The past few weeks have been a very frustrating time for anyone closely involved with gaming culture. We seem to have collectively reached a point where controversy is tradition and binary issues drive the discourse. The most recent problems seem to have pitted gamers against game journalists. And it’s pretty messy.
Now you may be making your assumptions already: well, if he doesn’t identify as a gamer then he must be taking the side of the journos on this one. That’s not quite true either, though. Maybe it’s the lazy way or the boring way, but I’m ducking out of the whole situation. And this article is my way of explaining why, using my personal gaming experiences, I have come to this decision. My goal is not to complain about my life, but hopefully to reach out to anyone else who may be in a confusing situation right now.
Origins of a “Gamer”
Like many of you reading this, I was introduced to video games at a very young age. I pretty much only had a Super Nintendo for the majority of my childhood and spent afternoons with my brother playing Turtles in Time and trying to beat Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts (spoiler: we never did).
It wasn’t until high school that I actually made a point to become well-versed in the gaming sphere. My allowance went towards buying used games, I surrounded myself with gamer friends, and I immersed myself in the growing culture. This was right around the time that the “games are art” debate was really picking up steam as a legitimate argument. Back then, that was how we justified our hobby. “It’s art,” we cried to our parents and teachers, then we turned back to our TVs to beat up prostitutes and slice minotaurs in half. Pure bliss.
There was a honeymoon phase that followed, as with most things. I made friends on various game forums, learned about all the cult classics and sleeper hits. I got a GameFly subscription to play the new releases and old games I couldn’t afford. Friends encouraged me to start a blog. When that didn’t pan out, they urged me towards YouTube.
And so I became a Let’s Player. None of my videos were scripted–seemed like a waste of time when I could just ramble incoherently for awhile. I thought this would be my big break, but I had no such luck. After all, I played niche games, so of course I’d only attract a niche crowd. It was frustrating–I won’t lie.
The Gaming Plateau
So by the time I started college, I was in an awkward position. I had more than $100 of streaming equipment and no audience. My Steam library was growing exponentially with every sale, and I had not–and have not–played most of those games.
I turned to sites like Backloggery and HowLongToBeat to help me maintain my backlog. Randomly, I’d pick a game from my list and play it from beginning to end regardless of whether or not I was actually enjoying it, just because I wanted to be able to submit it as “completed.” Hopefully, I thought, one day I’ll have 1000 games completed. Then I will be a true gamer. What a goal, right?
Every time I started something new, it became a soulless trudge, generally accompanied by a soulless, trudging walkthrough just to get to the end. Gratification came not from completing the game, but from listing the game as “completed” on my HowLongToBeat profile. I stopped playing RPGs altogether because they were just “too time-consuming.” Besides, I could probably beat, like, 10 Mega Man games in the time it would take to finish a Pokemon game. At some point I started relying on cheats and save states to get from beginning to end on the path of least resistance.
As a result, I started to suck at games in general. I played all these games to seem impressive to people online. “You haven’t played Devil May Cry?” they’d ask. “You’re not really a gamer, bro.” Because of my resistance to become a “casual” by playing fewer games than other “hardcore gamers,” I had actually become a casual–only, a casual that had played a lot of games.
At my lowest point, I shut off social interaction, almost entirely. I had my roommate, who I saw only because I had to see, and my best friend on campus who I only hung out with because he played games with me. Besides them? Hardly anyone else factored into my life. I stayed in my room beating games one by one, sometimes two by two, getting into internet arguments over sexism and racism in the industry, and more or less hating the person I had become.
The truth was I had become the stereotypical “gamer” archetype conservative pundits warned us all about 10 years ago. Virgin, no real friends, living with my parents, no job, fighting the good fight by proclaiming “GAMES ARE ART” half a decade after that debate had ended and incessantly arguing for or against social issues on forums, generally in opposition to whatever opinion was popular. I thought maybe I could turn my life around and do something with this wealth of gaming knowledge I had obtained, which was when I reached out to Geekenstein. They picked me up and I soon became a staple on the site. The atmosphere here has been wonderful and accommodating, though I was silently catalyzing myself into a deeper pit.
