Play Well With Others

It could only ever have been GamerGate.

That is to say, it could not have been a SciFiGate, not a ComicsGate nor a SuperheroGate, not a FantasyGate nor a NerdGate. A mass movement centred around pushing back at inclusion and insight was always going to come from gamers. For three reasons: one, gamers have been hyper-marketed to more than any other industry, with more money, more targetting and more control of attitudes, with the narrowest definition of target audience, creating the most tribal identification. Two, the hypermasculinity that comes from gaming’s emphasis on hypercompetitiveness; sporting love may encourage you to defend your team fiercely and even violently, but gaming encourages you to crush everyone but yourself and to take pleasure in their destruction.

And thirdly, because of all nerd subcultures, gaming is the one with the least social skills and social connection. Without the ability and structures to actually communicate and without the skills to develop and project empathy, cultural differences could never be understood and analysis could only ever be viewed as attack.

That may seem counterintuitive, at first. Games after all are interactive, they hold that foremost amongst their virtues, and computer games have caught up with tabletop in this regard becoming increasingly less solitary in how they are played. But simply doing something with other people does not create socialisation, especially if it is only via the Internet and when it is forced into antagonistic or separatist structures. Those same structures don’t just prevent but work against developing the kind of muscles that produce strong social and emotional skills. You may read books alone and do so to be alone, but crying about Sansa and hating Joffrey are – though simplistic – emotional exercises. And the bonding that is produced when you share those experiences is a more emotional bonding than that of sharing a frustration with beating a level ten boss. There may be more emotion in watching your team miss the penalty kick then there is missing that kick yourself, because sports-viewers see everything as stories.

This should not be seen to devalue the power and importance of logical, mathematical or mechanical engagement, but just to note that it has less parallels with and connections to emotional and social engagement. To this we add gaming’s often insistence on destroying those elements and the celebration of anti-social tendencies such as hyper-competition and status emphasis, further distancing gaming from pro-social skills. Finally, and most potently, there is the fact that gamers have strict, obvious, abstract and artificially visible rules. The kind of person attracted to games is exactly the kind of person baffled and confused by the complex, subtle, arcane and intentionally hidden rules of social interaction.

Even so-called social games typically devolve social skills into games of logic and rules. One can commit any sins if one is “playing in character” in an RPG. “Werewolf” type bluffing games are more logical deduction, sorting through everything said in the past to find the inconsistency, not reading body language and social cues. Board games often allow outlets for extreme antisocial behaviour just as video games do – you can play as nasty as you wish as long as you play within the rules. Secrets must be kept, alliances betrayed, surprise attacks triggered, revenge taken, spite embraced.

It doesn’t therefore require being locked in a basement playing a solo computer game for gaming and gamers to be anti-social or socially unskilled. It is in the nature of games, and thus in the nature of gamers.

As such, our hobby really does attract the misfits more than any other. The furries and cosplayers and modelmakers may seem eccentric and obsessive to the mainstream but they are quite content and at home in their eccentricity. They are gleeful and proud in their expression of it, and extremely pro-social in their celebration and engagement of it. That’s why they’ve come so quickly to dominate social spaces like conventions, and become the key access points for people entering nerd hobbies. The person who devotes thousands of hours to making an accurate Hello Kitty mecha is lauded for passion and literally and figuratively embraced, the guy who stutters and has bad hair and can’t look people in the eye remains a monster to be shunned. Except, of course, in gaming, where the rules at last favour him, and let him (or her) be king.

Part of this is wonderful: it makes gaming a safe haven for those who have none. Particularly for those with disabilities, be they physical, mental or emotional. At least 20% of gamers have a physical disability of some kind; it rises to over 40% when we include mental and emotional. Those who can’t easily socialise because they can’t walk or can’t talk or are neurodiverse or socio-phobic or just plain introverted, people who deserve (as we all do) social contact and engagement just as much as anyone despite finding discussions of the weather painfully banal when they could be discussing finer points of military strategy, – for them, gaming and similar mechanical hobbies can be the perfect outlet. Thank goodness gaming is there for them – for us.

But at the same time, it can also be a trap. We can be so attached to the safety of taking all-comers we turn that safety zone into walls, those walls into gun ramparts. We can become so attached to not needing to meet exterior, imposed-upon-us social standards, we turn anti-social behaviour into virtues, and decry pro-social behaviour – even until it hurts us.

A clear example is in the impact of Pokemon Go. People are being surprised to find gamers everywhere, to meet in huge groups, to walk around, to engage in social interaction and shared experiences, and further surprised at the amazing benefits this is producing in physical, mental, emotional and social health. Yet the benefits should not be surprising, these are pro-social, pro-emotional activities. What’s more, these elements are the staples of other hobbies, the fuel that makes people keep doing them. But we’ve been taught, at first in jest, then seriously, not to do them. And to undervalue them. To mistrust them. It had to be cloaked in gaming language and addictive mechanics to get us to do basic human social things like go out, be amongst people, and share our hobby. Without that, we’re back to don’t talk to the normies, stay in, call people names, establish dominance, acquire badges, use that as a proxy for socialisation. Not only do we not have social skills, we think we can REPLACE them with gaming skills.

