Ad Feminam: Why the "Fake Geek Girl" Trope Needs to Die

For a couple weeks now, I've been engrossed with Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken: Why Games Makes Us Better and How They Can Change the World, swapping the book out for all my other required reading whenever possible.  It deals mostly in the realm of gammification, the "application of typical elements of game playing to other areas of activity".  I'd only recently come across the concept, and in stumbling across the book in the library I work at, I was incredibly excited to give it a read.  I'm half-way through the book so far, and I imagine I will be doing a lot more writing on McGonigal's work in the future, and some more research on the topic of gammification as well, but at this point, I would say that my reaction to her work is primarily positive.

Because McGonigal is a big supporter of ARGs, or "alternate reality games", in terms of up and coming applications of gammification, she frequently sites ARGs throughout her work.  The book was written in 2011 - in a sense, a little outdated by today, especially in terms of the video game industry - but before I could get to the end of the book, my curiosity got the better of me - I needed to check out some of these games for myself, to actually verify whether they lived up to the monumental assertions McGonigal was basing so much of her hypothesis on.

So I went in search of a site called "plusoneme.com", an ARG that McGonigal explains functions as a way for people to send "stat updates" to their friends, family, and peers, like "+1 Intellect" or "+2 Compassion", as you might see in an MMO or RPG.  The site sadly no longer exists, so I have no critique to give it, but my search turned up another article as well, titled "Jane McGonigal's Mind is Broken", on a site called "edrants.com".

I could tell this was going to be a critical review, but I decided to give it a go.  I wanted to see the opposing argument.

I'm not going to debate, here, about the author's points on the artifice of video games.  I'll leave that for when I have a better understanding of gammification, and all the studies that have gone into gaming.  Regardless, it wasn't even the author's overtly strong opinions on the disastrous effects of video games that caught my attention in the first place - it was his blatant ad hominem attacking of the author.

I desperately wanted to keep an open mind to this person's critique, because God knows McGonigal's book isn't perfect - I don't believe it pretends to be - but the further I went on, the more uneasy I began to feel, until finally I recognized what it was that truly bothered me about this critic's review.

It wasn't just that he seemed to have such an extreme opinion on the harmful effects of video games.  And it wasn't merely that he seemed to be basing all of his arguments off of ad hominem reasoning, or using criticism of McGonigal's character and her "defects" as his sole premise for her book's failure.  Ad hominem isn't, alone, a basis for logical fallacy, which is what this review seemed to mainly consist of.  People have argued, rightly, that ad hominem is a completely valid argument and essential when debating an issue of morality or hypocrisy - in these instances, an examination of the debater's character is a necessary proof.

What truly unnerved me about this critic's article was that he seemed to derive his proof of McGonigal's hypocrisy, her "moral standing", on the basis of her gender.  Or rather, intrinsic  to her gender.

His writing is rife with wording which attacks, not McGonigal's platform - which he feels strongly is "optimistic", "callow", and "indolent" - but instead makes antagonistic remark to her femininity, frequently thrashing her as a "terrified doe", "typical Pollyanna", or a "Calamity Jane".  He even once classifies her as a "New Geek type", which to me, if it doesn't directly signify a reference to the "fake geek girl" trope, at least implies a necessary hierarchy to being a "geek".

Never once does he refer to her in a tone that is not condescending, and in his one other mention of the feminine in his review - not concerning McGonigal - he is rather vulgar, to say the least.

"Because McGonigal cannot make the case," he opens in his first paragraph, "that a weekend of Halo 3 is any more purposeful than a weekend in Cabo San Lucas drinking margaritas and banging the brainless".

There was simply no way, after reading this comparison, that I could interpret his central argument as anything but "holier-than-thou" and, frankly, bigoted. I was not the only one to feel this way while reading, it seems; in fact other commentators made the same reference to this exact line in their response to his review as well as a myriad of others, but the author made a point to reply to each of these critiques, reaffirming that if his 'weekend in Cabo San Lucas' line was shallow, this was only reflective of just how shallow McGonigal and her book are.

Overall, the author of this review seems to imply that because he characterizes McGonigal as lazy, naive, shallow, and fake - and relates this in terms of being "feminine" - this in itself proves that she is a hypocrite, and that her theories and opinions on the benefits of gaming are therefore not to be taken seriously; especially since she is, as he classifies "a New Geek".

I can find no meaningful definition for this term, so I assume that what he means by this is a "fake geek".  He's not the first one to assert this sort of terminology, especially on women, nor will he be the last.  The "fake geek girl" meme has been a thing for years now, and shows no signs of stopping, if this man - a self-prescribed feminist, by the way - and his article are any indication. In our society, because we so strongly associate "geek" culture with masculinity, we assume that only men are conditioned as children to appreciate things like comic books, video games, or sports.  When a woman seemingly expresses a similar interest in these same things, many men naturally seem to assume that these woman could not have possibly been conditioned to adore the same things they do, and so they must be "faking it", ideally for the attention of a man.

If not for the male gaze, but evidently for their own interest and incentive - as McGonigal exhibits - then clearly they must have some sort of alternate agenda.  Probably malicious.

I want to assume that this is a rather obvious logical fallacy, something that most people can recognize as being laughable.  My fear now is that this is not the case, and that the ever-continuing existence of this trope is not merely harming gender equality or the feminist movement, but other movements as well.

I believe that McGonigal's book is an inspiring call to action, encouraging a radical change in game design which focuses game consumers like us less on entertainment value and more on a sustained humanitarian effect - an increase in empathy, a decrease in pervading mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and the growth of communities and collaboration in a population of people who already exist, and will continue to exist whether people like edrants.com criticize video games or not.  The possibility of motivating a group of people like gamers to make such a radical change - not just to increase their own happiness, but to better the world - is too important an opportunity to simply dismiss it with such trite, ad feminam criticisms.  Jane McGonigal's theory for the application of gammification if valid, and deserves to be considered with respect, even if the objective of this consideration is to refute her.

I am tired of seeing important developments, theories, and discoveries tossed to the wayside because they are presented by women, on subjects which our society still insists on defining as "masculine".

I am tired of seeing women undermined on the basis of their gender, and having their passions and expertise invalidated when put under the male gaze.

If games are going to makes us better, and make a better world, here's at least one place where they can start.  If women aren't welcomed soon into a space where their skills, their proficiency, and their voice are valid and accepted, industries like gaming will continue to evolve at a crawl, just on the basis that they are literally overlooking the views and opinion of half of their consumership.   If we're going to make games more empathetic, than we must empathize more with the people which make up the other half of this equation.

The invalidation of women in this way is more than just a "meme".  It's not just a harmless trope.   The damage this satire does is not inconsequential.  As long as it continues to be laughable, and a part of our common vernacular, it will maintain the standstill that exists in industries like video games today.  We will not advance.

It's time that people understood that gaming "like a girl", is still gaming.

Shai Cotten