Saturday, August 23, 2014

Owning Your Obsessions

As Wilhelm noted yesterday, there's a correlation between two blog topics going the rounds right now; the twenty-one question survey started by Jaysla at Cannot Be Tamed and the scrap over who gets to call themselves "real gamers", nicely summarized by Rowan at I Have Touched The Sky.

You might think that only someone who'd take a pace forward when the Real Gamers were called would either care or be able to complete a questionnaire that asks things like "What video-game character do you have a crush on?". Even some real gamers might think about taking a step backward when someone asks them that.

Whether or not I would call myself a "Gamer" (let alone a "Real Gamer") is something I do think about now and again. It's not a label I usually apply to myself, even though I've played video games for thirty-five years almost without a break. I would, and do, unhesitatingly identify myself as a "comics fan" although I haven't bought or followed new comics regularly for over twenty years. I'd call myself a "movie fan" even though it's been longer still since I went to the cinema every week.

I might not choose to self-identify as a Gamer but it's hard to see how anyone objectively examining the way I choose to spend my time could do otherwise. When I'm not working or sleeping it's odds-on that I'll either be playing video games, reading about video games or writing about video games. It's not all I do but it's certainly the thing I do most.

So why don't I see myself as a Gamer? Is it age-inappropriate?

Syl seemed almost incredulous a while back when a comment thread on one of her posts clogged up with old fogeys claiming MMOs had been the stomping ground of the middle-aged right from the get-go. She stated, late in the thread, that "Mainstream video gaming was born in the early 80ies with Atari/Amiga/Commodore, Intellivsion/NES etc. Anyone born long before that time had to take up gaming in their twenties or thirties which seems to be an exception rather than a rule."

That's not how I remember it at all and I don't think it's factually accurate. When they first appeared in the mid-to-late 1970s, video-games were played mostly in arcades or, in the United Kingdom, in pubs. I saw my first Space Invaders machine in a pub the year before I went to University. I would have been eighteen.

All through my college years video-gaming was a feature of student life, something very strongly associated with the experience of being a young adult, not a child. Indeed, I formed a psychological link then between drinking alcohol and playing video games that remains with me to this day.

I can't now remember when I bought my Atari 2600. It was probably while I was at University. Soon after I graduated I bought a ZX Spectrum and after that an Amiga. Quiz machines began to replace video games in pubs and most of my gaming in the 1980s was done at home. Most of my contemporaries back then owned some form of home computer or console capable of playing video games. It was commonplace and yet I can't think of any who would have identified him or herself as a Gamer.

I certainly wouldn't, even though I played video games most days, bought Crash!, MicroAdventurer and C&VGW  magazines regularly. I even reviewed games for MicroAdventurer for a while. Computer gaming was just a relaxation though; a hobby, not a calling. All my energy and ego was directed towards comics fandom, where I was as active then in fanzines and lettercols as I am now on blogs and comment threads, and to music, where I fronted a series of increasingly unlikely and unsuccessful bands.

Syl may be right in believing that her generation, now in their 30s, was the first to grow up with computer games as a cultural option widely available to children. It doesn't follow, however, that they were the first generation to adopt video gaming as a cultural norm. By the time the first MMORPGs appeared in the late 1990s there was no shortage of video-gamers already in their thirties and forties, among them many who'd also played tabletop roleplaying games, and those people had been at it since adolescence.

MMORPGs were a natural fit for the older gamer. To play Everquest you required a PC with a 3D graphics card, which was highly unusual in most homes at that time. You required an internet connection, also unusual, and that connection would almost certainly go through the household telephone line. Almost no-one had mobile phones back then so the land-line was used by the entire family. Not many children or adolescents would have been allowed to tie up the phone line for hours at a time just to play a video game.

And, of course, you had to have a credit card. That was the clincher. Every MMO back then required a subscription. Playing MMOs was expensive, awkward and adult-oriented. In the first few years I played I can only recall meeting one independent player who claimed to be still at school. There were some children of adults I knew in-game, who were allowed to make characters on their parents' accounts, but they played only infrequently and under supervision.

It was far, far more likely that anyone you met in game would be a parent than a dependent child or even a teenager. Most players were of college age or above. Usually above. In my early forties I would have been older than most, but not by all that much, and still younger than many. In the pre-WoW years playing MMORPGs was, for financial, practical and social reasons, a weird, cult, adult hobby.

And that's probably at the root of why I don't identify as a Gamer. It's not an age thing. It's a prestige thing. After university, where having the high score on Galaxians was something to be envied, I rarely encountered any social situation where identifying as a Gamer wouldn't have been socially damaging.

It was bad enough being a comics fan, which had been deeply uncool throughout the 1970s and didn't improve all that much in the 1980s. Fortunately, being in a band was very cool indeed so I was able to convince myself the two things played each other off and came out even. Adding "Gamer" to "Comics Fan" would have tipped the balance. Even comics fans thought gamers were uncool.

