Gatekeeping is the activity of controlling or limiting access to something, and in its most general form, gatekeeping is common in almost every aspect of daily life. It can be as important as ensuring only scientists get to handle unstable chemicals, to something as innocuous as making sure the “teachers only” lounge stays teachers only.
These restrictions are accepted for good reason, but it is in the arbitrary nature of culture that justifying the natural practice of exclusion through gatekeeping becomes difficult.
Everybody has experienced this cultural gatekeeping at least once in their lives. Maybe someone saw you wearing a band T-shirt and asked if you had actually listened to them. Maybe you let it slip that you liked a movie but never read the book it was based on, making you a “fake” fan in the eyes of the die-hards.
These exchanges can be annoying, but are usually nothing more than that. The reality is that most people will assume that the person wearing a band T-shirt does listen to said band, and it usually isn’t an issue when someone enjoys a movie without reading the book.
Why Gamers Are Gatekeeping
Where gatekeeping becomes aggressive is when you enter subcultures. These are little groups of individuals united by a common interest, defined just as much by what they aren’t interested in as what they are. Gaming culture has garnered a reputation for being fiercely cynical in regard to who is allowed to identify with the hobby.
This is best demonstrated by the 2014 fiasco known as “Gamergate,” a massive online campaign waged between industry and media representatives and consumers. It was started by a scandal that uncovered uncomfortably close relationships between reviewing outlets and game developers. It quickly evolved into a full-blown culture war that loudly questioned prominent industry leaders’ motivations, relationships, ideals and business practices.
Prominent Gamergate figures used private information and leaked messages as a means to publicly scrutinize the targets of their ire. To this day, the movement divides people’s opinions on whether or not it was a sloppily justified pretext to launch a misogynistic harassment campaign, a legitimate consumer revolt or a mixture of both.
However, none of that truly matters. What does matter is that Gamergate proved that there is a silent disconnect between industry cultures and the culture of the fan bases they cater to, and if given the proper motivation and catalyst, subcultures will gatekeep and protect what they see as theirs.
Other writers have claimed this kind of fanatical gatekeeping is an act of ego, an aggressive display of elitism that solely benefits the gatekeeper. This is not accurate. It is true that people who regularly gatekeep may be doing so to gratify a need for self-importance, but this explanation for why the practice is so widespread among subcultures fails to address the practical reason behind it.
Gatekeeping is functionally identical to the teachers only lounge policy, a policing practice that serves to keep a subculture unified and consistent. As I mentioned earlier, most subcultures are defined by what they aren’t as much as by what they are.
In the case of Gamergate, many gamers who were dissatisfied with the rise of predatory monetization and business practices within the industry built up an ideal of the conscious consumer — the old-guard gamers who remembered and fought for better times in the hobby.
These gamers had long-held suspicions about sites like IGN and Kotuku. They believed that the seemingly sycophantic practices of the major gaming media indicated that they didn’t represent the consumer base like they claimed.
The fact that many of these sites were publishing stories critical of gaming’s consumer base and culture only further incited suspicion that these outlets and writers weren’t real fans, and it was with the release of the now infamous “gamers are dead” articles that the Gamergate movement exploded.
Is It Working?
In many ways, gatekeeping is the only way subcultures that are founded on commercial products can meaningfully resist commercialization. In the context of subcultures, commercialization almost always means the death of the culture, watering down of the property and eventual sublimation into the pop-culture sump. Some popular franchises simply can’t survive commercialization at all.
Take Warhammer 40k, for example. It’s a franchise built on an incredibly violent “grimdark” setting that takes glee in making sure every faction is the bad guy. Fascist theologies battle depraved anarchists and supremacist aliens over who gets to genocide who. The lore and models are unapologetically gothic and operatic.
Games Workshop — the owner of the series — has expressed interest in toning down many of these key elements in order to reach a wider audience. However, there was strong backlash by the consumer base. Boycotts of this new, thoroughly “un-40k” material led to them keeping their flagship franchise the way it was. Instead, they launched the less overtly problematic Age of Sigmar. This decision led to a golden age for the company, as it is now more profitable than it has ever been.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Marvel Comics; after an unprecedented 10 year run of highly successful movies, it is not doing well. New fans of the movies aren’t buying the comics despite the company making moves to appeal to them, while longtime legacy fans feel left out and disappointed with the perceived casualization of their audience.
Should Gatekeeping End?
Gatekeeping is grating, usually self-righteous and can often come packaged with personal bigotries. But it is an important part of human socialization, even if that socialization is based around plastic models, videogames or books with pictures.
I don’t think gatekeeping should be eliminated, nor do I think it’s possible to do so. Communities and outlets should learn to recognize it for the tribalistic behavior it is and approach it with a critical but open mind. Often, the question of “Why am I being gatekeeped?” or “What has this fandom so up in arms?” can lead to a deeper understanding of the subculture, even if it is via an unpleasant crash course.