April 30, 2012

I Am Not A Gamer

I love video games. I say that outright since I want to establish that fact before moving on.Okay? good. Now stop calling me a 'gamer'.

I have played games for as long as I can remember; I have prognosticated about games, complained about games, and discussed the games 'they really should make' (my long time friend Gord and I still maintain George Lucas stole the idea for Star Wars: Rebellion from a late night conversation we had at my cottage. The outcome of George's version notwithstanding)

I have played the old Ultimas, Crusader: No Remorse, the even older Sierra adventure games (Codename: Iceman, and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist anyone?) on PC; I've played Infiltrator on NES. In my Xbox library I have a vast array of games, these days they lean towards the roleplaying genre, but there's Halo: Reach in there too.

I have an excellent memory and I can remember some of the best times I've had with old friends has had games at the center of them. I remember sitting at the computer (a 486 at this point I believe) playing Origin Systems: Strike Commander. If you don't know about Strike Commander, it was Origin's attempt to carry over the success of Wing Commander: Privateer  into a modern/near future setting. This time I was watching my friend Gord in a dogfight, a light on the instrument panel started flashing with an alarm; Gord half shouted "What is that?!" I thought for a second and said "I think it's a missile alarm." Gord then pulled hard left on the joystick as a virtual missile screamed by the canopy. We laughed hysterically at the near (virtual) death and still bring it up fondly to this day as the "Strike Commander Incident", that was almost 20 years ago.

With memories and shared experiences like that why then would I not want to be identified as 'gamer'? Because for my part I don't identify myself as a gamer; it is not the whole of my personality, and therein lies the problem by labeling a gamer: you negate the rest of the person. Take our fearless Editoratrix in Chief: LadySnip3r, a large part of her life is gaming but she's also a student, talented costume maker (check out her cosplay here) and a budding stylist (Console to Closet as featured on Kotaku, MSNBC, and Reddit

Don't get me wrong, the power of the shared experience and inclusion in a group is alluring and can be incredibly beneficial but as you place a label on someone you constrain them to the preconceived boundaries of that label. 

 Take the Penny Arcade Expo, it really is the Mecca for gaming culture now that E3 is on the decline; and the some 60,000 attendees really do represent a diverse cross-section of socioeconomic backgrounds with the common denominator being they all play games. What Pax East really did was crystallise a few thoughts for me: as much as the label of 'gamer' unifies and gives a sense of acceptance and belonging, it can be a curse. The mass media, and even the gaming media feeds us and the uninitiated a view of gamers that places us somewhere between The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy and a Jack Thompson/Anders Behring Breivik gamer archetype. We perpetuate it, even celebrate it in shows like The Big Bang Theory : a show that (with Halo nights and a thinly veiled World of Warcraft analogue) in trying to celebrate the geek subculture has turned it into a bastion of stereotypes.

A perfect example is the case of Jennifer Hepler: a Bioware writer that quite openly discussed that while she worked in the gaming industry, she didn't have the time or the inclination (for perfectly legitimate reasons) to play games. The interview (given six years ago) resurfaced in 2011 on Reddit as out-of-context excerpts  that created a flurry of posts to the point of death threats, calls for her to commit suicide, and the worst kind of fanboy rage. Most sensible gamers will say that the posters on her Twitter account and Reddit were a minority (and you'd be correct) but it doesn't matter to the wider audience: they are gamers and because so many have championed that moniker, as a whole we're now lumped in with them.

I used to be quite active on the Bioware Social Network, right up until the time community members there started finishing Mass Effect 3. Without too many spoilers, by and large the endings are considered a disappointment and lacked a feeling of closure we so wanted from the end of the trilogy. It's a sentiment felt by Darksnip3r and  myself, as well as many others; the difference? Darksnip3r and I haven't launched a spam campaign to get our fanfic ending made canon; nor have we started belligerent threads on the Bioware Social Network, nor have we tried to get Bioware and Electronic Arts sued for false advertising. These efforts have garnered mainstream media attention and like the Jennifer Hepler incident have cast a negative light on gamers as whole; portraying us as entitled players who are having a tantrum because they didn't get their way.

As big a frustration as it is, the stereotype is long entrenched into North American culture and like all preconceptions long kept, it is hard to change. That being said, actions taken by people like those in Hepler incident and the more mild reaction to Bioware's intellectual property not agreeing with their own vision of how Commander Shepard should go out aren't helping our case. 

 I'm not saying don't express yourself or your opinions; I would never say be ashamed of playing video games, or going to conventions (I'm not, I've explained what Pax is enough to laymans). What I am saying is that gaming is not a counterculture; it's definitely a subculture with its own language, code of social behaviour, fashion and peripheral works of art (one that I am happily embrace) but there's no revolution here. The point I'm meandering towards is that playing games, as entertainng as it is and how beneficial the subculture can be to develop a sense of belonging is, simply put an activity people do, not a totality of a personality. 

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