Why is it so easy to stigmatize gamers?

Both left wing and right wing operatives find it far too easy to take cheap shots at gamers whenever it pleases them. Opportunistic attention seekers use video games as a punching bag when they want a motherhood cause to beat on. And of course, the mainstream media treats gaming as a horrible thing until there’s a major celebrity from a game to interview. But why? Why is this accepted? Why isn’t it seen as bigotry? Here are some factors at play:

It’s competition

A few years back, the console companies started an initiative to “own the living room”, offering distribution services that are alternatives to cable. Of course, now they’re also making their own content, with stuff like Halo: Nightfall and Powers on the Playstation Network. This is creating more competition not just for eyeballs, but for market influence. With video game IPs giving comic books a run for their money in the superhero space, and game properties also competing with Sci-Fi stalwarts, a lot of media conglomerate companies – Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal, and Disney, for instance – are rattled. Some of these companies have attempted video game distribution themselves to varying degrees of success, but the top-down model of TV development is going to catch up to them because gaming’s collaborative structure allows innovation at a faster pace than TV can manage. And old media always tries to beat down a competitor before it tries to half-heartedly embrace them, so the mainstream media has been pretty nasty to video games.

It’s something enjoyed by young men

Like rock music, rap, and extreme sports, anything that young men like is somehow seen to warp the minds of young men. In the West, this bias goes all the way back to the fact that the Bible, and before it, the Torah, were designed to codify correct behaviour for men, who would then control their wives. Note that the commandment against coveting only mentions the neighbour’s wife?  The focus on curbing male behaviours, while beating women into submission on the grounds of innate “purity” has continuing repercussions that strongly affect the dialogue around video games. But it goes deeper than that.

For a lengthy period, the most desirable advertising demographic was 18-34 male, because advertisers believe that’s the demographic that is most effectively swayed by advertising. However, with the rise of digital media, the 18-34 male demographic fragmented to the point that advertising to young men became much less lucrative. The most cohesive advertising demographic is now 25-54 male/female, because those are the people who still primarily consume entertainment through television. Women have an edge in this regard, however, in that their influence regarding household purchases, and their multiplier effect as primary caregivers of kids, make them a more desirable demographic for advertisers. And now, women make up the majority of the workforce as well.  This sudden boom in media feminism isn’t anchored in some desire to make the world a better place. It’s all about money. So if you’re wondering why gaming is desperately trying to attract more women? This is a huge part of the reason why.

New technology is always demonized

Whether it’s radios in cars, cell phones, or video games, any new tech will have some doomsayer figuring out a way it will somehow kill you. Men are more likely to be early adopters of technology, so this ties into the last point some, but taking gender out of the equation, people still fear things that are new. I’m old enough to remember when it was TV that was going to rot a kid’s brain. Now it’s video games. It’s just whatever the newest form of technology is that children like. This is connected to the fact that kids are usually more tech savvy than their parents, so adopting tech gives them an element of freedom and autonomy in a society that likes to swing into the realm of helicopter parenting every ten years. Seriously, you can set your watch to it: the 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, and this decade are all marked by upswings in interest in attachment parenting, spending quality time with kids, and other behaviours that just flat out smother a kid’s independence. Notably, these decades were also tied to economic conditions that put entire groups of people out of work. Isn’t it great that adults are still taking out their baggage on their children?

It’s now considered “common sense”

The best bumper sticker I’ve never seen read was “common sense is neither”. Latte liberals have rebranded common sense “lived experience”, but it’s all the same thing “blaming the Other for your own damned problems”. Common sense once told us that going out in the rain would cause you to “catch a cold”, even though colds are caused by viruses. Common sense tells us to judge people based on likeability instead of skill, because it’s centered on like staying with like.  Common sense is grounded in the idea that you should keep doing what you’ve always done instead of trying new things, or keeping an open mind to different ways of doing things. Advertisers love appealing to common sense, by the way, because it’s as much like real sense as Kraft Singles are like real cheese.

How does this effect gaming? Well, you’re not going to get much progress with people who subscribe to the idea that “I know what I know”, and right now you’ve got two extremist echo chambers in video games who refuse to talk to each other and live to make the “other side” look bad. There’s no political stripe to the idiocies of “common sense”, so one side is screaming “well everyone knows men are just better at tech”, even though that pearl of wisdom has been proven to be nonsense.  The other side, however, revels in proclaiming random things racist, sexist, and transphobic, while breaking their own definition of these things as systems of oppression as opposed to offensive statements by an individual… which is how these very same crusaders claim that racism against white people doesn’t exist. Outrage warriors have metastasized common sense to the point that they demand trigger warnings for any scary idea.

