Why the “Gamer Dress” is about so much more than just a dress

As someone who loves both video games and a good dress, I instantly wanted to tweet about the “esports dress” aka the “gamer dress” that Cranium Apparel unveiled on March 2nd but I just couldn’t put into so few words the exasperation and horror I felt upon opening the tweet. As one game dev pointed out, the dress, a short red and black skater dress with a skull and adjustable cleavage zipper on the front, looks exactly like those ugly “gaming chairs” that have become an apparently ubiquitous symbol of “gamer” identity. It is 0% surprising that this is what an “esports dress” would look like as it has a similar appearance to other esports apparel, with that general Alienware-esque techno-masculine vibe… but in a dress.

I never thought I would write an entire article about a single dress but here we are

It has since come out that the dress was, surprising no one, designed by a team of men, and that while they did do “research” with female gamers they were surprised by the negative reaction the dress received. The COO himself tweeted that people offended over the dress need a “reality check.” We’ve moved past the “this is not for you” stage of sexism in games culture and instead reached the “this thing you don’t want but we want you to want is for you” stage and I really don’t know which is worse.

I’ll be honest with you, before the exasperation and horror stage my first thought upon opening the tweet was “this is a funny joke.” Literally, nothing about the tweet and the attached image would need to be changed to make it a Point and Clickbait tweet. From the description of the dress as “skin friendly” to the oxymoron of “high-quality polyester” to its assertion that it “gives a new identity to female gamers” the dress 100% came off as a joke. The tweet’s heartfelt message to female gamers (“Stay strong… We Respect You” with a heart emoji) especially reads like a Twitter goof. Even as an academic who studies games culture for a living it’s hard to believe that something like this, that reads like an aggressively on the nose parody of games culture … is just games culture. It’s just gamers being gamers.

So, let’s break down why the dress is so awful.

The dress itself, while objectively ugly, is not really what is offensive here. While the design itself has a lot of issues, all pointed out brilliantly in this video, it is at the end of the day, just another skater dress with geeky shit on it. If this dress had just popped up on a random website that sells “Gamer” apparel without much fanfare, I’m sure it would have sold a few to people with questionable taste and not much would be said about it. If you look at ThinkGeek, for example, there are about 10ish dresses in an almost identical cut with nerdy prints. I myself own a similar dress! The thing about the dress isn’t so much the dress itself as it is the context in which it was brought into the world. That context from the tweets being

  1. that you would theoretically wear this while participating in esports;
  2. that it somehow “gives a new identity to female gamers”;
  3. that it is a sign of support and respect;
  4. and that it is some sort of favour or way to “give back” to women.
Part of the offending tweet

What this all demonstrates is that in 2019, whether they like it or not, men are still the gatekeepers of the gamer identity. Now, in cases like this, these are men working at Cranium Apparel who are actively trying to open the gate by offering something to women that they (these men) personally like. They are saying, to quote their advertisement:

“Its [sic] high time that we do something for the female gamers who recieve [sic] so much backlash in the community!”

But the “something” they are doing is not actually helpful to women in the community. They are opening the gate to their walled city but changing nothing about the culture there. They are not doing anything about the rampant racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and sexual harassment. This tweet is saying “sorry our toxic pit is so toxic! Here is a dress for you to wear while you swim in the toxic pit: also it shows off your tits and ass!”

While parody tweets of the dress are hilarious and point out the ridiculousness of the situation, the esports dress can’t really be parodied as there is no equivalent situation for men because of the deep inequalities in the world generally but in games culture specifically. Men will never have to deal with being objectified simply for playing video games.

Getting Dressed

Let me break this down even more. When you are a woman who plays games, you have a few choices if you want to “fit in” with games culture. As a “female gamer”, you develop survival techniques that help you participate in games culture. This might be as simple as not identifying yourself as a feminist or declaring a distaste for feminism (many gamers love that), it might be not talking about the phone games you play (many gamers hate phone games), it might mean participating in trash talk (showing that you can give it and take it), it might mean playing games you don’t want to play (to show that you are skilled in the games that are popular) it might mean you laugh at rape jokes (it’s just a joke right).

Clothes specifically make this phenomenon quite obvious and it is no wonder that what women wear on Twitch is such a controversial topic. Historically, your options as a female gamer are 1) attempt to disguise your more feminine characteristics by not wearing makeup (or wearing what is perceived as no makeup by men and is more likely “natural” looking makeup to give the appearance of so-called “no makeup makeup”) and dressing in what is considered “male” clothing, or 2) using makeup and clothing to draw attention towards your feminine characteristics. This is complicated by the fact that as women gamers we are subjected to a sort of dual-objectification. You are objectified once for your body, and once for the fact that you play games. This seems ridiculous, but any woman who has played games in the last 20 years will know what I’m talking about. As a female “gamer” you are sexualized simply for playing games — you are seen as the unicorn. Do you remember the Team Unicorn “Geek and Gamer Girls” video from 2012? It attempted to parody the sexualization of female nerds and was an integral part of starting these discussions, especially when many insisted that the girls in the video couldn’t possibly be “geek and gamer” girls because they were too attractive. One of the reasons many male gamers learned to tolerate female gamers over the past 15 or so years is simply to increase their dating pool rather than out of actual respect. But even then, we would have to follow their rules. We are taught that being ogled, or getting harassed is the price we have to pay for wanting to play games.

