I've been meaning to write another screed on media representations of gamers for a couple months now (that's my lame way of explaining why a few of these links are old). But there's a timeless quality to these stories, to the bad ones at least, insofar as geek-bashing never goes out of style in the media.
First I'd like to point you at this rude thing, published in the Stranger, an alternative paper in Seattle. In The Dice Storm: Taking the Plunge at the Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day, the reporter/essayist tells the story of her first encounter with D&D. The author goes with her boyfriend to the D&D Game Day event at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. They try their hand at the game -- she, a fighter; he, a cleric.
The introductory editors' note offers this reporter as a sacrificial lamb, that is, the writer assigned to cover events "to which we wouldn't send our worst enemy." So the message is clear from the top -- this is meant to be a funny story that pokes fun at an event no normal person would want to attend.
The writer, by all signs happy to take on a humor assignment, wastes no time in finding funny things to say. The tone, style, and underlying assumptions in these stories are revealing. A few samples:
- "This translates into vaginas healed over from disuse, penises ignored in favor of 20-sided dice, and just one... more... magic... missile!"
- "Rows of man-cleavage rimmed the small tables like scalloped doilies."
- "It would be difficult to act pretentious while wearing gold-plated, 20-sided die earrings, or T-shirts that read, 'Clerics Are Lame.' "
For the record, here's a set of photos from the event. Hmmmm ... no man-cleavage in sight!
To be fair, the writer says some nice things as well:
- "Conversations were liberally marked with 10-dollar vocabulary words, and everyone I talked to was friendly, helpful, and surprisingly extroverted, regardless of their alignment (the powers of Good vs. Evil)."
- "It was amazing to see strangers bond over memories of adventures that technically never happened."
But even in saying nice things, the urge to snipe is too hard to resist ... "surprisingly extroverted," she just had to say.
The Stranger article stands in marked contrast to Video games aren't just child's play, in which the reporter writes about adult video game players, covering demographics, statistics, and interviews with game industry professionals. The author also talks with a range of gamers. Full Disclosure! This article was written by my wife.
But, wife-written or not, it is refreshing to read an article that gives a voice to all kinds of people, from a 51-year-old chef to a 35-year-old architect, all talking about their love of games. Granted, these are video gamers, but our cousins who game with console or keyboard rather than pen and paper are usually just as maligned. And most importantly, there are no snarky asides or jokes made at the expense of the people about whom the article is written.
Let me offer a few representative quotes from the article by my lucky ball and chain:
- "Adults say they play games to relax, stave off boredom and let their imagination roam into virtual worlds where they can become characters unlike themselves."
- A quote from the editor-in-chief of Game Informer Magazine: "There's no boundary as far as age or sex that says you can't be a video game player."
- "It turns out that gamers devote 23.4 hours a week to exercise, sports, volunteering, religious activities, cultural events, reading and creative endeavors and just 6.8 hours to games."
But there's a different attitude evident in two articles, both more recent that the two quoted above. In both of these, the writer goes for the cheap laugh in taking a pot shot at Dungeons and Dragons.
The very first sentence in this story is a slam: "The first inquiry, from the back was, "Ned, can you tell us, what were some of the more salient acts of the SLA?" and I realized I may have been the only person on the bus who knew when to stop playing Dungeons and Dragons."
And this news story, on a new reality show, called "Beauty and the Geek," that puts an ostensible "geek" in a team with a dumb "beauty." The article writer delights in put-downs. "Find a socially inept geek -- yes, we recognize the redundancy -- who is self-conscious enough to know that he or she needs help." And this gem: "Evidently, it is possible to evolve. So how much progress can one make? 'Carl (a geek contender) moved his Dungeons and Dragons game from Friday to Wednesday,' noted Jason Goldberg, executive producer. Now there's a breakthrough."
Editorial comments -- in a news story! -- like "yes, we recognize the redundancy" and "Now there's a breakthrough" are just nasty.
The story offers this quote from Ashton Kutcher, co-creator and producer of "Beauty and the Geek" -- "We're not trying to make a mean-spirited show. We're not trying to make fun of people. The idea of the show is to help people become better people." Given that Kutcher was a biochemical engineering major before dropping out of college to try modelling -- that is, given that he has both "geek" and "beauty" cred -- I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Too bad the author of the article did not see the irony of writing a mean-spirited story about the not-mean-spirited show.
But let us end on a (somewhat) more positive note. This article, an interview in the Onion's A.V. Club with comic Stephen Colbert, includes this interesting exchange:
AVC: You were into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, were you not?
SC: Yeah, I really was. I started playing in seventh grade, 1977. And I played incessantly, 'til probably 1981—four years.
AVC: What's the appeal?
SC: It's a fantasy role-playing game. If you're familiar with the works of Tolkien or Stephen R. Donaldson or Poul Anderson or any of the guys who wrote really good fantasy stuff, those worlds stood up. It's an opportunity to assume a persona. Who really wants to be themselves when they're teenagers? And you get to be heroic and have adventures. And it's an incredibly fun game. They have arcane rules and complex societies and they're open-ended and limitless, kind of like life. For somebody who eventually became an actor, it was interesting to have done that for so many years, because acting is role-playing. You assume a character, and you have to stay in them over years, and you create histories, and you apply your powers. It's good improvisation with agreed rules before you go in.
Well, that's pretty good press, but it begs the question, why stop at age 15? It gives support to the nasty comment above that says there's a time to stop playing games. The underlying message -- Grow Up! -- is just offensive.
So, Mr. Colbert, I have some advice for you -- Try again! Come back to games, to RPGs, to D&D! They are just as fun and valuable as when you were a teen.