WisCon 39, part 3: Are casual gamers “real” gamers?

Squeevolution!How do you structure a discussion about gaming? What kinds of gaming count as gaming? How do you assume your audience relates to gaming — as creators, players or something else? Do you assume your audience is all gamers? Do you assume the audience is knowledgeable about all kinds of gaming? Who gets to talk? How do they justify their ability to speak, where other people don’t get to speak?

Many places in fandom, these questions get answered as “White cis hetero guys who play electronic games get to take the floor, because why wouldn’t they?” And the white guys who have played the most electronic games are naturally the ones who should get to talk the most. According to this logic, the white cis hetero guys who have the most time and money to devote to electronic games are clearly the ones who are most serious, most dedicated, most crucial to the hobby and are the ones who deserve the loudest voice in where the hobby goes.

The logical fallacies in this are abundantly apparent. Why should white cis hetero guys get to talk any more than anyone else? Lots of people play games, and have all along, and pretending otherwise is ignoring the diversity that exists in the world. And giving louder voice to the ones who’ve spent more money and time on electronic games is messed up. It means that people who have to work at low-paying jobs, or have to raise kids, or don’t have reliable housing to keep their games in, or otherwise don’t have so many social and financial resources get excluded from the discussion. And because that discussion often includes discussion of who gets access to what resources — what games are available to whom, and what kinds of games get created — it creates a vicious cycle where the white cis hetero guys dominate more and more of the discussion. Or begin to feel like they deserve to.

So clearly the discussion needs to be broader and more voices need to be heard. But unfortunately, it is difficult to even structure a discussion about gaming without re-instantiating these biases. How, for example, do we talk about gaming in a way that doesn’t assume that people who spend the most time on the hobby are the ones who should get the loudest voices? How do we talk about gaming in a way that doesn’t assume that all gaming is electronic, or that all gamers enjoy gaming the same way? How do we talk about gaming in a way that doesn’t assume spending money on products is the primary way to enjoy it? How do we do it in a way that pushes for better representation while not ignoring the diversity that has always existed?

Many discussions — too many discussions — about gaming don’t bother to examine the framework of the discussion, even when they intend to work against the white cis hetero bias that so many discussions have. Many panels, for example, talk about “gaming” as if it’s basically all electronic gaming, and maybe occasionally deign to note that tabletop/pen & paper gaming exists, but assume that it’s not anything worth talking about.

And many discussions about gaming still happen in a larger context where we (often unconsciously) privilege people based on their similarity to the “white cis hetero affluent guy” stereotype. People who have enough spare time or money to play lots of electronic games, or people who’ve managed to get themselves branded as gatekeepers of culture, or people who play games that deal with “serious” issues — we have a lot of ways of re-instantiating hierarchies even as we work to dismantle those hierarchies.

This panel’s discussion turned out to be both great and frustrating. One excellent part was the panel’s dissection of the term ‘casual’. The panel noted how ‘casual’ gaming equals, almost 1:1, gaming that women do; and how it has an equally close relationship to class, and how people who don’t have tons of money and leisure time to throw at the hobby often get labeled as casual gamers. And several people of color on the panel noted the racist slurs they’ve been subjected to in gaming communities, and how this makes the barriers for enjoyment of gaming that much higher for people of color. This leads to a continuing vicious cycle where white people get to be the gatekeepers of who is or isn’t a gamer, and continue to feel like that’s as it should be.

The panel also noted how the term ‘casual’ itself is used as a slur, and really shouldn’t be. Calling someone ‘casual’ insults them for somehow not being ‘serious’ about their gaming. One panelist noted how, despite their long interest in tabletop gaming, they were once introduced at a session as so-and-so’s girlfriend, rather than listing her interest in the game or her possible contributions to the group. This has the complex effect of devaluing anyone whose interest in gaming isn’t single-minded, of assuming that all women are ‘casual’, and of generally making gaming hostile to anyone who doesn’t match the white cis hetero affluent guy stereotype. This attitude that ‘casualness’ is a bad thing pervades too many parts of gaming. You don’t even have to expose yourself to the truly vile corners of the net to experience the argument’s negative effects; see, for example, the many people — a seeming majority of whom are women — who ‘admit’ that they’re casual in their gaming, as if casualness is a fault that requires confession.

The panel also addressed a whole bunch of really important related issues. They talked about how to create better online gaming communities; a major part of this requires treating community moderation as an important job, not just an afterthought tacked on to avoid lawsuits. The panel also discussed how to change the close relationship that ‘winning’ has with ‘hardcore’ status, and how this meshes (often harmfully) with social hierarchies.

But the panel also had a few of the same problems that these discussions so often have. First, the panel largely ignored pen & paper gaming. At least one panelist who is more interested in tabletop gaming got largely passed over as a result; they didn’t get to talk much, because the conversation didn’t touch on their interests much. (The above example about being introduced as someone’s girlfriend was one of the few chances they had to talk.) One audience member deliberately tried to bring analog gaming back into the discussion, which was very nice; and the panelists interested in tabletop gaming got to say a bit more at this point. But the scales were still heavily tipped towards electronic gaming.

