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Hi, I'm Tess. I'm thirty and live in London. Dances with Squirrels is a blog for my collected stories and stuff. My books are available on your friendly regional Amazon in paperback and e-book. Comedy fantasy, The Gatekeeper on the Docks is here and The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus is here. If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, I'm @TessStenson

Friday, 21 June 2013

Why games communities are ace and not just full of horrible bastards

Games communities are full of complete and utter bastards. Video games players are a vile bunch of foul mouthed nasty folk who are just looking for a reason to belittle you and virtually spit at you. If you join a game server or a games forum and have the audacity to not be a white guy, not have English as a first language or not be a practising heterosexual then you are essentially painting a target upon your digital avatar, asking for a constant barrage of bigoted hatred.
            
At least that is the picture that is so often painted of the wider gaming community scene. I don't think that it would be unfair to suggest that there are people with that disgraceful mentality, but in my experience they are very much in the minority. These days someone who is taking their first steps into the community or taking a cursory glance at it could very well be forgiven for going away with the impression that it is the more disruptive and rude members that form the bulk of the community. Recent stories about the harassment and aggression that has been levelled at people have highlighted some of the problems with gaming and social media. High profile stories such as Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes Vs Women series being attacked and its fund raising campaign sabotaged, or Robert Yang being threatened after some people saw his Half-Life 2 mod Radiator series as forcing them to be a gay character are a problem that has very rightly been written about, and most would see it as being unacceptable behaviour. I am very glad that there are people out there who take a stand and call people out on these stories. I think that it is important for any community to self police and try to dispel the more aggressive mentalities that can create an atmosphere of antagonism, disrespect to others or even fear. No one ever has the right to treat anyone else in such a manner, whether interacting through a filter of internet anonymity or face to face. I do however believe that it is equally dangerous not to highlight the positive impact that the gaming community can have. Despite there being some vocal bullies and aggressively rude people, this is not the default behaviour in the games industry. There are plenty of stories that show just how amazing this community can be and how much of an impact it can have on people’s lives. The same can of course be said for any other community, but in this article I'll focus on the gaming communities and try to show how influential they can be on someone's life (i.e. in this article; mine).
            
In Radiator, you're treated to a lovely date star gazing. then a therapy session.

Video games really do have a knack for bringing people together, in various different ways. Whether through playing games with friends on a couch, playing online with strangers, joining game clans for regular matches, massive LAN parties or professional e-Sports tournaments (such as for Blizzard's Starcraft II), there are many ways in which to get involved and interact with others. It's really quite laughable at times how the stereotype of the basement dwelling anaemic loner geek remains so pervasive in pop-culture. Games can act as a wonderful way to socialise with friends (see Cara Ellison’s article for PC Gamer for a good example of how). Video games can have a much wider impact. Projects such as Foldit show the potential of the gaming community to have real world connotations. Foldit is a Folding@Home project that aims to processes and understand massive amounts of data on protein folding structures by tapping into the distributed computing resources of volunteers who run the program on their home PC. Foldit took this idea and made a simple puzzle game out of it as an interface for sorting the real world scientific problems with the collective computing power of anyone who fancied having a go. Games can also act as method for teaching players about subjects or issues that they may not have otherwise had any contact with. Depression Quest is a rather extraordinary example of this. Likewise, Anna Anthropy's game Dys4ia aimed to give players a glimpse of going through life as a transgender person. Both games are deeply personal and at times difficult to play through, but the honesty in each is at times shocking and very moving. Unfortunately it does often seem that this aspect is ignored by the wider world in favour of the more sensationalised stories. I'm not trying to play down or gloss over the very real problems; they are still there and people more eloquent and better qualified than me are writing about them (for example, John Walker's recent article about why Rock Paper Shotgun will continue to highlight the issues). I just want to give a positive counter to this and to show to those who may not know much about the gaming community that it’s not all doom and gloom and big burly sweaty men pretending to be space marines and shouting homophobic slurs over voice chat.
            
Dys4ia: A remarkable and honest game about transgender life.

I have been interested in computer games for most of my life, but it was only when I got my brain plugged into the internet in the late 90's that I discovered the burgeoning community that was rapidly growing in presence. Prior to that, my social gaming experience came from watching my big brother play games, and then later playing some single player games myself and discovering that my small group of friends at school also played the odd game on their computers back home. I discovered that games didn't necessarily have to be a solo experience, completely isolated from others, in your own little cocoon of gameplay that is removed from the rest of the world to be gone and forgotten once you emerge from your darkened gaming bunker blinking at the strength of the sun that you had forgotten existed. Gaming, like any other hobby, could spill over into the real world and become a shared experience with friends. My friends and I found that they were a great source of discussion. We could talk about them, tell stories about what we'd discovered and advise on best strategies. We talked about other stuff too of course, but there was always something new from the gaming world to dissect, analyse and debate on.
            
