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Opinion: Ceci N'est Pas Une Gamer
Opinion: Ceci N'est Pas Une Gamer
April 4, 2008 | By Douglas Wilson

April 4, 2008 | By Douglas Wilson
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[In this impassioned opinion piece, IGF finalist (Euclidean Crisis) and writer Douglas Wilson discusses why developer and gamers alike should step away from a militant defense of the artform, and move to a more inclusive view of politics, media, and the world.]

I can’t stand gamers.

No, that’s not quite true. I can’t stand the concept of gamers.

And no, I’m not some anti-gaming nutcase. Far from it, games have always been an important part of my life. As a child of the 80s, I grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. I watched my older brother play Sierra adventure game classics like Quest For Glory and King’s Quest.

When the Internet finally found its way to our house, I immersed myself in text MUDs and played real-time strategy games with my friends over TCP/IP. I’ve finished a hefty number of RPGs, including Final Fantasies I, IV, VI, VII, and IX (I gave up on V because, well, Squaresoft mailed it in on the storyline).In my heyday I could complete Paranoia Survivor Max on the highest difficulty. I was there at the first PAX, and I’ve attended E3 twice and GDC three times. Hell, I like videogames so much that I’m doing a friggin’ PhD in game studies.

The problem is, the “gaming community” has become a kind of cult. Organized around worship sites like Kotaku, 1UP, and Penny Arcade, the Church of Gamers congregates in Internet forums and online games, rallying against the Great Satan of Jack Thompson. Smitten with near-religious fervor over their hobby, these so-called gamers increasingly treat digital games as a devotional object, a thing morally good in itself.

It’s great to be a passionate about one’s hobbies. But when fans lose touch with reality, they also lose perspective on the more important parts of life. And in doing so, gamers ironically stifle innovation in the medium they so love.

Game Fandom And Perspective

I have a number of apolitical gamer friends who loathe Hillary Clinton, but who focus only on her harsh words against violent video games. For them, media policy seems to be a top political priority. And this isn’t just about Hillary.

Earlier this year, Barack Obama made a somewhat controversial comment about media consumption: “We're going to have to parent better, and turn off the television set, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children, and that's going to take some time.”

This sound-bite certainly seems questionable, although not entirely unreasonable. Nevertheless, my friend, a game researcher who I otherwise respect enormously, disgustedly declared, “Obama just lost my support.”

As a European citizen, my friend was half-joking, given that he can’t actually vote in the election. What alarms me is that he was also half-serious – that a candidate’s views on video games could alone determine one’s political support.

There are many good reasons to both laud and criticize Senators Clinton and Obama. But their views on videogames strike me as irrelevant. In 2008 we face a number of complex problems, including faltering economies, large-scale environmental change, viral epidemics, healthcare policy, genocides, terrorism, war, and souring foreign relations. No matter how you spin it, millions of human lives are at stake.

And yet, some gamers remain acutely concerned with what kind of regulations will be levied on future Grand Theft Auto sequels. This is not just outrageous, it’s altogether absurd.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should all give up games and go join the Peace Corps. After all, I’m not exactly a saint myself. Nor am I saying that we should altogether ignore issues of media policy. A candidate’s view on media usage could be indicative of their more general views on free speech. But I do know that it’s essential that we always keep the larger picture in mind and not fall victim to our overly narrow interests.

The Mass Effect Backlash

The recent controversy over Mass Effect demonstrates why the gamer mentality is so juvenile. In January 2008, self-help author Cooper Lawrence appeared on Fox News to deride the game’s now infamous sex scene. During this televised “debate,” Lawrence admitted that she had never even played the game.

The poorly masked smear on videogames was certainly reprehensible, but the real story was the way in which the gaming community chose to respond. Spurred on by the great echo chamber of the blogosphere, hundreds of gamers spammed Amazon with negative reviews and tags of Lawrence’s books.

