ok this is gonna be a little rough, and long, but anyone who has followed my ~*posting history*~ knows that i have been talking about writing an honest to god thesis on the Appeal of Team Fortress 2 Specifically, and Valve Games Generally, to Women for probably a year. and in that time i’ve been doing a lot of research.
i am not a person that really gets into “fandoms” in any appreciable way. i do tumblr and twitter and i signed up for deviantart when i was like 16 and i essentially live on the internet and when i’m not on the internet i’m hanging out with people who can be described as being colored various shades from the nerd spectrum: everyone from comics creators to horror FX artists to tabletop RPG makers to electronic musicians who work in games, to actual game designers and artists, to content writers for games, and of course the great seething masses of plain old nerd culture consumers like you and me. i’ve been working in different parts of the nerd culture machine since i was 18 and got a job “illustrating” the infamous Book of Erotic Fantasy.
content creators are usually slightly less involved in the actual fandoms than straight up consumers are. i just never really saw the appeal (to me) of roleplaying as members of House Hufflepuff on a specially-sanctioned Livejournal Community, or of drawing naked pictures of Goku. I could totally understand that other people would be into it, i guess, because after being on the internet long enough you’re more surprised when you don’t find porn of amazing things.
i will occasionally do a 4chan driveby, to see what the internet’s primordial ooze is belching out. 4chan’s main forum is of course /b/, the “Random” forum, but there is a whole pile of other forums that produce or collect different content. for example, /fa/ is for fashion discussion, /m/ is for giant robots, /k/ is for guns, and /y/ is for Yaoi–illustrated gay sex. /y/ is interesting because it seems to be a haven for women on 4chan, a notoriously hostile boys’ club. the phenomenon of women and girls loving yaoi has long since made it out of Japan, and is now firmly-established in America. why girls love yaoi is not a question i’ve seen addressed in an academic way, so my first forays into /y/ were one part a craven quest for porn that would actually appeal to me (a privilege flaunted by men in a way that raises my hackles, even apart from the horrific nature of a lot of ‘normal’ porn), and one part curiosity about what i could find out about sexual images that appealed to women.
i learned the vast majority of the threads posting on /y/ are request threads or “dump” threads. a request thread starts when someone wants more of a particular thing in their porn collection, so they’ll start a thread asking for it, and everyone else pitches in with images from their own collections that fit the criteria. dump threads are the opposite, where someone has a large quantity of a certain category of porn, and wants to share it, and will post tens or hundreds of that type of image themselves. i also learned that most of these threads are about fiction franchises–harry potter, dragonball z, world of warcraft, superman, batman, the simpsons, gargoyles, the x files, doctor who, even invader zim and my little pony: friendship is magic.
NWS example of superman and batman:
so when i found a team fortress 2 thread, my first response was amazement that it was even there: as an online-only, plotless first-person-shooter, i had assumed that the female fanbase would be confined to diehard shooter enthusiasts (like myself), a subset of games with few female devotees, as far as i can tell. fewer in number than female WoW players, certainly. but, weirdly, most of the tf2 posters seemed to be women. and not all of them even played the game. and, even weirder for fan art, the characters were being drawn realistically, with scars, imperfections, even body hair–that last being incredibly rare in what i’d seen so far in the highly-idealized, manga-influenced genre of yaoi as a whole. the goals of the images were the same–to arouse and titillate–but the methods seemed far removed from the oceans of anime-eyed Draco Malfoys messily fucking idealized Ron Weasleys all up and down the rest of the forum.
it wasn’t long before someone dropped a link to tf2chan.net–the 4chan-like imageboard forum where tf2 fans had set themselves up to produce and consume content purely about the game. and 99% of them, i quickly learned, were straight women in their twenties.
holy shit! this was something different. the tf2 posters were pickier, less forgiving. the images themselves, porn though they are, were being held to a higher standard.
anything drawn with the visual shorthand of manga iconography was dismissed out of hand as “deviantart trash” or worse. artists who posted their own stuff were subjected to corrections, critiques, and “redlines”. artists were roasted, and either improved rapidly, or vanished off the board, back to deviantart where they wouldn’t be put under that kind of pressure. the focus on excellence in the art itself was far different than any other fandom i’d ever seen, admitting that i’d never walked this deep into one before. most of the fan artists professed to be professionals, or art students going into the field. they were obsessed with the originality, grace, and individuality of each class. and along with everything else, a lot of the art was funny. the original, outrageous framing of the game, the perfect timing, the wonderful voice acting had been extrapolated, refolded, stretched and draped into a collection of pictures that, sometimes, were really, just, well, good.
look at the painting, anatomy, composition, character, and colors in these and tell me they aren’t above and beyond.
