Gamer Girls. Directed by Nina Salmons. London: JellyBee Films, 2012. 25 minutes.

Geek Girls. Directed by Gina Hara. New York: Women Make Movies, 2017. 83 minutes.

Reviewed by Alisha Karabinus

What does it mean to be a geek? To be a gamer? These questions lie at the heart of two documentaries about female geeks and gamers, and while the films were released five years apart, little seems to have changed between the experiences they report. Yet between these two films lie events perpetuated by the aggressive activist movement GamerGate, and that watershed moment marks the subtle shifts in tone and focus that develop for women in games over the intervening years.

It’s difficult to define GamerGate, but as a bridge between these two films it must be addressed. While gaming has long been marked by the toxicity of some hobbyists, the self-styled “consumer revolt” that began in August 2014 stemmed from backlash against developer Zoë Quinn over false allegations that she traded sexual favors for positive reviews of her game Depression Quest. GamerGate evolved into a larger organized campaign, with some members targeting women in and adjacent to the industry and others targeting websites and developers seen as hostile to the movement’s interests. Concerns about safety and harassment existed before GamerGate, but mainstream coverage and widespread reach helped shine a spotlight into the darkness around gaming (Todd 2015, 64).

While concerns about safety is a recurring theme in these films, as is harassment, the stories in Gamer Girls present them as perpetual annoyances. From the condescending connotation of “gamer girl” itself (versus the simpler label “gamer”) to hateful messages on social media and gaming platforms, the women of Gamer Girls are weary, but not worn down. “We’ve moved away from some of those tomboy, no social life, ugly-girl things into a thing that’s equally detrimental: you can’t be a real geek because you are female, because you are beautiful, because you are smart, because you dress up in costume,” says Shanna Germain, writer and co-owner of Monte Cook games. “In an online multiplayer lobby, the first thing I do is mute everyone,” says Lucy James, now a video producer for GameSpot (a website covering games and gaming), and she wasn’t the only one; the women of Gamer Girls talked about their varied responses to online chat and how the number of women who never venture into chat at all helped feed the notion that women don’t play. James also discusses Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a website that spent several years documenting messages women received while playing online.

Geek Girls features its own stories of exclusion. Filmmaker Gina Hara’s languid narration anchors the film’s exploration of what it means to be the ultimate outsider within outsider culture: “A woman in a world where men are heroes and women are maids. At every turn I’m reminded that this place was not made for me.” But in Geek Girls, there are darker threads. Competitive gamer Stephanie “missharvey” Harvey turns down some events and carefully curates the pictures she releases as promos for her competitions and appearances. Cosplayer Mia Moore speaks about the importance of never revealing the general area where she lives—not even hinting about it—just in case someone tries to find her. “It’s scary,” she says. “I think about it all the time.” During this interview, Moore is dressed as Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, her pale skin painted dark with fake blood as she reenacts a scene in which the would-be queen devours a raw horse’s heart. “People don’t take it seriously because they don’t think threats on the internet are justified, and laws haven’t caught up with it yet. These questions lie at the heart of two documentaries about female geeks and gamers, and while the films were released five years apart, little seems to have changed between the experiences reported in the earlier Gamer Girls and the later Geek Girls.… It sucks too that they get people’s families involved. So me being active on the internet and being outspoken, it’s not just me that’s at risk. It’s my family, it’s my partner, it’s anybody that I have any contact with. It’s my employer.” Harvey lays out the differences between the trash talk and casual insults common in so many gaming circles and the particular harassment leveled at women—the talk of rape and violence. “I wish I was harassed in the other ways,” she says, and laughs, quickly adding, “I wish I wasn’t harassed at all. But if I had to pick… I’d choose the other way.” Footage of digital death and rape threats against women in gaming, such as critic Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, are interspersed with Harvey’s interview.

