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Reflections on Games Culture: Do games matter?

17:3825/08/2014Posted by Dave Stuart3 Comments

It’s hard to see a day go by without some controversy in the gaming space, provoking outrage or leading to harassment or bullying. But what is is about this hobby that provokes such strong responses, and what can we do in the face of such hostility? Because ultimately, do games even matter so much?

Just one example of the joy games can bring

I love games. Probably always will. They hold a place in my life un-filled by any other form of entertainment and haves shaped and moulded my life more than I might care to admit. But they don’t matter. Ultimately, within the scope of history, amongst the infinite scale of the universe, video games, along with the rest our popular media, don’t matter in the slightest. But that’s OK. Because that’s how it should be. Now it’s not to say that games aren’t important, they are. Or that they don’t contribute positively to our culture and society, again on the whole they do. But really, in the grand scheme of things they should come pretty far down the list in terms of importance.

It seems crude to invoke such comparisons, but a glimpse at the news lately should only re-enforce this truth, that there are things more serious, more important and more worth your attention, ire and focus than pretty pixels on a screen, and to take this hobby predicated on fun and community and take it so seriously would be laughable, even absurd.

Were you to focus in, however, on certain elements of gaming culture at the moment you may come away with a different impression. Gamers reacting strongly to news is hardly a new concept, the whole idea of the ‘fanboy’ is as old as gaming as a hobby. As soon as competition arises people will choose sides, and defend their choices, emboldened by the sense of community such divides provide. Aside from the odd concept of gamers cheering on giant monolithic corporations as if they were plucky underdogs, a bit of friendly competition is, in theory, not the worst thing. Football fans can get abusive (a shocking revelation I know) but the majority come together through a mutual love of the game, and an enjoyment of the, mostly, friendly competition that comes along with it.

The console wars have been around since the first machines

But lately, especially within certain gaming circles the vitriol, anger and ugliness that has emerged has surprised many and doesn’t seem to be getting any better. The internet has opened up a portal that allows anyone to have a voice, and for those intent on harming and bullying others, a way of doing so largely consequence-free and from the comfort of their own homes. Untethered from the realities of dealing with people face-to-face it is no surprise that such behaviour proliferates, but is no less disappointing for this. What is especially sad, and damaging about this behaviour is that it is often directed at specific individuals within gaming communities with a sort of reactionary righteousness that comes from some inherent desire to maintain the status-quo, or protect a perceived cultural correctness. It is the fear of change writ-large, the growing pains of an industry increasingly fractured and changing and one that is tarnishing whatever goodwill remains in the name ‘gamer’.

At this point you may either be nodding along in agreement, or shaking your head in confusion (or composing a long expletive-laden critique of my argument). For you see the gaming community, as it were, is so large now that it’s easy to be a part of it, and yet totally disconnected from a lot of these issues. Sure you might have encountered some racist 10 year-olds on Call of Duty, but that’s just par for the course. For those who aren’t so in touch with games writers and developers via Twitter, or who only browse news sites, this probably seems like an issue blown all out of proportion. But I would argue that it is of vital importance because it boils up from the very core of this hobby, and by association affects us all.

Gamers have never been the most level-headed of folks. As mentioned the console wars, as they were and continue to be, fan the flames of competition and brand loyalty. We love to argue about who ‘won’ each major games conference, and to throw sales numbers back in the faces of those on the other side. Sonic or Mario? Sega or Nintendo? Sony or Microsoft? Halo or Call of Duty? The love and passion so many have for games spills out as this sense of rivalry is encouraged. But also the storied history games have with the media has made many who enjoy them overly defensive and insular. It’s easy to see why, such stories are less common now, or treated with ever-decreasing seriousness, but ever since the first consoles exploded onto the scene stories of video games posing a threat to society have been regular features in the media. From Mortal Kombat to Grand Theft Auto controversy has followed our hobby with ill-informed and negative portrayals still being the most prominent exposure games get to the wider world.

We are a community of victims, bullied, insulted and picked on for being nerds, losers and geeks. Loners sitting alone in their bedrooms, disengaging from the world.

The new consoles are outselling their predecessors

Except we aren’t. Not anymore. Now everyone is gamer. In the US 60% of the population are gamers, and women make up just as many of these as men, not that you’d know it from the current state of the industry that, just like Hollywood, seems to ignore one half of the population to their own detriment. Games have become so normalised, so homogeneous that there is no real threat or danger of them slowing down, or being replaced. Games are here to stay, a $60bn a year business that encompasses all aspects of modern life, from Facebook ‘–ville’ games, to the smart-phone in every pocket, to the 15+m PS4 and Xbox One consoles sold in under a year. The message is clear; we aren’t the underdogs any more. So why do we often still act like it?

There is no easy answer to these issues, and that’s as it should be. Gamers are not one mass entity that all speak from the same place, or like the same thing. There is a wider breadth of experiences within gaming than any other medium I can think of. We shouldn’t have to agree. We have outgrown such narrow labels. I no more want to be associated with the ‘gamers’ who think harassing women who play and write about games is a valid and acceptable use of their time, than I do with those in the wider world who thrive on persecuting and discriminating others. That ugly side will always be there, not just within the gaming world, but society at large. It’s the price we pay for being able to write what we want on the internet, but it shouldn’t make us any less accountable for our own actions or responsible for our contributions to the conversation.

Ultimately games matter because they mean something to us, and we should want to protect and nurture that connection. To encourage diversity and build relationships. Those who look to hurt, harass and fight this change only harm the industry as a whole. This is a wider issue than just games, but the symptoms are often the same. It may seem strange to see people get so worked up about a silly little hobby such as ours, but how we deal with this, and react to it, has wider ramifications.

The best way to combat it is to prove a point. Make a stand and support those things and people that you believe in. Enjoy the good that gaming has to offer and make it your priority to contribute to making this joyful, engaging and endlessly creative medium better. At its best gaming brings people together, regardless of background or location. It inspires passion and skill, provides an outlet from the hardships of life and teaches us something about ourselves and our place in the world. If it is to continue to grow and flourish it needs all of us to do what we can to promote this and make our communities better places, one small act at a time.

Because video games don’t ultimately matter, which is why they do. Now more than ever.

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