In fact, the response was so strong that even The New York Times took notice, bemusedly remarking, “The Internet hath no fury like a gamer scorned.” The gamers’ intended effect was clearly irony (“I know all about this book but have never fully read it”), but the end result was a sad kind of hypocrisy. The gaming community had allowed itself to stoop to the angry, mud-slinging hijinx of its opponents.

This story is doubly sad because Cooper Lawrence is only a symptom and not a cause. Like Jack Thompson and even Kevin McCullough, Lawrence is clearly a fool, a nobody. The more that gamers flame her, the more undue attention she receives. The real culprit, of course, is Fox News.

The Mass Effect debacle is not just the story of how the mainstream media views video games. Rather, it is a more general cautionary tale against bad journalism and biased media coverage. Instead of using the controversy to channel their collective power against the deeply manipulative Fox News organization, gamers largely stuck to the limited domain of the relationship between video games and society.

Unable or unwilling to connect the dots to the bigger issues, the gaming community successfully pigeonholed itself, effectively muzzling its own resistance in the process.

Inside The Church Of Gamers

The Church of Gamers is not only morally problematic; it also ends up working against innovation in the medium. Imagine, for example, how ridiculous it would be if all television watchers identified as their own “Tubers” subculture. It’s a humorous hypothetical precisely because a vast majority of first-world citizens watch television, from the romantics who tune in for soap operas and sports fans who catch game highlights over breakfast, to the sci-fi fans addicted to the latest Joss Whedon serial and insomniacs who watch old gameshow reruns.

The very notion of the “gamer” implies that games are a niche hobby, only for the sufficiently devoted. This exclusivity is exactly what impedes games from attracting a more diverse player base beyond the white adolescent male stereotype.

Given that more and more people are beginning to embrace games, it’s finally time to dump the anachronistic “gamer” label. We longtime players of games need not feel sad about this change. Opening games to, well, everybody can only result in a wider selection of genres and ideas.

I think many gamers do have their hearts in the right place. Wil Wheaton’s heartfelt keynote at PAX 2007, for instance, touts the importance of sharing the gaming experience with others. The problem is that the gaming community pines for two fundamentally opposing realities – one in which they maintain their sense of community and another in which they spread games to the mainstream.

I therefore cringed when Wheaton made declarations like “Jack Thompson can suck my balls” and “all that matters is that we are gamers.” The rhetoric is certainly catchy, but it is still too divisive. That kind of talk sets up a dangerous dichotomy of “us” versus “them.” As the Jack Thompson skirmishes have shown, such a division only serves to further radicalize each side. Our operating concept must instead be “everybody.”

Conclusion: A Call To Non-Arms

Of course, my depiction of the militant gamer is itself a stereotype. For every crazed devotee to the Church of Gamers, there are videogame players who do community service, get involved with their church, or volunteer for their political party. But unfortunately, as the Mass Effect controversy demonstrates, the rabidly protectionist gamer is the public face that gaming community increasingly presents to the larger world.

Thus, this article is a plea to the gaming community - both developers and gamers - to stop talking about Jack Thompson; to hold itself to higher ethical standards than its critics; to stop falling into the victim complex; to resist exclusivity, and embrace players from all walks of life; to demand that gaming blogs stop the hysterical muckraking and misogyny; and most of all, to get more political, and not just about issues of games and media policy.

Initiatives like Child’s Play are wonderful first steps. But as enlightened citizens of the 21st century, it is our responsibility to push ourselves even further and locate our own personal interests within the larger constellation of global issues and challenges.

We avid players of digital games, there’s still hope for us. Just stop calling us “gamers.”


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Comments


Jane Fleck
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It is time that game designers stop assuming all players are driven to shoot everything that moves. Games that reward treachery, violence and anger are so over.

When there are games that appeal to kids and their moms, then the world will start to take all games more seriously. Check out www.clubponypals.com for more information.

norb rozek
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Hey, a smart person! Let's port "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even" to the 360 in his honor!