Cultures change surprisingly subtly and swiftly. I've seen countless things that were cool fall out of fashion and then revive, often several times, while whole genres and classifications drift inexorably from the periphery of the culture to the core. Right now, gaming is deep in the process of cultural ratification. Comics got there a while back. Affirming as a Gamer is a net cultural positive right now, which is why suspicion can accrue to those who appear to be claiming a right they haven't earned.

The young are, rightly, suspicious and distrustful of their elders. Safe to say that, by the time old people admit to liking something, it's probably not worth liking any more and when it's cool to like gaming then gaming won't be cool any more either. But I could come out as a Gamer now, surely? I'm past all that being cool stuff, aren't I?


[Checks pulse. Not dead yet]

Maybe not.


  1. I think you sort of nailed it when you said:

    And that's probably at the root of why I don't identify as a Gamer. It's not an age thing. It's a prestige thing. After university, where having the high score on Galaxians was something to be envied, I rarely encountered any social situation where identifying as a Gamer wouldn't have been socially damaging.

    In this sense, I would say that a "true gamer" is someone who acknowledges that admitting to being a gamer would be socially damaging, but does so anyway. Because gaming was/is that important to them. But as you note, such an admission is no longer culturally relevant. Hell, it used to be Madden or FIFA were the safe havens in conversation, but CoD and Minecraft have all but supplanted even them.

    But yeah, the older I have gotten the less important these distinctions even are. Some people might begrudge those who no longer have to walk uphill through the snow both ways, but I'm personally glad that everyone who wants to play games can do so with minimal fuss.

  2. I absolutely agree to the paragraph Azuriel quoted. The very same is true for me, in my job environment. I am expected to be "professional". In this i can admit that i watch movies, ride a motor bike, go to heavy metal festivals and sometimes play paintball. What i can not admit to is being a "gamer" who plays computer games.

    So, by all means, the time i spend in computer games, the effort i put into them, i see myself very much as gamer, but outside of the circle of my friends, this aspect has to be hidden. I very much hope that the next generation (after all, i am over 40) manages to dispose of this stupid conception and predjudice, but guessing from my younger cousins and my godchildren, the process seems to be slow.

    1. @Azurel and Sylow - I think one measure of a "real gamer" might be someone who is willing to put "Gamer" on a job application for a non-gaming job. I used to put "reading and writing about comics" in the "Other Interests" section on application forms in the 1980s but I wouldn't have put "playing computer games".

      Nowadays if, god forbid, I had to go job hunting, I would put "playing and blogging about video games" on a CV but, I think, only because of the "blogging" part. I still wouldn't mention it if I "just" played them.

  3. Great post.

    The average age of the first MMO-players given coincides with my memories, all the people I knew to be playing EverQuest back in the nineties were well into their thirties. They basically were (agewise) the generation that had started playing 'tabletop' RPG's in the 80's as college students (my friends at the time and I were outliers for the Netherlands in that we started at early high-school during the 80's, thanks to a pretty bilangual upbringing), ran into the logistics issues non-student life tends to bring, and could get their fill with MMORPG's - which were, as you noted, very expensive to run with dial-inns.

    Come to think of it, I faintly remember a research paper (or was it Koster? can't remember) from the early part of the century that the average pre-WoW MMORPG player was (then) in his late twenties.

    Since then, easier acces to cheaper Internet etc. probably has lowered the average age, and if you dig deep enough in the Interwebs you can find complaints from the earliest days of Vanilla WoW of players from other games being appalled by the immature and ill-behaved behaviour of too many WoW players (suggesting WoW may have been a watershed, though it could be RuneScape was another one).

    1. There definitely was such a research paper. I thought of it while I was writing the post and I would have liked to have linked to it but I've looked for it before and not been able to find it. It's not Nick Yee's research, done around the same time, although I think that would show the same age range.

  4. Excellent post on the historicity of "old" gamers. In my early forties, I fall between you and Syl in gaming experiences. I did not frequent arcades much due to a lack of funds, and early consoles were definitely played more by kids my age than our parents—folks now in their 60s and 70s. I am guessing that situation held true for Syl's age group, too. I would also guess that it it is folks in their 20s now who are the first generation whose parents were playing video games while raising them.

    Thank you for the complimentary reference to my "gamer" post. I do feel I should note that the only Rohan I know in the blogosphere is the proprietor of the most excellent ;-)

    1. Oops! Corrected. I do know the difference between you! No idea how that slipped through.

    2. I figured it was a typo. I make plenty of my own. ;-)

  5. whats the relevance of the pictures in the post?

    1. Great question! Answered in full in next post.

  6. Every time I see Said, it just bugs me that his 1,000$ suit is dirty. I mean it kinda makes sense, him being dead and in a dessert, but it still bugs me every single time!


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