A prolonged discussion about tactics against the Ordos faction in seminal real-time strategy game Dune II is particularly memorable for me (a game that also helped introduce me to the Dune books, which I adore and helped inspire me to read more than I had done previously, and led the way to exploring the films of David Lynch and Sting's space pants thanks to the 1984 film Dune). We'd have a discussion about the best way to combat the Ordos mind-control gas firing tanks, test out the theoretical battle strategy in the game when we were back home after school; then report back with our findings to each other the next day. The stakes were high, those Ordos tanks could devastate our armies; we needed a defence against them! Yes, other kids called us nerds, but we had fun. There is a phenomenon in games called emergent gameplay; where things happen in a game that hadn't been planned by the game's developers and were created by the individual game players experimenting with what they could do in the game world; how to mess with the rules. The classic example of this is in Doom; players found that they could help even the odds against the (kind of stupid) forces of Hell by tricking the monsters into shooting into crowds of their demonic buddies and then turning on each other. These tactics gradually spread around the gaming world as people discussed and discovered the potential in each game. Perhaps this kind of communal strategy planning was a similar thing; emergent socialising? Alright, that was a little pretentious, but when I started playing games, I had no idea of the new avenues of friendship that it would open up. I think I was hooked from that point on; even if I never did figure out a foolproof way to avoid losing half my army to those bloody Ordos tanks.
            
The mind controlling Ordos Deviator Tank. I hated these little sods. Blow them up with overwhelming tank power. It's the only way to be sure.

So when I found similarly enthusiastic gaming circles buried deep in the depths of the new internet frontier, I suddenly found myself with an even greater opportunity to socialise and advance my growing hobby. At first I just loitered in cyberspace (as we used to call it back then before the world realised just how dumb it sounded) and lurked around without making myself known for fear of being caught out as a newbie or missing key parts in my gaming knowledge (I never had a Nintendo or Sega console, so missed most of the 8-bit era and the likes). I spent a long time simply reading posts about games I already knew to see if I could sniff out anything new that would help me in my heroic exploits, and then I gradually experimented with those that were new to me. In time I took a plunge and registered on my favoured forum and began to contribute myself, and I was shocked to be welcomed so warmly and find that these folk that I had never actually met in person (and only knew from their screen handle and avatar) were actually pretty cool and friendly. It was an entirely alien experience for a shy kid with few real life friends and lacking in confidence. This new venture into the electronic world provided an incredible outlet.
            
Most forums had other sections to them; an off-topic or general stuff section. Eventually I ventured out of my gaming discussion dwellings and began to explore these mysterious other sections too. In them I found a treasure trove of stories, articles and information about all sorts of topics that I wouldn't have come across otherwise. Topics ranged from the best designs for future space stations and generation ships to distant planets to the critical analysis of American legal code, to feminist theory to in depth discussion about old British kids show Knightmare. It was fascinating and just a little weird at times. I loved it. I began to learn so much about other people’s countries, cultures and lifestyle. As a result of joining these communities I was being introduced to a broad range of topics that I simply had never come across before in my regular life. Quite often the games community prides itself on its technical prowess. Perhaps its unsurprising that a community so familiar with electronics and computers breeds a core group of folk very knowledgeable about science and technology. I was exposed via my favourite games forums to a whole host of concepts and debates that were discussed in (sometimes painstaking) depth by the more technical minded members of the community. Truly, engaging in these forums in those early days of my gaming life helped broaden my horizons considerably.
            
It's actually the law that you must at all times have at least one version of Doom installed on your PC at any one time.

As time went by, it became increasingly obvious that it would be necessary to start shooting my new online friends, preferably in the head so that they don't get back up. An entirely reasonable endeavour in the gaming world. In the real world I often struggle to make real lasting relationships; in gaming circles I knew (and liked) people all over the world, and who seemed to like me too. Being invited into online games was a big boon to my self confidence. My game of choice in those days of the late 90's and early 2000's was usually Team Fortress Classic; playing team games of capture the flag. Players can choose to play as one of nine classes of mercenary; I usually played a support role. This usually meant running around like a mad medic healing my team mates or defending our team's base with the fiery wrath of the pyro; all the while chatting with people over team-chat and making bad jokes or trying to make totem poles of players by jumping on top of each other.
            
When I ventured off to university in Portsmouth, I spent most of my first year trying in vain to make friends and get to know people. It wasn't a great start to my university experience; I nearly packed it in and moved back home several times. For most of that year, it was my friends in the online world who I relied on to keep me somewhat sane. Slowly, painfully slowly, I started to make friends with people in Portsmouth and moved into a house share with a few. Key to our household cohesion was the Nintendo GameCube we had. We'd come home from the pub late at night and embark on the serious business of Super Monkey Ball marathons. House mates would also spend their time working their way through Zelda and Resident Evil games as I sat in the lounge doing some work (well, I usually had a text box open on my lap) offering help and useful advice, or snarky remarks depending on what the circumstances dictated. For the sake of balance, I should point out that they did likewise as I slowly plodded through Metroid Prime (and I suppose I should state I did do my course work too). Once or twice, a house mate attempted to network our computers for Unreal Tournament matches. The networks never lasted long before something broke and one of our computers was too underpowered to really handle the game at anything approaching a playable frame rate (meaning whoever used that computer invariably lost), but it was long enough to tell me that I was rubbish at multiplayer games. That was irrelevant though; it was great fun.
            
