What I, as a Non-Gamer, Learn from Gamers and Gaming

I was never very good at video games. In fact, it’s probably been upwards of 20 years since I played games from consoles and have never played via PC or MAC. However, I do have fond memories of gaming. I used to sit and watch my brothers play. No matter whose house I went to in my neighborhood, everyone had at least one console. My eldest brother was particularly good at games. I loved watching him play classics like The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Super Mario Brothers, Smash Brothers TV, Duck Hunt, Double Dribble and Street Fighter.

When I dared pick up a controller, I found I wasn’t that good at games. I started out as an original Atari player and remember playing Pong and later Asteroids. The asteroids always eventually won. I remember Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man before a Nintendo system came into the home. I would play games every once in a while whenever my brothers weren’t playing. I could get only so far in Castlevania and Mario Brothers. I enjoyed Yoshi’s Island, which is probably the game I played most successfully because I could make it all the way to the end, but I refused to fight Bowser because I knew I would lose. I could clear about 10 boards in the Star Wars game before it bested me. Interestingly, I was also good at a race car game, interesting because I can’t drive in real life. I was pretty good at playing Tetris and Dr. Mario, games a former friend had at her house.

I never realized that games left my life at a certain point, about the time my brothers left the house. My sisters and I were never hardcore gamers and probably only played because the console was available. When my brothers left, so did the console. But I tended to enjoy watching my brothers play and got involved in story arcs and game objectives while I watched them play. However, by the time I got to high school, games and gaming consoles were no longer a part of my life. Any game I played got restricted to cards and most of the time that game was solitaire. I don’t know if anyone in my small hometown ever played role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons when I was younger or even now.

It was probably in grad school when I began to become aware of gaming again. By the turn of the century, gaming was such a big business and also probably the beginnings of the marketing of gaming as nerd culture for predominantly a white male audience. What I knew about games came mostly from academic studies that focused on the culture of violence that some gamers brought to the industry. Other than that, I knew that Madden was all the rage.

However, I also noticed around that time that the graphics and storylines for gaming had become quite advanced. 3D graphics meant more realistic looking games and story arcs could be acted out during the game rather than filled out later during discussion. Now with gamers on PCs, there is an immediate community connection not unlike the days in which friends shared cheat codes and other tips to help master individual boards and eventually beat the game.

Now I’m enjoying getting reacquainted with games and the gamers who make them such an important part of our culture. I recently discovered Twitch.tv through #INeedDiverseGames creator @cypheroftyr and frequently watch friends play games when they log in. I’m also teaching myself an RPG called Five Fires and attempting to learn the rules of chess. (I discovered I have the game on my laptop, played it cold and got my ass handed to me in less than half an hour.) I’m not really part of any gaming community, but I am learning why they are so important and representation in gaming matters as it does in other forms of mass media such as television, film and books.

For so many of us living with marginalized identities, mass media have often been a means of escape and also catharsis. That escape becomes rather difficult when you find yourself erased from this existence as well. For instance, I have always loved fantasy and adventure films such as The Neverending Story, The Goonies and eventually the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (In fact, I even wrote an adventure, fantasy series a couple of years ago and am planning another soon.) However, there were never any characters in these films with whom I could actually relate to on my terms. I could not truly relate to Atreyu or Bastion, not even the child-like Empress. Even escapism becomes a drag when you’re constantly written out of it or further marginalized.

But I’ve now gotten new hope for gaming. Outlets like Twitch.tv contribute to building gaming communities and let me in on games as a spectator. I very much enjoy watching @cypheroftyr when she streams Dragon Age: Inquisition. Seeing an attempt to include POC and LGBTQ characters as essential figures in the DA:I story is refreshing and I tend to watch as if I’m watching a series or mini-series, sort of a choose your own adventure vibe.

I’m also learning that games can be cathartic in ways I’ve avoided thinking about. For instance, many of my friends enjoy shooting games, games that I would have avoided if I were a gamer because of the clear presence of violence. (Face it: even Mario Brothers and race car games like Mario Kart are full of violence as part of the game as well.) Eavesdropping on friends’ discussions of shooting games shows me how they are cathartic, especially for marginalized people who do not have an outlet to let out frustration after facing microaggressions and other hostilities throughout the day. Considering this, I can definitely appreciate the value of a first-person shooter game.

As a writer, I’ve also been paying attention to how gamers develop stories in their games. With the Five Fires game, I am seeing world-building. I am seeing how the player develops the world into which she plays or in this case the era. I am also seeing character development and story arc as well as how choices and fate determine the outcome of the game. These are some very useful exercises in writing that I want to try to incorporate as I continue writing fiction.

As I stated, I’m not part of any gaming community and I’m still not particularly good at games. However, I have found them a good way to help me spark my imagination and remember what made them appealing to me in my younger days. I’m appreciating those who try to make gaming a more inclusive experience rather than this sacred thing that must be protected from “outsiders” who were always there in the first place. Gaming truly is for anyone and hopefully we’ll continue to see more representation of marginalized communities who have been so essential to the success of the gaming industry.