Although Gamer Girls also has its dour moments, it’s a film about empowerment and a drive for togetherness, for more women to support each other as players—and for the rest of the world to catch up. But Geek Girls is a film about loneliness. Hara wanders alone through one of the biggest fan gatherings in Japan, filming people who have turned their backs to her. She struggles to find people who will accede to interviews. And Moore tells her to be careful, that she will be targeted when the film is released. Still, she ends the film on a hopeful note: “The more they try to brush you aside, the more you need to resist,” she says, walking through the colorful city streets of Japan. “We continually emerge from the margins, bruised and defiant… sometimes we may feel alone in doing so, but if we are not afraid to hold our heads high, we just might be able to find each other in the crowd.”

The recent surge of intersectional scholarship and feminist game studies provides a wealth of readings to pair with these films for use in the classroom. Feminism in Play, edited by Kishonna L. Gray, Gerald Voorhees, and Emma Vossen (2018), addresses many of the topics raised in both films, and particularly apt are Emma Witkowski’s essay on women in high-performance play and Lena Uszkoreit’s work on female live streamers. Gray and David Leonard’s Woke Gaming (2018) is an equally useful companion text for expanding the conversation to other forms of exclusion in gaming. Woke Gaming’s intersectional approach deepens the conversations Geek Girls begins with Black Girl Nerds founder Jamie Broadnax and artist Kim Hoang exploring representation and the broader struggles of women of color in gaming and geek culture.1 Gaming Representation (Malkowski and Russworm 2017), too, offers essays addressing the sexualization of female characters discussed in both films, and in that book, Nina B. Huntemann’s contribution “Attention Whores and Ugly Nerds” (2017) is useful for contextualizing the complexity of reactions the women in Gamer Girls report having faced. Educators may also want to introduce students to ethnographic research methods, including autoethnography. In both Gamer Girls and Geek Girls, individual stories create the history of women in games. For students interested in carrying that work forward, learning such methods is key to success.

Throughout Geek Girls, Hara struggles to define the word “geek,” which doesn’t exist in her native Hungarian, and the women she speaks with all offer their own takes. Looking together at these films and the wave of new books struggling equally with these issues, Broadnax’s take on “nerd” in Geek Girls reflects not only her feelings, but the resilience of these women. “[A nerd is someone] comfortable with their unique sense of identity… not trying to be what everybody else wants them to be.” These women, outsiders to some, threats to others, keep doing what they love, regardless; sometimes they are angry, frustrated, annoyed, or even afraid, but they don’t stop. In gaming, cosplay, programming, and geek culture, they’ve found something of themselves, and they’re staying there no matter what.

1 See Black Girl Nerds and Kim Hoang.

Works Cited

Gray, Kishonna L., and David J. Leonard, eds. 2018. Woke Gaming. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Gray, Kishonna L., Gerald Voorhees, and Emma Vossen, eds. 2018. Feminism in Play. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Huntemann, Nina B. 2017. “Attention Whores and Ugly Nerds: Gender and Cosplay at Game Con.” In Malkowski and Russworm 2017, 74-89.

Malkowski, Jennifer, and TreaAndrea M. Russworm, eds. 2017. Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Todd, Cherie. 2015. “Commentary: GamerGate and Resistance to the Diversification of Gaming Culture.” Women's Studies Journal 29, no. 1 (August): 64-67.

Witkowski, Emma. 2018. “Doing/Undoing Gender with the Girl Gamer in High-Performance Play.” In Gray, Vorhees, and Vossen 2018, 185-204.

Uszkoreit, Lena. 2018. “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Video Game Live Streaming and Its Potential Risks and Benefits for Female Gamers.” In Gray, Vorhees, and Vossen 2018, 163-81.

Alisha Karabinus is a PhD candidate and Bilsland fellow at Purdue University where she studies games, digital culture, technical communication, and rhetoric. She is a longtime co-host of the Not Your Mama's Gamer podcast and an editor for the website and game studies journal of the same name.