And that’s a problem.

I work a lot in game promotion, in getting people playing games and learning new games and connecting people to the wonderful world of gaming by helping them find the game they want and the gamers they want. And the greatest wall against making this happen is gaming and gamers are extremely anti-social. Beyond disability. Beyond social comfort zones. We’ve turned not going out, being amongst people and sharing our hobby into our code and colour, and it drives people away. People don’t want to play games not because games are hard, or divisive or long, but because players are judgemental, cruel and clueless.

There’s an excellent group new to Sydney which is fighting this problem, calling itself Looking For Group, because it’s about encouraging people to say “sit down and join us, we want players”. And getting gamers to do that simple thing, I always find, is like pulling teeth. Countless times I’ve seen gamers setting up a game, being not at full complement, and being surrounded by people curious and it never occurs to anyone at the table to invite people to sit down and play. We prefer to play with our friends, even at cons. We might let someone teach us but we don’t play with them. Other people are scary. And it wasn’t always like that. When Bridge was the social standard, you would drag people by the ear to make up a foursome rather than play an inferior game. That wasn’t because Bridge was magically a social game, it was because it was widely played enough to escape the social reticence of hardcore gamers. It wasn’t a gamers game, but a people game. Ditto Pokemon.

You see this problem also in how gamers treat standards of politeness like turning up on time, on a regular basis. It’s an old joke that organising gamers is like herding cats, but it’s beyond a joke. If you were in a social bowling or softball league, you would be expected to show up every game day, on time, and play, or give notice if you couldn’t. Even fantasy football players get this. But gamers are always late and often absent. Gamers will swear black and blue they will be there at ten and arrive at twelve. I always assume at least one hour of lag time for any game event because people just don’t care about punctuality, assuming they even care enough to come. Gaming is relaxing – as I said long ago one of its virtues is it requires the minimum of standards of entry – and because it’s all a simulation, there’s another virtue in that implied casualness. It’s just a game, so it doesn’t matter if I won’t sell you Park Lane. But we’ve turned the virtue into a celebration of lack of politeness. And lack of politeness is in fact anti-social behaviour. It’s passive-aggressive attacks on people who do show up. And we’ve turned the virtue of fake disregard for others into real disregard for others.

Don’t mistake me – life happens, illnesses and disabilities make being reliable impossible. But communicating those things up front is how to deal with those things. Promising that you will come and not coming is rude, bullying behaviour. So is talking over people. So is insisting on fundamentalist rules interpreations over more pro-social outcomes. So is not asking strangers to sit down and join. So is not teaching and helping new people. So is using rules experience or outright deception over others to gain social status and count coup.

I meet so many people who only want to play cooperative games because they hate being mean to others and fear others being mean to them, because we’ve lost the ability to engage in those perfectly acceptable gaming elements in pro-social ways. I have a friend who adores playing games but only wants to play them with me because she fears if she loses, she will be made fun of for being stupid, and if she wins, she will be hated for being smart. There is no way either of things should be happening at gaming tables. To some extent, as I’ve said, games encourage them or at least permit them. But it’s up to us to make sure those tendencies aren’t encouraged. To layer the pro-social elements over the top, not layer gaming elements on top of social ones.

And because we don’t do this, because we’ve never done this, the moment anyone questioned representation and inclusion in our hobby, we had no social skills to deal with it. And we fell right back on the same gaming principles. All is fair in love and wargaming, apparently. Step up to bat, we told minorities, and prove yourself, because there are no free rides here, and only the best man gets the most victory points. An idea blind to the fact that the playing field is not level, was never level. We turned social rules into a game we could win, then we did the same to societal rules and politics.

The catch-cry of the anti-social gamer is “but it’s in the rules”. That’s exactly the same sentiment as saying “all lives matter” or “not all men”. Technically correct, socially oblivious, societally oppressive.

Yes, it is wonderful in gaming that we can be ‘nasty’, and engage in struggles of supremacy and mastery over opponents without blood being shed, that opposition and competition can still make for the good game. But we rest on that too much. We forget that the good games can’t just come from obeying the rules because social rules must come first. Social rules are how we create a level playing field and a sense of shared construction, where everyone is playing under the same rules and the same spirit. And no, those social rules aren’t written down anywhere. You can’t learn them from a book (although perhaps the idea of etiquette books should make a comeback) or master them from studying YouTube videos. You have to go out and walk around and ask people where the Pokemon are. And it’s really not that hard, if you really want to do it.

It’s time to be pro-social gamers. If we don’t, then the mainstream rushing into our hobby will leave us behind, and rightly so. We have to make gaming our passport, not our secret code. We’ve got to talk to strangers, shake their hands and break bread. We’ve got to play well with others.