i’d played the game and loved all the Meet the Team videos for years, so i had as good a handle on the exquisite characterization and art that Valve, tf2’s game studio, had created. what puzzled me for the longest time was why this specifically appealed to women, and in a sexual way–aside from the halo franchise (which everyone plays), i wager that team fortress 2 is the first person shooter with the largest female playerbase and fanbase. i don’t know how to get data on this, but i bet it’s true.
after months of looking at tf2chan, and then finding and following its main contributors on tumblr and other sites and watching them, i started to form a hypothesis:
The TF2 team members are, each of them, individual archetypes of “classical” masculinity. The Heavy is the good-natured and huggable bear, the Medic is the aloof intellectual, the Spy is the sleazy Eurotrash Lothario, the Scout is the hyperactive twink, the Sniper is the easygoing outdoorsman, the Demoman is the well-meaning, depressed and “damaged” (symbolized by his eyepatch) drunkard, (also the token minority, which Valve makes fun of by making him Scots instead of “ghetto”), Engineer is the cornfed and capable All-American Dad, and Soldier is the strict, aging, old-fashioned drill sergeant.
Lastly, the Pyro is either a faceless monster OR a stand-in for the Female Gaze, or both. Pyro’s dumpy pear shape, small size, light hands and feet, muffled alto voice, and the flowered purse sitting in her locker in the spawn room all point to her being femme incognito in the TF2 Boys’ Club, thus being a perfect representation of every “gamer girl” everywhere.
What this means to gay men, I couldn’t say. i actually haven’t seen much evidence of them on tf2chan or in other spaces where this material exists. if you’re out there, speak up, i want to interview you before i make a real paper out of this.
But the sexual nuance in the characters is blatant, and extremely successful–that much is clear.
i’ve seen posts on tumblr from tf2 fangirls that just state outright that team fortress 2 porn helped them come to terms with a more mature and realistic sexuality: they said the body hair, scars, different body types, and realistically-proportioned penises helped them compartmentalize and process their own heterosexuality. it was like yaoi–typically about hairless teenage boys–had suddenly gone to college. the tf2 fandom was quietly tackling the problem we all face when stepping into sexual adulthood, that is, to suddenly have to marry the cultural beauty ideals of hairlessness, flawlessness and cleanliness with the human body’s fat, hairy, pockmarked, smelly, small-dicked reality. the team fortress 2 yaoi is a bridge from the amorphous yearnings for justin bieber, to the specific celebration of the adult male body that all heterosexual women must traverse if they are to become sexually mature.
Not only are the men themselves attractive, but i posit that the environment of warfare is appealing to straight women’s horror of, and fascination with, what we see as senseless masculine violence. The battle for “control points”, payload “carts”, or simple “kills” is framed in TF2 as being even goofier and more pointless than in games like CoD or Gears of War, where the violence is couched in important historical or fictitious events, lending a false sense of gravitas to the play proceedings.
In Team Fortress 2, as in most other Valve games, the genre’s paradigm has been shifted and radicalized. The landscape is clearly a set, with things like cows and other setpieces easily identified as cardboard cutouts, and the sense of confinement within the level is strongly conveyed, whereas in other PvP FPS games, it is concealed by the level design as much as the designers are able to do so.
Additionally, the sense of your own self-worth as one of the character classes is seriously impugned by the fact that you’re playing with, and against, an army of your own clones. You’re not special–you’re just another Medic, another Demo, another Engineer. This, too, is unusual in single player FPS games, where hero worship (of yourself, by non-player characters) is the norm. In other multiplayer FPS games, you’re usually faceless, with the same general look and abilities of everyone else. Only TF2 draws such stark lines between the personalities and purposes of each character class, a game mechanic that Brink recently tried to emulate, without much success.
What does this have to do with straight women, and the fandom they have created for the characters? Go back and read what I just wrote in the preceding paragraphs, then tell me I’m not describing the perfect dollhouse. Setting aside the implications of gender essentialism in a statement like “girls like to play with dolls” (which I don’t believe, but bear with me), you can make the assumption that most girls (and boys) know how to play with dolls. Not only that, but it’s how we’ve been taught to play, how we’ve been encouraged to play, and it is the area of play that is open to girls growing up amid constant reminders that the gender police are Always Watching. It’s okay to play with Barbies, say the television and other children and well-meaning but ignorant adults, it’s NOT okay to play with trucks and guns and GI Joes.
The TF2 fandom represents a reclamation of GI Joe by the armies of little girls who were told they weren’t allowed to play war. But it represents even more than that–it represents their REVENGE.
i haven’t written the next part–some thoughts on the extreme violence in the game and the unusual adoption of this violence by traditionally-adverse women–so i’ll just leave it there for now. I also have some stuff to write about valve’s reaction to this fandom so far.