Male entitlement in geek culture and why I stopped making pixel art

A close up of a piece I did called “Mighty Barbarian Wench”.

One of my first hobbies, outside of playing MMORPGs, was pixel art. Or, “dolling”, specifically, when I first opened MS Paint for a reason other than to mess about while a program was installing.

What is dolling?

“Dolling” is a form of digital art which involves taking a “base” or a digitally drawn body (usually human) and drawing clothes, hair and other features on it.

Dollers, as they’re called, can do so using anything from MS Paint to Photoshop, either manipulating pixels by hand or using tools like Dodge or Burn.

Two of the dollz I made. The left was a gift and the right one was from the Labyrinth.

This tutorial demonstrates the process of “dolling”. The end result are dolls or “dollz” that are often posted and shared on websites or forums with friends.

Although I don’t think any actual study has been done on dollers, my own experience within dolling communities is that it was overwhelmingly made up of women, usually either in their pre-teens to teens or women in their 30s-40s.

Dolling communities are built on both the art of dolling, but primarily dolling is used as a means to bond and make friends with others. When I first joined dolling communities, I had “sisters” that I exchanged dolls with, I “adopted” other people’s dolls (with permission of course), I credited artists for the bases I used, and I built a long link list of other sites I supported and who supported me.

The Realm of the Forbidden, screenshot courtesy of WayBack Machine, is now disbanded but was one of the first forums I joined and stayed on religiously.

I benefitted tremendously from the community atmosphere of forums. I really do believe that, while my artistic skills didn’t necessarily improve in the dolling community, the friendly atmosphere provided something akin to a family. Being bullied all day at school and surviving abusive situations, even if I didn’t have the tools to communicate myself well, I think the dolling community helped. And, even after I moved to California, it helped me continue to bond with two close friends I was forced to leave.

Still, something in me shifted. I can’t really say what and I partly don’t remember what pre-empted my choice to depart from the dolling community, but my attitude toward my art got a bit more serious. I had always been a member of the Pixelation forum at the same time as dolling community forums, but it was so active that I didn’t feel like I could really be involved. For some reason or the other, I joined another pixel art forum.

I started posting some of my work there and working on different stuff, and that’s when things changed.

What is pixel art?

Dolling is technically a form of pixel art, but most pixel artists would consider dolling more of a collaboration. Pixel art stems from old school games and it’s about creating anything from scenes to “sprites”, to anything you can make 100% from you, rather than using bases.

Some of the first “sprites” I created.

Pixel art forums emphasise artistic improvement over community bonding and, contrasting with the dolling community, most of the population of pixel art forums are men and spanning a wide variety of ages from teenager to older men who did game design when graphics required much simpler art.

A few of the first scenes I did in isometric perspective.

Pixel artists were challenged, even as graphics cards surpassed us and video game graphics are downright realistic, to somehow make realistic forms using as little colour as possible. And you’d be surprised how many wizards in the pixel art community can make incredibly intricate images with just a few basic colours. I became enthralled and enthusiastic about this challenge and inspired by the talent around me.

Having grown up a huge nerd loving both MMORPGs and gaming, I fit right into the pixel art community. And over a period of time, the emphasis on artistic improvement made me feel more passionate about it.

I felt somehow more artistically “ethical” than dollers who relied on tools. And while my art did improve, I can say that my attitude didn’t. I became dogmatic about artistic improvement and my internalised misogyny made me turn back at the dolling community and it’s emphasis on kindness and sharing with a sneer.

Merging the two

While I was absent from it, the dolling community bloomed. The forum I frequented disbanded but new forums popped up. One of them, Eden Enchanted, got so big the admin staff had to begin charging for membership in order to power the servers and eventually, it shut down.

An old screencap of Eden Enchanted. I didn’t get very involved here and stayed more on a forum called Bright Shiny Thing.

My attempts to rejoin the dolling community didn’t go over well. I’d become so engrossed in critiquing art, dollers often took my well intentioned feedback badly. And I was so hardheaded in the idea that I’d done something good for them, I refused to see any different.

I’ve always been more or less a headstrong person. And I don’t tend to back down during debates. In every community I’ve been in, online or in person, this is something people learn about me. But I ended up finding other people who were just as headstrong. And at one point, with a friend and fellow Slytherin named So-lou from Australia who had a similar reputation for straight talking, established a forum called Pixel Inc. where we wanted to turn dollers into pixel artists.

My contribution to the Pixel Art Community Totem, a massive project started on Pixelation.