Now, common sense outside of gaming tells non-gamers that listening to people who want to do nothing but fight is a waste of time. The benefit to this type of common sense is that it’s also reasoned sense. So the extremists in gaming are making discussions of gaming so unpleasant that people avoid them at all costs if they have anything better to do. But this is a recent phenomenon. There’s been a factor that predates all of these things.

Gaming is for “nerds”

Gaming is not a physical activity, and gimmicks like the Kinect and e-sports are striving to make gaming more like sports, so it will appeal to the “cool kids”. The lifestyle associated with video games isn’t sexy, because it’s solitary and sedentary. Gaming hasn’t helped itself in this regard by making the traditional gamer dress code less stylish than the clothes of some homeless people. I think it’s fine that gaming has its own look, but this trend of tech nerds showing up to board meetings in hoodies as made technology seem unserious and slacker to the outside world. It’s also attracted a crop of humorless, insecure moral purists who want women to stop being visibly recognizable as women. Advertisers don’t want to associate with these whopping amounts of boring and lame. No one is going to want to buy a product to be more like the biggest names in gaming right now… except for maybe Pewdiepie.

This isn’t about being a geek. Being a geek is cool now. There’s bank in being a geek. But a geek is a nerd with healthy self esteem, and there’s a real self esteem deficit in video game discussions these days due to years of bending over and taking it for whatever special interest group wants to beat the piss out of video games this month. For every moment of real leadership, like EA telling homophobes where to go and Blizzard trolling the crap out of complaints about Overwatch characters, there are five examples of the video game industry begging outsiders to tell us all the reasons we’re horrible pieces of crap. No one wants to identify with that much masochism, and it’s blood in the water that attracts sharks.

There’s so much bullying in video games today because the video game industry invites bullying. Fortunately, this is an addressable problem. Unfortunately, video games have forgotten the art of constructive criticism, because its collective self esteem was so low from the outset.

An organization truly based on respect will not tolerate the constant negativity that infects discussions of gaming. An organization with pride in its products doesn’t bend over backward to please its haters. This is something that Grand Theft Auto and The Sims have in common: these games are polarizing. As many people love them as hate them. They cater to very different types of gamer, but they completely embrace the type of gamer they attract. They don’t agree that enjoying a certain type of fantasy makes you a horrible person.

There’s nothing special about the content in these games. They’re just as limited and flawed as anything else on the market. But I think that the key to the success of these IPs, and franchises like Call of Duty, Destiny and Fallout, is that they have clear confidence in what they do well, and they’ll change to make their fans happier, but they don’t bend to the haters. This is something the rest of the industry needs to learn. No one wants to identify with a brand that doesn’t even seem to like itself.

11 thoughts on “Why is it so easy to stigmatize gamers?”

  1. I agreed with most of the article. I’m not sure where people insisting that men are better at tech hang out, but fortunately it’s nowhere I have to see them.

    The final section struck me as more about the industry than the players. Was the point supposed to be that a lack of industry leadership in defending gamers is why it’s so easy to stigmatize gamers?

    1. Thinking a little more. I think there’s another point that’s worth making.

      It’s easy to stigmatize gamers because they’re very much like the people doing the stigmatizing but with just enough differences to create a clear Us/Them dynamic.

      Lets say you do an article complaining that there’s too much cleavage in games. All your friends at the outrage warrior’s club are similar enough to gamers to know they like cleavage, they possibly even interacted with a gamer in the process of playing as a cleavage endowed character, and they’re of course outraged about it. So if you write your article everyone at the club pats you on your back and buys you drinks. It’s great.

      But if you write about a group with even more cleavage on display – like a tribe who live in the Amazon and have no nudity taboo for the female chest – because they live so far away in both geography and culture your outrage warriors don’t even think about them. That means nobody will buy you a drink after your article is published.

      Have I recommended http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/ to you before? I probably have because I recommend it to everyone, but if not this is me fixing that deficiency.

  2. I agree with your article, but would expand on the nerd section. A majority of gamers are also introverts, and to a large degree are not optimal communicators, for several reasons: they speak a what is very esoteric language (just like any group uses verbal shorthand and referential turns of phrase), have a very specific sense of humor, and have been known to turn the awkward phrase.