I think part of the problem here is that the panel’s description didn’t distinguish between different forms of gaming. This is a problem that I noted above, and which I’ve noted before. This problem continues with many gaming-related panels; many cons that have great fannish discussions continue to suffer from a lack of understanding about what gaming is, or how to structure discussions about it. I’m thinking more and more that panels about gaming simply have to explicitly clarify what kinds of gaming they’re talking about, even if that means explicitly stating that they’re about all kinds of gaming.

Part of the problem was certainly that the panelists themselves just seemed to start with the assumption that “gaming = electronic gaming” and that other kinds of gaming are basically obsolete or excessively niche. This assumption seems to have taken hold early on, and like so many majority assumptions, once something gains critical mass, it’s hard to challenge or change.

Another problem was that there seemed to be an underlying assumption to the discussion that gaming equals ‘consumption’. It seems to be more and more popular to discuss fannish issues in terms of ‘consuming’, as if our only purpose as fans is to hand over scads of cash in order to digest whatever ‘media’ the corporations want to churn out. I think it’s extremely dangerous to think of our fandoms in these terms. For one thing, it means that fandom is just another commodified cog in the capitalist machine, eternally unable to inspect or reconfigure its surroundings. For another, it means that our enjoyment is primarily about passively accepting what someone else (far too often, a large corporation) deigns to spew at us; it means that we ignore the amazing potential for self-creation that gaming holds. And last, viewing fandom as a process of ‘consuming’ ‘media’ means that our discussions about it will continue to privilege those best able to ‘consume’ that ‘media’ — in other words, to privilege the ones who have the most cash to spare.

Another assumption that seemed to thread through this panel was that celebrity is the main way to deserve a voice in the discussion. Panelists began by describing themselves in terms of what they’ve published, or where they blog, or otherwise bringing up their qualifications to be on the panel. One panelist felt moved to introduce themself by apologizing for not being a blogger or podcaster. It was like the panelists had to establish their places in the geek social hierarchy before they could move on to discussing the issues at hand.

I’ve discussed this tendency before — this tendency to frame discussions about the problematic hierarchies in fandom by reinstantiating those hierarchies with only somewhat different pigeonholes. I think it’s important to start examining how we construct and perpetuate celebrity in fandom. If the apex of the geek social pyramid gets replaced by a slightly different crowd, or if we fight with each other by trying to prove our adherence to the old hierarchy, things aren’t going to change much. I’m not sure what we can do to really change it — when it comes to convention programming, we seem to want a panel of famous people who do most of the talking and an audience who does most of the listening. But I’m pretty sure that continuing to list our resumes at the beginning of panels is a bad way to make everyone feel like their voice is important.

A final potential problem with the panel was that a panelist stated at one point that it’s good that games don’t require as much math now, because this allows lower barriers to entry for women. Traditional tabletop RPGs, this argument would seem to imply, are outdated because of their need for large amounts of math. This, the argument continues, makes RPGs inaccessible to women.

This argument makes me pretty angry. It gradates very easily into the ‘math is hard’ trope, trotted out to remind women how incompetent we are at arithmetic or anything that requires ‘higher level’ thinking, and how we therefore shouldn’t really try. Applied to gaming, it implies that women only want light, fluffy games that don’t require a lot of thought.

(Light, fluffy games are, of course, wonderful! Often, and for many people. Sometimes, though, I want a heavy-duty simulationist game that gives me tons of specific detail about what’s going on and, yeah, sometimes requires some arithmetic. I want different games at different times; I like different games that ask me to use my brain in different ways; I contain multitudes.)

Many times when I hear the “traditional games require too much math for women” argument, it also gets used to imply that somehow women are only now getting into gaming, because in the past the barriers to entry were too high. This erroneously implies that women haven’t been involved in gaming since the beginning. This argument erases the struggles and creativity and overall amazingness that women have had throughout the history of gaming.

I later talked to the panelist who had seemingly appealed to the “math is hard” argument. She explained that she wasn’t saying that, and I believe her. She explained that she was saying, instead, that mechanically simpler games require less time investment, an important consideration if you’re (for example) working long hours or parenting your kids by yourself. That mostly makes sense, and I’m glad I had the chance to clear it up with her.

Still, I think we should be careful about how we discuss barriers to entry and women in gaming; there really is a tendency to slide into the “math is hard” mode, even if we don’t consciously mean to appeal to it. It’s all too easy to appeal to one wrongheaded notion in order to fight another.

All in all, this panel got me thinking a lot — perhaps the most of any panel at this year’s WisCon. It brought up a ton of really important issues. The panel didn’t discuss them in quite the way I’d hoped, of course. I feel like an additional 20 minutes or so probably would’ve cleared up all the issues it left me with, and then this post would’ve been much happier. Still, the panel overall was a great discussion about the cultures of gaming, and a great look at many aspects of a bunch of very complex problems.

Getting back into my posting rhythm, hopefully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *