5 Reasons It's Still Not Cool to Admit You're a Gamer
Let's get this out of the way right now: The only reason I don't have more game consoles hooked to my TV is because I'm out of ports on the back for cables to plug into, and I don't want to have to get off the sofa to switch over. I've been playing video games since the Carter administration. So do not compare me to Roger "I never play video games yet dismiss them as worthless" Ebert here. Just... don't. I would have taken my SNES as my date to senior prom if they had let me.
But the thing is, I grew up. Gaming didn't.
Why? Why is it that of all my many hobbies--reading, motocross, Gun Kata--only gaming lowers my sense of self worth? Maybe it's because...
We Can't Shake the "Lonely, Anti-Social Virgin" Stereotype
Oh, look. Somebody has launched a goddamned service where you pay women to play video games with you. Eight bucks for 10 minutes.
Creepily ogling girls should be free, like air. Or porn.
For that amount, she'll chat with you, or even let you look at her on webcam while you play games and awkwardly flirt. Afterward you get to rate the girl on her, "hotness, gaming skill, and flirtiness."
On the scale of awkward social interactions, I'm going to guess these sessions rank right up there with a men's room conversation with a stranger at the very next urinal, while the stranger is pooping in it. There isn't an industrial disinfectant on the market that could make a woman feel clean again after a day of doing this. So, here's what I can't wrap my mind around:
Everybody plays video games now, right? My mom plays them. Yet, there is still a "if you have touched a video game controller, you have never touched a boob" stigma attached. It's so universally believed that somebody put up a whole lot of capital to start a business cashing in on it. And damn, do us gamers ever play the part. Get us on chat or an Xbox Live headset with a female and suddenly we're drunk on puberty juices.
Here's something I bet you didn't know: Two thirds of online gamers are women, according to one study. If you're thinking that doesn't match your experience at all, it's because they either avoid male-dominated games or they go undercover--70 percent of them intentionally choose male avatars so they don't have to put up with our "TITS OR GTFO" bullshit. That's just sad.
"But wait!" you say, "Everybody takes shit in online games! It's not just women!" Oh, I know. Our inability as a community to demonstrate any kind of human social skills extends in all directions.
Somehow that doesn't make me feel better.
I spent years putting up with the "gamers are pale loners crouched in the dark among Mountain Dew bottles and pizza boxes" stereotype--one that persists right up to the main character in Zombieland. Now that's transitioned to "gamers are all 17-year-old douchebags." That's not an improvement.
Of course, one problem is...
The Industry Thinks We're All 17-Year-Old Douchebags
I'm no prude; I'm the guy who made my publisher use a font where all the T's look like uncircumcised dongs. But I'm also an adult, with a wife. A homeowner who works very hard to maintain something that looks like dignity to people who catch a glimpse of it from passing cars.
But it's hard for me to maintain my self-image as a mature, upstanding member of the community when I sit down to enjoy my favorite hobby and see stuff like this (WARNING: massively Not Safe for Work). That clip is from God of War 3, one of the best-reviewed titles of this generation. This "Rated 'M' for 'Mature'" title features a minigame where you, the God of War, come across Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and boning. You walk in on her in a giggling naked lesbian threesome:
She then casts aside her two female lovers to invite you to her bed. You crawl in and the camera pans away. We hear moans and ooh's and ah's as button prompts appear, walking you through the process of thrusting your gray and red erection in and out, bringing Aphrodite to orgasm. Meanwhile, the camera focuses on the two rejected topless females across the room, who are now watching and fondling each other's bodies while mewling admiring phrases like:
"If it's this good watching, just imagine!"
"Is he going to...."
"By the gods!"
Eventually they get so aroused from the spectacle that they turn their lust on each other, and start having lesbian sex on the floor.
Again, "Mature" is the rating, and I've come to learn that "Mature" in video game land means "teenage male." So here we are again with the stereotype, the games themselves selling the kind of sex fantasy that appeals to specifically to males who have never actually had a relationship with a female.
When you're in your mid-teens, hormones thundering through your system, popping wheelies and doing donuts in your brain, you tend to think of women as giggling titty support systems who exist only to give you something to masturbate to. Then we actually get to know some real women and grow out of it.
Gaming has never grown out of it. I pop in Street Fighter IV and my very first match is against a grown woman in a Japanese schoolgirl fetish costume.
But hey, what about games where the female is the hero? You know, like Bayonetta, the woman who seductively sucks on a lollipop during cut-scenes, whose special moves require her to get naked.
This would be the game where the modeler boasts about how lovingly they crafted the character's ass.
Then you have Resident Evil 5, where you can control Sheva Alomar, a strong, heroic, capable African woman...