    Many are not trained media communicators, and as someone once said, “Don’t start an argument with somebody who has a microphone when you don’t. They’ll make you look like chopped liver.” Currently the media has a very large microphone.

  3. I think this article is a good start at understanding the dynamics at play, but there’s a few things I think have been left out: Bullying, Cliques and Validation.

    There is, in essence, a clique in the Games Journalism community who has become powerful. I say powerful instead of popular because I don’t think that the Gawker-affiliated sites, the NeoGaf’s and other pro-Social Justice/”Change Gaming for the Better!” sites are very popular. I think that people are mostly afraid of being targeted by them, and would prefer to be on their good side. In this, they are like bullies – bullies aren’t popular. Even the “Cool Kid” clique isn’t really a popular clique – people want to join because they’re seen as powerful. And it’s better to be part of the powerful clique than a target of them. But there’s so much work that has to be done to stay in the clique, to stay out of their crosshairs, that for most people it’s just plain not fun being part of the clique.

    (I speak from experience in the matter of high school cool kid cliques; in high school I was on all the major male sporting teams. And good enough in all to be a regular player not just a benchwarmer, so I was automatically considered part of the “Cool Kids” in high school. By my 4th year I was avoiding most social gatherings outside of “important” team events with crappy excuses, and by my 5th year (in Ontario at the time there were 5 years of high school for most students, though some extremely motivated students could finish in 4 years.) I was just straight up saying I didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of assholes outside of the hockey arena, football field or soccer pitch. And as I was a good enough player in all those sports, I could get away with that; no one in the clique liked me any more than I liked them, but they couldn’t take much action against me because we had to get along on the field/ice. So as long as I didn’t call them assholes in public, they were able to essentially ignore the fact I wasn’t supporting them in public either.)

    As for the Validation, there are “real” journalists and journalistic sites many of these games journalists would like to write for. How many really want to write for a shiatty rag like Polygon or Kotaku, or Jezebel or the Mary Sue, when they could write for the Huffington Post, or maybe even for someone like CNN? So they’ve chosen to take on Gamers, to take on Gaming, and to prove that they have the chops to bring in the clicks, to bring the eyeballs, to direct the conversation and narrative in an entire subculture, hoping that it brings the attention of the Big Players… and maybe recruitment. Or at least validation from the Big Players, so that they can parlay that into endorsements for personal monetized blogs or the like. In this, they’re like a middle-clique; they are kicking the lesser clique (Gamers) that they claim to be a part of in order to impress the Cool Kids Clique (mainstream journalism) enough that the Cool Kids Clique invites them into the Clique.

    And in this case, there aren’t adults to put a stop to the bullying. There aren’t teachers, parents, principals, etc. who can step in and make the bullies apologize for being mean to their victims. No one is able to step in and stop this. So it’s up to the victims to step up and defend themselves, and as with all cases where a victim steps up to defend themselves, it’s going to get messy. Some will not know when to stop. Some will revel in actually being able to take it to their tormentor, and will gleefully cross the line. Some will use the tactics of the bullies against the bullies, creating their own cliques and isolating weaker members of the Cool Kids Clique to torment and bully. The Bullies will claim innocence and victimhood. And all around the groups, outside observers will be pulled into it (often against their will) and find themselves under attack from all sides.

    And there isn’t anyone out there who can actually step in and stop it.

    Hrm. This went on longer than I expected.

    TL;DR: Liana didn’t directly touch on the bullying aspect of the situation, which is something I think is central to this whole mess.

  4. Gaming culture, in addition to having its own unique verbal and written dialect, is a subculture with its own subcultures. The only other group anywhere close to that is book readers, and those communities tend to not interact much unless they’re comics. (And even in comics you have the staunch super hero people, anti-super hero people, and manga people who all ignore each other.)

    And that whole subculture of a subculture dynamic seems to confuse a great many non-gamers, but we gamers are so used to it that many don’t even notice it beyond the platform wars (which is a whole other topic unrelated to this one). There is a very dedicated FPS fanbase and they have their own language and customs; MMO players can but (probably) often don’t intersect with FPS players and the behaviour of MMO fans is vastly different than FPS, with a greater focus on teamwork as opposed to shooting everything until it dies. Furthermore, within each different MMO game, there are different communities and guilds with their own rules and behaviours that are deemed acceptable and not acceptable. One probably wouldn’t be taken seriously if they tried to play Everquest as if they were playing WoW.

