What is gaming culture?

The recent flaps over “gamers” and what “gaming culture” is are causing a massive stir in the Interwebs. What we’re seeing more and more is people — some in the “gaming community” and some outside of it — asserting in various ways that “gaming culture” is either inherently misogynistic or sexist, or is being seen as that due to the actions of some of those inside of it, and that it has to change in response to that. Somehow. But the massively important question here is: what is gaming culture?

One of the most common examples of the problems with “gaming culture” is listing off the in-game chat of some games, and pointing out that when a woman is playing she gets sexual comments and rape threats. And I don’t deny that this happens, and happens far more frequently than it probably should. However, there are two problems with this. The first is that this will vary from game to game, and from genre to genre. Most of the examples are from FPSs, but other genres may work differently. For example, MMOs, being less competitive and relying more on group cohesion, probably won’t have as much of that inside a group (although you may see it outside of groups). And even then it will be the case that different games have different overall cultures. I played City of Heroes off and on for a number of years, and that was a game where the character customization was such that I — and many others — had a number of female character concepts that were interesting or more interesting than the male ones. So I played a lot as a female avatar, and didn’t talk about my gender, and had one incident that might have been bad … and even that one was debatable. Even the general chat was generally good and reasonably polite. I’ve also heard that Lord of the Rings Online, at least at first, had a reasonable and respectful user base. The Old Republic is worse, and I haven’t played a lot as a female character to say how that is, but for the most part even TOR is more immature than out-and-out sexist. So the experience — and the culture — will vary a lot according to what game you’re playing. The second issue is that the experience will change according to who you play with. If you just join pick-up games, you’re likely to run into a lot of immature people, and the experience will be worse. If you play with a group of regulars, you will indeed be able to find a group where that sort of thing doesn’t happen. If you play in an MMO in a guild based on the people at Twenty-Sided Tale, you’ll probably have a great, sexism free experience. One of my best guilds in CoH was formed from a group of posters on Gamefaqs, called the Grammar Patrol. You know what you’re getting with that one [grin]. So this will also depend greatly on who you play with.

So, quick question: which of these is really gaming culture? Are the good ones to be dismissed because you can easily find the bad ones, as they are indeed the ones who are limited to pick-up games and groups because they can’t find people who will play with them consistently? Who is to say that they reflect what gaming culture really is as opposed to the vast number of people who not only don’t do those things, but actively work to keep them out of the games they play?

This carries over to the whole debate over female protagonists and the representation of women in games. There are indeed a number of people railing nastily against those advocating for it. Are these the people who reflect the views of gamers, who form “gaming culture”? There are a number of sources inside gaming, from independents to gaming sites, who advocate for better representations of women in games. There are a number of sources in gaming that find the treatment of those women to be unacceptable, even if they don’t agree with what they say — and they say that, loudly. Once we get past the most obvious forms of harassment — which are disturbingly common in most online forums (there’s a reason that I ban swearing on this blog) — the attitudes towards the representation of women among gamers is quite diverse. Some think that it is bad and needs to be improved. Some don’t think it needs to be improved. Some think that we need more female protagonists. Some don’t care either way and just want to play good games. And some are worried that “gaming culture” is being co-opted by a group of people who were not here when gaming was building itself into something cool and interesting, jumped on the bandwagon now that it has arrived, and now want to change it to make gaming like they want it to be ignoring what the people who built and supported it liked about it; in short, even by just advocating to change things to appeal to new markets turning gaming into homogenized, mainstream dreck and leaving them without the hobby that they’ve supported and enjoyed for so long.

And that last one is at least one reason why, I think, this is such a big deal to gamers. For the longest time, they were considered to have a certain culture … essentially, that of perpetual, immature loners who lived in their parents’ basements and didn’t do anything except play these childish games and so avoided doing anything that was really fun or really had merit. Now, as with all geek culture, suddenly their hobby is en vogue, and the mainstream people that once mocked it are now jumping on the bandwagon and having fun. Except that they then decide that the things that drew the gamers to it aren’t what appeal to them — for various reasons — and now want to change it, and when gamers react to having people say that what they liked about the game shouldn’t be there their “culture” is again being called out as being immature, sexist, and so on and so forth. No wonder they are both angry at and suspicious of the motives of the people pushing so hard for change, and doing so by misrepresenting who they inherently are.

Because gamers are a massively diverse group. The only thing that gamers have in common is that they play games as a hobby. They don’t all play the same games, even, let alone hold the same political or social views. They don’t all react to criticism the same way. They don’t all find the currently more male-dominated style of at least some genres of games appealing. They don’t all think that rape threats are a good way to criticize people you agree with. Some agree with the “SJWs”, some don’t, some disagree “violently”. To claim that “gaming culture” has a sexism problem and needs to fix it is to define what gaming culture by those that gaming culture may in fact be mostly rejecting, and is essentially outsiders telling gamers what their culture really is, regardless of how they feel about the subject. Which is what the mainstream has been doing for a long, long time now, so forgive gamers if they aren’t likely to take that well.

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