It’s not a rape in cyberspace, it’s something more pervasive

1 Jun

Somehow a riff off of Julian Dibbells’ work “A rape in Cyberspace” is necessary as an entry point here. It’s just the word itself. When it is used – rape – we remember it. From the hundreds (thousands?) of articles I have read during my academic life – this is one of those titles that sticks out as memorable and troubling and important to explore.

In my fieldwork during 2010, the site of the North American video gaming semi-pro scene (whose identity I’ll keep at bay here) shored up some moments where “rape” was being shouted out. In this space it was not a cry for help, it was a sneering call of triumph over a now powerless victim – the opponent. The word has clout, and I remember being chilled to hear it in use. Even more so by the people who were using it, soft spoken young men who were taking their bachelor’s degrees in programming or political science at some well-to-do university. You might scoff at my naiveté, but let me broaden the context. This more benevolently competitive group of players were actively performing their competition in a way which worked to sharply contrast them to the other gaming competitions and competitors in the space – as one player put it,

“we’re the nerds here and proud of it, they’re [pointing across at a shooter game area] the ones that are the jocks”.

This player was referring to some unspoken yet recognizable traditional sporting masculinity that gets tied with specific forms and contexts of jockdom as well as competitive computer gaming cultures.

“Rape” as a term has found a certain hold in pop-culture as a competitive dominance metaphor  in video game play but also on university campuses (with reference to exam experiences) to the point of it being unnoticed by many of today’s youth in its everyday appropriation. In competitive gaming cultures, use of the term is defended on two accounts – 1) That the user of the word has no intention of it relating to sexual dominance and 2) that the word in use is metaphorical to the actions/results of competition in a 14th century etymology of the word (to seize by force). Such arguments hold no water, to the point that I am parched. Working backwards, the term has etymologically been associated with sexual power since the 15th century, and the terms rapist or raped in use for over a century. Simply bracketing the century old, culturally recognizable association of the word is a bit of a stretch if not folly as an argument.

The decontextualization of such a powerful term is a task that I don’t believe a community of mostly teenage boys is equipped to handle. It is interesting that the term has become so popular in player versus player (contra player versus environment) games (as opposed to the education situation where an inanimate “exam” was the culprit of the act). The term is thus shouted “I raped…someone” or “I was raped…by someone” or worse still “we raped…others”. The humanness of the action is where the repulsion lies. Players in favour of using the term would argue that the workd “fucked” or “killed” are also commonly used terms in competition to describe dominance. Answers to this would also sit with what is culturally recognizable: “fuck” has a history as a swear word that is currently in use, as does “killing” – as in “making a killing”, but also here the action relates to the simulation of the gameplay.

An interesting turn of events happened in the sportification process of one particular game “StarCraft II” – moving the scene out of the niche, a streamed half-time show online broadcast blew up a storm when the casters flippantly used the term rape to describe game action. Perhaps this is the  most positive affect to date of the commodification of  high performance computer game play, reflective critique of the culture(s) which have developed from a fairly homogenous group (that being mostly white or asian, heterosexual male teenagers). If such young men want to be nerds “and proud of it”, I might suggest reading a little Ghandi and taking in consideration “Be the change you want to see…” In that way, “nerd masculinity” (whatever that may be) might be understood as inclusive by setting itself as something far apart from the hegemonic masculine language of such high performance computer gaming scenes and communities of play.

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