    Each genre (and to a lesser extent franchise) of video game is basically its own subculture within the broader gamer subculture. Most people who play Final Fantasy games aren’t going to behave like Halo gamers because there’s a much different set of rules and expectations for fans of the genre. And many critics of gaming refuse to acknowledge that Japanese gaming culture (both on the developer and player sides) is vastly different from its Western counterpart and judge all games and gamers through the same (often Ameri-centric) lens.

    So, basically, gamers and gaming culture really can’t be understood unless you are a gamer because there are so many subtleties and nuance that even gamers themselves rarely pick up on because they’re second nature to us. And this comment had a lot of parentheses. And I have no idea if what I said is lucid because I’m sleepy from taking Benadryl. 😛

  5. I’d probably argue a bit on geeky being cool now. It’s more that people realized the toys are fun to play with, but the passion that typically defined geeks isn’t shared, and all too often, isn’t respected, or even seen as acceptable. At best, we’re those weird people that turn fun into work (even though we don’t see it as work), and at worst, those annoying people whose enjoyment of things keeps them from making changes for their own enjoyment. When identity politics came in, we became those really problematic people that liked ourselves as is, and think others should do the same instead of crying harassment and sexism because people people were mean to them.

    That to me is the real schism. Ina world that accepted the participation trophy (and denied what it was), made “the secret” a bestseller, and pushes social media popularity out the wazoo, geeks are pure poison. We’re the reminder that they aren’t as knowledgeable or skilled as they think they are. We’re the people that don’t break down in adversity and try harder instead of blaming a negative environment for failure. We’re the people that are happy with a few close friends and don’t need to tell everyone everything we do all day in 6 different social media sites. Worst of all, as examples of people that say, “be yourself”, we risk eroding efforts to market things as the way to be socially acceptable.

    We invalidate so much with our existence, it’s small wonder we get vilified.

  6. For me, I would point out “soft” achievable targets. (That is not to say gamers are soft. Far from it.) What I mean is that people have a lot of frustrations in the world that they can’t place/correct. So they are always looking for a scapegoat to blame and demand change. This scapegoat needs to be big enough so that they won’t be expected to achieve anything, but small enough to apply social pressure/criticism. It makes them feel good about themselves and their friends pat them on the back, but in the end it doesn’t require any effort. It also doesn’t yield any results. (prime example – Anita Sarkeesian gets all the backpats and feels. Not a single 3rd world girl has benefited from it.)

  7. I want to make sure I get this right. You think e-sports are a gimmick? Do you think sports are a gimmick? I would like to see how you could love video games and not see e-sports as a good thing in both promoting games and pushing our understanding of what video games can do.

  8. Geekiness is cool now, but being neuro-atypical and awkward is still not really something people look up to. So the question, now that geekiness/nerdiness is cool is: how do we get rid of the nerds and geeks- because although it’s now cool to like the things that nerds and geeks did in the quiet corners they were ostracized to, they still exhibit the characteristics that were so uncool. There’s a kind of subcultural imperialism going on here, where new ways to identify people we don’t like are invented so that we can push them out of the subculture we want to gentrify (nerdiness/geekiness).

    But it’s still easy to do- because even though there’s a new coolness to comics/games/tech- we still tend to dislike nerds. We glamorize Steve Jobs but still don’t really like Bill Gates. Geek icons are photogenic and funny people with a background in hollywood- not really people like Linus Torvalds, Woz, or hell, even the penny-arcade guys.

  9. Just to add on to what Jolly said above, when we talk about neuro-atypicality, a lot of the time we’re talking about things that don’t line up with what we would consider to be either traditional or modern gender roles (both genders), and I think that’s one of the places where the conflict comes from.

    I mean in gaming that’s the conflict. People assume that male gamers in particular approach games based upon assumptions made around gender roles in our society, without understanding that many gamers eschew those roles in the first place. We tend to be more excitable, more emotional, less concerned with status, and so on. So these statements are made, regarding things like objectification or the male gaze that simply don’t line up with the personality traits that generally make up the gamer mindset at all.

    So yeah. We’re an acceptable target because we don’t conform to social norms. Bullying, more often than not IMO is a way to enforce said social norms.

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