Musings on Gamer Culture

Who are these people?

That’s what they were thinking. Gencon mornings, I sat at the back of the Einstein Bros. a block from the convention center, sipping coffee and watching the regulars watching all the conventioneers who were clogging up their line. The suits, the nurses in blue scrubs, the soccer moms, and the guys from Schindler Elevator Corp all gawked with varying degrees of subtlety at the gaming riffraff and asked themselves that question. I’ve been to Gencon five times, now, and I still don’t have a good answer for them.

It’s painfully easy for observers to see all the throngs attending Gencon and lump them into one simple category: gamers. What makes this easy is that two-thirds of the people there don’t vary by more than one detail from the following archetype: male, white, mid 20’s-mid 30’s, slightly overweight, longish hair and/or beard, highly intelligent, devotee of an obscure hobby or activity. Mixed in with all that are the folks in costume, of course, and those are the ones that make the Entertainment page of the Indianapolis Star. But the physical uniformity of so many Genconners still strikes me, year after year.

The other thing that strikes me every year is that this physical uniformity obscures a dizzying diversity. Walk down the wide halls of the convention center. Glance to your right at the group of people sitting on the floor in a circle, chatting. Four guys, maybe a couple girls too, with backpacks and a couple open books. Maybe some cards, maybe some dice. What are they here to do? They could be roleplayers — old-guard RPGA types, d20 fans, World of Darkness aficianados, Forge-reading artsy narrativists. They could be here for the collectible card game scene, playing Magic: The Gathering or Lord of the Rings; they could be Yu-Gi-Oh freaks, or kids playing Pokemon, or still slavishly devoted to some out-ofprint CCG like On the Edge. They could be wargamers or boardgamers or exhibit-hall prowlers or LARPers. The could be dice addicts, Anime junkies, Babylon 5 fans, or signature-hawking eBay auctioneers. They could be obscure Star Wars celebrities, SCA nomads, computer gamers, aspiring game designers, actual game designers, artists, or dealers. Most of them probably dip their toes in a few of these pools. The only thing we can really say about all of them is that they love to play games that most people haven’t even heard of, let alone know how to play.

Intense devotion to an obscure recreational activity gets most gamers pegged as “geeks” in the pejorative sense. This is odd and frustrating to me — it’s not as if our society doesn’t have vast numbers of people already devoting time, effort, conversation, and the bulk of their morning newspaper reading to a recreational activity they don’t even participate in — they’re called sports fans. A guy walks down the street wearing a football jersey or a baseball cap from his favorite team, and it’s perfectly normal. A guy walks down the street wearing a shirt with a picture of a samurai from his favorite collectible card game, and people stare and laugh. (I saw it happen.) Sports bars are ubiquitous. Gamer bars aren’t (but we can always dream).

My sense, though, through a lifetime of gaming and a few years of attending Gencon, is that gamer culture is slowly mainstreaming as well as diversifying. I get a big kick out of seeing people showing up at Gencon with their kids, ushering in a second generation of gamers. Can’t wait ’till I can do that, too.

One guy in line at Einstein’s had a t-shirt with the following words on the back:

You get a victory point whenever the Methuselah who is your prey is ousted (no matter how or by whom your prey was ousted).
— V:TES rulebook, 2003
Section 9.1

As t-shirt quotes go, this one was baffling. To a non-gamer, it’s completely nonsensical. I was enough of a geek to know that V:TES stood for “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle,” a card game about vampires, and that in that game “ousting a Methuselah” was roughly equivalent to “knocking another player out of the game.” But that still didn’t explain why the heck you would put it on a t-shirt. So I asked him.

His answer, much shortened, was “It’s a reminder of the goal of the game.” He and his friends were all wearing the shirt, which they had had custom-made. They were there to compete in a tournament, and in previous tournaments had perceived a style of play they didn’t care for — targeting players other than the one who’s your “prey” because it’s more difficult for them to retaliate. The statement, then, was less a reminder of a rule and more an exhortation of how they felt the game ought to be played. In other words, it was talking about a question of style, which is as sure a sign as any that they saw their game of choice as as much of a social activity as a competitive one. That’s a common theme for gamers — the stakes are not high here, so they participate for more than a sense of the win. They’re drawn to games that have a strong narrative component, even if they’re not RPGs per se. They’re drawn to the communities that form around the games — communities that the Internet has made ridiculously easy to perpetuate.

I’ve been dancing around the fact that it’s far easier at Gencon than elsewhere to find social misfits — folks who are incapable of carrying on a normal conversation with a stranger, or who have yet appreciate society’s basic mores concerning body odor. They’re the minority, and become more so every year, but their existence serves to reinforce a lot of stereotypes for the observer. If the guy in the V:TES t-shirt looks like a geek, is it because he has chosen an odd community to participate in, or was it his social awkwardness that drew him to a fringe community in the first place? You’ll find as many answers to that as you’ll find people at Gencon, I imagine.

What they’ll have in common, besides a deep love of games, is that they’ll be smart, and open, and friendly, with (White Wolf possibly excepted) a refreshing absence of pretension. That’s one thing that keeps me coming back, and that makes coming back feel just a tiny bit like coming home.