What does it mean to be a gamer in the 21st century? I’m not talking about what type of games you prefer, like divisions between video, computer, tabletop, war, etc. I’m talking about what it means to be a gamer in the modern environment and culture. Popular culture, Hollywood, the Internet, etc. have created a brand new environment with new norms, manners of communication, and paths toward interaction. The new gaming culture seems to be focused on a lot more than just gaming… for good or ill.
I always thought of myself as a gamer. I started playing RPGs in elementary school, even with the social and religious stigma associated with them. Computer games filled my first PCs and my friends had Nintendos that I happily joined them on. High School saw the start of the CCG craze and complex tabletop board games (like Talisman). All through college and well past, gaming was my hobby; I owned entire libraries of RPG books, entire collections of CCGs, at least a few playable war-game armies, a couple of video game systems, and spent way too much time gaming online. Even today I divide my free time between an MMO, offline computer or video games, a D&D session or two, and the occasional war-game battle.
You would think I’m a big geek, nerd, etc. with the amount of time I dedicate to gaming. I’m as knowledgeable on the differences in World of Darkness lines and editions (up until I stopped playing/buying) as I am on the latest X-Wing Miniatures FAQ. Yet somehow, I find myself lost and confused when I converse with others that I thought were on the same level as me. There seems to be a line I haven’t crossed, where just owning and playing games (even for almost 30 years) are apparently the signs of a novice or dabbler.
I know little about the history of gaming. I recognize major names (Gary Gygax, Sid Meier, Richard Garfield, etc.) and their general contribution, but I couldn’t tell you anything about their work or personal history… let alone their interpersonal relationships and drama. I know many of the big company names (Wizards of the Coast, BioWare, Games Workshop, etc.) including their main products, a little bit of background, and the biggest complaints about them… yet I couldn’t tell you their history or any insider gossip. I become so confused when I see people arguing over edition wars, original author intent, intra-company drama, inter-company politics, etc… particularly when many of those arguing weren’t even in grade schoolat the time of these events, let alone participating in them. To me, they look like people who argue over the best translation of the Bible or what the “true meaning” of a passage is, as if they can somehow glean a universal truth from words written in an era long ago to support their own specific interpretations… missing the whole theme of “be excellent to each other and party on”.
Controversies? What controversies? It’s a game, not a social or political issue. I’m not saying games can’t have an influence (and be influenced) by cultural concerns. Misogyny, racism, etc. are major problems in society and they can certainly be perpetuated by media, including games. These are all important issues that are not solely limited to gaming but pervade many aspects of society. Yet to argue over who wrote a game, who helped design it, whether someone involved was unethical, etc.? It’s a friggin’ game! Short of the money exchanged ending up in the hands of hate groups, child molesters, or terrorists, who cares? You could tell me that Mel Gibson contributed to a revised edition of White Wolf’s “Charnal Houses of Europe: The Shoah“, and if I was interested in running a dark game involving ghosts of the Holocaust, I would still buy it. Why does it matter if someone used relationships or politics to push their agenda and/or game? If Barack Obama used his position to create an economic game that wasn’t boring and required alcohol, then it might be worth it for those who like that sort of thing regardless of political stance.
At what point did being a “gamer” cross a line from simply sitting around and playing games to regular debates on the history, politics, and drama of the gaming industry? When I was younger we went to the store, bought what sounded cool, and came back and tried it out. The worst debates were over rules-lawyering, computer game bugs, or who ate all the Doritos… not whether a company was out to make a quick buck or an author was pushing their social agenda. If we didn’t like a game’s theme or play style we just stopped playing it; we didn’t go on endless rants and social campaigns to destroy the “offending” product. Who cares if Jess Heinig sucked Mark Rein•Hagen‘s dick, all for the developer position with Mage: the Ascension? If you liked his changes to the game then play it… if you didn’t, then don’t and/or play the original; you don’t go around being loud about it and trying to ruin either’s career or life. (Warning: All blow jobs mentioned in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual fellatio at White Wolf Publishing is purely coincidental.)
I blame a lot of this on the Internet, that amazing tool that has brought the world to our fingertips. In the earlier days the primary way to communicate was through personal interaction or the occasional message board or BBS. Conventions were the biggest chance for gamers to exchange ideas, no matter how critical, but the ideas were still limited. If someone wrote something controversial or inflammatory, it only went so far… and would rarely hold much water in these face-to-face interactions. Now, however, millions of people can remain anonymous (or at least distant), spouting opinions they’d never be brave enough to say otherwise. It’s not enough to just think something is bad, you have to explain through hyperbole and with venom to try and sway others to your subjective perception of what’s “good”.
Worse, these ideas remain on the Internet, collecting followers that used to be separated by great distances, until they become almost political or religious movements united by their chosen beliefs regarding games and gaming. In the past, if you had that one socially inept guy that had been ostracized from most of the D&D games in town because of his poor behavior, he remained ostracized. Maybe he’d be invited to the occasional gathering or he’d find a game in a nearby town, but he always remained “one of those gamers”. Now, however, that same guy has found hundreds or thousands like him across the country, writing blogs where they espouse their gaming ideology. Suddenly you have an entire organization (informal or not) that encourages and reinforces the same poor behavior of “those gamers”, affecting others enjoyment in the name of their gaming jihad.
These days I’m not even sure if I want the gamer tag, let alone whether I’m worthy of it. Too many times it seems to be a gamer you have to make it a lifestyle, not a hobby. If you don’t go full bore, studying as if you were earning a graduate degree in these pursuits, you’re somehow left behind or looked down upon. Like my enjoyment of science-fiction, the occasional comics series I collect, or even watching a favorite TV show… these are supposed to be escapes. If I wanted useless (and oft-distorted) history, gossip, controversy, and debate, I’d turn on FoxNews.
All I really want to do is play or talk about a game without it devolving into edition wars or social arguments. If that makes me not a gamer, then I suppose it’s better than being associated with the behavior mentioned above.