When you're a geek, your hobby is your happy place. Whether it's the flying of digital lead in the latest first-person shooter, the shuffle of Magic cards, the wood pulp aroma of comic books, or the rattle of dice as they clatter across your character sheet, this is the place where you belong. You're doing something you enjoy, and a lot of the time you're doing it with your friends.
Then someone comes along and points out a problem. It might be a problem you never really noticed before or something you've just kind of ignored because it never really affected your experience. However, rather than fixing the problem, or even admitting it exists, too often we start shouting at the person who pointed it out. We accuse them of making things up, of wanting special treatment, or of trying to "ruin" our hobby.
We accuse them of spoiling our fun.
You don't have to take my word for it, though. Just look at the responses to posts like Gaming Has A White Male Terrorist Problem, or the Gender Games episode of The Big Picture. Hell, the second highest-grossing post ever written on the gaming blog Improved Initiative is "Broken Stairs" Are Something We Need To Address in The Gaming Community. The almost universal responses from detractors and naysayers are to deny a problem exists, claim the problem isn't really a problem, or to insult and belittle the person pointing out the problem for being too soft, or too sensitive, to be a real part of the community.
Let's unpack that mess, shall we?
My Gang is Bigger Than Your Gang!
Let's step away from geek culture for a moment, and talk about sports. Sports fans are weird. Some of them dress up in costumes and face paint and bellow till they're hoarse to cheer on their team. Others will conduct their entire social lives around when their teams are playing. Some fans have elaborate superstitions about what will bring their team good luck (including, but not limited to, wearing certain clothes, not shaving, or only watching the game in certain rooms of the house). Most sports fans don't actually play the game they're watching. Not even casually. Not only that, but they decide who they're fans of based on where the team happens to be from, rather than which team has the best record.
If that sounds like bizarre behavior, well, it is. But it makes more sense when you view it in terms of identity, and how we view ourselves.
As explained in The Psychology of Sports Fandom, a lot of what we're seeing is people associating themselves with a group. They wear their team's colors, watch their team's games, and in their minds, it forms an association. It's no longer a bunch of millionaires on a field playing a game; it's your team. Their victory is your victory, and their loss is your loss.
That sounds stupid, but we see other examples of this every day. What party does someone vote for, what faction do they belong to in an MMORPG, do they read DC or Marvel... all of these are aspects that can shape your identity, and contribute to your self-esteem. The problem is that when something is part of your identity, you often defend it as if any criticism aimed at it is also aimed at you. Personally.
Seriously, It's Not About You
When your hobby has become a part of your identity, you tend to process all criticism of it through that lens. If someone points out that the NPCs in Far Cry tend to be offensive caricatures of foreign nations, that might trigger a defensive response from someone who is a big fan of the series. If someone questions why Power Girl has a cleavage window in her costume, or why characters like Black Cat leave their zippers pulled low enough to expose an entire fault-line of flesh, comic fans who consider that a feature rather than a flaw might attempt to throw themselves in front of that bullet. If someone points out that this latest string of sci-fi films has a whole lot of white, straight, male characters, but only token representation from other ethnicities, genders, and sexualities, people who have internalized those movies will probably be the first to shout that it's the creator's decision to tell the story how they wish.
Because when someone points out problems with racism, sexism, under-representation, etc. in the things that are part of our identities, then we are implicated by association. Just like how we lose if our team loses, if our hobby does something wrong, we suffer the backlash for it. In our minds, at least.
That is the big challenge we all face as geeks; holding our hobbies at arm's length and examining them for the flaws and mistakes other people are pointing out. To think critically, and to set aside both our identification with the hobby, and our rose-colored glasses because of how it makes us feel, and to try to see it the way other people see it.
If we could do that, we would make a lot more progress on the whole.
Don't "Other" The Problem
There is another issue we run into when it comes to problems in our hobbies. Because even when we can manage to separate ourselves from the criticism, and we can admit that said criticism has valid points, we tend to turn the things being criticized into a nameless, faceless other. We'll admit, for example, that there might be Dungeon Masters out there who sexually harasses their players. We'll agree that, yes, there are online gamers whose abusive tirades toward other players should not be tolerated. We even shake our heads at those guys who hang out in comic book shops and quiz new fans about the history of Batman or Captain America, as if there was some citizenship test for the country of fandom, and they were the ones charged with scoring new arrivals.
But what are we willing to do about it?
This is the question most of us want to avoid, because if we admit there are problems in our hobbies, then we tacitly agree those problems should be fixed. And since it's our hobby, and we're part of it, that means if we aren't part of the solution then we're part of the problem.
Sometimes it's just a simple matter of changing the way you approach situations, or the language you use to discuss problems. If you're a comic book gatekeeper, or you know someone who is, ask why that kind of behavior is happening. Your hobby needs all the support it can get, so why not use your knowledge of the back catalog to help direct new fans to the best parts of their favorite characters' histories? If you're at a tabletop game where someone is clearly being made uncomfortable because of their gender, ethnicity, or sexuality, don't just sit idly by and let it happen. Say something, and demonstrate that this kind of behavior isn't something you should just accept as part and parcel of the hobby. If a company, or creator, goes on the record as allying themselves with xenophobic, backward, or outright hateful statements, then take your wallet and go somewhere else.
Change begins with us. That's why the first thing we need to do is look at the problems in our hobbies, and say, "I see you."