“It’s Just a Game”—The Discursive Construction of the Virtual

Visual metaphors! M.C. Esher! Giant ants! This picture has it all! (Giant ants– at least I like to pretend they’re huge– walking around a wire-mesh mobius strip).

It’s been quite a while since I updated here. I’ve been exceedingly busy working on a research project in my sociology department and with some of my other commitments as well as a few personal problems I had to overcome. But, I’m back, and I thought that in the wake of Anita Sarkeesian’s struggle with a cavalcade of trolls over her proposed webseries it’s worth digging up a recent piece of writing I submitted as a final paper in one of my classes (Gender and Geography). This paper sought to chart out the geographic dimensions of cyberspace, particularly gamer subculture, through the lens of “the space of exception”.

I’ve excerpted a part of the paper that I think is quite relevant to what had just transpired with Feminist Frequency. In a section entitled “It’s Just a Game” I describe how the “unreal” nature often imputed to gaming space gives licence to abuse that would be intolerable outside of it. This “unreality,” I argue, is on the flip-side of a pleasurable “reality” that also manifests in gaming culture. It feels like the real world, and yet isn’t; because of this, many  gamers feel able to express themselves in a deeply violent and prejudicial way. It feels like reality, and thus being a bigot provides all the perverse pleasure that asserting dominance over another person often provides, but the “unreal”/”fake” virtuality of the space provides moral and ideological cover for this behaviour. What follows is my attempt to draw together various sociological, geographic, and philosophical ideas to provide a thumbnail sketch of how all that works.


Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, and one that is consciously constructed in defensive opposition to a rapidly changing world. Sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for modern young heterosexual men “the fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality,” capturing the dualism that defines a space of exception. He goes on to point out that this “reality” is one that “many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit” and that video games “provide a way for guys to feel empowered,” (Kimmel 2008: 150). His analysis of men’s relationship to virtual space concludes that these men feel “it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it” (156).

It is hardly surprising that some men wish to perceive this as a “virtual men’s locker room” threatened by the presence of women. It is often constructed as a refuge for hegemonic masculinity, particularly as expressed through technological mastery. Connell identifies two hegemonic masculinities that she argues have diverged and are sometimes in tension with one another: dominance-based masculinity, and expertise-based masculinity (Connell 2000: 194-195). It can be theorised that gaming in cyberspace folds these two back together with a violent world of hierarchical rankings, which allows for the virtual embodiment of conquistador-style masculinity through the mastery of technology, thus reuniting two patriarchal symbolic universes. The conflict between these two masculinities may play out more widely in the physical world, but in the space of exception furnished by cyberspace they combine to form a unique but also familiar expression of gender

But it is here that we come to a very critical distinction between the space of exception constituted by, say, the [internment or prison] camp, and the space of exception the virtual world represents. The marked difference between “exception” and “normal” is important for all such spaces, but only in the virtual world is there an equally clear, aggressively policed, distinction between “real” and “unreal” that constitutes both cyberspace and its social practises. This is a nontrivial distinction, but also a connection between the two– cyberspace and social practise therein. The purported exceptionality of time and place surrounding the internet as a whole gives licence to the abuses within, and the ostensible unreality of gaming, more specifically, licences abuse within its boundaries.

The vernacular distinction between “online” and “the real world” discursively crystallises this understanding. In online gaming spaces in particular, this distinction is manifested in the difference between “play” and “non-play.” Vandenberg argued, in his analysis of children at play in the physical world, that “the ease with which the real can be rendered not real, by the simple signal ‘This is play,’ reveals the contingency and fluidity of the social construction of reality” (Vandenberg 1998: 303). I contend that the same is true of online gaming spaces, whether one is speaking about the space in which the games themselves are played, or the surrounding forums, websites, and blogs that comprise the gaming community’s online presence. Vandenberg argues that “play is a manifestation of the fundamental principles of myth-making,” (296) and I would go further in suggesting that this myth making is vital in constituting the very space we can identify as cyberspace. It is the mythology that creates an origin myth of gaming (the triumph of male nerds over their erstwhile oppressors), and constructs it as a masculine space that needs protection against invasion (whether from religious conservatives or various racial and sexual minorities).

The metacommunicative assertion of “this is just a game” performs an identical function to Vandenberg’s “this is play,” and is often the first line of defence against someone who asserts that the behaviour of certain individuals in the gaming space is disrespectful, offensive, or triggering. [Anthropologist Bonnie] Nardi observed that behaviour like asking a woman gamer for naked pictures of herself would be glossed over as “just a joke!” and made light of (Nardi 2010: 155). This möbius strip of seriousness and unseriousness—real social practise folding against the averring of unreality by the practitioners—is a distinct feature of cyberspace largely due to its prevalence. It emerges from practises in the physical world, but is unique in the virtual world for the fact that it substantively creates the gendering of the space in a more consistent, long term manner that dovetails with the collective, default assumption of “play.” One is playing a video game, or participating in an online community where games are the central topic of discussion. Therefore, the default state is one of play, and thus “unreality.” It is exceptional to the “real” world.

Yet this construction of the “unreal” space of play nevertheless creates a realm with perceptible borders that can be breached, prompting a response based on a very “real” social urgency. One man, in a particularly well known forum post, spoke out against such breaching on Bioware’s forums in a long piece entitled “Bioware Neglected Their Main Demographic: The Straight Male Gamer.”[1] In it the author, known only by the pseudonym Bastal, publicly denounced the preponderance of gay and lesbian relationships portrayed in Bioware’s more recent games. He inveighs against “exotic” romance choices for heterosexual male players (an Elf and a dark skinned human woman), and expresses great concern about how Bioware is “catering” to LGBT people for the sake of “political correctness.”

