Late Monday afternoon, past that magical time of day when no more work is getting done, our office secretary pulled up a promo for an upcoming show she wanted me to see. An advertisement for a video game played first. Scowling, she turned to me and said, “Nick, you don’t do any of that video game stuff, do you?”
My name is Nick and I am a gamer. I’ve been one for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of trips to Dairy Queen with my dad to get a Reese’s blizzard, then walking across the street to a shop that had a Donkey Kong arcade game. Our first home game console, the newly released Nintendo Entertainment System, soon followed. Nintendo introduced a parade of iconic characters still with us nearly 30 years later: plumbers Mario and Luigi, heroes Link and Princess Zelda, insatiable puffball Kirby, badass lady bounty hunter Samus, among others. That was it. I was on the path to being a gamer.
Whit wants me to address misconceptions about gamers. Let’s start with the basics.
Gamers are not all Cheeto-dusted neckbeards more afraid of the sun than vampires (real ones, no Cullens allowed). Gamers, like most groups of people, are actually quite diverse. Sports titles made up three of the top ten best-selling games in 2014 (Madden NFL 15 at #2, NBA 2K15 at #7, and FIFA 15 at #9). Call of Duty, a franchise with a massive active military following, placed twice (#1 and #10). Sports fans and soldiers are not exactly the demographic called to mind when someone mentions gamers, but those are the numbers. Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon – there are Minecraft shirts, backpacks, lunchboxes, toys – and is practically just Legos in video game form. It encourages creativity and design, promising that you can do and build anything if you have the imagination for it.
For the rest of us, the nerds in the room who like fantasy and sci-fi, games represent a way to play out the kinds of stories we loved growing up. I loved Star Wars as a kid, and Shadows of the Empire on N64 was my jam. Instead of just being a bystander in someone else’s grand heroic story, games like Mass Effect offer you the chance to be the hero. It’s time to slay the dragon, save the galaxy, fulfill your destiny! Sci-fi and fantasy are inherently hopeful. That appeals to nerds like me.
I mentioned above that gamers are diverse. I’m going to take that a step further. We may not call ourselves gamers, but nearly everyone games. The New York Times reported in 2014 that women made up 48% of the gaming population. Games like The Sims, Candy Crush, and Just Dance are wildly popular. Mobile games are the fastest growing game market and are offering more and more experiences every year. But even then, women make up about a quarter of players for mainstream games like Battlefield. As a whole, video games are offering an increasing segment of the population a fun distraction. And while sure, lovingly lording over a family in The Sims isn’t quite the same thing as embarking on an epic adventure in Skyrim, they’re not all that different either. Most of us are probably gamers whether we embrace the label or not.
Second, let’s address the idea that gamers are anti-social. I’ll start with an anecdote, shared by a friend of mine. Sid Meiers, the brains behind the empire-building Civilization franchise, was initially not going to include a multiplayer option for his game. “If you had friends,” he opined, “you wouldn’t need to play computer games.” Sid was wrong, of course. My friend, a huge Civilization fan, was introduced to the game by five or six other boys all crowded around the same computer and the series has gone on to have one of the largest, most active multiplayer communities around. In fact, this friend bought me a copy of the latest Civ game, eager to share his passion and play together.
Video games are, and always have been, social affairs. My enjoyment of games stems from playing Super Mario Bros with my dad. We sprawled out on the floor and took turns playing. When the famous “you died” music kicked in, we’d make fun of each other for falling into a pit or touching the Goomba. Years later, when N64 allowed up to four players at a time, half the neighborhood piled onto a couch to play Mario Kart, Mario Party, Goldeneye, and Super Smash Brothers. Arguments broke out over things like who got to be first player or who got to play as Toad while wild (and unfounded!) accusations like “you’re looking at my screen” or “you unplugged my controller” were slung.
That was the 90’s. Now those neighborhood kids have grown up and have couches of their own. Games grew up too. Instead of playing Mortal Kombat or Halo with a friend on your couch, now you might play separated by thousands of miles over a headset, or sitting in front of your computer on Skype or Ventrilo. Using a headset is not a sign of anti-social behavior when it’s a means to maintain friendships and relationships over the course of time and challenge of distance. What is more social than wanting to stay close to those you care for?
Even MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) like World of Warcraft, often the most looked down on of games, are designed from their core to be social experiences. They are built to require coordination and collaboration and the vast majority of people who play started playing to play with friends. When the aptly named “Team Awesome” killed The Lich King in World of Warcraft, the team consisted of myself, several real life friends, and your very own Observant Turtle (she played a mage). These games have a reputation for being addicting, and they can be. All things in moderation, as they say. But a huge part of the reason these games can be so addicting is because of the relationships formed with the people you play with. There’s a sense of obligation, or not wanting to let your friends down. It’s a very human motivation, if sometimes misplaced.
You may say, “Nick, I’m not talking about well-adjusted people who like video games as a hobby! I’m talking about people who do nothing BUT play video games!” Okay, that’s fair. They exist, but they’re a small minority. 59% of Americans play video games. Half of all households own two game consoles. Six in ten people you meet play games! Heavens, surely we’re not all maladjusted! I’m a gamer, but I’m also a healthcare professional, a former teacher, a husband, a film lover, and time traveler. Writing off all gamers just because some of them are basement dwelling proto-nerds or manchildren is a thoughtless stereotype and an exercise in foolish overgeneralization. People are awesome! Don’t let a hobby scare you away (unless that hobby is like, cannibalism).
Do you or your significant other play video games? Mobile games count too!