The Breaking Point
There came a moment when a user called me out in an Elder Scrolls Online preview because I named my character “Chumplord.” His argument was that I could not get invested in my character if I didn’t even make the attempt to buy into the fantasy. And though it was a pretty stupid point, he was also right to an extent: at least, in the sense that it made me realize I’ve never been truly “immersed” in a game before.
In Bioshock did I care about saving the Little Sisters? Hell no, I only did it because ultimately the endgame ADAM payoff was better. Games have certainly made me feel emotional, like The Walking Dead for example. But I didn’t feel as deeply towards those characters as I have towards characters in film and literature. I don’t fault the medium for that. But the rare game that comes along that does impact me, like Gone Home, tends to lose its meaning after seeing so many angry people label it as a “non-game” or “political drivel.”
Have I been searching too hard to find meaning in the medium? Or have I not been looking hard enough? I don’t know, is the answer. But it’s a question that always comes up. The Last of Us has been hailed as one of the greatest games of our time, and I certainly enjoyed it. But why do I feel like in twenty years, more people will still be playing Super Mario 64 than TLoU? Is it because, at the core, games really are better when they prioritize fun?
So, after nearly a decade of my “gaming adventure,” all I have left are shelves full of games I have yet to play, an address book of friends I no longer have, a wealth of pissed-off readers, and a closet full of video game shirts with witty phrases on them. And you want to know what? It’s fucking embarrassing.
It’s embarrassing that whenever I meet a girl gamer that they feel like they have to prove something, thinking that I’ll quiz them on whether or not they’re “real.” It’s embarrassing when I’m with a group of friends and all I can do is quietly wait for someone to mention a game so I can spin the conversation around and participate. It’s embarrassing when people ask what I did with my summer and all I can say is “I stayed in my room and played games.” And I can’t keep living like that.
These recent controversies are just the straws that broke the camel’s back. What do you do when your “industry” and “community” have begun throwing exploding rocks at each other? What do you do when everyone takes games so seriously that they launch hacking attacks and smear campaigns? You can either jump into the fray, ignore it, or willingly leave it behind. And I’ve taken that third road.
In the past months, I’ve gained more joy (and friends) by simply playing the same three games over and over again in speedruns than I have in the past three years, debating the Mass Effect 3 ending, Zoe Quinn, and whether or not tripping was a good mechanic in Brawl. I have a list of my favorite games that I’ve been categorically going through to experience the things that really matter to me. I’ve started watching television shows, listening to non-video game music, reading books, going on walks, getting back to my writing.
I still intend to follow game news and write reviews as they come to me here, not because I feel obligated by a “gamer” identity, but because it’s what I want to do. I still believe games are an art form and I want to advocate for them as such, but from a new angle. No longer in shallow all-or-nothing terms, but through the strict analysis and critical lens we apply to other mediums.
From this day forward, I am not a “gamer.” Nor am I a “game journalist.” I am simply a person who plays games and sometimes writes about them.
My goal here was not just to complain about my life or to say that being a gamer means that you are inevitably going to lead an unfulfilling life, even if it seems that way. I wrote this article because I believe that I am not the only person out there who has gone through this.
I let my gamer identity take over my life. As a result, any time the general “gamer” community was criticized, I took it as a personal affront. I thought I deserved better–I thought we deserved better. But game journalism is just a child of the digital age, and all our renowned voices are no different than the rest of us. They’re bloggers on the world’s largest platform, emotional, rash, and uncensored. We gave them their pedestals, we gave them their soapboxes, and only now do we seek to take them back when they opt to criticize us.
Both “sides” need to realize their errors. Gamers need to accept that if they want games to be taken seriously as art, they’re going to have to accept the same kind of criticism that other mediums receive. At the same time, “proper” game journalists need to stop resisting the idea of integrity as if they don’t need it. Their audiences demand it. Of course, this is ignoring the larger issue: once we set two distinct “sides” in any debate, we lose all chance at meaningful discussion between the two.
I suppose at the end of this wall of text, the best advice I can give is “don’t take yourself too seriously.” Or perhaps “don’t champion a cause based on a misappropriated sense of self.” If you identify as a gamer, I don’t mean to put you down. I just ask that you reflect and understand what brought you to gaming in the first place. If you’re not living according to that charter, maybe it’s best to step back and rethink your life like I have.