Gatekeeping and Community

You’ve probably run into this situation before: You profess your interest in a particular topic, and someone tries to test you on how much you really know about it. This reaction is both an act of initiation and exclusion: Pass, and you are truly on the same plane as this examiner; fail, and you are just a casual. The examiner proceeds to speak to you based on the context of your success or failure.

Growing up as a video gamer, I could find both explicit and hidden lines drawn in the sand: During the days of “hardcore” gaming, there was the visible ideological conflict between PC users and console users. PC users, who had spent the time and money to build a powerful machine for gaming, looked down on the casual console gamer, because PC users consider themselves to earned the right to game, while console users bought a pre-furbished appliance without the rites of technological initiation found in PC-building.

Though unenjoyable to read about, this is one of the most benign forms of gatekeeping I could think of. During the age of #MeToo and #GamerGate, we’ve seen that gatekeeping is found in violent and hidden ways.

In any form, gatekeeping occurs in communities that do not share the same story as to why the community exists—or should exist—in the first place. The “PC master race” video gamer enacts a story in which gaming is most substantial when all parts of the machine were hand built. This story is not picked up by console or smartphone gamers, who may have many other stories for themselves to enact. When the stories clash, followers of each are unable to comprehend the other, thus developing a sense of us-versus-them and perpetual conflict.

Communities are built on an anchor point—a story, if you will. From afar, a non-video gamer is confounded by what they see of video gamer conflicts; to this observer, they’re all just playing video gamers. So they utter the usual non-solution: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Arguments that try to combat phenomena like gatekeeping through a generalized narrative like “We’re all human beings...”, “Prick me, do I not bleed…”, etc. fall on deaf ears because they are not practicable narratives, but utopian ones. To command everyone to have respect for one another just because they are human beings is to command how people should be rather than thinking about humans as they are.

Gatekeeping at its most basic level is the reassurance that a particular community is in fact particular, rather than a quick lifestyle change. Say you lived in a twenty-person tribe along the Yukon River, which had developed a culture for dozens of generations. A stranger comes up and says, “I am one of you!” How could this stranger know all the nuances of your culture when they haven’t gone through the same local experiences as you? You’re cautiously open-minded; you want to welcome newcomers as guests, but you must figure out whether they are truly one of you. If they aren’t, why are they doing this? Why couldn’t this person go back to where they truly belong? It is not that you think your culture is superior, but that it works for those who have grown up for it, and you don’t have the time and patience to teach every random newcomer the ropes to become one of you.

Gatekeeping in its modern state is one that has been institutionalized by media, hierarchical social relations, and normalized prejudices, which is why people can be okay with a community calling itself the “PC master race”. Nowadays, gatekeeping can be the difference between you being able to access a part of the modern human experience or not—whether it’s getting a job, interacting with people, or entering shared activities. If you are not accepted by gatekeepers, you may not even be able to participate in their cultural realm.

This phenomenon has also become important to local communities: Because finances are the primary medium for geographical mobility, a person with enough money can move anywhere, despite their cultural incompatibilities with the local community. Corporations are people as well, and they are able to utilize their vast financial resources to move into communities in spite of the natives’ wishes, and can even destroy the local area, as permitted by the government. Gatekeeping is a natural reminder to passersby that a community was built off an anchor that may be contrary to the values and objectives of newcomers.