5

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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