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Socially Acceptable

by Michael Cole - June 27, 2005, 1:22 am EDT

Despite games becoming more mainstream, gamers are still left to feel like outcasts with the broader culture.

What are your hobbies?

Almost everyone has been asked this—perhaps on an application or when first meeting someone. It is also my least favorite personal question and has always made me squirm. I can't leave this space empty... What, you want me to stretch the truth? Hmm, well, I play golf five times a year, so I'll put that down. And I ski ten days a year, so that's another interest. Oh, I used to act and play instruments in high school, too…

I am an honest person—perhaps to a fault. So why am I compelled to tip-toe around video games? Sure, computers are a casual hobby, though I fail to keep up as well as many of my associates. Computers are my job, and I'm hardly a hobbyist programmer. Why do I always dodge writing down my real hobby? Sports are considered admirable pastimes, as are reading and clubs (some of which have no true merit). Heck, most colleges have multiple film appreciation classes! I know the games I play have more positives than the old stand-by of hand-eye coordination, so why does listing "video games" as a hobby seem like such a bad move?

Perhaps this is a personal psychological dilemma, shaped over the years by my father's mild disapproval of video games. I genuinely tried to be decent at sports as kid, but I had (and have) no talent. After learning great lessons such as "teammates are jerks" from Little League, I dedicated my free time to games and didn't care what adults thought of it. The ESA triumphantly claims that the current average American gamer is thirty years old. Even now, though, I feel as though I will be judged harshly for calling myself a gamer if the issue comes up with anyone significantly older than me.

This inferiority complex of sorts may be uniquely mine, but I doubt it. The problem isn't so much that I am ashamed of my entertainment of choice. The issue is the reader or listener's unknown disposition toward games, and the (perceived) risk of labeling oneself as "merely" a video game enthusiast. I'm lucky enough to have a back door: "writing reviews of and interviewing professionals about video games" sounds perfectly respectable to most folks. Other gamers who share my anxiety are not so fortunate.

Where is the underlying fear? That non-gamers or even very casual gamers can and quite possibly will jump to conclusions. As Masahiro Sakurai so elegantly asserted, "It seems like America is mired in the shooting-game genre." The mainstream press magnifies this tenfold, both by obsessing on morally questionable gaming material while simultaneously perpetuating stilted views toward family-friendly games and their supposed "real" target audiences. Movies are so widely accepted as to be weekly news, yet stories about video games are reserved for new systems and alarming content! (Companies behind televised news have ulterior motives for reminding viewers about new films, but that's beside the point.) It is quite reasonable for an average forty-five-year-old to hear "video games" and think of GTA3 or much more tactless games than Fire Emblem or Frequency.

Of course, many people are competent and probably would not judge a gamer very harshly for his or her taste in games. The problem is larger: the dominant culture does not accept games as an upstanding form of entertainment, period. My dad loves to watch movies while on vacation—he dedicated a room in his vacation home as a theater—but he'd never consider interactive entertainment, even if I invited him to play. In their minds video games are closely linked with cartoons and, therefore, kids. When our current decision-makers grew up 50+ years ago, cartoons in America were low-budget filler material, not high-budget Japanese animation or American masterpieces. I distinctly remember my father dismissing The Iron Giant merely from its promotional poster outside the movie theater—it still breaks my heart.

But I digress…. Many adults see something "cartoonish" and immediately assume it couldn't be of any value to a mature mind. And while the march toward realism has retained and won back a large portion of Americans who grew up with games, it seems they have little mindshare within more seasoned generations. In fact, the steady and significant presence of cartoon franchise games reinforces these perceptions, especially when the older person is buying the game for children or grandchildren. With such strong ties between games and children in older Americans' minds, anyone who admits to playing games could be ignorantly labeled as immature.

Even worse, the person could be suspected of having an unhealthy gaming obsession. Perceptions regarding unhealthy addictions are based on observed behavior but are over-generalized by the dominant culture. No gamer should deny that video games, like many activities, can be addictive and time consuming. A professor and friend of mine calls video games "digital crack," and one only need to look at the current URL for proof of video games' surprisingly dedicated following. Many who disvalue games saw or still see what they believe to be unhealthy addictions in their children or their friends' children. Kids would rather play games than do their homework, and a good portion will do so without fulfilling their obligations first. Naturally, their parents would see games as a vice threatening the child's upbringing.

