What happens on the internet does not stay on the internet. For better or worse, our culture is shaped and molded by what’s happening on social media. When online culture becomes toxic and regressive, so do our lives, and that works in the other way as well. If our lives are toxic, it’s unlikely that we’re going to make online spaces more positive. The memes we share hold power, and that power can be, and has been, exploited.
On Aug. 21, the official Twitter account for Cyberpunk 2077 was criticized when it sent out a tired joke as a reply to a fan. The game’s official account admonished a fan for stating that they wanted to see more at Gamescom from the “guys” at CD Projekt Red, the studio developing the game.
On its face, this reply may not seem like a big deal to some of the audience. But the “Did you just assume my gender?” meme has been thrown around for years, a dog whistle designed to paint transfolk as overly aggressive, anal and shrill about wanting their gender expression to be respected. It started out in places like 4Chan and among “anti-SJW” crowds, but now can be found all over the internet.
Think about what the “joke” actually says, though. This isn’t as simple as one group poking fun at how another group speaks. Rather, the phrase “assuming someone’s gender” has become a way to make fun of how one group imagines another group speaks. It doesn’t make any point aside from pointing out a stereotype that only existed in the heads of people who already didn’t like the groups being mocked.
Has anyone, ever, actually laughed at this joke? Or has the meme just become so ingrained in online culture that people recognize it and repeat it without thought?
To its credit, CD Projekt Red quickly responded to criticism and took the tweet down. However, it was followed with a classic non-apology, referring to “all those offended” by its choice of words, rather than taking responsibility for the transphobic joke or showing they understood why people were upset.
Whatever the content of the apology, it sparked what might have been an even bigger uproar, with Twitter users raging at the “SJWs” for censoring the company. CD Projekt Red was stuck in a situation it couldn’t win — people were going to be upset not matter what it did — and it was all due to what was likely a thoughtless tweet.
But this isn’t about one company, this is about why transphobic jokes upset people, and why the situation is bigger than each company that gets “in trouble” for sharing them.
Why jokes like this matter
For transfolk on the internet — and especially in the gaming community — the sequence of events surrounding the CD Projekt Red controversy are much too familiar.
Using the internet as a trans person in 2018 is exhausting at best, and a form of self-harm at worst. This is doubly true for those of us who are active on Twitter, where being bombarded with transphobic threats and slurs is a daily reality. And in gaming, comics and other “nerdy” fandom spaces — spaces that should allow for escapism and fun — even those who aren’t outwardly hateful, whether they be individuals or businesses, love to spout the same tired jokes, over and over.
This wasn’t even CD Projekt Red’s first time posting jokes aimed at the gaming world’s more regressive members. In July 2018, the Twitter account for GOG (a games distribution service operated by CD Projekt) posted a GIF of the main character from Postal 2 pissing on a grave labeled “Games Journalism.”
This tweet, also later deleted, was seen by many as a show of support for members of GamerGate, a harassment campaign aimed at marginalized groups in the gaming industry, including trans and other queerfolk. So CD Projekt has a bit of a history flirting with transphobia and the groups that perpetuate it — which is ironic considering how intertwined the tenets of cyberpunk are with trans culture.
And they’re not the only video game company to tweet edgy jokes for the sake of delighting their fans. Back in 2016, the official Twitter account for Sonic the Hedgehog made waves by saying it identified as an attack helicopter, and telling fans to check their privilege — another old meme, aimed at mocking those whose gender identity falls outside the man/woman binary.
@Jiggypig_ We actually identify as an attack helicopter. Check your privilege.
— Sonic the Hedgehog (@sonic_hedgehog) February 17, 2016
The idea is that to identify as nonbinary is as ridiculous as saying you’re an inanimate object. In other words, anyone who does so is either stupid, or lying. It’s another joke that few people actually find funny as much as they like having their prejudices confirmed, and it’s effective at making the very existence of transfolk seem like a joke.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s Twitter feed has often been hailed as a positive example of what happens when a company learns the language of its consumers and uses it to its own advantage. But this can also be seen as an example of what happens when a company mirrors the worst of its fanbase as a shortcut to engagement. The spread of hurtful language and negative stereotypes can continue even if there’s no specific malice on the part of the person running the account. It’s just another pop culture gag they’re repeating, except this time it’s at the expense of an already targeted group of people.
Yet, in the age of the “Funny Corporate Twitter Account” — think Wendy’s — the repetition of these tired gags becomes more personal, and much more insidious. In the past, the line between consumer and company was clear, but now, as businesses step away from traditional PR models and attempt to become more relatable to younger customers, that line has blurred.