The contemporary “SJW” figure interrupts this duality of the two types of acceptable female gamers. For years to be a female gamer you either had to be 1) eye candy or 2) one of the guys. To be a good gamer girl you wouldn’t complain about sexism in games, you accepted games as they were; you wouldn’t complain about trash talk in games, you would simply “git gud”. In my research, I’ve encountered countless memes used to spread these ideas and police female gamer behaviour; the most on the nose of which is this parody of Goofus and Gallant staring gamergate mascot Vivian James.

In this image we see Vivian James (the good gamer girl) playing and making games while SJW stand-in Occulass “demands devs change things in games she’ll never play” and “complains online about things keeping women out of gaming.” The message is clear: you want to be accepted as a real girl gamer? Don’t be like Occulass, be like Vivian. Vivian follows the rules and norms set out by male gamers. She doesn’t complain about sexist representation or sexual harassment. Maybe she even wears the gamer dress. She will dress and act in a way that doesn’t offend, or even deliberately appeals to male gamers as a matter of survival. I know that as a teen, I tried to be like Vivian, I didn’t point out when things bothered me, I put up with sexual harassment and jokes about my skill and gender, and worse still, I perceived a lot of these survival techniques that I picked up as genuine parts of my “not like other girls” or “cool girl” personality: they were not. In contrast to the “good gamer girl”, the SJW figure is truly frightening to male gamers not only because she points out what is so obviously sexist in their games and behaviour, but also because she does not attempt to adjust her appearance to make them happy.

What has become the stereotyped image of an SJW, queer and fat with colourful hair, ostentatious clothing and a loud mouth (all me now by the way), is the exact opposite of what games culture wants female gamers to be. They want you to be slim and pretty and quiet and never calling them on their shit under any circumstances. Even when that involves sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Asking for It

If we talk about the sexual harassment we face in games culture, we are treated like someone standing under Niagara Falls and complaining about getting wet. When women have spoken out about, for example, the frequency of sexual assault in the Super Smash Bros community they are harassed. One survey done reported that 1 in 5 women interviewed has been sexually assaulted by another member of the Smash community.

Famously, competitive gamer Aris Bakhtanians argued that “sexual harassment is part of [the] culture” of the fighting game community when confronted about perpetrating gratuitous sexual harassment on the set of Cross Assault. If there is one thing I look back on with the most horror when I think about my years as a teen and early 20s female gamer, it was how I put up with endless sexual harassment from my “friends” (read: my boyfriend’s friends or guys trying to sleep with me), accepting that it was the only way I would get to hang out with other gamers. Beyond sexual harassment, women in games have had to endure endless online harassment for simply trying to talk about games publically. Harassment is seen as the price of speech for most women in games.

A gamer dress or “esports dress” solves none of these problems. It doesn’t help “female gamers who receive so much backlash in the community!” as the tweet says; instead, it actually plays directly into this backlash. It demonstrates that for women to be read as gamers we must dress a certain way (designed by men) that signals our gamer identity. We must dress in a way that signals both that we are feminine and masculine at the same time (tight short dress with boob zipper = feminine; black and red geometric gamer chair pattern and skulls = masculine) to signal that we aren’t like “the other girls,” we are “gamer girls.” The dress says “don me to gain respect” when female gamers should simply have that respect already.

Now, this is nothing new, we have been having this discussion for some time. In 2016 streamer Raihnbowkidz made a video where she revealed she was done with so-called “titty” streaming and showed her routine on camera including putting on makeup and wearing push up bras that caused her a lot of pain while streaming. The announcement stirred an entire discussion about the expectations placed on female gamers, a conversation that the gamer dress proves we are just not yet done having. Women are still sexualized on stream, tits out or not. As streamer Amouranth explained in an interview with Kotaku “I’m gonna be objectified even if I’m wearing a shirt up to my collarbone” therefore you might as well wear makeup and show your cleavage. The alternative approach is to wear baggy, or more modest, or more “masculine” clothes and ban anyone who makes comments about your appearance, which is a lot of work just to play games in front of a camera. In either case, a female streamer is not really in control of the situation, only how they respond to it, and either response is completely valid.

