The Stigma of Gaming


I’m a gamer.  Always have been.  Probably always will be.  My first console was an NES, my most recent is an Xbox360, and I’ve owned almost everything in between.  I cut my teeth on Zork and Faxanadu, hit puberty with Final Fantasy Tactics and Ocarina of Time, and have hurled thousands of hours of my life at behemoths like Colonization and Starcraft.  I try to keep informed, too—I can list you all of the fall’s upcoming big name releases or describe, in great detail, the differences between Japanese and Western narrative style.  That’ll get me laid, right?

Wait a minute.  That’s an unfair joke.  It’s a common trope—gamers don’t get laid—but why does it exist?  Why am I part of a stereotype?  Why should a hobby make someone any less sexually appealing?  Nobody makes those kind of comments about people who watch twelve straight hours of football every Sunday or zone out in front of two movies a night.  So why does Law & Order: SVU make cheap jokes at my expense?

Videogames are swimming down the main stream now, there’s no doubt about that.  It’s no longer as embarrassing to say that you play games—people are starting to recognize that it’s okay for adults to enjoy them as an art form.  Partially because of casual offerings like Farmville and Wii Sports, partially because of a recent hipster obsession with retro videogames that has resulted in a wave of Nintendo 64s in every college dorm room across the country.  Few people will judge you for enjoying the occasional game of Mario or Halo.

But videogames aren’t mainstream.  Not really.  They’re still condemned by politicians and demonized by TV panelists who seem to think that Microsoft is responsible for everything wrong in the world.  Many still think it’s nerdy and childish to enjoy games—I won’t even get started on Roger Ebert’s assertion that videogames can never be art.  And no matter how many times I say it, I still feel a little awkward telling friends and family, particularly the older ones, that part of my job involves writing about videogames.  It just seems wrong, like a hobby I should have thrown away with my old action figures and Goosebumps books.

So why does the stigma still exist?  Why does the title World of Warcraft evoke such an odd mixture of pity and disgust from your average non-gamer?  Why are videogames considered a waste of time when it’s “productive” to watch movies or read books?  Why are hardcore gamers treated so much differently than hardcore film geeks or sports nerds?

Could be the media.  Hack TV shows like Law and Order portray the detriments of gaming so convincingly that some people can’t help but agree.  And of course, reporters always feel the need to mention videogames every time there’s a school shooting or other disturbing case of teen/twenty-something violence.  How often does gaming get a positive rap in other forms of pop culture?  When you see somebody playing RPGs in a movie, he’s probably not going to be the cool kid—in fact, he’s probably going to be a cliché nerd hacker with very few redeemable qualities.  Filmmakers and journalists and talk show hosts usually don’t play videogames; why would they bother trying to understand them?

If those outspoken videogame critics ever did bother to look into our culture, they’d see that beyond the stereotype, a good percentage of hardcore videogame fans aren’t sweaty-palmed nerds with social anxiety.  Most of the gamers I know have active social lives, healthy relationships, and a solid understanding of how to balance their lives beyond games.  Good luck finding those on TV.  It’s more entertaining to create skewed caricatures of gamers than it is to portray them honestly.

But maybe—and this is a hard thing to accept—maybe gamers have a part in the cultural divide.  Maybe we look down upon the uninitiated, scoff at those who haven’t experienced fantastic stories like Suikoden and Metal Gear Solid.  Maybe we stay within insular communities of fellow hardcore gamers and laugh at the casuals, those Neanderthals who play Madden and Farmville and wouldn’t even dream of buying a game with a Japanese title.  And sadly, some of us do fit the stereotype.

Well-respected games journalist Kieron Gillen equates writing about games to writing about travel, because entering a new game is much like visiting a new place.  But when you go someplace new, it’s easy to get lost.  It’s easy to be trapped by the surroundings of games and their culture and it’s easy to forget that what’s most important is what’s at home, what’s in the real world, what’s not in the videogame.  Games are just a hobby, just something to do for fun—when we don’t remember that, we will get stereotyped and criticized.  Perhaps fairly so.

Xenogears Screen Grabs

It’s too bad.  People who convince themselves not to bother with videogames are missing out on some great stories.  A game like Xenogears has emotionally affected me more than most films or books, and sometimes I wish that I could share that with the rest of the world.  I wish I could sit people down, show them BioShock, and let them experience how powerful a videogame can be.  I wish I could talk about my hobbies and passions without having to worry that people will think I never grew up.

Maybe one day I won’t be a gamer.  Maybe it won’t be necessary to make that distinction; maybe the term “gamer” will become just as redundant as “movie-watcher” or “book-reader.”  Maybe people will do their part to recognize the literary and artistic potential of videogames.  Maybe gamers will let them into the club.  Maybe I won’t have to brace myself for judging glares when I tell somebody that I, a full-grown adult, play videogames.  And maybe one day—hopefully soon—gaming will shed its stigma.