Note: this post is likely to offend girl nerds, boy nerds, and wives. It assumes traditional gender and sexuality roles not because I believe those are the only possibilities, but because those are the ones most commonly expressed on the forums I have visited. These views do not account for 100% of nerddom, of course, because I haven’t met 100% of you. In fact, this post is probably just going to tick you off, so you might as well not read it.

So, for awhile, I was in a female-dominated nerd hobby. (Sadly, that still sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but trust me.)

Even though I’m a girl, I wasn’t very good at the social aspect of it. Girls are affirmers. They like to talk about how awesome things are, even when they’re not awesome. That meant that people would post to the forums the most godawful stuff–the kind of work that I think should have been set on fire and thrown into a dumpster while driving by at high speed so that no one could trace it back to you–and other girls would say, “OMG! That’s beautiful! I love the colors so much!” or “You’re getting really good with painting those! I think that huge smudge that obscures everything is really a cute touch!” If you gave the tiniest, most constructive criticism, (“Maybe you want to use a brush smaller than the size of the thing’s head to do the detail work,”) people would FREAK OUT: “She can do it however she wants! It’s her personal artistic expression! If she likes it, you can’t tell her it’s wrong! You made her feel bad, and she’s going through a major depression right now!” It’s probably because I spent so long in academia, but that kind of blind affirmation drives me crazy. Praise something when it’s good. When it’s bad, either help fix it or just let it move to the bottom of the forum without comment. Don’t praise needlessly.

There were a few other people who felt the way I did, and they opened up a separate forum that allowed criticism. Within a few weeks, that forum had turned into the nastiest, meanest, squirming nest of viperous ad hominem attacks that you’ve ever seen. The hobby itself died away and people just criticized each other’s weight, hair styles, personal habits, and social class. While this teeming mass of angry humanity was often hilarious, it was also pretty awful.

Not surprisingly, women in hobbies demonstrated exactly what they’ve been taught by popular culture: to focus on the individual and to establish the value of one’s own individuality by the excessive cooperation or competition of personae.

I’m much more comfortable having returned to the world of male-dominated hobbies. Men squabble, sure, and sometimes get personal, but the focus tends to be on the hobby and the betterment of that hobby. They’re not afraid to be critical of someone else’s ideas, and can generally separate ideas from individuals. I’m not sure it’s inherently better, but I certainly understand it better. Further, there seems to be a moment when things get tense at which everyone just takes a step back and reevaluates. This generally happens without the need of outside supervision. (For instance, a recent thread on the FFG forums about whether or not 3rd edition was “good” ended up with everyone reorienting themselves and reminding each other of why the community worked, even if the community couldn’t agree on whether or not the game worked. The mods stepped in, but at that point, the community had already taken care of it, and their involvement was an almost humorous afterthought.) People don’t seem to take genuine pleasure in attacking or affirming other individuals just for the sake of doing so.

The one thing I really don’t get about male-dominated communities, though, is how married men talk about their wives when visiting. While there are a few posts about how an awesome gaming wife did X or Y for her husband’s group, these women are treated as rarities. They’re like the World Cup-predicting squid: they exist, but you can’t be expected to encounter one in your own life. As far as I can tell from reading forum posts, the majority of extant wives are simply large harpies parked squarely in the narrow hallway at the center of the house. They are mysterious, potentially dangerous, and always in the way. This one won’t let her husband spread the 3e cards out on their dining room table. That one complains endlessly about his friends coming over for gaming. The next won’t let him buy a big enough table to play the game. Another doesn’t like him spending his money on Warhammer supplements. This last one gets mad when he takes her to a gaming store.

My reaction to these stories is always the same: Why in the world would you marry (or stay with) someone who disrespects the things you love when that signals a fundamental disrespect for you? I don’t get it. You could argue that it’s “just a hobby,” but our hobbies are often the manifestations of the things we care about most passionately, so I don’t buy that excuse. Of course, I’m lucky. My husband and I share the majority of our hobbies, and the ones we don’t share coexist peacefully. Since we’re mid-career and childfree, money doesn’t tend to be an issue, so we’re seldom squabbling over the resources to do the things we want to do. I realize that this lends us a charmed perspective on hobbying, but at the end of the day, if someone told me that I couldn’t spend the money I’d earned to buy myself a new table to have my friends over to play a game I was really interested in playing, I’d probably tell ‘someone’ to find a new place to live (and to let the guys delivering the new table in on his way out.)

I assume that this complaining is some kind of secret guy-affirmation code. There have been times that I’m pretty sure that the speaker doesn’t want the thing at stake himself, but also doesn’t want the community to think he’s an idiot for his choice, so the choice gets blamed on the wife. I also wonder if there’s not some kind of mysterious cachet to having a wife who doesn’t “get it.” (Does that confirm her femininity somehow?) And it does seem to be a community norm if the nerds are thirtysomethings; blame your wife and you’re speaking the code, you’re on the inside, you’re really one of ‘us.’ But as a woman looking in from the outside of the circle, I can’t help but wonder if the men who write these things really know how disrespectful they are being to their wives as they share these stories, since they often imply that these women are petty, mean-spirited, greedy, and/or not bright enough to handle the intricacies of something we all agree has value. Part of me also always thinks, “What kind of an idiot would choose such a bad partner and then admit it publicly?”

And if the women really are as described with no mitigating circumstances to explain their behavior? I can’t help but wonder why the divorce rate isn’t even higher.