Chris Rock
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It seems pretty inevitable that being a part of, or feeling like you're a part of the game industry will change your political views. It still seems silly to base your vote entirely on that, but that's what people do in every other industry.



Maybe we should warn the American people of the growing Video Game Industrial Complex.

Anonymous
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Jane Fleck said: "Games that reward treachery, violence and anger are so over."



Evidently not true. Lots of people find "war" entertaining. The sooner we stop beating about the bush about that fact, the better.



"then the world will start to take all games more seriously. Check out www.clubponypals.com"



You just put your foot right in it with that domain name.

Anonymous
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You seem to attribute "gamer" to be dirty word. Are you horrified to be in a stuck in a subclass of society? Escpecially one whose actions are so reprehensible? By picking up a controller do you feel guilty that you are contributing to such an evil avid monster that is the word "gamer"?



Yes, friend, it is shocking to think that there are others that are flawed in this universe. And to be associated with such a loathesome type of people. That's just plain rude!



Nonetheless, you may want to reflect more on humanity and less on the pitance action of the masses. You might understand that the action of playing games just opens up a small window on humanity and that there is a bigger "problem" to consider.

Aaron Casillas
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The author states that they grew "As a child of the 80s, I grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. I watched my older brother play Sierra adventure game classics like Quest For Glory and King’s Quest” To me the 80’s means something completely diametrically opposed to this Newberry experience.



The 80’s were a time when the crack epidemic was in full effect, gang violence was everywhere. My alley was used as a haven for drug mind infested thugs, the cacophony of drug induced noised kept us awake at night and more than once funny or not at ten years old I had to go to my garage door and pretend I was a dog and bark to scare the crap out of them. Or rattle the garage door violently. Seems funny now, but sleep deprivation will drive you do some nutty things.



Besides gang violence and drugs, the 80’s also threw at my community of Santa Monica an incredible number of suicides amongst kids of the 80’s well into the 90’s. As well the number of kids who died violently in the real world just in Pico community.



Now I attribute many factors to why I didn’t end up in jail, on drugs or in a gang and instead stayed home, got addicted to reading, got addicted to art and finally with that momentum when to college to graduate with a 3.8 from UCLA. It had everything to do with Video Games and Comic Books. Those two phenomena kept me at home, imagining other worlds, becoming a hero, learning how to read maps, appreciating instructions, designs, art, unraveling weaved storylines…Finally at 16 getting my first job to support my game and comic habit. Although I always played games, I balanced this habit out with going outside and playing basketball, football or building a better cardboard fort (my grandmother taught me this skill just in case:).



Finally, there is much negativity being focused on games as a source of societies ills, it defocuses the real issues out there. Perhaps if our presidential candidates and representatives would play a little WOW or Madden Football they’d get some perspective on the future and real ills of our times.

Justin Nearing
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What about Nintendo's shift to the mainstream market with the Wii? The Wii's target audience isnt just the "gamer," they're effectivley trying to open up the market to new types of people. Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are also trying to expand the player demographic. What about WoW? It alone is expanding the market by the millions.



Developers dont have to make the change to from entertaining the gamer to entertaining everyone else, they've already made it. And they have to in order to stay competitive. Its a multi-billion dollar a year industry, the only way its going to get any bigger is by aggressivley finding new audiences.



Now I will admit that things like the Mass Effect "controvesy" are sad, but I dont believe that gamers should feel guilty for loving their games. It is a community filled with people with too much time on there hands with a tool that allows you to express your opinion anonymously- things like the Mass Effect controversy are inevitable. But these hardcore gamers are the staple of the industry, they're the ones that actually played the game, unlike what's her name and Jack Thompson.



The point is this: Know your audience. When you make a game, be very clear about the kind of person you are making this game for, and what that person would find fun. Stay true to your demographic and youll probably have a successful game.