We often see these company accounts adopting the language and humor of their customers, attempting to sell their products through comedy, memes, meta humor and even trolling. These companies sell themselves by being “one of us” instead of a cold, corporate shell. These social media feeds are supposed to feel like they’re controlled by some funny dude behind a desk, making a living by posting memes all day. That way you connect with the corporation by assuming a level of candor that doesn’t actually exist.
When these accounts co-opt the language of their consumers, they also risk giving into those consumers’ worst tendencies. Such is the case with Cyberpunk 2077’s tweet, which tapped into the gaming world’s negative trends and memes in order to “connect” with its audience.
Instead of trying to make gaming better, or caring about the entire audience, this technique simply continues the good and bad aspects of current online culture. It’s rote repetition, without actually thinking about what’s being said or how it makes the company look.
What happens next? Everyone loses
And, unfortunately, this method often works. When it comes to accounts like Cyberpunk 2077 or Sonic the Hedgehog, we see a sort of parasocial relationship — where fans identify strongly with the company or character, and the company isn’t aware of the fan as an individual — develop between company and customer. Fans begin falling over themselves to defend the offending tweets from criticism, which to them feels personal. What might have started as a thoughtless tweet has become, to some, another battle in a long culture war.
These days the consumer base is often emotionally invested in companies — this is a goal in marketing, even — and sees them as an ally, one of their own to be protected, instead of businesses that are there to sell a product. If gaming companies have to watch what they say, does that mean people who play games may need to think about what they say next? The easier response is to offer a counter-attack: Think the tweets were even slightly off color? You’re a thin-skinned tumblrina who doesn’t even play games in the first place, so who cares about your feelings?
The irony of being this outraged at people they find thin-skinned, or those who say they believe in absolute free speech working this hard to silence and chase people whose arguments they don’t like off the internet is rarely acknowledged.
And all this ignores the fact that transfolk (or people who care about transphobia in general) play games just as much as anyone else; and that no joke exists in a vacuum, but in a cultural context.
And the current cultural context is one where transfolk are murdered and assaulted at higher rates than our cisgender counterparts. One where our anger and fear is seen as outrage culture gone mad, and an attack on all “true gamers.” One where the abundance of transphobic jokes in public discourse reduces us to a punchline, the “other,” and makes it easy to ignore or actively attack us.
These accounts aren’t just any rando making jokes; they represent popular companies with cultural weight in gaming, and they’re choosing to reinforce existing negative stereotypes in front of a large, receptive audience. These companies have a wide reach, and through their use of familiar language and humor, are effective at influencing thoughts and actions. Or at least normalizing exclusionary language that used to only exist on the fringes of gaming.
By coming from such a well-known brand, these jokes — which have already become clichés — are legitimized and spread to new audiences, giving them new life. It’s a feedback loop where anyone trying to grow up is attacked as joyless and deluded; which is the point of the joke to begin with.
Confronting these companies by calling them out, or even attempting to discuss this topic in game marketing, is dangerous. By publicly speaking up, marginalized groups online make themselves a prime target for harassment, adding onto the bullying we already receive. But being exposed to these sort of jokes, and seeing how many people share and love them, is degrading. There’s no safe response.
Even when companies do take tweets down and apologize, the anger from reactionaries just grows, aimed squarely at those they see as censoring their favorite brands. No matter what happens, posting these sorts of tired jokes always leads to harm for marginalized groups. Not to mention the fact that the company is going to get bad press for insensitive humor if they keep the tweet up and then be criticized themselves by “free speech” warriors if they apologize.
Is repeating a joke that no one actually finds funny or topical worth all that?
There’s nothing wrong with having a funny or informal Twitter account. And while the idea of corporations becoming Twitter celebrities invites its own host of ethical questions, they do take on the role of providing entertainment and humor on a website that can often be dour and hateful. That has value, even if they’re just trying to sell you something.
But corporations — even video game developers — have power on social media. When this power is used for transphobia, sexism, racism or any other form of bigotry, the atmosphere online worsens. If companies are going to continue trying to imitate their audiences, they need to learn which parts to mirror, and which parts can be disavowed.
And this means that we as consumers have to hold them accountable, and not just brush off transphobia as “meme culture.” The people in charge of these accounts need to think about why a joke is supposed to be funny before repeating it without thought.
This isn’t about one company, or one joke. It’s about what it’s like when enjoying your hobby also means enduring repeated phrases that mock who you are, when you already live in a world where your identity makes you the target of violence.
The jokes used by CD Projekt Red and others don’t stand alone, but encourage the worst aspects of the gaming world. When we talk about why jokes are harmful, it isn’t out of some need to police the world, but rather to prevent real harm from coming to real people. That’s where our focus should be.
William Antonelli is a nonbinary writer based in New York City, whose work focuses on the evolving landscape of entertainment and pop culture. You can find him on Twitter @DubsRewatcher.