I am a fat gamer. The “gamer” part is easy to write, the “fat” part does not come as easily and it still feels like admitting to a flaw. I have felt, like most gamers I assume, my share of guilt and even shame after I could not turn off whichever game had me sucked in and especially so, whenever I canceled social events in favor of a night with just myself, some food, and a video game. Fat-shaming, however, makes admitting to fatness much harder (in our cultures in the Global North). In identifying myself as fat, I build on work at the nexus of critical feminist, queer and fat studies; as Marilyn Wann has phrased it:
In fat studies, there is respect for the political project of reclaiming the word fat, both as the preferred neutral adjective (i.e., short/tall, young/old, fat/thin) and also as preferred term of political identity. There is nothing negative or rude in the word fat unless someone makes the effort to put it there; using the word fat as a descriptor (not a discriminator) can help dispel prejudice.
Still, I have read the op-eds too, about lonely men in their “man caves” who refuse to grow up, who are socially unreliable, who get addicted to the games they play and ultimately withdraw from life in the “real world” altogether. Now picture that person: he is male, he is young-ish, if you read this in Germany you probably picture him as white, and he is certainly fat. This stereotype finds its viral expression on the web in the form of a meme, simply called the “fat gamer” meme.
Fatness as a category is a spectrum; what that means is that there are different degrees to which people are read as, shamed as, or self-identify as “fat”. Fatness is also intersectional, so every/body’s experience varies according to the ways in which fatness intersects with other markers of social identity. As Daniel Farr writes in his intro to a special issue of Men and Masculinities, “the being of any man, be he fat or thin, is influenced by the cultural politics of embodiment and weight; as there is no singular form of masculinity, there is no single form of fat masculinity.” So, once again: I am a white, middle-aged, fat gamer from Germany. I am interested in the “fat gamer” meme, because I have become it (or it signifies me), but also because I am interested in two types of bodies, the on-screen bodies and the off-screen bodies of digital games (and digital sport games, specifically). By analyzing memes of so-called “fat gamers” or “fat gamer kids” I think we might be able to shed light on the anxieties regarding body shape and so-called “physical fitness” that are at stake in our digital here and now. One could, for example, read these memes and the discourse of “fat gamers” against the striking visual attention granted to mutilated bodies in video games in general and injuries in digital sports games in particular: when we move digital bodies across the playing fields and then they get stopped abruptly and painfully by opposing defenders, the in-game “bodies” emerge as problematic. These moments, after all, capture the fragility of the muscular, strong, agile, and durable on-screen bodies of many (mainstream) digital games. And in these instances, both bodies, on and off the screen, become embodied sites of crisis as they enter a meaningful relationship with each other: for a split second the flawless body on the screen stops being the perfect counter image to the bodies we picture in front of the machine.
The on-Screen-Fitness/off-Screen Fatness Binary?
Maurice was a normal student, when he got his first Playstation at age 7. The boy enjoyed playing with it, but school still came first. In the 6th grade he started playing hooky (pretending to be sick). He sat at home eating potato chips, drinking coke, and got fat.
The fat gamer memes condense this anxious discourse regarding off-screen fatness captured in the opening sentences to the Spiegel online piece. The standard foil for the meme features the face of a fat teenager with an unkempt (half-shaven) beard, a pimpled face, glasses, and a ponytail in front of a multicolored background. Above his face we find, in white printed letters, the set-up to joke and below the face it’s punchline. These are premised on the unattractiveness and/or the unworldliness of the depicted gamer. “Get a life? … Where do I download it?” or “Got back together with my ex … box360” serve as typical examples of these memes and of how they operate. The images are obviously premised on a cliched notion of video game cultures and individuals playing games. What is more, these images and the jokes establish a close connection between fatness and gaming, between a supposedly unhealthy diet and an assumed lack of physical activity engrained into gaming culture, as well as a withdrawal from life beyond the digital interfaces. The memes thus distill an entire discourse about digital cultures and the bodies (and minds) of young (white) men into images and punchlines. Let me be clear: this is not to deny the challenge of media education for our generation and those to come, but the fervor with which the discourse works to establish a “fat gaming Other” evokes a long history of articulations of cultural anxieties regarding those of us who have been deemed “unproductive”: the lazy, the drunk, the addicted, the drifters of our capitalist imaginaries. It is in this sense that the “fat gamer” meme provides a discursive accomplice to the trope of the pained male on-screen body with its long tradition in the Hollywood movie canon. The fat gamer continues the ways in which media have represented the dis/abled binary and their ableist agenda by connecting it to socio-economic (and erotic) “productivity.” For much of film history, for example, maimed male bodies provided Hollywood movies with their quintessential tool to invoke an alleged crisis of masculinity, idealized as able-bodied, as athletic, as virile.
The fat gamer meme – as an inverted mirror image – continues this tradition for our digital now and also unmasks our overall anxiety regarding digital culture(s) and the heterogeneous set of experts digitality brings forth: the (fat) gamer is certainly one candidate in this context. While the fat gamer in the meme is clearly intended as the butt of the joke, the joke thus also reveals an underlying anxiety regarding media change as such, and media change as emblematic of broader changes in capitalist production thanks to digitization. At its core, the memes thus expose an inherent tension in our neoliberal late-capitalist and media-capitalist fantasies; fantasies that relate to economic productivity and the bodies that perform them with the help of machines and algorithms. The memes only manage to thinly veil the angst they articulate regarding the labor force and of capitalist productivity as such in digital times. And because it concerns the kids, like Maurice, said angst is always already about the future(s): the futures of production, consumption, leisure, and laziness; of fit capitalism versus fat capitalism.