People who play video games have been shaped and affected by the popular perception of that medium. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I’ve been playing games since I was capable of conscious thought. I’ve grown up with this; it is an indelible part of who I am. The popular perception of video games and “gamers,” then, applies to me and always has; the scare quotes signify that it’s a term that I don’t really care for, as I may have mentioned in previous columns, but it’s the most appropriate term for the concept.
To be fair, that’s less obvious today than it was years ago. It didn’t take young adult me long to realize that gaming isn’t something you want to be associated with if you plan to get ahead in life. I learned to keep my hobby to myself. I learned to avoid taking handhelds on public transportation – you’re allowed to game on a cell phone, but busting out a 3DS immediately marks you as a “gamer.” I learned that video games were something I shouldn’t mention on the first date…or the third date…or even the fifth date in some cases. I cleaned up the living room of my apartment and moved most of the consoles to a back room; it’s okay to have an Xbox sitting around and visible, but you probably don’t want an Xbox, PS3 and Wii on display the first time someone comes over so I left that back room closed.
Eventually, if friends and romantic pursuits showed interest of their own accord, I’d start to open up about the hobby a little, but the depths of my passion for gaming were something I kept to myself, close friends and long-term relationships.
Why did I feel the need to go so far to conceal something I love so much? Because I was ashamed of it and aware that people look down on the hobby and those involved in it. What was the value of hiding this? Because by hiding it, I was improving the chances that I’d be seen and addressed as a person rather than a “gamer.” Most importantly, and the actual issue I’m interested in today: how are we taught to look at video games and the people who play them?
For the record, I don’t intend for this to be a series where I search for sources and dig up examples of every claim that I make. In this case, I don’t think that’s necessary. Look at the way mainstream media handles video games and I think it’ll largely speak for itself. Through what I imagine was a combination of licensing issues and simple ignorance of the subject matter, growing up I always saw my hobby portrayed via joystick-centric consoles that played what looked and sounded like a takeoff of Space Invaders; note that I was born in 1986 and wasn’t really old enough to comprehend what I was saying until a few years later, so this is around the early to mid 1990s. This wasn’t an isolated portrayal, either, and video games in general were handled this way until fairly recently where the generic game of choice has shifted from Space Invaders to Call of Duty.
More relevant to this discussion is the way that the people who play games themselves were portrayed. In the eyes of the mainstream, when we talk about those people we talk about an archetype: the Manchild.
The Manchild is male, white, cis, straight, probably in their late teens to mid-twenties today (though ten to twenty years ago it was rare you’d ever see anyone but a child portrayed playing a video game.) They’re socially awkward, they’re rife with hygiene problems and they don’t know how to interact with the opposite sex. They are very likely unemployed and even more likely to live with their parents. As the medium has matured and the mainstream has grown more accustomed to it, the common portrayal of the Manchild began to include anger issues to further represent a disconnection from the world at large and to cement their status as an undesirable. The Manchild is, in short, an iconic example of failure in the eyes of society; they have failed to contribute or even so much as fit in. They are lazy, slovenly and angry. They are What Is Wrong With Kids Today. By association, directly or indirectly, their failure is attributed to video games.
This isn’t to say that the Manchild is a myth. He exists. There’s a little bit of the Manchild in a lot of people in “geek culture;” there’s a lot of him in others. The incessant pedantry and negativity that defines “gamer” communities is a mark of the Manchild. “Well actually” is the Manchild’s mating call, perhaps, which may explain why he doesn’t mate, and “gamer culture” at large lopes from one manufactured outrage to the next, howling obscenities and slurs all the while. Hygiene problems, awkwardness and difficulty with social interaction are stereotypes for a reason; one trip to a gaming convention or business conference will make that fragrantly clear. Further, to deny that bigotry and exclusion are hallmarks of many gaming communities is to be willfully blind; this is so entrenched that it makes up a significant reason I don’t identify with the hobby.
