Retro Psychoanalytic Theory and Modern Game Culture

[ Editor’s Note: This feature was commissioned as part of the RetroPitch 2017 event. ]


Retro Psychoanalytic Theory and Modern Gaming Culture
Kevin Record


Now that an estimated 1.2 billion people play video, computer, and mobile games, it’s clear that the decades-old stereotype of a “gamer” as a single white male in his mid-20s is no longer relevant for today’s gaming population. Some people are eager for this change, and some are less eager. In particular, pockets of highly vocal and vitriolic males object to this sudden spike in diversity.

These males, desperate to preserve the traditional “gamer” image, can target anyone whose religion, race, or sexuality differs from theirs. One group in particular seems to bear the brunt of this aggression: women. This boys-only attitude is no new phenomenon, and it is best explained, I feel, by an old psychoanalytic theory called “womb envy.” What is a psychoanalytic theory? Well, psychoanalysis is a discipline of mental health study and treatment pioneered by Austrian physician-turned-psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. And to fully understand womb envy, we have to start with Freud.

Freud’s promotion of psychoanalysis kicked mental health treatment and study into high gear throughout Western culture. Psychoanalysis was extremely popular at the time, but the growth that has resulted in the following decades occurred primarily because Freud’s contemporaries thought his ideas were, at best, impractical. (The classic image of a patient lying on a couch talking to a doctor with a clipboard is not nearly as conducive to treatment as you might think.) At worst, Freud’s intellectual peers found his ideas and theories too weird. Freud had a—peculiar, to say the least—fascination with childhood sexuality. One of his most famous theories is called “penis envy,” in which he suggests little girls are inherently jealous of little boys because their genitals are different. Because the penis is the source of sexual and psychic power, Freud reasoned, it was only natural that all girls wish they had penises, too.

Can you see why plenty of Freud’s friends, family, and fellow professionals were eager to separate themselves from him and his ideas?

It didn’t take long after Freud’s introduction of penis envy in the 1930s for someone to develop a countering theory: womb envy. Karen Horney, a German psychoanalyst critic, argued that males are inherently jealous of the female ability to develop and give birth to life. She believed, as did many other critics of the time, that Freud presented femininity as a “failed masculinity.” She used womb envy as a way to challenge not only Freud but societal standards towards women. If girls are supposed to seek the power associated with male genitalia, why shouldn’t boys want a womb?

Womb envy theory suggests that boys gain their self-identity from their mothers. When they realize they are physiologically different than their mothers, boys are forced to cast that self-identity away and instead gain a new identity through their fathers, if they are to have a socially viable identity at all. This is due to a concept called “male-as-norm,” which states that males are viewed as the societal norm and females are seen as the deviance from that norm. An interesting result of this is that it is much more socially acceptable for women to exhibit masculine traits than it is for men to exhibit feminine traits.

Throughout the last several decades, traditional gender roles have transformed within both family units and society at large. Women are able to take on roles traditionally reserved for men, which allows for an improvement in status. On the flip side, men are encouraged to foster a more nurturing role as a parent. According to those who maintain the male-as-norm status quo, these men are engaging in behaviors which are traditionally viewed as feminine and are thus deviant. This results in a decrease in social status for these men.

What does this have to do with gamers? The old stereotype of “gamers” being synonymous with “single white males in their mid-twenties” is, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, no longer relevant in today’s widespread and diverse gaming population. However, many gamers who meet the qualifications for this stereotype continue to view themselves as social outcasts. They’ve grown up learning from their society and/or family values that femininity is inappropriate for men to possess. And yet they cannot meet their preconceived idea of true masculinity, either.

To compensate for an inability to fit in either traditional masculinity or femininity, the “disadvantaged gamer” stereotype becomes a badge of honor. They have achieved an alternative masculinity that they view as more powerful because it defies societal norms. To maintain this feeling of power and control, they project their insecurities and vulnerabilities onto the “deviant threat” of femininity. This is what Karen Horney believed womb envy to be: men overcompensating for their own fears and weaknesses by behaving negatively towards women who have become powerful by embracing their femininity.

This is where all the pieces begin to click into place. These male gamers resent the increased presence of women in gaming because they perceive the community as a sort of safe haven which helps them maintain their alternative masculine status. As gaming becomes mainstream and women are suddenly allowed to openly participate in gaming without a decrease in social status, then what is a male gamer’s already-fragile shadow masculinity worth? When women take on more masculine roles in society, they no longer represent the stereotypically feminine feelings of vulnerability and incompletion. As a result, it becomes harder for male gamers to project their feelings of inferiority onto women…particularly whenever a woman beats them in a video game.

