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An American Gamer in France

by Bonnie Ruberg - August 4, 2005, 12:31 pm PDT

Looking at the effects of society, media, and big business on the cultural presence of video games on either side of the Atlantic.

As American gamers, it’s not so unusual to stop and think about what gaming culture is like in Japan. Japanese top-ten charts, reports of “wacky” products, and stories of extreme fanaticism often make our video game news. On the social ladder of the gaming world, Japan still stands, if precariously, one rung above the United States. We look up to Japanese video game culture in many ways, not so much because we want to emulate it, but because we recognize its uniqueness. It gives us something to judge our own habits against. Slowly, through the lense of video games, we can begin to recognize broader issues: society, consumerism, history - both Japan’s and our own. In looking outward, we gain perspective and, ultimately, the ability to turn the objective eye away from others and onto ourselves.

Well, the ladder of video game hierarchy certainly has more than two rungs (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a very useful ladder), and if Japan holds the place above ours, it’s Europe that rests one step below. Yet, despite their proximity, we rarely consider the video game culture of Europeans, though they have their eyes on us in a manner that mirrors our gaze toward Japan. Just as the gaming presence in Japan differs greatly from our own, so it does in Europe. There’s a lot we can learn just by putting down our controllers and glancing across the pond.

First, a few things to keep in mind: When we say video game “culture” in this instance, we’re not talking so much about the technical, industry side of things as we are about social presence. Who makes up the gaming community in the area? What defines the fanboy subculture? How visible are video games in the media, on the street, in the mind of the public? These, for the moment, are the big questions; they’re concerned less with the games themselves than the world that surrounds them. Also, it’s important to remember that Europe, though slowly becoming more unified, is a highly varied place, composed of countless cultures, and therefore countless video game communities. In this editorial, European observations refer to Tours, France, a city in the Loire Valley, while American ones refer mostly to Philadelphia and New York.

French video game culture differs from that of America in a number of ways. Comparatively, there’s very little media presence; having lived there for a month, I didn’t see a single magazine or TV ad or billboard. There is, conversely, a very strong fanboy subculture. Tours alone (a sizeable city for France, but quite small by American standards) has at least ten fanboy-run shops for games or game-related goodies. Chain stores existed, but all (except the FNAC, France’s equivalent of Best Buy) are run by gamers and lovingly cluttered with tons of video game swag. The people who frequented these stores ranged in age from ten to fifty, both men and women, and though the most common shopper is twenty-something and male, the middle-age mother-of-two gamer is nothing out of the ordinary. Shops are always well-populated, and no one looks ashamed to be perusing video games. It would seem that the judgmental attitude gamers put up with in the States is not so much an issue in France. The same goes for other games we consider socially unseemly in America. For example, I visited a French family whose twenty-two-year-old son was an expert table-top role-player. In the States, that would be a hobby worthy of some giant parental euphemisms at the dinner table. But this couple was eager to talk about gaming; they were earnestly proud that their son excelled at something he enjoyed.

In the United States, by comparison, the presence of video games in the media is huge. Here, certain games and characters are household names. Boys of a particular age are simply expected to own portable systems, kept waiting into their pockets for a dull moment. There are almost no independently owned video game stores left; big business has shut out almost all possibility of making a living as a fanboy. Compared to the diverse French gamer, the American gamer is a very specific type of person - white, male, between the ages of ten and twenty. Obviously, not all gamers fit the mold, but that’s how media portrays us, and eventually that image, that social expectation, effects how we view ourselves. And, of course, there’s the social stigma that gets packaged with video games in America, carefully analyzed by Michael Cole in his editorial, “Socially Acceptable”.

The biggest question still remains: Why are these two communities so divergent? The answer is context, culture, history. In French society, there are precedents that make gaming more acceptable, for example, the bandes dessinees, French graphic novels, which are adored by people of all ages and walks of life. This tradition also has ties to the culture of Japanese manga, and therefore back, through Japan, to video games. Still, gaming remains mostly absent from the public sphere, and it’s exactly this that has facilitated such a strong fanboy subculture. Because gamers can’t see themselves within a larger social context, they form tighter knit communities than in America, where one can turn on the television, see a Nintendo ad, and feel at home. French fanboys have to create a place for themselves. They could join in on American Internet culture, as many Europeans have, but their urge to remain un-Americanized keeps them separate, their own unique entity.

In contrast, America is a country full of casual gamers. What may have once been a similar fanboy subculture has now, so to speak, hit the fan. Video games have entered mainstream culture and themselves become a big business, a fact that Microsoft has recently illuminated in its quest to market its products to the common American, not the gamer. While a healthy fanboy culture still thrives online, it’s real world presence is waning - a price we’ve paid for acceptance into general society. Not that such acceptance has eased our larger worries; video games continue to have major PR issues within the larger culture, a problem which hasn’t been helped by their mainstream status. It would seem that in France, even though gaming is less common, it’s certainly more “normal,” and it’s a lot easier to walk down the street with your gamer head held high.

In a comparison like this one, it’s impossible to make judgements calls such as “right” or “wrong”. What is possible, though, is to open our eyes to the way that other forces such as society, media and business effect our gaming culture - to understand the advantages and sacrifices of grasping that middle rung of the ladder.

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