As a young man who’s passionate about video games, then, this is what you are contending with in the eyes of your peers. The moment it becomes clear that you’re a “gamer” – again, I’m loath to use the term because of the connotations associated with it and it’s not a term I use to refer to myself – it’s almost inevitable that you will be conflated in their eyes with the Manchild, because video games and the Manchild are inextricably related in the eyes of the mainstream. The stereotype and the reality build on one another; how many people came into a gaming community expecting a welcoming cadre of fellow fans and were then pushed out by negativity, sexism or bigotry? During my first-ever match of an online game in little-known RTS NetStorm: Islands at War, 11-year-old me was cursed out and berated by an angry allied player after I dared to discuss strategy. This was my first interaction with “gamer culture.” What does that say?
Even today in 2018, you are far better served keeping this particular interest to yourself if you want to be taken seriously. Save your passion for the Internet and, if you’re lucky, the close friends who share it. Nobody wants to date a Manchild, after all; they’re unattractive and lack hygiene. Nobody wants to hire one; they’re lazy and have anger issues. You are doing well in life if people are surprised when they discover that you’re into video games. Understand what they expect you to be and then defy those expectations by distancing yourself from them.
This has been the case for my entire life, and I can look back and think of multiple occasions where I’d have been better served by just keeping my mouth shut about video games; in fact, I think they consist of the vast majority of times where the topic came up at all. Regardless, video games have, in my experience, been a topic that’s better left undiscussed, and passion for other topics – I gravitated to independent film, for instance, eventually developing a love for the festival circuit – tends to be far better received. I was fortunate to learn early on that, rather than “gamers,” my time spent gaming was best spent with friends, and that when we went out video game discussion would be off the table.
In any case, that’s not to say that every portrayal of games in the media belied such distaste. With that, we finally arrive at our actual topic: Super Mario Bros. 3, released in Japan in 1988. Much has been made of the excellence of Super Mario Bros. 3 and there is little I can add to that body of work. Instead, I’d like to talk about The Wizard.
The Wizard was a 1989 film that’s beloved by “gamers” of a certain age for doing a better job of representing video games as they actually were. It follows several kids who go on an adventure to a video game tournament, tying in themes about family, loss and grief and blah blah something or another. I wasn’t interested in the plot and I’m told it’s a bit hackneyed so I wasn’t missing much. No, I was interested in Super Mario Bros. 3, which is portrayed for a few glorious minutes toward the end of the film and which wasn’t released in American territories until late 1989.
Here was a film I was watching with my parents that actually showcased a video game. A real video game. The character playing Super Mario Bros. 3 in the film even showcases a level-skipping trick of the sort that I loved in the games I owned, a trick that would prove to remain effective once I had my own copy. This was still a 1989 children’s film about video games, so it was still enormously condescending toward the topic, but even despite this gaming was treated with a shocking level of decency and accuracy. The fact remained that I was able to go to a film, see an actual video game (not Generic Invaders) on the silver screen and not have the whole affair slathered with implied shame and the stink of failure.
That wasn’t common back then. It’s still uncommon even today. The Manchild has grown and changed his sweat-patched T-shirt, but he’s still the poster child for video games. He used to sit glaze-eyed in front of a television, joystick in hand, rotting his brain as we were all told video games were wont to do. Years later he wasted his life on MMORPGs, barricading himself in his room and only opening the door when Mom called for dinner. Today he sits in front of a monitor or television, Xbox controller in hand, screaming in fury at invisible opponents over the Internet. His looks are different (his weight is not) but what he represents hasn’t changed. He’s still what you don’t want to be. He’s still what you’ll become if you spend too much time with video games.
He is, in the eyes of the mainstream, me. My education, my career, my relationships and the long and twisted path that’s brought me here would be washed away by the pit-stink of the Manchild and the stain he’s left on the hobby. That’s an association with tangible consequences that I consciously work to avoid. When I started college, moved out of my parents’ house, got my first job, began dating, learned to exist in the world around me rather than assuming my presence would be a bother…on some level, each victory, no matter how small in retrospect, was a step away from the Manchild. The Manchild is a template for the kind of person I strive not to be. Angry; ostracized; impotent.
The Infernal Accountant Mage believes the pen is mightier than the sword…well, depending on how sharp the pen and sword are. A child of the ’90s and a prolific writer, he strews his work about like Legos made of words, just waiting for your brain to step on them. He enjoys a devilish challenge, so when it comes to talking about some of the more difficult games out there, you might just run into the Infernal Accountant Mage. Some advice: hold on to your soul around this guy, and don’t sign anything. Read more at popzara.com
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