Play and Marginality: Gaming at Gen-Con
Posted by Paul Mullins
This week about 40,000 people have descended on Indianapolis for Gen Con, North America’s largest gaming convention gathering together a breadth of role-playing gamers, wargamers, and collectible card gamers. There are some inevitable overlaps between the Gen Con crowd, the world of digital gaming, and kindred geek fandoms, but Gen Con gamers are united by a distinctively immersive, creative, and social gaming experience. Despite gathering together such a broad swath of people, gaming itself is persistently caricatured as the province of the uber-nerd: fantasy role players are often cast as circles of socially awkward guys sequestered in a basement poring over Dungeons and Dragons manuals and embarking on epic quests armed with Cheetos and Mt. Dew; wargamers obsess over the most modest details of battle (e.g., the use of smoke on World War II battlefields) and provide the likes of Napoleon, Pickett/Lee, and Burgoyne a second chance; and collectible card game (CCG) players trade from immense lockers of Magic: The Gathering cards.
There is perhaps a genuine thread of truth in all these characterizations, but caricatures of gaming and gamers do not provide any critical understanding of why people play; instead, they risk focusing on the somewhat impassioned and esoteric dimensions of gaming and ignore the social, creative, and intellectual depth of gaming. Fixing on stereotypes fails to plumb the depths of why gamers construct themselves as “outsiders”; as with nearly any subculture, that marginal subjectivity is a contrived but nonetheless “real” social position that paints a contrast to normality, which should press us to examine how gamers see themselves external to some notion of mainstream order.
Observers have often shallowly psychologized gamers, plumbing the depths of apparent alienation confirmed by gamers’ retreat from public social space; others seem to be mystified by the commitment by a real person to accurately perform the fantasy role of troll; and by week’s end the local Indianapolis media will almost certainly run a few hackneyed stories on costumed nerds. What is perhaps most interesting is that many gamers mock, tolerate, and even fan such stereotypes. Some of this tolerance for apparent stigmatization simply insulates their passion and identifies the unworthy, but it also acknowledges that gaming may have little ambition to stake a claim to the popular consciousness like geek fandoms such as comics. Outsiders may be unnerved by gaming’s steep learning curve and encyclopedic knowledge of things like warfare in the Pacific Theater or elves, bullywugs, and purple worms; nevertheless, other fandoms have mastered the complications of equally labyrinthine things like the Silver Surfer’s biography, the oeuvre of Osamu Tezuka, or the Polyphonic Spree’s catalog, and non-geeks routinely memorize sporting histories, obsessively follow the travails of the latest Bachelorette, and monitor the price of gas a cent at a time.
Maintaining the guise of “outsiders” is increasingly challenging when so many people are playing and so many game companies have crowded Gen Con eager to secure nerd lucre. Yet many gamers seem relatively content to be tagged as uber-geeks and comfortable amongst others sharing intense if arcane passions. Like a vast breadth of geek fandoms, gaming has some increasingly incontestable consumer dimensions confirmed by the massive exhibitors’ hall at Gen Con, which underscores that there is profit to be made in gaming. It may be that the most lucrative games are licensed properties (i.e., TV and movie tie-ins, such as James Bond, Conan, Lord of the Rings, and Doctor Who), games that all invoke an established narrative with a series of defined characters that might expand the customer base beyond the most devoted players. All role-playing games aspire to fabricate comparably immersive narrative experiences; that is, a game is a storytelling experience reflecting the collective imaginations of a group of players (and war games are equally social but simply bound by different storytelling conventions grounded in historical fact). Michael Hitchens and Anders Drachen argue that role-playing games construct dynamic and collective narratives that players shape through their performance of roles and interactions with each other. That intensive creative and imaginary experience at heart of gaming’s appeal is what Gary Alan Fine referred to in his classic 1983 study as a “shared fantasy.”
Perhaps many if not most contemporary people harbor distinctive desires for alternative realities that are being expressed in a variety of ways. The distinction in gaming is that the playing itself and the sociality of game play separates gaming from everyday social relations and stresses personal attributes that may appear to be quashed in normative popular cultural discourses; that is, gaming celebrates creativity, sociability, flexibility, intelligence, and performance, and it is perhaps not so much about medieval quests or classical military conquest than it is about the capacity of a game to create a compelling imagined world and pleasurable social interaction.
The most ludicrous caricatures of role-playing games once revolved around the moral implications of imagining scantily clad elves casting demonic spells. For instance, formed in 1982, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) linked D&D to a host of demonology, blasphemies, and cult recruitment (though BADD also warned of the dangers of Smurfs). Yet now the more subtle critiques seem to fix on the escapist dimensions of playing, sometimes casting this as shallow “play” and in other cases hinting that gaming signals a descent into “fantasy.” Peter Stromberg, for instance, wonders why gamers tell apocryphal tales of the gamer who becomes “lost” in the game, concluding that “Role players do in fact have very powerful experiences of becoming lost in the fantasy of the game, so much so that they sometimes wonder if they are in danger of crossing this line themselves.” This psychologizing hazards reducing gaming’s fantasy narratives to escapist evasion; yet the apparent immersion in “fantasy” is less an escape from reality than it is a critique of that very reality. Gaming exists in the liminal spaces between selfhood, everyday life, and imagined desire, but framing this as being “lost” fails to recognize the normative dimensions of gaming: that is, gamers live in a fantasy world with utterly normative codes (i.e., game manuals as well as social expectations for gaming etiquette), but they have immense creative agency to define themselves and their goals within those fantasy narratives that they do not have in the everyday world.
Given the vast breadth of games and personalities playing them, there are myriad reasons people gravitate toward gaming. Yet fundamentally the masses at Gen Con have fashioned a social fabric that idealizes a world that revolves around creativity, passion, sociality, and intelligence. It is perhaps all about play, but to reduce gaming simply to escapist fare risks misunderstanding all the social consequence of such play.
2011 Stereotypes and Individual Differences in Role-playing Games. International Journal of Role Playing 2: 44-55.
1986 Review Essay: Copyrighted Subculture. American Journal of Sociology 91(5):1219-1228. (subscription access)
Gary Alan Fine
1983 Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Michael Hitchens and Anders Drachen
2009 The Personal Experience of Narratives in Role-Playing Games. In Intelligent Narrative Technologies II, Papers from the 2009 AAAI Spring Symposium, eds. Sandy Louchart, Manish Mehta, and David L. Roberts. AAAI Press, Menlo Park California.
Craig A. Lindley and Mirjam Eladhari
2005 Narrative Structure in Trans-Reality Role Playing Games: Integrating Story Construction from Live Action, Table Top and Computer-Based Role-Playing Games. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views—Worlds in Play.
Peter G. Stromberg
2009 Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
2010 Sex, Drugs, and Boredom: Why we should take entertainment more seriously than we do. Psychology Today.
Evan Torner and William J. White (eds)
2012 Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Participatory Media and Role-Playing. McFarland Press, Jefferson, NC.
Dennis Waskul and Matt Lust
2004 Role-Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role-Playing. Symbolic Interaction 27(3):333-356. (subscription access)
All images by author from Gen Con 2011