We advertised it to both dolling and pixel art communities and we demanded, before joining, that users prove they could and would be willing to give feedback about art.

We prioritised improvement over everything. And it worked for awhile. We had a decent member base. At some point, we shut it down. But I can’t remember exactly why. It might have been because I just felt way more passionate about pixel art than I ever did about dollz.

And I do sometimes wonder if being seen as “one of the guys” felt in some way “neutral” to me at the time, more so than I what I perceived as the hyper-femininity of the dolling world. Maybe some part of resented that and wanted to step away from it.

A radical reminder

At some point during my tenure at a pixel art forum I frequented, where I made friends that I’m still in touch with today, I got a very jarring reminder of just how much I didn’t fit in.

My first self-portrait.

I had spent a good long while trying to perfect this avatar of myself, even animating it so it blinked. I can’t recall exactly why it happened. Whether it was April Fools Day, whether it was just because this person felt like it, but a member of the forum decided to photoshop his avatar “humping” mine.

To have my art taken like that and edited by someone, let alone to simulate sex was infuriating to me. Looking back I think I was also sickened by it as a sexual assault survivor. And as a much older person, I can analyse now specifically my problem.

It wasn’t just that someone took my art and changed it. It was that someone took my art, violated it, and the fact that I hadn’t said it was okay was part of the hilarious joke. I pointed out that if it was such a funny joke, why not do it to another guy. And his response was that he wasn’t gay — so clearly, part of the joke was unconsensual sex. And everyone found the idea hilarious.

Barely anyone in my supposedly strongly knit pixel family seemed to care very much. Despite feeling like I fit in with these fellow geeks, with geek culture, with all of these people I admired for their skill and artistic ability, I went from being a valued member of the community, so I thought, to a spoil sport who couldn’t take a joke. And while I did stick around for a little awhile after, it stopped feeling like a family.

One of my proudest pixel art creations to date, Darth Vader emoticons.

I later joined a spin-off forum that another member had created. There we talked less about art and inevitably more about current events — and then politics. That shoved the wedge even further. I ended up in a lot of arguments about LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and other things.

Eventually I was stalked and harassed by a male member of that forum who sent me a series of messages that he’d supposedly received from multiple members of the community that said I was a bitch and a waste of space. I couldn’t delete my account, but I left. That site is no longer active.

Another form of digital art called “oekaki” which is Japanese for the act of drawing a picture.

Both of these incidents took away the fire I had to keep going. I’ll say one thing for the dolling community: No one ever tried to mess with my art and turn sexual violation into a “joke”.

Being read as female in geek culture

I see my departure from male dominated spaces as inevitable. Being agender now and with my politics growing further away from white supremacy (both the dolling and the pixel art community are incredibly white-focused and dominated), I don’t think I would fit in. Many of the friends that I had during this time, I’ve found I can no longer relate to. Still, my love for pixel art as an artistic form remains.

“Spartan” by Helm using just FOUR COLOURS. This is what I aspired to be and create.

The challenge of creating something complex with so little colours is still something I love. Although now I focus more on my writing than I do my art (since I think I’ve always been a better writer than artist), every once in awhile I miss pushing pixels. But for me, half of the fun of pixel art is pushing myself to improve. If I had no one to give me feedback and show me how to do it better, there isn’t much fun in it.

The process of improving my avatar. As a self-taught artist, constructive criticism was everything.

But even more I miss the community that I had before reality came crashing down on my head. And I regret my inability to respect and appreciate the dolling community while I had been apart of it. I’m frustrated that the misogyny that I’d learned made me so antagonistic towards the emphasis on kindness the dolling community had. And now that I understand, respect, and now love femininity, I miss my dolling sisters.

Today, I don’t get that involved in geeky things. As someone who is read as female, my existence is noticed and commented upon when I enter geeky spaces. I went to one event locally, entered and won a MarioKart championship, which was fun. But every time I got up to play MarioKart against someone, the man on the microphone would point out that I was a girl or say my name, “Lola”, in a way that emphasised my difference. As an agender person, this constant misgendering just isn’t ideal.

My right arm.

I’m still as geeky as ever, but I know what aspects of geek culture to take part of and what not to. I’ve thankfully found geeks that have more in common with me: gaymers and POC nerds, those people who don’t fit into the mainstream of geek culture, and find myself feeling the community that I had in the dolling community, minus the art, along with them.

But if people want to know why there are so few non-men or women within mainstream geek culture, it’s because of this. Even when you think you fit in, you just don’t. And there just aren’t enough men willing to go against the geek misogyny grain to merit taking part.

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