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Opinion: The Myth Of The "Gamer" As Basement Dweller

Opinion: The Myth Of The "Gamer" As Basement Dweller

November 11, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

November 11, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield
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[In this editorial, originally printed in the November 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield discusses the negative stereotypes that plague the medium, and what we can do to increase awareness of games in the mainstream to eliminate these stigmas.]

Recently I was talking to my mother about the game I’m working on. I had told her about the new types of characterization I was going for, and the messages I was trying to imbue into this universe, and she was intrigued. She said she was proud of what I do, but always makes sure to tell her friends that I “don’t work on those rape games.”

What did she mean by this? “You know, the games where you go around raping Native American women,” she explained.

At some point in time, some sensationalist news story informed my mother about the controversial 1982 Atari 2600 title Custer’s Revenge, which most current game players have never even heard of.

This, unfortunately, is the kind of image that sticks in peoples’ minds, and instills in them a negative stigma, even if they don’t know very much about games in general. The Hot Coffee scandal was similar in that way—completely blown out of proportion, while leaving an indelible scar on the minds of those who don’t play or really understand games.

It’s not really her fault. She understands games better than do her friends, and that’s part of the reason why she feels the need to make this clarification.

But there’s definitely a social issue at work here that makes her feel that way, and I realized that it’s up to people like me, and other game developers, to change this thought pattern—one person at a time, if need be. We should start with ourselves, while we’re at it.

You Seriously Play Video Games?

I’m making a generalization here, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a lot of people you meet for the first time aren’t super impressed when they hear that you work on video games.
How often, when asked what you do by a member of whichever gender you’re attracted to, have you taken a little pause before figuring out how to position “game developer” in the most appealing light?

Maybe you’ve done this with a family friend or relative, as well. This may be part of the problem. So long as we continue to allow the playing of games to be considered fringe or marginalized, the longer the stereotypes will perpetuate.

We, the decent human beings of the game development community, needn’t feel ashamed to get excited about a Sonic the Hedgehog revamp—most people get excited about movies, novels, or bands they like coming through town.

Why should games exist in a second tier of entertainment? If someone else can get excited about Twilight, of all things, I can anticipate The Last Guardian. But I, and many other people I know, still do feel some trepidation or embarrassment when talking about this particular hobby, and like they always say, change begins with you.

Subterranea

As MMO, social, and multiplayer games become more popular, and games become less of a solitary experience, the old joke about gamers living in their parents’ basement becomes less plausible. We’re almost always connected to people when playing games on a console or PC now, even if we’ve simply signed into Xbox Live.

Unfortunately, I feel that we players and creators of games perpetuate these self-deprecating ideas about games being an inferior or childish hobby, even as we argue for its advancement as an art form.

In conversations with those outside the industry, we may say "I know this is how game players are, but I'm not like that." This allows us to go on the defensive, putting ourselves down before the other party can get the chance. We distance ourselves from a negative stereotype, but simultaneously enforce it.

People that fit the basement-dweller stereotype do exist, but they’re not the majority. The trouble is they’re often the most vocal. What I’m suggesting is an (admittedly somewhat silly) call to action for people to make their significant others, family members, and estranged school chums understand why games matter, why what you do is important, so that perhaps they’ll learn for themselves that game players and developers can be normal people. Maybe even mildly awesome people.

The Shrinking World

Maybe all these folks need is a subtle nudge in the right direction. The number of people playing Facebook, casual, and mobile games is increasing rapidly.

Many of them don’t consider themselves game players, inherently, but with the right coaxing can probably be made to realize they’re essentially doing the same thing we do. While they may not want to sink 70 hours into Fallout 3, they might spend some 20 hours playing Peggle during their commute. And how different is that, really?

Games are becoming more and more a part of global culture, but stereotypes still persist. The more we weed them out of the social subconscious, the fewer sensationalist stories we’ll see about mainstream “raping games,” and the less often our moms will say “you do what for a living, again?”


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