Metroid Prime: Always good for a laugh (in that housemates find it hilarious to see you repeated die).

As I moved out on my own after finishing my degree and found myself caught up in the gravity well of London, the online communities that I had joined became more important to me once more. I was living alone in a massive city full of people from all over the world. It’s surprising how lonely that can be when you don’t know anyone. For a few years I struggled to make any headway in meeting people and forming new friend circles with other human entities in The Big Smoke (although I have to point out that I was on friendly terms with the squirrels in Brompton Cemetery). I don't really know how to go about making new connections amongst so many people. I had attempts at trying though, but found myself feeling like something of an outsider trying to muscle in on other people’s good times, or just not finding any common ground.
            
It was a frustrating and at times lonely period of my life, there's no denying that, but I did still have my good outlet for it in the form of the geographically independent online gaming. Few things bring people together quite like pretending to blow each other up, in a platonic relationship. For a short time over the course of a game, it’s easy to find yourself making friends with complete strangers on a public server and getting to know regulars. I'm not a particularly competitive person, so I usually stuck to team or co-op games. Left 4 Dead became a favourite for this, in which four survivors of a catastrophic plague working together to escape to safety from the zombie like infected. It’s surprising how quickly an implicit trust and sense of camaraderie can develop between four complete strangers during a game of Left 4 Dead. I'll never forget the communal experience of the first play of the pre-release demo. Everyone was new to the game and no one really knew exactly what to expect. So as the screaming and laughter from my fellow survivors (soon to be ex-survivors) erupted over team-chat as our carefully laid plans to deal with The Witch fell apart, or we were all sent into confused panic as a Tank charged into our ranks, we were all closer than we'd have ever thought possible. When we all inevitably died we were sent back to the game lobby, full of giddy laughter and buzzing about the wild exploits we'd had, it didn't take long for one of the other players to simply suggest “try again?” We played several more matches before we finally succeeded in surviving the level, and I stayed in touch with one of those players for a long time after, playing the full game with him after it was released.
            
If the chaos and confusion of Left 4 Dead has taught me anything, its that the Witch really doesn't like being set on fire then hit with an axe. Who knew?

A few years ago, I was reading one of my favourite gaming blogs and saw that there was a meet up of some of its readers in Earls Court; just fifteen minutes walk away from me. “Hey, sounds interesting, and if it turns out to be a bit poo then it’s hardly far to go to get back to my flat”, I thought. It was a good night. In time, this turned into a regular social gathering at a pub in Piccadilly. It’s one of the most welcoming groups I've ever come across and nights of board games, drinking and shenanigans are great fun. Sometimes we bake cookies and cake to bring along. Yeah, we party hard, man. At the risk of sounding a little sad, those nights did become a real high point in my month and something that really did mean a lot to me. I had little else in my social life at that time and so this group of like-minded games fans became something of a lifeline for me. Maybe it sounds silly or over the top, but I was pretty damn low and depressed before tripping over this social group.
            
It’s not just limited to those nights now, but that was a great starting point for coming out of my shell more. I found myself being invited to other events (not just game related stuff either) and meeting more and more people, something that I struggled with quite a bit to work up the confidence to do on my own. I like to think that I've made some lasting and genuine friends through the various games communities I've come across. The gaming community has had a very real and positive impact on my life, and I doubt that I'm the only one to feel that way. Even though my interest in the actual games sometimes wanes, and I don't play multiplayer games much these days, I still get an awful lot out of being part of the community and it still plays a big part in my social life.

            
Games communities are full of great, friendly people who can be some of the nicest, most interesting and creative people you could hope to meet. I think it’s time that we allow ourselves to see that and not spend so much time focussing on the negative aspects of it. The games, the people and the reporting around the scene are doing a fantastic job in helping spread greater understanding on the issues that still remain in the community, and they should be congratulated for doing so. I think it’s time that the community got the credit it deserves for how well it can bring together so many people from so many different places and how it can influence their lives in a very real and productive way. My name is Tess Stenson, I love the video game community and I've played games for most of my life, and I think I've been made a better person because of it.

Thanks to Cara Ellison for her help and advice with this article.

If you liked this article, why not read some of my other work? As luck would have it, my second book, The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus, just happens to be on offer as a free download until the 25th of June. Get it here.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed that, Tess. Met lots of people through online gaming and can't think of one I've actively disliked - a few weird ones, but then I get on with weird. The same goes for Trekkies. I no longer game, but I sometime miss it.

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