...and your reward for beating the game is you get to make her dress like this:
Again, I have no problem with putting sex or sexuality in entertainment. Sex is part of life, so it should naturally be part of our movies and TV shows and games. But these are the digital equivalent of inflatable sex dolls. It's embarrassing and insulting, not because I'm a staunch feminist, but because I don't like the assumption it's making about me (that I'm an emotionally stunted, sexually frustrated teenage male). It's like even award-winning video games have the sensibility of made-for-Cinemax B movies. Maybe that's because...
Video Game Storytelling is Still at the Level of B Movies
Have a glance at a list of the best-selling Xbox 360 games ever. I can tell you I've played and enjoyed each of the top five. But here's the storyline for each of them:
Faceless Space Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Aliens.
Faceless Earth Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Foreigners.
Different Space Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Aliens.
Different Space Soldier Guns Down Many, Many Aliens Again.
Eastern European Man Bent on Revenge Kills Everyone in New York.
Successfully completing those five games required me to kill, oh, about 10 million people. There was a death on screen about every five seconds. Movies structured this way--two minutes of plot and 20 minutes of slaughter--would be considered grindhouse cheese, direct-to-DVD stuff starring Steven Seagal that we'd never admit to enjoying when talking to anyone we cared about impressing. Guilty pleasures.
The original title of Hard to Kill was, in fact, Guilty Pleasure.
With very, very few exceptions, video game plots are stuck at this level. It's storytelling at its most primitive: good guy with a gun, thousands of bad guys, the happy ending comes when you make enough of the bad guys dead. Characters are crude, cartoonish archetypes--grizzled soldier, grizzled gangster, femme fatale, cool hit man, bumbling fat guy, robot.
Now, within five minutes of this article's posting, somebody in the comments will mention Bioshock. I've played that one, too. And loved it. Still, 90 percent of what transpired on screen was me mowing down room after room of faceless bad guys. If you make a movie where 90 of the 100 minutes of runtime is people getting their faces blown off--even if you fill the other 10 minutes with speeches about objectivism--every critic will use the same word to describe it:
Don't tell me it's unfair to compare games to movies, either. When even Mario games come with dialogue and cutscenes, it's crystal clear that gaming wants to be a storytelling medium. You can judge a culture by the stories it tells, and you can judge the maturity of video gaming and gamers the same way.
Cue suggestive lollipop
But damn, we're about to hit the 40-year mark on video games as a form of mass media. Forty years after movies were invented (the late 1930s), Hollywood was making The Wizard of Oz--a movie that people are still renting and buying 70 years later (they even re-released it back into theaters in 1998 and it made about $20 million--there were people still willing to leave the house and buy a ticket to see it).
Will people still be playing Bioshock 70 years from now? Hell, hardly anybody is playing it now. Sometimes I pop it in and it makes me feel really smart for five minutes, then I spend the next hour firing a flame thrower at a giant mutant with drill hands.
But that really has nothing to do with the game.
Forty years of evolution, and here we are. So why are games overwhelmingly mindless, when gamers aren't? Well...
We're Still Obsessed by Shiny Gadgets
Since we've brought film into this, take a look at the (very short) clip below. It's one of the first movies ever made, and the very first one to ever get a copyright as a motion picture:
That was the whole thing. Fred Ott's Sneeze, made in 1896. It's five seconds of a guy sneezing. People used to pay good money to watch that sort of thing, in traveling shows with little kiosks.
They weren't all suffering from crippling brain damage, it's just that at one time film was brand new and the technology was startling all on its own. So movies were usually just very short, simple sequences (a woman dancing, a fat guy falling down, a disobedient housewife getting whipped). Later they'd throw in some primitive camera tricks, like making an actor disappear with an edit, or making an object float with simple stop-motion animation, and the audience would almost poop their pants with awe.
Yet his monocle remains undisturbed
But once the technology was no longer novel, those early films became utterly worthless--you'd have to be pretty damned stoned to pay to see a re-release of Sneeze. No one thought watching those clips were teaching life lessons or even moving you emotionally--the main emotion elicited could be described as, "HOLY SHIT, I AM WATCHING A MOVIE!" It was only later that they were able to tell stories like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, epics that connected with people on some deeper level that actually left them changed in some way.
Video games, for the most part, never move past that "HOLY SHIT I AM PLAYING A VIDEO GAME" stage. We have an E3 coming up. Watch how much of the conversation revolves around technical novelty (motion controls, upgraded graphics, 3D) versus character or story or creativity. We have only ourselves to blame--we pretty much demand this.
For instance, at the time of this writing, I have a still-unopened copy of Remedy's Alan Wake, a just-released game I've been anticipating for about five years, which I'm saving for some free weekend. It's an atmospheric horror tale which reviewers assure me is on the cutting edge of non-ridiculous video game storytelling. But I'm browsing around gaming blogs and message boards and I'm getting worried. I see dozens of comments like this:
Oh-oh. What's the complaint that has everyone up in arms? Is there a cheap twist at the end? Is the main character two-dimensional? Is there a frustrating minigame where you have to carefully groom Alan's pubic hair?
