We often forget the value of returning to the basics. We can get so caught up with what has become so new, popular, or advanced, that we lose track of th basics, and in the process lose track of important and fundamental details, Recently, I was asked to blow the dust off of Nancy McWilliams’ Psychoanalytic Diagnosis for a presentation on the personality structure of the depressive person. As I reviewed the book, that I now regrettably had not touched since my first year of grad school, I was struck by an overlooked detail in the discussion of Geek/Gamer community relations.
With the problems involving geek and gamer culture, the aggression aimed against women goes beyond demeaning jokes and objectification. It has turned to threats of physical and sexual violence severe and specific enough to involve the FBI. There have been a number of ways this aggression has been manifested both directly through acts, and also indirectly through themes that come up in geek and gamer media. One such theme that to be examined is the “Save the Princess” trope. This theme runs through many fantasy games and novels and involves the notion that the hero must quest, and then end of the quest gets the princess (or damsel, or other love object) as a consequence of his success. However, there is a dark side to this tale when seen from the princess’ point of view in that the experience is that of the man purchasing the woman through deed, ignoring the woman’s own choice or needs.
In games, this is just a simple trope, hero gets fulfillment after beating the challenge, and the prewritten character of the princess is happy with the ending. However fantasy and reality are starkly different, and there are severe problems that emerge when the fomer intrudes on the latter. The experience of many women has been that they are being treated as a commodity as a result of the save the princess trope. They experience a demeaning bidding process as men brag or show off in the hopes of getting their attention. What gets lost in this process is an understanding of the woman, her needs, and her desires. This experience leaves her feeling ignored, depersonalized, and treated like a trophy. And when the woman resists being this commodity, she can then become the target of aggressive harassment and threat.
When pointing out this problem, there have been attempts to attribute intent for the effect as the cause for this problem and trope, that boys are intending to commoditize the princesses, and that that is the simple cause and effect. Human motivation is a lot more complicated that that, and so there may be a different explanation. With a problem so real and severe it is understandable to want to jump to such a symptom based diagnosis in order to quickly end the problem. But incomplete formulation and diagnosis is dangerous. You don’t want to keep taking pain killers to reduce a chronic headache and ignore the possibility of a tumor. And so it is always necessary to do a differential diagnosis.
So what if gender issues within geek and gamer culture come from a fundamental cultural depression?
To explore this, let’s first begin with the essential personality structure of the depressed person. The depressed personality is one characterized by an internalized sense of badness brought on by a failure to connect. Somewhere in the person’s development was a traumatic loss, rejection, or abuse, and the pain of that trauma forces the child to choose between seeing the world as being fundamentally unsafe, or seeing themselves as the cause for their pain. For the vulnerable child, the latter is less frightening than the former. The child becomes perpetually angry at himself for his loss, and that anger becomes a profound shame whose intent is to prevent future loss. Preventing future loss and future rejection depends on how good the child can prove he can be. Much of the depressive state comes from an emotional self flagellation aimed at keeping their badness in check. The default state for the depressed person is rejection, and they must beat themselves to perfect to avoid that rejection.
In this context, the save the princess trope is not that the boy is motivated to earn the woman like a commodity, but rather the trope reenacts out the desperate fantasy that he can prove that he can be good enough to not drive people away. Only by completing the quest and proving he is the good enough to be a hero can he make sure the princess won’t reject him.
This depression theory does have other supports within geek/gamer culture. First, there is the the existence of the primary trauma: geek culture is characterized by chronic social rejection and stigma. Next there are the other symptoms of depression that occur stereotypically within geek/gamer culture: the social withdrawal, the unstable sleep schedules, frequent problems with hygiene and self care behaviors, etc. Depressive people tend to idealize and look to connect with the idealized object as a way of disconnecting from their badness, a process that can be seen by the obsession with celebrities, heroic fictional characters, and unrealistically proportioned women. Finally, there is a manifest desire to escape the flawed self as seen by tendency to use games to manifest our idealized selves.
The irrationally aggressive and demeaning behaviors can also be explained within this model. Since the desire to prove themselves as good is a primitive defense against the shame of their inherent badness, having that goodness frustrated or directly challenged results in the person being defenseless against that badness and shame. Left in that raw and vulnerable state, the geek/gamer will lash out at what they perceive as the source of their challenge as a last ditch effort to avoid that shame. They are trying to prove they are not bad, winning the princess would give them proof they are not bad, and if you frustrate that effort, they must make the woman the bad one or else they have to accept the badness they themselves are running from.
If this is the case, if this depression theory is true, then it also has advantages in addressing the problem that the more direct attribution of intention theories don’t have. If the motivation is just that the person is enacting cruelty for the sake of cruelty, then there is no recourse but to fight aggression with aggression, and enact a cycle of escalation with the hopes that you can overpower the evil in the name of goodness. However, the geek/gamer depression model assumes that the cruelty experienced is not intended, but rather it is the side effect of the desire to fight the badness within. Their are more and more realistic interventions available to counter that. Depression is treatable, and community psychology approaches can work to address systemic depression. Depression is often marked by a sense of helplessness, and refocusing in social skill and assertiveness can replace the sense of badness and helplessness with a sense of competence. But on a more interpersonal level, on the level that most people will be able to directly act, we can learn to recognize and empathize with this depression early, and if we can dispel this “badness” proactively, we can keep it from manifesting in the more destructive behaviors. Learning to work acceptance of rejection without shame, challenge the need to perfection, and that one can be flawed and loved can be consciously worked into personal and cultural discussion within geek/gamer media and circles to break the cycles before they escalate into the aggression manifests the problems we see today.