Every so often, the issue is raised that there is some kind of stigma attached to playing video games in modern society, citing the negative media depictions of the industry as the main evidence of this. It is claimed that some “gamers” aren’t comfortable talking about their hobby because people perceive it as a lesser one and simply resort to stereotypes and mockery while continuing to talk about “mainstream” pastimes like television, sport and pop music.
I think this sort of persecution and inferiority complex is misguided and conflates a number of more complex issues into one attempt to feel like a victim. It essentially divides down into the following points: firstly, that “others” aren’t interested in talking about, or listening to people talk about, games. Secondly, that public perception of games is based on tabloid misinformation, and thirdly that it is apparently unfair that people will not give games a chance because they are equivalent to other media that is “acceptable”. Of these, only the second is important, and it is simply a part of a far larger problem that has nothing to do with games. As a result, I will be beginning with it.
Misinformation about games in the mass media is generally based on objections about violence, and the alleged corrupting effect of mass culture on young people. While the current reasoned consensus is that mass media has no notable effect on behaviour, this view is not widely upheld in the media – because it is confused with the less clearcut question of can fiction alter ethics and viewpoints – which is more likely. Playing a violent game may not make someone inherently more disposed to violence but may make violence as a method of conflict-resolution more appealing. This is not easily understood or expressed, however – it is easier to say “games make you violent” despite this being inaccurate.
However, this has nothing really to do with games. It’s two major failings of the news media – firstly, a critical inability to report science accurately, hence the prevalence of “[thing] causes cancer” articles, and secondly a desire to promote conservative worldviews and oppose the popularisation of mass culture. Before games it was rock music, Dungeons and Dragons, horror films, anime, jazz and short skirts. Complaining, thus, about gamer shame because of ignorant news outlets is blinkering yourself to the real issue – the inadequacy of the news outlets in all fields. Someone whose complaint with a newspaper is that it stuck to outdated thoughts about the merits of Call of Duty when it may also have been complicit in phone-hacking, promoting other bigotries in its misrepresentation of the welfare state or climate-change denial does the gamer no favours.
What’s more is that the “scandals” about gaming have been for the most part toothless – politicians provide canned outrage to order, Something Must Be Done, and then nothing is. There has hardly been a gaming equivalent to Lady Chatterly’s Lover or Saved. If all a medium has to worry about from policy- and opinion-makers is the odd ignorant editorial, it comes off lightly.
Now, we move on to the next argument – that people are prepared to talk about other “dumb” media but not “intelligent” games. This is usually accompanied by glowing eulogies to games like Skyrim, Mass Effect, Shadow of the Colossus et al – games with epic stories and engrossing worlds which apparently non-gamers are missing out on as they talk about X-Factor or The Archers. I touched on this subject in a past article and came to the essential conclusion that it is almost impossible to talk about games in any interesting fashion with someone who is not a fan of them. Talking about “what you did” in Skyrim to someone who doesn’t understand why simply sounds like you pressed a few buttons and consumed some bad writing. Part of the joy of gaming – and the conversations that games bring about – is the personal aspect. Comparing your experience to someone else’s. If someone were to start talking in that way about a game I’d never heard of, I – even as a gamer – would switch off because it’s not interesting. There is no context to this. Two people who watched The X-Factor will have a common knowledge of what happened and swap opinions. Someone who has played Skyrim talking to someone who has not will simply be tossing out jargon and recounting a plot – as boring as someone talking about The X-Factor to me, who has never watched it.
This is not a matter of it being “shameful to talk about games” or people being churls happy to consume disposable media over great media; trying to have a conversation about the experience of any kind of media to someone with no means to contextualise it is inherently dull. Now if someone started a conversation about The X-Factor with me by showing me a clip from it and asking what I thought, I can engage with that – similarly if someone recommends a game by comparing it to one I’ve played. I could talk about the greatest novel ever written, but if I leapt straight in with questions about it and my conversation partner didn’t even know it existed, there would be no conversation.
Finally, the third point – closely linked to the first two. The general belief that someone is looked down on for liking games. Perhaps this does happen. Gaming, despite the best attempts of the specialist media to argue otherwise, is still comparatively niche in the way that self-identified gamers want it to be. They foresee some magic world where people talk about Mass Effect in the same way as The Wire, and e-sports are shown on Grandstand. Niche hobbies tend to be misunderstood no matter what they are, and misunderstood hobbies are the butt of jokes. I have a number of niche interests including fencing, HFT shooting and listening to folk music. I don’t feel like there’s any stigma in doing these if someone makes a joke about morris dancing, or assumes I hunt game. I know they’re not widely popular, do my best to explain politely and without jargon why I like them, and make people interested rather than seeing others’ misunderstandings as an intentional slight.
In essence, no distinction is being drawn between some people not liking games and being looked down on for liking games. Talking about any niche activity – or even a popular one – to someone who has no interest in it, and assuming they are interested, is generally considered rude. I personally believe a lot of “gamer shame” is not per se based on it being about games, but it being a response to a perceived desire to define oneself by a hobby and constant evangelism about it.
So, to conclude, the concept of gamer shame and the victim mentality it manifests as is based on a flawed foundation – the idea that the mass media misrepresents games is symptomatic of the mass media, and people are taking this to task on a level far above incoherent tirades about murder simulators and video nasties – until the media changes, it will continue to get things wrong. Similarly, when the media changes, politicians may become more rational and less inclined to appeal to those who believe everything they read in those reactionary papers. But that is a political pipe dream almost entirely inapplicable to trying to convince a non-gamer to try gaming. The second flaw in the foundation is that people uninterested in talking about games do this because they are games and not simply because they aren’t interested in a hobby they don’t practice. Trying to argue games are “more worthy of discussion” than other pop culture is entirely the wrong way to go about this.
All that remains is the more real disdain for any niche hobby or obsessive behaviour in society. However, it is a two-way thing. I find it hard to believe anyone does not have some activity they have no interest in, no desire to learn about and no sympathy for anyone who does it. In some of the most vitriolic “geek fandoms” this is sport, or drinking. In “mainstream” culture it is video games, board games and even listening to certain genres of music. Gaming is not special in this respect – it is not shameful but does not need any kind of movement to reclaim pride in it.