Parents err by generalizing the excessive patterns to all gamers of all ages. This, of course, is the fatal flaw and a source of strife for young-adult gamers. I know I played games a LOT as a kid, and I still go on gaming binges some weekends. Unlike my younger self, though, I have more discipline. Like many maturing gamers, I am able to balance work and fun: if I am working 8 hours a day or have a big school project, I adjust appropriately. Those who characterize games as bad fail to recognize the human factor and, like anti-violent entertainment groups, are trying to remove blame from individuals. ANYTHING can be done in excess! Parents with compulsive child-gamers who point fingers solely at products fail to realize that their kid could have been just as easily distracted from schoolwork by any other number of activities. Of course, many of those activities are physically (though not necessarily mentally) healthier than gaming, but any activity or combination thereof will be frowned upon if it encroaches on responsibility. This is especially goes for adults. Enjoying alcohol is acceptable—it is only a problem if you are an alcoholic. A person who enjoys their work is considered admirable, unless he or she enjoys work at the expense of relationships. Video games are not inherently problematic, and someone who enjoys a cigar after a hard day's work, a movie on the weekend, or a weekly poker game should understand and accept someone who likes to retire for the evening with an hour or two of video games.

In the eyes of America's ruling generation, the term "gamer" is associated with excessiveness, immorality, and immaturity. Those who play games casually often do not consider themselves gamers, regardless of the ESA's reports, largely because of these undesirable connotations. The term can be saved from its curse by getting non-gamers, especially older ones (such as those running the country) to respect and understand the broad range of video games and game players. What will it take for them to understand games as an upstanding form of socialization, mental stimulation within a safe environment and relaxation? Is this a non-issue now, a problem already fixed and merely imagined among those who consciously or unconsciously know that they play too many games? Is it an issue that can only go away with time, when the Atari generation holds the political and economical reigns?

Time is healing things already, at least to some extent. Some influential individuals have a level view of games, such as John Stewart of the Daily Show, who openly and regularly admits to playing his PS2 'til the wee hours of the morning. Then again, most of his viewers are already gamers. Senator Liebermann, who still gets the short end of the stick from gamers, has expressed satisfaction with the ESRB's speedy evolution and certainly doesn't label gaming as "bad." Even my dad (who once bought me a SNES with only Super Mario World in hopes of boring me out of games) has come to better understand and accept the video game industry: video games haven't ruined me as he probably once feared, and video game companies' presence continue to increase in the business world.

In time, games will be recognized as a standard leisurely activity in America, just as manga penetrates virtually all demographics in Japan. Unless game companies and gamers are willing to wait ten or more years, though, developers will have to convert them. After all, what better way is there for gamers' elders to better understand the world of games? Females of all ages seem to have a similar weariness towards games, and Bonnie Ruberg touches on many applicable issues in "What a Girl Wants." The semi-serious gamer is probably not going to play Nintendogs, Electroplankton, or The Sims over a long period of time, but if a middle-aged man or woman starts playing anything fancier than an online flash game or bundled cell phone app, even if only one, they will understand that games need not consume chunks of time or become a distraction. Even if only a relatively small portion adopts games, friends of those converts may drop their misguided notions of games and gamers.

While I'm not sure current older non-gamers could ever become enthusiasts, getting them interested in one or two specific games is certainly possible. As I explained earlier, games are tied to animation, which a significant group of older, responsible individuals frown upon. However, even my dad saw the Incredibles after it was proclaimed the best movie of the year by his most trusted source of information, The Wall Street Journal. What's more, he absolutely loved it! Who is to say rave reviews from such sources couldn't spark non-gamers' interest in something like Nintendogs? The iPod has certainly garnered a wide demographic, and its variations are in the same price range as a Nintendo DS and one game. Of course, gamers can help spread awareness by showing or telling their parents and friends about games that might appeal to them. My dad couldn't get into virtual golf, but someone else's dad could be interested in the Links series.

It's about time we cleared our good names. Responsible hardcore gamers should feel comfortable talking about their passion, and casual gamers should not be wrestling with semantics so as to not be labeled gamers. Better mainstream coverage of games and gamers would go a long way, but we can start off by making a conscious effort to be more open about our hobby.

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