August 16, 2007 8:14 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
This column has touched before on how we gamers are a highly defensive lot. We’ve all struggled a long time to convince the uninitiated of gaming’s legitimacy, fending off accusations by tech-ignorant parent watchdog groups, censorship agencies, irate politicians and hyperbolic TV specials who have latched on to the hot new scapegoat.
Why are we so sensitive? After all, it’s not like it affects us personally if a large and stubborn percentage of society continues to misinterpret our favorite little pleasure. Nonetheless, ire en masse at the slightest provocation is the norm online. Just about everyone who follows, writes or discusses gaming on blogs, chat, forums or in online play has experienced that moment of hesitation wherein their opinion on a particular gaming issue differed from the popular sensibility and they wondered, should I say this? Everyone has experienced that zero-point when, finger hovering over the “submit” button, they weighed their desire to express a point of view against their dread at the landslide of flames and grief they’d invoke.
It’s quite likely that no individual among the plugged-in, ‘net-savvy core gaming demographic is a knee-jerk lunatic; rather, this is probably an expression of mob psychology. We’re one of the most vocal mobs in any industry – why? First, let’s take a look at some of the topics most likely to create a thousand-comment explosion of offended debate.
Are Games Art?
This question has birthed a legion of Ebert-haters around the Web, after the film critic provided his answer in the negative. Clive Barker stepped up, in proper forum-rant style, to challenge the assertion, N’Gai Croal joined the debate, and gamers were enervated. Snark abounded, the debate farming out from the largest blogs to the smallest. The ironic thing about the “Are Games Art” question is that much of the hype and debate surrounds not the answer to the question, but how fatigued most are of it. It’s a popular issue because to some, labeling the experience as “art” gives it a certain haute legitimacy. Whether or not we feel games are art, such a definition would make us defensible to outsiders; as if it could force them to treat us with the gravitas we feel we deserve.
Games are Too Violent
The fear of censorship has been tempered into a sense of outright entitlement among many. We’re often called to account in irrational ways to defend, justify or rationalize our enjoyment of certain game themes in ways that novels and film never see. Gaming being suggested as responsible for crimes of all stripes, even when no connection is apparent, has sensitized our defense mechanisms. The suggestion from our own enclaves that some games may actually be too violent, that some games encourage desensitization to brutality, or that we should, at the very least, examine our relationship to violence in games, is usually treated as high treason.
Games are Addictive
And in truth, why shouldn’t they be? The books that stay with us are the ones we couldn’t put down – why can’t it be so for games? Yet the word “addiction” has such a negative connotation in the social lexicon – there’s an implication of the abnormal, of the damaged and the strange. When we hear about real problems that make the resounding, automatic “no, they’re not” at the very least worth reconsidering – such as, for example, the epidemic of serious life impairment on the part of MMO addicts in China, it’s often shouted down – all for the fear, perhaps, that we ourselves will be paraded as cuckoos in the town square by the uninformed.
Games are Racist
Issues of racism tend to provoke heated, passionate discussion wherever they arise. It makes sense that people’s judgments of others, or their refusal to judge, are deeply involved in their sense of self; therefore, the attack or defense of a specific viewpoint on the subject is highly personal. It’s such a hot-button topic that you can expect a firestorm when you bring it up – even if you’re merely expressing curiosity or inviting discussion. Take, for example, the tornado of comments generated by Bonnie Ruberg’s Village Voice piece about whether there might be racism involved in Resident Evil 5. That trailer made quite a lot of people uncomfortable for reasons not always easy to articulate, but even exploring the issue in the public forum was utterly verboten; many writers discussed it, but often any subtle point they may have been trying to make was buried in the din around the fact that they mentioned it at all.
Games are Sexist
As with racism, sexism enjoys high sensitivity in society in general. The issue is complicated somewhat by the fact that, at least in its earliest incarnations, gaming was an enormously male-dominated industry, from the developer to the consumer. Why women were generally disinterested in technology in the 1980s is an entirely different topic, but in the current era, the relative anonymity of the Internet makes it easy to perpetuate the myth that women don’t play video games, or they only play a certain kind of video game. Add into that the Lara Croft factor, now with increasingly sophisticated breast physics, and any assertion that games feature objectification of women – or, for that matter, unrealistic standards for men – brings with it a dragnet full of gender politics. Visible women in the industry, like Assassin’s Creed producer Jade Raymond or G4’s Morgan Webb “enjoy” instant name recognition – and as much, if not more, exceptionally vocal and vitriolic ire than fandom.
My Console/Game Franchise is Better than Your Console/Game Franchise
It could be said that word of mouth sells far more games and game consoles than any marketing effort, especially in this increasingly connected era. Perhaps it’s because of this that the gaming community takes the constant public relations battle so personally – either they know that they’re a necessary member of a team whose success they’ve become invested in, or they enjoy the impression that they are. Either way, flag-carrying flamewars are a core element of the gaming audience, and not just on the Internet – walk in to any GameStop or similar store, and you’re bound to catch wind of some sort of debate behind the counter. All it takes to incite your own is to challenge the salesperson’s recommendation with one that you think is “better” and suddenly a customer service pro becomes a snarky bulldog.
So now we’ve identified a few of the most likely topics that set gamers off – but why the torches and pitchforks?
Firstly, the absence of face-to-face on the Internet contributes to the virulence of comments and arguments; that’s true for all online discussion and not unique to games. We don’t really know the people we’re speaking with – and as an extension, that makes it far easier to claim a closer connection than we’ve actually got to other people we don’t really know – say, the executives at Sony, or IGN’s Jessica Chobot (who’s now getting her own collectible figurine).
Second, the Internet makes it much easier to find the like-minded. Being a gamer in a non-gamer’s world can be a very lonesome experience, yet online and away from society’s eyes, we thrive. This means that the community of our peers exists online in a way that it may not necessarily in our normative lives; a fragmentation occurs, by which we blend with the squares in work, school and family by day, and then vent a backlog of unexpressed preferences and distastes as we bask in the glow of a computer screen when night falls.
It’s a rather lonely existence; a good many of us have adolescent memories of being relegated to the geek fringe, away from our cosmetics-toting or football-loving peers. That sense of isolation naturally breeds a desire for acceptance, and a resentment of the fact that we’ve a major interest that, unlike, say, reading, cooking or sports, doesn’t easily find a touchstone with the rest of society, at least as of yet. Issues like the games-as-art one are essential to gamers because many desire that recognition; the idea of art provides a useful fantasy by which we can imagine one day having our passion given the broader respect which we’ve always afforded it in our niches.
Despite the spread of casual games, virtual worlds and the rise in popularity of “geek chic” that’s made it more acceptable to admit that you’ve spent a couple hours in a digital fantasy, we still are niche. And even when the trend of making games a more faceted industry for a broader audience continues, we’ll probably retain that stigma for some time, that continual fear of being called out as hopelessly escapist, maladjusted or mentally ill – hence the intensity with which we react immediately to any classification of games as addictive, chauvinistic or provocative of violent behavior.
There’s even a backlash against the spread of casual games; it could be argued that the perhaps overzealous hostility with which very mainstream gaming efforts like Nintendo’s Wii Fit or an MMO based on Barbie dolls are met is born of resentment – you who once judged us, how dare you join us now? Like the other issues we’ve touched on, it’s an extension of the enormous personalization of gaming as a major aspect of our nature as individuals – something we’ve longed to share and are loath to change.
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer