How the Gamer got their Spots: A brief history of the public perception of gaming.

24 Jul

This weekend I attended PAX, which was mindblowing in many ways. While there I attended several panels, one of which inspired me to write this. It’s something I’ve been aware of and thought about for some time, but never really had the space to talk about. Now I do. So here we go.


This is something I heard at PAX a lot: ‘what will it take for gamers to get out of being a niche culture and be accepted into the mainstream socially and politically like, say, film or music are?’. It was the overarching question and theme on a panel hosted by various industry and journalist luminaries. To me it sounds odd. On one level I identify with the sentiment deeply. I love videogames, tabletop games, card games, roleplay, pretty much anything ludic. Another common comment was on how gamers made being a minority part of their identity, a way of separating themselves and putting themselves above the legions of fashionistas and sports-ball players in highschool. As such, talking about gaming was not something you did unless you were pretty sure you were amongst other members of the lodge, having traded secret handshakes, awkward grins and rare magic cards. I shared that attitude for some time. Now, though, I talk about games with everyone. Often at length. I remember talking to an old lady I walked past on the way home from work for something like two and a half hours one afternoon. Sometimes, it becomes very hard to stop me. I’ve missed planes. I’m not shy about being a gamer, because for me that no longer makes any sense. This is not really due to my maturing and understanding that my hobbies aren’t something unclean and to be stigmatised. It’s due to something a little deeper.


I studied games at uni and during that time I read a lot of old books from the mid 20th century and earlier. I studied the history of games which, by the way, is really long. Like, seven or eight thousand years long just for ‘modern’ games. Kind of puts Pong into perspective. Another large part of my degree was media studies, which involved some indepth introductions to the history of electronic media. This, plus a poignant example brought up by one of my lecturers, made me reconsider the light in which I saw all modern gaming. Everything boils down to this: gaming is perceived as something new, an arising phenomenon that deviates from the normal pastimes of society. This is false. Historically, beyond the history of the 20th century at any rate, gaming is the norm. Not just children’s games either- card games, boardgames, party games, even single player games- solitaire is not a 20th century invention. Adults played games constantly and enthusiastically. Why then are the ‘new games’ -video, tabletop, card or other- seen as an oddity and attached to ideas of childishness and immaturity?


The answer, strangely enough, is technology. Not of games, but of everything else. The leisure of the 20th century west has been singularly defined by what media nerds (eg. me) call the ‘one to many’ media paradigm. First it was the radio, popular music and literature. Then cinema and television. The ability to minimize distribution costs of content allowed single instances of content to be universally (or at least very widely) disseminated. As a result more could be invested in polishing each instance, leading to more centralised and tuned media production while still increasing audiences. As a society, we ate it up and consequently shifted most of our leisure time from the traditional social pursuits of playing various games with those around us to reading, listening to or watching whatever was in vogue at the time. Perhaps the most ironic element of this shift was that it resulted in the professional athlete and the acceptance of the idea that we spend more time watching a chosen few play games than playing them ourselves. Broadcast media (and mass market printing) was a revolution in that it brought pursuits previously restricted to the uppermost social classes to the everyman. Literature culture, previously the domain of the wealthy, became a universally accessible. When public radio arose it allowed the populace to be more aware of their world than ever before and experience things previously limited to those who could afford to attend limited attendance events- concerts, speeches and demonstrations. Television brought sights from places few could ever hope to dream of seeing on a worker’s wage. Games, on the other hand, were seen as commonplace. There was status to be had in the broadcast media, buying into the intellectual leveling of society, being a part of something ‘big’. Games were left by the wayside as the preferred method of diversion, at least in part.


There was one thing that the broadcast media couldn’t do, however, right there in the word itself. Broadcast. Everyone got the same thing. Everyone read the same books, watched the same shows, listened to the same songs. That was good, in many ways, since it generated a more powerful sense of cultural identity than ever before, leading the way for reforms that ultimately led to modern social democracy and freedoms. Yet gamers will no doubt see the point I’m getting to: unlike games, you couldn’t touch the broadcasts. You couldn’t own them. They were not intimately personal in the way games gracefully and effortlessly manage to be. This was a limit of the new technologies. The same tools that allowed the mass dissemination of media meant that what was being disseminated had to be centralized. It was many decades before anything but token interactivity arose in electronic media. In that time the idea of games as a childish activity cemented itself, contrasted with the socially mature activities of imbibing the high culture composed by broadcasters, be they the latest musical phenomena, social discussions or elite sporting events. Only games with an aristocratic past continued to be acceptable pastimes, buying into the status free-for-all that permeated 20th century culture. Luckily for us gamers, it takes more than broad cultural reformation to take the gamer out of our collective soul. Everything I’ve studied supports the idea that games are fundamental to culture and, in a sense, humanity. We cannot help but create them, share them and play them. They shape our minds, our psyche and our interactions with others. It is an addiction we all share, so even when gaming was socially marginalized, in places it flourished. The sophistication and diversity of childhood games- still considered acceptable- skyrocketed. Creative types continued to innovate and sowed the seeds of the modern RPG, CCG and of course videogames. As broadcast media became less prohibitively restrictive over the years, interactivity began to seep back into our culture. The internet kicked off a new age not just for communication but for play.


Now we stand on the wheel, close to coming full circle. No longer is one-to-many media the accepted norm. It is challenged at every turn by constant interactivity, the natural state of play. The stigmas established by the mass media revolution are slowly wearing down as we acknowledge the value in many old cultural institutions and become ever more aware of the weaknesses of impersonal broadcasts. It may not be too long before the leisure norms of the 20th century are viewed as an aberration, a relic of primitive technology and social upheaval. So I have no reason to consider myself an oddity or a part of a minority. I am an average man, so long as I extend the sampling a few hundred years, rather than just the past fifty or so. The people who spend only a minority of their leisure in active play- those are the odd ones out to me. I don’t consider my gamer identity with a kind of oppressed pride, as a membership of a secret group. It does not make me special, or unhealthy. I’ve learned that all humans are gamers, openly or not. We all play. Some of us play quietly, not admitting that we need to but clinging to our little vices with fierce passion. Others accept it and embrace it even while those around them do not. The greatest number of all play and let play, sharing in that common delight of discovering patterns, enduring tension and delighting in triumph that all games create. though the methods change, we continue to play as we always have. To distinguish oneself by the fact one plays games is akin to feeling special because you are a man or a woman. Entirely natural, as it is something important to your identity, but neither particularly justified nor constructive.


So ends the tale of how the gamers got their spots. What can we learn from it? Another comment that came up a lot at PAX was that being a gamer gave us our identity, our pride. We’re a little afraid of it becoming universally accepted because we may just lose that. When what we consider gaming becomes something everyone partakes of, do we blend silently back into the mass of humanity, our passions diluted into the commonplace? Perhaps, but here’s a thought. The idea that play and games are childish took root most strongly within the 20th century. It has always existed to a point, but the 20th marked the lowest point of the acceptance of adult play. Consequently most of our modern games come from roots in games aimed at children which have since evolved, but even more strongly carry the 20th century stigma of adults playing children’s games. These games evolved because they carried inside them qualities that were so powerful that even under the pressures of society, we could not let them go. Positive qualities that are at the root of why we identify as gamers. For me it is my ability to approach challenges, to endure failure, to imagine vividly and to sit down across a table with any other gamer and share in a common passion. Every genre has its own unique qualities, from the speculative economies of TCGs to the handicrafts involved in LARPs and the exploratory accomplishments of speedrunners and glitchers.


It’s time, I think, to identify those qualities, the deeper things that make us love and venerate our games as meaningful and important to us. These- not the games themselves- are the root of our identity, and so long as we remain on the forefront of promoting and developing these qualities our identities will remain intact. Games are only a tool through which those values can be expressed. In doing so we can help shed the stigma of childishness that still clings to modern gaming and, more importantly, we can bring games back to their ancient position as the premiere contributors to the happiness and welfare of individuals and communities across the world. In a sense, gamers have a chance to open the eyes of society to a world it has forgotten. It’s not something to be entitled about, simply something to draw confidence from and take joy in succeeding at if you have the chance. That quest, of course, is in large part what this blog is about.


One response to “How the Gamer got their Spots: A brief history of the public perception of gaming.

  1. Brett M Myers

    April 3, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Reblogged this on play without fear and commented:
    Australian game designer Stefan Barton-Ross shows us that, historically, gaming, games and play are the norm.


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