Horney’s use of womb envy as a critique of penis envy appears, in many ways, to be a precursor to the modern-day discussion surrounding toxic masculinity. Womb envy is, of course, more than a simple exploration of the roots of gender anxiety; it explores expression of gender anxiety as well. And if the internet has taught us one thing, it’s that a male who can’t merely project negative feelings on a female can instead very easily express his repressed feelings in other, more aggressive ways.

The most infamous instrument of geeky male aggression on the Internet is GamerGate. I don’t have much to offer beyond what’s already been said. In fact, I only bring this up to note that the content of GamerGate instigator Eron Gjoni’s The Zoe Post suggests about as classic a case study of womb envy as one could ask for. To Gjoni, Zoe Quinn’s success as a game developer is due to her power over influential men via feminine sexuality—the use of an identity and physiology Gjoni could never have himself. To compensate for this perceived power imbalance, he became emotionally abusive. The aftershock of his behavior is—aside from severe trauma to Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and so many others—the GamerGate movement.

A fundamental part of the problem of male aggression towards females in gaming culture is the way women are portrayed in pop culture media. Although nearly as many women as men play video games these days, the games are still frequently designed to appeal to men. As a result, the female characters in games are usually portrayed to appeal to men: weak princesses in need of rescue or fierce warrior women clad in tight, skimpy outfits. Men who play as these sexualized characters in games are more likely to normalize sexual harassment and have a greater likelihood to engage in sexual harassment themselves.

Even as games and gaming culture at large are working to change the stance towards women, many male video gamers are upset about the improved representation. Ultimately, it appears to be because they are being forced to reevaluate their status not only as gamers and geeks, but as men.

Kevin is a mental health therapist who enjoys writing about video games in his spare time. He occasionally writes video game reviews for You can reach him on Twitter @CornyKev.

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  1. Interesting ideas, though flawed. The idea of “womb envy” is every bit as laughable in its own way as “penis envy”.

    Regardless it’s also grossly oversimplifying the entire thing that was “GamerGate”, by quite a bit. There were a LOT of people on ALL sides of it, acting like childish assholes, instead of actually listening and communicating, and that includes the “victims” like Sarkisian. It was a big ugly mess, and it got VERY tiresome to hear about. But it was still far more complex than simply being about “a bunch of angry, insecure white male gamers, who resent and hate women”. That is exactly the kind of brush that people LIKE Anita Sarkisian tried to paint the entire situation with, in a way to dismiss it, and her own critics. Which is, of course, anti-intellectual, and counter-productive.

    Female gamers HAVE and DO face static from certain idiots online, whether they’re trolling or serious. But Sarksian and many of her contemporaries hardly count among them. If anything, they were outsiders who have shown little more than an utter disdain for EVERYTHING gaming and gamers-related, and have served to do little more than stir the pot, and sour public perception of gamers and gaming. There are PLENTY of female gamers who do just fine in the “community”, and plenty of male gamers who welcome them warmly, and treat them like equals. There is certainly still a conversation to be had, and a dialogue that needs to exist. But dismissing what in many cases are valid criticisms by male gamers, NOT the ones who troll women, but the ones who have legitimate questions or concerns about the shape of gaming, for a variety of reasons, as merely being “insecure males uncomfortable with women invading their space”, is not a fully fair or reasonable assessment, at all. If anything, this type of assessment does more damage to those male gamers, and to the very conversation itself.

    Part of the REASON for pushback by some male gamers, has BEEN because they find themselves, in many cases unfairly and unwarrentedly, under attack, by messages just like this. That isn’t to say there AREN’T immature or insecure assholes out there. There are, I know this because I’ve encountered them myself. But to posit the notion that perhaps MOST of the male gamers who were angry about the “GamerGate” situation, were ALL this, is not only unfair, it’s ignorance. I personally thought the entire “GamerGate” thing, on ALL sides, was tiresome and obnoxious when it was happening. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see that there WERE some very valid points and concerns within the shitstorm. The entire thing certainly didn’t start over male gamers “being mad that more female gamers were entering their space.” That had absolutely nothing to do with any of it in the beginning, even IF that came across in the actions or reactions of SOME who later claimed to associate with the whole thing.

    But I’m afraid no matter how you try to shake it down, it was, and is, a FAR more complex collection of issues, than merely one of “gender relations” and “self-image”.

  2. An interesting perspective.

    There is, no doubt, a number of gamers who exhibit this weird need to harass and harangue female gamers/creators. The anonymity of posting online bypasses the social filters and behaviours that would prevent them saying the same thing directly to a woman’s face.

    How much better it is to welcome every new gamer and every new creative person regardless of gender, age, race and orientation. We can play, make and share games with the world so easily now – wouldn’t it be great if that brought us together instead of separating us into small cliques?

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