No. It turns out somebody took a screenshot of the game, zoomed in 500 percent and counted up the pixels to make sure every frame was rendering at the maximum 720p resolution the Xbox 360 is capable of.
It turned out some parts of some frames weren't. All hell broke loose. Here are hundreds of posts on the subject at gaming forum NeoGaf. Here are hundreds more at B3D. Here's 2,000 posts on the subject at the Alan Wake site.
On some level we know this is wrong, because we know to hold films to a different standard. We know that advances in CGI couldn't save the Star Wars prequels, and that pretty 3D doesn't make Avatar the best movie of the year. Yet, in the next breath after mocking Avatar fans as slack-jawed yokels easily amused by a cheap technical gimmick, we will fly into a rage if some new game's technical gimmicks aren't up to par.
Nothing else matters. Who's that woman Alan is talking to up there? Where are they going? How does it play into the story? What emotions is this scene going to elicit? Tension? Dread? Humor? HOW CAN YOU WORRY ABOUT SUCH THINGS WHEN THE ROLL CAGE ON HIS PICKUP TRUCK ONLY HAS A 19:25 PIXEL RATIO.
Of course, that level of outrage speaks to something else entirely...
We Have Some Serious Entitlement Issues
I don't want to get into an argument about piracy. I'm thinking that none of us reading this can cast the first stone on that one. Information wants to be free, you weren't going to buy it anyway, they're all greedy corporations, etc. But then you have the Humble Indie Bundle.
That was a bundle of DRM-free independent games that, combined, would normally sell for $80. The makers offered the bundle as a direct download to the consumer--no corporate middle men--and let customers pay whatever they wanted, down to a penny.
"Yeah, that seems fair."
It wasn't free, you still had to pay. But you could set the price.
If ever there was a measure of the gaming community's sense of entitlement, this was it. All of the rationale for piracy--high prices, hatred of corporations, annoying DRM--was stripped away. Here we would find what we gamers think game creators owe us, and what we think we owe in return. The results:
The average downloader offered to pay $9.18, giving themselves a nice 87 percent discount off the retail price.
More than a quarter of the downloaders stole it outright.
That's right. More than a quarter believed that even one penny was too much to offer in return for the hundreds of hours of labor it took to create the games.
And that's not including the people who traded the Bundle off torrents and file trading services--this is just the people who pirated the games directly off of the game maker's server. In other words, they intentionally used the game developers' resources so, in addition to paying nothing, they would actually cost them additional money on bandwidth. It's like if you not only refused to drop a nickel into the street musician's guitar case, but waited for him to finish the song before taking a handful of change out.
Oh, Stevie. You make it too easy.
Those same PC gamers--who spend 75 percent of their waking hours explaining how PC's are the ultimate gaming platform--seem baffled as to why PC gaming is dying. Hey, remember back when every new groundbreaking innovation happened on the PC? What happened to those days? After all, remember the hype about Spore and how it was going to change the world? That would be the game that was pirated 1.7 million times in its first three months.
But who could resist its siren call?
Gosh, I wonder why these publishers are putting all of their resources into the harder-to-pirate consoles instead? Forget about the debate over the morality of file sharing. It's not that; it's just simple cause-effect. We're smashing out the windows because it's fun, and then crying because the rain is coming in. It makes us all look like spoiled, entitled brats with no concept of how the adult world works. Don't tell me this is because gamers are mostly kids, either--the average age of video game players is 35.
We help ourselves to free game after free game, and then scream bloody murder when Ubisoft goes overboard with anti-piracy measures. When the makers of the Modern Warfare series decided to make the consoles front and center for the sequel--stripping some features PC gamers are used to in the process--gamers threw a tantrum and bombarded Amazon with hundreds of one-star reviews for a game they admit right in the reviews they never actually purchased or played.
See, I don't think those guys understand what "review" means. And of course, they couldn't make it through their crusade without the ever-present "we'll just pirate it instead!" threat.
The, "they're treating us like animals, so let's shit on their floor!" line of thinking is the hallmark of teenagers in full teenager mode. It's no wonder gamers get portrayed in the media as impulsive and immature:
...and why it's so hard to convince people the infamous "WoW freakout" video is a fake:
Come on, guys. We've got a reputation to outgrow. From now on, let's shove the remote control of maturity up our ass instead.
David Wong is the Editor of Cracked.com and the author of the comedy horror novel John Dies at the End, currently banned in 72 countries.
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To see how you can start turning around these stereotypes, study the 10 Video Games That Should Be Considered Modern Art. Or learn the dark inside secrets of the industry in 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted.
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