Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
— Brad Pitt, Fight Club (1999)
It is a crisis of confidence…The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people… Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.
— President Jimmy Carter (1979)
I’m not the first pundit to observe that Gamergate isn’t really about video games. As Chris Tognotti of Bustle succinctly put it, the popular online campaign directed against feminist video game developers and critics (most notably Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Jenn Frank, and Brianna Wu) is “a long-simmering pot of male privilege, misogyny, and slut-shaming in the gamer community boiling over.” Authors from Adi Robertson at The Verge to Amanda Marcotte at The Daily Beast have already analyzed the sexist assumptions driving the Gamergate movement, while I wrote a piece at The Good Men Project to the “angry mob” mentality being displayed by the Gamergaters, as seen most recently in the threatened school shooting at Utah State.
It isn’t enough, however, to simply say that Gamergate is at its core a clash between progressives and enraged reactionaries over the acceptability of gender archetypes in video games. These games may not be the fundamental source of Gamergate, but it’s very telling that they have become the front on which this battle is being waged. At a time when Americans are feeling increasingly disenchanted with and detached from their own society, the passion and energy that in the past would have been invested in real world issues is instead being directed toward the fantasy worlds created in various fictional media, most notably those facilitated by the digital revolution (film, television, music, video games). The act of consuming pop culture, which used to be an escapist diversion, has now become the central focus in life for many millennials. If we are to effectively address the crisis of masculinity that has been exposed by Gamergate, we must first confront this dimension of our zeitgeist—namely, the rise of the Basement Generation.
The Basement Generation
The term “basement dweller,” as defined by the online encyclopedia of colloquialisms known as the Urban Dictionary, is “a male over the age of eighteen, usually with no formal education, who continues to live at home with his parent(s) and has no ambition to move out or contribute to society. His will to live is sucked by his daily marijuana regiment. He can be found working second shift at your local gas station. Lives in a perpetual state of ‘Getting his shit together.’”
This description, though obviously intended to be humorous, contains a great deal of existential truth for American millennials. If anything, its main inaccuracy is that it singles out men for derision (more on that in a moment), since studies clearly show millennial women joining men in residing with their parents through their 20s and 30s, languishing in unemployment or underemployment, and abandoning higher education in increasing numbers. Unlike women, however, male “basement dwellers” face the stigma of failing to measure up to America’s standards of masculinity. Since the days of the early republic, a certain level of economic and social autonomy has been a prerequisite to American manhood—the former has generally entailed working hard at a full-time job, residing in one’s own home, and “providing” for one’s wife and children, while the latter encouraged active engagement with larger political and social issues. By being unable to meet these expectations on an epidemic level, so many young men today fall under the broad aegis of “basement dweller” that it seems necessary to designate them as members of a “basement generation.”
While the aforementioned quote from Fight Club goes a long way toward explaining the attitude of the basement generation, its assessment is incomplete in the post-Bush world. After all, Fight Club was released during a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity, when the Internet was still young, the Great Recession was more than eight years in the future, and pop culture nerds were a fringe profiled in cult classics like Clerks. Consequently, although the ennui captured by Fight Club is still prevalent today, it has been coupled with a socioeconomic stagnation unseen since the Great Depression—a period which, not coincidentally, also saw Americans turn to mass entertainment for escape at unprecedented levels. Unlike the 1930s, however, the 2010s offers a medium (the Internet) that allows consumers of mass entertainment to indulge in the escapist entertainment of their choosing for as long as they please and form tight-knit communities with like-minded individuals all over the world. When these variables are combined with the inherently addictive nature of today’s most popular forms of entertainment (including not only video games but TV and the Internet), the final result is a perfect storm for a very specific type of mass delusion—namely, one in which the difference between fiction and nonfiction are dangerously blurred.
How Basement Men View Women
This is why Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of video games is so important. Mass culture has a profound influence on how people view the world regardless of the period in history, but for members of the basement generation, it often serves as their primary paradigm. When women are depicted as things rather than people—damsels in distress to be rescued, sex objects to be lusted over, supporting characters who exist only to propel forward the journey of a male protagonist—these notions creep into the gamer’s perception of reality outside of the game. It results in the type of misogyny that, as was recently reported, is scaring female gamers away from pursuing their dreams. It contributes to the attitudes that pack Men’s Rights Activists full of angry caucasian men who embrace their hysterical anti-woman ideology (and I’m basing the assumption that Gamergaters and MRAs are overwhelmingly composed of young white men on the fact that the hundreds I’ve met or encountered online all fit that description). This isn’t the same as saying that gamers can’t tell the difference between fictitious violence and the real thing (an argument used to attack the medium whenever a mass shooting hits the news); extreme violence, though sometimes gratifying as an abstract thought, falls too far outside the pale. Gender archetypes, on the other hand, are much more subtle—and thus more influential.
The Gamergate backlash against Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Wu demonstrates this problem in two ways. The sheer vitriol of the attacks, combined with the utter absurdity of its logic (the notion that it’s about journalism ethics is brilliantly torn apart here), comes from a sense of outrage that the already-emasculated basement man is now seeing one of the few fragments of gender privilege he still possesses under attack. Since the basement man can’t control the real world, he opts for one that he can manipulate to his will—not a fight club, but a fantasy realm. Thus will Sarkeesian and other feminists express concern over how the tropes in a fictional medium might influence real-world attitudes and behaviors, the basement generation gamers view their fictional medium as a reality in its own right, one in which their status must be protected.
It is here that the basic underlying difference between a “gamergater” and a regular gamer becomes clear. To an ordinary gamer, video games are a pleasurable diversion—perhaps one to which they devote a lot of time and enthusiasm, to be sure, but still distinct from the external world they actually inhabit. As a result, the countless gamers who either side with the feminists or are simply indifferent to the current brouhaha aren’t likely to become outraged over a proposal that video games be more socially conscious (unless those gamers already happened to harbor misogynist views). To the basement gamer, however, the danger is as real as that felt by conservatives when the suffragette movement began to climax in the early 20th century. The realization that they are stirring up sturm und drang over a simulation of reality rather than the real thing may not fully elude them, but in an era of widespread jadedness, this doesn’t perturb them.
When I try to think of an antidote to the malaise afflicting the basement generation, I am reminded of a speech delivered by Theodore Roosevelt back when he was governor of New York in 1899:
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.
While the era in which Roosevelt spoke was in many ways quite different from our own, the value he placed on hard work and risk taking would quite neatly address the dilemma facing the basement generation. This isn’t to say that they have to hunt moose or even engage in strenuous physical activity; rather it means that they need to find ways of channeling the passion they can invest in simply consuming an entertainment product into more constructive outlets. Video games don’t have to be an exclusionary pastime, but one that can bring people together and forge wonderful relationships (former NFL punter Chris Kluwe waxes colorfully about this in his own anti-Gamergate piece). One is reminded of Simon Pegg’s description of what it means to be a geek:
Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.
This idea, when combined with Roosevelt’s gospel of joie de vivre, offers a way out for those gamers who want to embrace their passion without transforming into grotesque caricatures. Indeed, it is a philosophy that could actually lead to their joining common cause with the Sarkeesians and other feminists—anyone who truly loves an art form, after all, should seize on an opportunity to correct institutional and cultural flaws that tarnish it. So long as they remain firmly planted in the basement of modern times, however, the Gamergaters will not only oppose fairness to women, but the values that will help them most in their own lives.
This piece originally appeared at The Good Men Project and was reprinted with permission.