I can see the gamer in your head. He’s overweight or undeniably lanky. He hasn’t showered for awhile and his breath smells like the carcinogenic additives they spray on food nowadays. His pits are stained with sweat, and his heavy $100+ headset leaves depressed indentions in his hair when he removes it to call out in response to the mother he hardly notices yet still depends on for financial stability. He shouts every time he fails, throwing his controller on the ground or pounds the bed/couch he sits on… maybe he also muffles his shouts with a pillow if he’s the repressed type. And he is a HE. You can tell by the content of his games that he is a he. There is an abundance of objectified and powerless women, muted sexual fanfare, and “masculine” repugnancy drenching the media he consumes. And how prolific his consumption is! As if Pavlov rang a bell, he preorders the next game, the next console, the old game for the next console, the expansion that exists on the new game’s disc but which he’s been told is extra content that will markedly improve the experience for such a low low price. I can see him, too. He disgusts me, but games don’t… or at least good games don’t.
I am a gamer… or at least I was until I came of age and discovered the terrific impression of gamers in this modern day. My games had existed in the numbers on the math board, how they could be manipulated and teased apart into whatever beautiful little systems I desired. I lived on the lined sheets of the college ruled spiral notebooks we bought in bulk for 10 cents a piece during school preparation. Inside them, I designed boards and named pieces and created rulesets, playing each out against myself and against other rulesets. In Windows 2000’s MS Paint, I carefully selected the moveable bits of fully playable games contained in simple image files. I found joy in the algorithms of games and in the way they could produce more solid and absorbable forms of information. I fell in love with the science of zeroes and ones and the outputs for inputs of computer function. When I learned cell biology in fifth grade, I set to work on a game of cell evolution and warfare in which players would attempt to optimize their cell and spread its population to conquer the whole system. I was enamored with the results. I was having fun, but I did it alone. Later, I mapped out fantastic, traversable worlds in measured scale complete with multiple biomes, many friends and enemies, histories all their own, and markets in which goods could move. I’d show them to my brothers and my father, but never my mother for she despised role-playing games, but they never played them with me and my games were soon forgotten.
Perhaps that why I play video games, to be part of a group, but they contained their own systems, too. The cacophonous laughter of queueing every major city in the late game of Sid Meier’s Civilization II to produce multiple copies of the virtually costless Fanatics units under the Fundamentalist government and the subsequent mad march that allowed me to conquer the whole of Civ II’s world entranced me. The way cleverly assigning attribute points in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords allowed me to create a hyper intelligent, sharpshooting Jedi with a silver tongue and supportive Force powers half-cocked my smile and brightened my spirit. It seemed however, that as I began to grow, the games grew out of me. First person shooters required reflexes I didn’t have and memorization skills I couldn’t recall. The text-based adventure games I had laughed at by testing the limits, snarky responses, and idiosyncrasies of their parsing programs bloomed into visual trials of patience and repetition, dragging and dropping each item and systematically testing each pixel of the screen. Despite this, video games still gave me the intrigue of yesteryear in some small ways. Battlefront I and II allowed a strategic dance of command posts and rock/paper/scissors-esque unit selection, not to mention the lateral solutions required to best Battlefront I’s heroes. The shift of games, however, was troubling to me.
More and more I watched as video games stopped being breakable, playful systems of decision-making and transformed into Skinner boxes or movies with interactive psychological hooks. They served a different purpose now, I would think to myself, but they served the same audience. So I changed, socially, with that audience. I couldn’t collect coins as a gamer any longer or aspire to be an accountant/economist in the future. I’d instead consume and critique media en masse, learn how to tell and craft a story, play with basic animation techniques, and abandon the playful systems I fell in love with for the different, but entirely similar, systems of storytelling. In those systems I learned the joys of manipulating the English word. I purposefully crafted the longest, most cumbersome, hardest to parse, and yet grammatically correct, sentences I could imagine. I never led my stories back to tonic, their pitches ringing in the ears of those who read, baffled at the decisive jazz of a story mistold for literary reasons. It never felt like enough though. There was always something missing.
“Tell the story through gameplay,” I would say, “avoid ludonarrative dissonance at all costs.” In truth, I wanted my systems back and I wanted them to say something powerful like they had so many times before. I wanted to be the farmer on the Oregon Trail who bought more bullets than pounds of flour because of my small income and the abundance of game along the way to Willamette Valley. I wanted to be that same farmer who lost a child to disease because he was forced to push his family at a grueling pace to reach the destination before the winter turned harsh. Deep in my heart, I knew, and still know, that games were important for more than the mind numbing escapism they now provide. Their design could speak volumes, in an experiential way, about the systems we live in and the people we live in them with. I knew we could empathize through games, I only wished that gamer guy that hides in the dominant marketing demographics of the industry could see it, too.
Just like games without play fall down into a pit of commercialized media monstrosities, gamers that don’t play devour the wealth of good within gaming. The next time you think of a gamer, I want the person in your head to be any gender you want, any sexuality you want, any race you want, any weight you want, et cetera, but I want them to be a player above all. If you give them a Rubik’s cube, they should spin its every bit, smile with amusement, take notes of each algorithm they discover, and pull the bits of plastic apart to see how the puzzle works. If you give them a stick, they should note the rings within the wood in remembrance, test its buoyancy, and, with great zeal, attempt to snap it over their knee. Once gamers become more akin to scientists that learn for their own pleasure and less akin to addicts flying towards the next fix, I’ll be pleased. Until then, let’s ask more from our games than we ever have and, seeing the strength of the industry, relinquish the fear that constructive criticism might kill the thing we love. As a multibillion dollar industry, games aren’t in their fragile infancy anymore, they’ve reached their “terrible twos” and we need to give them the guidance they deserve.