The post is an excellent cultural artefact spelling out the anxiety of white, heterosexual male gamers and the perception that their space is being violated by the corrupting other. For instance, it begins “I don’t think many would argue with the fact that the overwhelming majority of RPG gamers are indeed straight and male,” despite the fact that nearly half of RPG gamers are women. He attempts to frame the discussion in terms of a “straight male” space where the will of the majority is being ignored by large game developers. Of particular interest to me is his observation that “Its [sic] ridiculous that I even have to use a term like Straight Male Gamer, when in the past I would only have to say fans,” because he seems to recognise that the erstwhile privilege of “male-as-default” is eroding in gaming space.

Despite his earlier, incorrect assumption about roleplaying gamers’ gender, he seems to recognise that the growing visibility of women and non-hetero people obviates traditional assumptions about who gamers are.  He appears to grasp that he no longer has the privilege of generalising his interests onto those of all gamers; rather, he must name his subject position.

Suddenly it seems as if it’s no longer all fun and games.

This forum post is emblematic of the anxiety shared by a certain set of white, heterosexual, cisgender, and male gamers about the violation of their space by the Other. Bastal identifies the presence of LGBT people and women as the cause of this backslide from the way things were.[2] It mirrors the fears of emasculation expressed in the present time by a variety of political figures, and catalogued so well by Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream, describing a new backlash against women and a retrenchment of swaggering John Wayne-style masculinity as a bulwark against the corrupting Other in the “Age of Terror”  (Faludi 2007). Indeed, the state of exception—as manifested in the muscular security state of the “post-9/11 world”—finds its counterpart in virtual space, ideologically, as white men also grapple with fear of their virtual “homeland” being swept away and undone by feminine invaders. The outspoken queer gamer becomes a virtual version of Puar and Rai’s ‘Monster-Terrorist-Fag’ (Puar and Rai 2002); inside and outside the boundaries of the nation,  both co-optable and an existential threat.

We have thus far seen expressions of power and anxiety; control of a community and fear of losing that control as expressed along identifiable vectors of gender, race, and sexuality. The nature of virtual space has been sketched out, with its distinctions made clear. The gendering of the space as masculine, as a nation under threat, and the constitution thereof through the conceit of “play” are unique features of its geography.

Concluding Remarks

What follows wasn’t in the essay.

I do feel that we are at a turning point; one where developers and writers are beginning to take responsibility for their creations, and where gaming companies are seeing themselves as increasingly responsible for the people who play their games. We have witnessed multiple traumas of late, but unlike in the past, the maelstroms seem to be yielding rainbows rather than whirlpools. Sarkeesian’s project, modestly budgeted at 6,000 dollars, ended up making over 150,000 when all was said and done. The carnival of hate surrounding Jennifer Hepler ended up with a huge community outcry against bullying, a 1,000 dollar donation to an anti-bullying charity by Bioware, and ever stronger statements from the company about protecting its employees from bigoted abuse.

The möbius strip is unravelling.

It’s still only just a beginning, with a lot more work to be done and a lot more hell to be endured, I fear, but we are reaching a point where the classic model of unaccountability that the real/unreal dyad has produced in cyberspace is at last being robustly challenged on all fronts in increasingly high-profile and public ways. As gaming becomes a significant part of public and artistic life, feminists, anti-racists, disability advocates, and LGBT/queer activists have all been able to effect major changes.

Nothing to sneeze at, certainly! If I had to make a prediction I would say that in several years’ time we would see hiding behind the “unreality” of the internet as childish and deeply socially unacceptable. As more and more social life migrates online, it’s becoming increasingly flat earther-esque to say that what happens here is somehow less real than the “real world.”

Some final notes: Experts on Giorgio Agamben may complain that I’ve really warped what he was saying in Homo Sacer and related works. That may be fair enough; the full version of my essay might more adequately deal with such a criticism, however. To summarise briefly: my point was in arguing for a new conception of “the space of exception” using cyberspace to illustrate a variety of unique features that were both “exceptional” in Agamben’s conception of that term, but also went beyond his stipulations. For example, the section following the excerpt here was about the nature of power in cyberspace and how it defies Agamben’s rather classic conception of power as an elite exercise of titled institutions (the government, military, and so on). The point was really to go beyond Homo Sacer and into new territory, just using some of Agamben’s ideas as one of several conceptual bases.


Connell, Raewyn. 2000. Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Faludi, Susan. 2007. The Terror Dream. London: Atlantic Books.

Kimmel, Michael. 2008. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York: Harper Collins.

Nardi, Bonnie. 2010. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Puar, Jasbir and Amit Rai. 2002. “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots.” Social Text, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 117-148.

Vandenberg, Brian. 1998. “Real and Not Real: A Vital Developmental Dichotomy,” in Multiple Perspectives on Play in Early Childhood, ed. O.N Saracho, and B. Spodek. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 295-306.

[1] A copy of this post, along with a sternly worded reply from one of Bioware’s lead developers, can be found here http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8

[2] Daniel Nye Griffiths, an entertainment and technology contributor to Forbes Online, amusingly called the attacks on Jennifer Hepler the “Ferelden Tea Party” (Ferelden being the fictional fantasy country in which Dragon Age: Origins was set). As he put it: “If you are used to things being done your way, this is a frightening time, and this is no less true in the dragon-blighted land of Ferelden. These [white male] gamers are seeing the fall of a kingdom that will never be theirs again.”