“Are you ever frustrated with a hobby because of its community?” That’s the question a friend posed to me in a text yesterday afternoon. I responded in the only way I knew how, and that was with the truth.
The inquiry had to be rephrased, though. Have I ever been frustrated with a profession because of its community? Without a doubt. Journalism has been full of morally dubious folk for decades. Computer science seems to be full of nothing but sociopathic narcissists. And gaming. Well…
Of course, rounding up the entirety of the worldly populations that consider themselves even tangentially attached to these rings of interaction is undoubtedly full of folly. The problem is that the no matter how good the majority of a community is, the bitter, misguided, malevolent, cynical, and plain ol’ dickish minority will always be far more vocal.
There’s a line in Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, in a debate about how to manipulate someone’s motivations, says, “I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.” That is categorically false. It’s just that there is a greater possibility for a singularly more potent positive experience. Given two memories of commensurate effect but one is traumatic and one is endearing, the former will take precedence.
This piece from the New York Times puts it quite succinctly: “you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.” And that’s kind of the problem in the world of video games. In the year of 2014, we lost. A lot. And do you know what we found? Like, some pretty good action adventure games. So guess which one is going to stick with us.
The most important thing we lost was a surging and ever-present common enemy. (It’s something well displayed in an episode of 30 Rock called “Winter Madness,” if you get a chance to watch it.) Without some single point to rally against, lightning will strike everywhere. Since Death Race of 1976, video game developers and fans have been fighting against the general public just to exist.
We’ve had some close calls, too. Only in 2011 did finally the court system step in and overrule the ban on sales of violent video games, declaring once and for all they fall under the First Amendment. Seems like a pretty obvious decision to make, but that took six years to sort out.
And before that, there was Jack Thompson, the unequivocally villainous foe of the entire industry from 2003 to 2008, at which point he was summarily disbarred by the Supreme Court of Florida. But in that brief five years that felt more like forever, he wreaked havoc, spewing headliner quotes like calling video games “murder simulators” and prejudiced imperative statements like “get a life” to adults playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Luckily we have Adam Sessler to deal with that. But the hazy stream of disinformation slowly dribbling out of Thompson’s mouth more than just stuck with the public; it seemed to build on top of a foundational impression the public had of gamers already. Socially inept, basement-dwelling losers who hate the sun, fear girls, and are unquestionably sexually repressed (or deprived) men. If you played games, you were this person.
Most likely, there is someone out there who fits this bill. That’s just how things work. Either by fulfilling some minimum of random draws or by growing into this stereotype through social pressure, there is someone just like that who plays games. But the problem is that there was no one to defend against this stigma save for those under it, which is kind of like someone saying “but I’m not a liar,” perhaps the best way to convince someone you’re a liar.
The truth is that even from the very beginning, the types of people playing video games were incredibly diverse. There’s no way it couldn’t be. How else did word spread about them? They started out in a bar, after all. But then financial and social investments became necessary, and we were put in a corner. A single corner containing a myriad of personalities, faiths, and politics.
And that’s how we fought back. From our one corner, we rebelled. It was nice, holding hands as we charged forward into the inevitable future where either we were accepted or everyone realized they were gamers too. And that mostly happened. By way of terrible but addictive games like FarmVille and less terrible but equally addictive games like Angry Birds made available through Facebook and mobile devices, everyone became a gamer. They had no choice but to accept us.
But then it stopped being a singular “us.” There was no more “us.” That stereotype—that mythical demographic of Mountain Dew-chugging, Doritos-munching shut-ins dissolved and made way for the truth we’d been sitting on for so long: we’re just people. And like any group of people, there is no possible way we’d ever agree on anything—not politics or beliefs, let alone pizza toppings—without a common enemy.
Slowly the structs of make-believe dropped from around us, like a quickly ending game of KerPlunk. And this year, all the marbles fell. Gamergate, a modern exercise in tangible absurdism, descended upon us and made all of us look like fools. Sure, there are the few that genuinely pursue the cause as a question of journalistic ethics, but the majority of it is some grotesque grasp at maintaining bigotry, sexism, and pseudo-activism abuse.
Delving into the history of the whole affair isn’t worth it at this point. You’ve surely kept up with it, willingly or not. (You couldn’t open Twitter or read a gaming site without finding some words about it.) But it is embarrassing to be sure. The rest of the world openly discusses issues regarding LGBT, male privilege, etc., but our industry still hides behind a facade of name-calling, juvenile pranks, and personally affecting threats.
But here’s the thing. We lost a common enemy, but we gained clarity. More importantly, the rest of the world gained clarity. “Gamers” is a fruitless concept. We’re just people, and some people happen to play games, just like some people happen to watch movies or read books or listen to music.
Granted, this was not a great year to have an industry’s quality level basically implode on itself, but the potential stored in this move is momentous. We may have lost $50, but we’re about to gain much, much more.
So long as we survive the climb back up.