Comment: Gamers and Tribalism

Must be a "real" game.

I’ve been standing back over the last few weeks and watching “controversy” unfold in the gaming community.  I don’t know what to really say about it, other than I’m aghast at the campaigns of harassment and vitriol that have been levied against the likes of Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Phil Fish, and Tim Schafer.  I’m embarrassed to share the same hobby with the people attacking them, and feel pretty depressed with the general state of gaming.  I’ve never seen any of Quinn’s or Sarkeesian’s work, and I’ve only partly completed games by Fish or Schafer.  But what I’ve seen unfold has only served to draw me, and I suspect many others, to their work.  I’m not invested enough in any of the individual “controversies” to comment directly on them, and honestly, I can’t imagine there ever being a controversy in the video game industry that warrants this kind of attention and abuse.  I would like to make some observations about “gamers” as a community and the divide that’s opening among them.

The term “gamer” has been used as code for those who have an affinity for games in a way that they comprise an important part of their identity.  For much of the time, it was a way for these individuals to identify each other in contexts that weren’t exactly game friendly.  For younger gamers, video games were looked down upon by those in authority (and used as a scapegoat for a long time) and among their own peers, who considered it an antisocial activity.  In reality, it was a new activity that was grew through smaller demographics but was unfamiliar to most others.  Out of necessity, the gamer label was forged to create community amongst those contending with alienation.  If you wanted to apply an anthropological concept to it, gamers formed a tribe.

The video game industry made appeals to this tribe and reinforced it.  They encouraged this tribe to make THEIR games part of their identity.  And like any business would, they made observations about their audience and played to the primary demographic that games appealed to: young white males.  And if I had to speculate on why it’s young white males that were the majority of that early group of gamers, it would be because they were most likely to have access to disposable income and were receptive/privileged enough to adopt the hobby in spite of it being looked down upon.  But certainly, others who did not fit that profile enjoyed games just as much, but didn’t have a group that embraced them.  There have, without a doubt, been girl gamers (among other demographics) for as long as there have been “gamers”, but being included in that tribe meant compromising other aspects of their identity to placate the majority.

Tribalism isn’t a model for growth.  But video games as a medium were going to grow no matter what.  “Gamers” have grown up.  Gaming is in the mainstream, and it’s a far more acceptable activity than 10 or 20 years ago.  The “gamer” tribe has outlived its usefulness, but there are those who cling to it out of fear of compromising their identity by letting it go.  In order to remain loyal to the tribe, to be a true gamer, it means liking certain games, respecting aspects of “gamer” culture and not challenging the foundations of the tribe.  I was part of this earlier in my life.  But you know what, I’m not afraid anymore that having others join in on the medium means compromising my identity.  For me, the medium is part of my identity, and there are certain games that led me to that.  But particular games, companies, and ideas of who gamers are is not part of that identity.  It’s not about deciding which games are the real games; which are the core games; and which ones signal that you are a true gamer for playing them.

Gaming has outgrown gamers, and that’s a natural progression.  You’re not a terrible person if you enjoyed a game once that wasn’t the most friendly to women or folks who don’t fit a “gamer” profile.  Criticizing aspects of a game you enjoy is not criticizing you.  There have been problems with games, but nobody’s perfect, and games are going to continue improve over time.  Having voices like Sarkeesian’s goes a long way in communicating how that can happen.  It’s been the same way for every other medium of entertainment.  We can’t preserve gaming as it was 15 years ago in amber because we’re upset that we felt alienated by non “gamers.”  It’s not fair to the medium, and if you’re invested in games as a medium, you’re holding it back by doing that.  If we’re so insecure about gaming’s place in our lives that we’re blowing up perceived problems to the level of Watergate, then we’re warping the industry to be a form of therapy for an manufactured ailment, rather than a form of entertainment.  And people will be justifiably pissed at us for that.  It needs to be acknowledged that gaming will include others, and that doesn’t automatically mean competition with that gamer tribe.  But that’s how it’s being treated – as a zero-sum game where the success of a game like Gone Home somehow means other “real” games lose.

Sarkeesian’s videos are about recognizing problematic patterns in game design, and how to correct them.  It’s not about antagonizing those who identify themselves as part of a tribe.  But between Tropes vs Women in Video Games and “Gamergate”, it’s being treated like an assault on the livelihood of gamers.  If you believe that suppressing this point of view is important to protect games as you know them, then you’re just making it more difficult folks like me to be able to enjoy games with those outside of “gamers”; people who are important to me and who I want to be able to understand why games are an important part of my identity.  If you think, for example, that women shouldn’t have a problem with how other women are portrayed in games because you’ve managed to rationalize it to yourself, that’s not persuasive, and I still don’t get to share the experience.  You’re acting like gamers are a band of survivors after the apocalypse who can’t trust outsiders.  I don’t think that these non-gamers should excuse flaws in games in order to accommodate those who think games should only be made for “true” gamers.  And I don’t want to excuse them either.

I can believe there are people out there, somewhere, that fit the profile for a social justice warrior that are simply being intolerant of the existence of games they don’t agree with.  But even assuming that’s the case, the resulting campaign of harassment against the individuals mentioned above is also telling me that I can’t enjoy games with others who don’t conform to the tribe’s norms and customs.  And while perhaps there was a time where tribalism made some sort of sense in gaming, that time is well past.  The behaviors that follow from tribalism are extreme, irrational, and blinding people to the fact that the games they enjoy are not going away.  Tribalism is an explanation for spontaneous human phenomenon, not a justification for treating people like shit.  But that’s what it has become.  Being a “gamer” means being driven by fear of games you might not identify with, and the insecurity from no longer being able to claim an entire medium as your domain.

If you’re going to tell me that women shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy games because at one point you felt like women alienated you for playing games, then I’m going to tell you to get over it.  You’re being an asshole, and you’re the one ruining games by trying to hold them back.  I’m not able to identify with the gamer label anymore, and my sympathy for “gamers” has dried up.  This isn’t a controversy between SJWs and gamers.  It’s a conflict between those who love games and are afraid to share them against those who love games and want others to enjoy them as well.


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