Anonymous
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There are many, many things wrong with this article (the disingenuous 'cry for unity' being the most obvious). But what rankles me is the way that the writer hops on the Fox News bashing bandwagon to try to score a little ground with the audience he's clearly antagonizing.



Fox News is not unique or particularly noteworthy in its bias, except for the fact that it has a Conservative bias (which they admit) and the rest of the media has a Liberal bias. And Fox News is not unique or noteworthy for having Cooper Lawrence spout inanity about games on one of their programs. Jack Thompson was on CNN, for the love of Pete.



It's more than mildly ironic that the man pretends to be calling for unity and lack of divisiveness, then immediately jumps on the liberal bandwagon of bashing any news platform that doesn't run his favorite talking points.

Anonymous
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There is an important point to be made here, and that is that when you 'open up' anything you irreparably change it. The reason games have such a strong, passionate group of devotees is because we like games as they are, and many of us don't want to change them just to generate mass appeal. Not everything has to appeal to everybody.



If you don't like games as they are, there are many other professions you could try. Seems most people who want to change games really just want to morph them into something more like television and movies. Why, then, don't you go work in television or movies?

Anonymous
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I wish games were a cult, and we had our own mythos and we had churches and stuff. That would be pretty rad. Not to mention the big tax write-off for sitting around, eating nachos, drinking soda, and playing some games. Church of the Gamer, sign me up.

Anonymous
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This is the kind of article full of topics on which the author wanted to give his opinion. And when you are done reading it, you realize how empty it was.

Spare your time and eyes, for there are a lot of ways to get more relevant information. The web isn't a circus yet.

Anonymous
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It's quite ironic that you talk about engaging with the wider world yet seemingly don't know any film buffs, musos, computer geeks, petrolheads, workaholics or obsessive sports fans.

Gamers are no different, except for the triviality that the name misleadingly implies that no-one else can play games.

Glenn McMath
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I think the comments on this article in some ways prove the author's point better than the article itself. The rabid hardcore who follow the games industry really aren't doing it many favours, and need to mellow out. Your games aren't going anywhere. Just because the industry broadens to include more people doesn't mean you will be abandoned. As long as there are numbers to support it, games will be made catering to the hardcore. And if the numbers aren't sufficient for big companies, small companies and indies will fill the gap.



And everyone benefits from expanding the audience. The more people you have doing different things with the medium, the more potential sources of inspiration and innovation. It could be that the most casual mainstream friendly game happens to have a feature that could be re-applied or re-imagined to better hardcore games.



Instead of being so abrasive and exclusionary, gamers should really be spending more time and effort on nourishing their own community and building upon their sense of camaraderie. In doing this we'll come to realize that there are a damn lot of us, and we aren't going anywhere. Somebody's going to make games that appeal to us, and it doesn't hurt if someone else is making games for the rest of them.

Brandon Van Every
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I can't think of anything more ridiculous than a tiny handful of people sitting around pontificating about how MASSIVE BELL CURVES of humanity are supposed to behave in the public sphere, and what ultimate good these coda of behavior will do, if only they were followed. Proseltyzing on Fox, only to be whacked by an angry mob in the blogosphere, is called leveling the playfield of the Fourth Estate. The major networks know this and that's why they integrate e-mail responses into their programs nowadays. "Sports Fans" are a subculture, certainly in the view of those of us who don't follow sports and aren't keen on public taxes for sports stadiums and the like. But it's a friggin' huge subculture, which says all we really need to do is wait until we Gamers are similarly friggin' huge as to be inescapable. We need to all say nice things and sing kumbaya with those that don't understand us? Pah! Just wait for the older generations to die. It is already happening and one might as well complain about the human lifespan as chart the eddies and whorls of these meaningless tiffs that human beings have always gotten into. People are going to decide their Presidential candidates for *whatever* reason; be glad you're in a country where the people decide.


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