Men, on the other hand, are in total control of how they treat women who are streaming, women in esports, women in the games industry, or just their women friends who play games. They are the ones who can actually stop this from happening by treating women as equals. Moreso, men (at the very least, straight cis able-bodied white men) can get on stream, enter an esports tournament, or walk into a games store without preparation and be treated like they belong there. While women are responding to a situation out of their control, men are creating that situation every day with their every action. The esports dress does not improve this culture for women and, if a woman is encouraged to wear it when she doesn’t feel comfortable, it could arguably make it much worse.

Take it all off

It’s not like I hate “gamer” clothing, I love a good video game t-shirt, and in recent years I’ve gotten really excited by an influx of more “feminine” gaming merchandise. I’ve bought fuzzy Zelda purse charms and triforce stud earrings and infinity scarves with nerdy patterns because I liked the way they looked aesthetically beyond the fact that they were gaming apparel. But in my youth, I sometimes bought much less aesthetically pleasing “gamer” clothing for other reasons. I may have even bought this fucking dress if it had of been available! I was so frustrated by not being read or accepted as a gamer, even when I was aggressively asserting that I was one, that 2009 undergrad student Emma felt like the only solution was to write it directly across her chest. Or in the case of a regrettable pair of Jinx Clothing sweatpants: directly across my ass. When I wasn’t at home playing games I wore a very cringy “AFK” bracelet. I attempted to use clothes to signal and communicate my belonging, but all of this didn’t actually solve anything because at the end of the day I didn’t get to decide if I belonged. Sometimes I would get challenged about a t-shirt (“you don’t really play X”), and/or quizzed about the game in question. Sometimes, on request, I would explain my bracelet or shirt or whatever else only to be confronted with total disbelief because I didn’t “look like a gamer.” Guys would stop to talk to me about World of Warcraft in the library, but only to in an attempt to get a date. I didn’t want a boyfriend, I didn’t want to be quizzed, I didn’t want to be seen as a unicorn, I just wanted respect and friends who played games, and there seemed to be no way of getting it.

Around that time, after the breakup up a five-year relationship, I met a bunch of guys who played games at a typical college kegger. I was over the moon to finally have new friends who shared my interest. I chatted with them long after the keg was drained, excited to talk to someone about this stuff who wasn’t my ex-boyfriend or my brother. I hung out with these guys for approximately six months. One of the guys, the only one I was remotely interested in romantically, told me that after that first night they had a conversation online about who could “have” me and it wasn’t him. He told me we couldn’t date, because of “bros before hos” — though we could, of course, sleep together secretly. Another one of the guys showed up at my apartment door at 2 in the morning and tried to force himself on me; luckily, he was drunk enough to fight off. I will never forget that, as I slammed the door on him and his raging boner in my apartment hallway, I felt guilty, like I was doing this to him and not him to me. Another one of those guys pretended we were friends and then one day broke out a list of 20 reasons why I should be his girlfriend that included that my apartment was far from him so walking there would be “good exercise.” When I politely rejected him, the rest of his friends, who I thought were also my friends, stopped talking to me arguing that it was unfair that I wouldn’t date him because I was the only girl he had ever liked. There was another guy in that group who did things so horrible to myself and other women that I won’t even speak about him.

The point is that none of these guys wanted to date me because they liked me or my personality. They wanted to date me because I was a female gamer whom they did not find physically repulsive. They liked the idea of me: a flesh and blood girl gamer.

Shortly after this, I stopped trying to make friends with gamers. I stopped wearing gamer clothing for the most part, especially to cons and other places I might feel unsafe. I always wore clothing that always covered up my video game tattoos. I stopped disclosing that I liked video games unless it was pertinent to the conversation.

Years later when I saw the now infamous 2012 video of Miranda “Super_Yan” Pakozdi being sexually harassed for hours upon hours on Cross Assault while attempting to compete and I cried. I sobbed watching the video partly out of empathy but mostly out of recognition. Every single thing that was being said to her was something I had experienced, that unique flavour of sexual harassment female gamers are subjected to. Finding yourself the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons, your gender and your skill always at the forefront of the conversation, every part of your being and body being objectified and sexualized, being pit against any other woman in the room, being both hated and revered simultaneously.

She was wearing an oversized t-shirt and pants. Imagine this scenario with the esports dress.

Conclusion

A portion of the offending tweet

The esports dress doesn’t signal respect to female gamers, it doesn’t help us “stay strong,” it signals to us an entire history of having what we wear, what we look like, what we say, and how we play endlessly controlled and policed by male gamers. Cranium Apparel was right about one thing, it is “high time that we do something for the female gamers who recieve [sic] so much backlash in the community!” but that “something” isn’t a dress, or at the very least it isn’t that dress. That something should be constantly including women in work and discussions about games at every level, it should be speaking back against the bigotry in games culture, it should be changing your own language and behaviour to make women feel more welcome, it should be supporting and amplifying the voices of those speaking out about these problems, it should be simply respecting the continued existence and visibility of women gamers themselves, no matter who they are, what they play, or what they wear.