How Noughties Bro Culture Empowered Gaming’s Angriest Voices

Dominic Leighton
Games PlayStation
Games PlayStation Xbox PC Gaming

In an age where we’re all more connected than ever, inclusivity shouldn’t be a dirty word. Yet for many parts of the gaming world, it is. Despite interactive entertainment being a medium that’s constantly growing and changing — and one which has joyfully proven that it’s capable of liberalism, acceptance, and a deep-seated feeling of community — dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it has never been more at odds with itself.

We shouldn’t be surprised though. We did this to ourselves.

Let’s rewind to 2003. A short fifteen years ago, bro culture was at its height. Backward caps, six-packs of beer and frat-house masculinity were no longer just the hallmarks of university burnouts, they’d become the hallmarks of a generation. For Microsoft (never a company to shy away from a cultural bandwagon) and the Xbox 360, this wasn’t just a movement, it was a marketing opportunity. And thanks to the 360’s success it wasn’t just Microsoft’s console that became synonymous with these dudebros, but gaming itself.

The inclusion of women in 'Battlefield V' caused uproar amongst some male gamers.

A REAL BROMANCE

Even fifteen years later many bros think this medium is still all about them, and they’re becoming increasingly angry when they discover it’s not. So what IS bro culture, then? Well, it was spawned out of an era that brought us the cultural lowlights of King of Queens, Limp Bizkit and Michael Bay’s emotionally devoid run on Transformers, but despite giving us some pretty shit art, if we really dig deep, it’s most latent and lasting components are misogyny and partisanship .

On paper though, being a bro doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing at all. In fact, so much of what bro culture venerates is actually pretty benign; just a group of like-minded guys that liked to party, hang out with their pals, watch the game and dive into some Call of Duty. Yet, as the noughties slowly became more of a brotopia, the undertones of both toxic and overt masculinity were clear to see. And so, of course they were quickly and neatly packaged into a nice box of mass-market media.

Soon, this dude bros party mentality took over, leaving little place for women beyond sexual objectification. Yet, it wasn’t just films, games and marketing that helped this behaviour become learned and normalised — it had help from a little friend called the internet. Thanks to the death of dial up, the world wide web soon became more reliable, going from a luxurious commodity to a tool that was in every home. As a place where like-minded people could gather and find their own people, the web quickly provided an unguarded forum for thousands of those male voices to grow stronger in their own echo chamber.

In other words, this was the bro’s time. They only had to look to the cover of any magazine, movie poster or game box to see their own faces looking back at them. It’s little surprise then that this overtly masculine subculture became indelibly tied to the gaming culture of the time, with a generous portion of console and game marketing choosing to continue targeting its tried and tested primary market; white, heterosexual men.

Beer, bros and bragging rights.

SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES

The consequences of this are now obvious. We only have to look to the last few months where the pushback against female faces in our games has reached fever pitch, with both Battlefield V and Total War: Rome 2 drawing the lava-spewing death rage of a disenfranchised gender who no longer recognise the reality of what’s being placed in front of them.

Much like the world at large, there seems to be a widening gulf between those making moves to broaden the perception of social norms – so that they actually, you know, include everyone in society – and those unwilling to evolve. It’s not just consumers either, with Kingdom Come: Deliverance developer Warhorse playing the historically accurate card to keep out people of colour when modern realities and antique laws of average simply don’t preclude them.

Ultimately, bro culture was championed by pretty much every facet of noughties culture. But, if  you’re really looking for a gaming big-bad to lay this at the door of then Microsoft would have been a solid choice. In 2013, designer Daniel Cook took to his personal blog to decry the time he spent working for a company that “put machismo, ultra-violence and chimpboys with backward caps in the paid spotlight”. The Xbox 360 was launched off the back of sports, extreme culture and violence and, until recently it seemed as though Microsoft would never look back. The company’s near-endless coffers helped to continue the shift in gaming that Sony began in the nineties, taking what was a whimsical, imaginative hobby and turning it into something more adult, and more lucrative.

There's no game more 'Bro' than Gears of War.

GEARS NOT TEARS

Gears of War was a crucial part of that shift. The gruff, hyper-masculine Marcus Fenix might as well be Fred Durst in power armour, and in terms of bro culture the game is the movement’s Citizen Kane. It epitomises a boys-own adventure that places the importance on ripping the alien invaders a new, deeply uncomfortable one while pushing down perceived emotional weaknesses like Marcus’ daddy issues. The game’s couch co-op further helped to promote the camaraderie of a great group of friends, and that men could rely on other men in their time of need. Just as long as you don’t get, like, too mushy bruh.

The rise of Xbox Live further cemented this safe space for a subset of men, with female voices marginalised and diminished, often through fear of retaliation, lechery or both. The new-fangled game chat for most titles during this period skewed towards toxic impressions of masculinity with regular examples of homophobia, sexism and racism and it’s a legacy which we still haven’t managed to escape today. Still, it’s a problem that Microsoft  seemingly became aware of. While it still doubles down on titles like Halo and PUBG  that still very much fall into that mold, the console manufacturer is now just as well known for  inclusive, family-friendly titles like Minecraft.

With the big M recently buying Ninja Theory — the studio behind the BAFTA-winning game about mental health, Hellblade — it’s refreshing to see Microsoft’s now attempting to reinvent itself.

Riot Games has been at the centre of an exposé into toxic game studio culture.

TOXIC CULTURE < INCLUSIVITY

Still, Microsoft wasn’t the only games company to be tainted by this bro culture explosion. While consumers clearly fell for Microsoft’s old marketing ploy of building into their own vision of bro culture, its gross negativity soon spilled out into the development studios of the time as well. It’s naïve to say that inequality in the workplace is a problem exclusive to the gaming world, but, in light of the recent exposé of sexism and toxicity at Riot Games by Cecilia D’Anastasio it’s one that’s still entrenched at some firms despite the positive steps seen in other developers like Naughty Dog.

While the tired old excuses of it being “cultural” are trotted out again, it is something we can actually agree on. Gaming’s current schism is absolutely thanks to a culture that was built around gamers who’ve learned one means of behaviour. It’s time to change it.

Dismantling over a decade’s worth of toxicity and exclusion, when built on top of pre-existing fears and intolerances is no easy task, but it’s not impossible. The modern gaming landscape is changing and finally bringing in a diverse range of voices from all walks of life, and you only have to look to companies like Bioware, Dontnod and Blizzard who are changing what we see on the screen to more accurately reflect what’s outside of it.

For all of Microsoft’s monetary success in the last generation, some of its current problems have to be related to how slow it’s been to make effective changes, whether to its business model or its increasingly out-of-touch game roster. Thankfully, and in spite of the angry voices, there are signs that things are moving on.

Dominic Leighton
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