Jordan King Lacroix

Ready player too: The social evolution of the gamer

As a lifelong gamer, the biggest change that I’ve witnessed has been greater social acceptance, the original challenges remain, however.

 

 

I’m not entirely convinced that the loser, loner gaming nerd – as presented to audiences in pop culture since video games were conceived – ever really existed. The nerd who leans in and spends hours talking to you about his favourite game and story and how it could have been better, to me, had never been different to the football fanatic who corners you and explains how the game is played, why his team is best, and how they could be better if they’d only listen to the fans!

Lonely gamers do exist, same as there are lonely people the world over who have no interest in video games. Gaming, to me and those I know, has always been a social thing. Just like the kids in Stranger Things who bike to the arcade together and then come home to play Dungeons & Dragons together, gamers enjoy each other’s company. Even single-player games can be a social event. The partners of people I know like to sit on the couch and watch them play, almost like they’re watching an interactive movie.

It wasn’t that long ago, before the boom of laptop computers that could handle large games, that my friends and I would gather together at someone’s house with our desktop computers and hook them all up for a LAN party. We’d pick a multiplayer game or five to play that evening and play them until the sun came up. Together. As friends.

You don’t play soccer alone in a room. We should have games that use up every controller slot. If we don’t, gamers – again, almost everybody from Gen X down – will become more isolated than we’ve ever actually been before.

The difference between the past and the present perception of gamers – the loser dork all alone in his basement to the cool geek with a crew – is mainstream media. Video games were expensive and new back then so relatively fewer people were interested or knew what to do with them. Nowadays, people have an Xbox or Playstation just for the Blu-Ray player and Netflix app. All those “dorks” who loved video games and comics grew up and started making all the content they wanted to see, some with properties they’d loved since they were kids.

And it made a lot of money. It made geeky stuff cool. People like Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day were suddenly household names, despite the geeky things they did like make a video game-based web series, or run a tabletop game review show.

With the rise in interest came what are called the “Let’s Plays”. People like PewDiePie, Jacksepticeye, Loading Ready Run and the Game Grumps were among some of the first, or at least most successful, to record themselves playing video games and just talking over the top; sometimes commentary about the actual game, sometimes just chatting with their co-host (if they have one). And they wouldn’t just play the newest, most popular games. They would play old games from your childhood, new games, terrible games, unknown indie games. For a lot of smaller games, it was a boon to be features on these shows.


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E-sports came to the fore in the early 2000s, but nothing like it is now. I remember people laughing when they heard that South Korea’s (self-proclaimed) national sport was StarCraft. They aren’t laughing now when they see how much money those people make. Do you know why? Because they’re starring athletes. Sure, they aren’t athletes in the traditional sense, but they are playing a game that other people want to watch in a series of matches for a title. There are commentators, teams, sponsorships, divisions, everything that makes it a sport except the type of physical exertion we’ve come to expect.

“Those 150 million gamers in America want to gather. They want to sit next to each other, elbow to elbow, controller to controller,” writes Nellie Bowles for The New York Times. “They want the lighting to be cool, the snacks to be Hot Pockets, and they want a full bar because they are not teenagers anymore. Esports are, finally, just like any other sport.”

And she’s right. Gaming evolved into the mainstream, accepted thing it is now because people like it. I remember how hard it was to tell people, even when I was a teenager – especially to tell girls I liked – that I played video games. I had a small core of people I was friends with who also played, and that was that. Now, almost everyone I’ve met since leaving university plays games. Have you ever played a game of Tetris on your phone? You’re a gamer. Some Hearthstone every now and then? Gamer. Addicted to those fashion-based dress-up games? Gamer.

Some people know every crew member and location of their favourite films; that doesn’t make someone who watches films casually a “fake” film-goer…

Unfortunately, as I’ve written about before, with a push into the mainstream comes a pushback. A push for inclusion causes angry misogynists and racists to scream and cry “political correctness”. A deluge of comic book and science fiction films means that “true” fans are whinging about everything wrong with these things, instead of enjoying the thing they’ve always wanted: more content aimed squarely at them.

It doesn’t matter what you play, there are no “fake” or “real” gamers, there’s just different levels of obsession, like with anything. Some people know every crew member and location of their favourite films; that doesn’t make someone who watches films more casually a “fake” film-goer. Just because you like your games hard and console-based doesn’t make someone who enjoys more mindless games on handheld devices a “fake” gamer.

With the inflated budgets and egos of large gaming companies comes another problem. While gaming was focused on 1v1 in the arcade, or “couch co-op” multiplayer games like Halo, increased graphics technology has meant the creation of enormous, sprawling games for one. A massive deluge of single-player games, as good as they are, that maybe have online multiplayer. Sitting elbow-to-elbow with your pals on your friend’s couch is dying out in favour of online gaming, exclusively. And this is creating the lonely geek stereotype that never really existed like this before. Sure, these people have friends, but they’re becoming physically, socially isolated. Online interactions are good, but there’s nothing quite like throwing candy at your friend so that they miss the sniper shot that they’re lining up because you’ve been cheating by looking at their screen.

You don’t play soccer alone in a room. So why make gamers play alone? And again, there is nothing wrong with single-player games or online-only multiplayer games – I love them, too – but this focus on only them is problematic, in my view. LAN parties, which I guess have become WiFi parties, shouldn’t go out the window. We should have games that use up every controller slot on the console. If we don’t, gamers – which, again, are almost everybody from Gen X on down – will become more isolated than we’ve ever actually been before.

 

Jordan King Lacroix

Jordan King-Lacroix was born in Montreal, Canada but moved to Sydney, Australia when he was 8 years old. He has achieved a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney and McGill University, Canada, as well as a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney.

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