The Gamers We Can't Spot A Mile AwayS

Boston is my birthplace and always my home, but I haven't lived there since late 2005. So for three years and counting, when the time for PAX East comes I find myself sitting in an airport, abuzz with energy.

While sitting at the gate at Dulles or Reagan, it can be alarmingly easy to spot other PAX-borne passengers headed my way. In 2010, the guys at the gate with the Mythic bags and jackets were clearly bound for Boston; this year, the young man with the DS and his girlfriend with the previous year's PAX scarf were shoo-ins. I travel happily, knowing that I am in the company of people who would understand my passion (and, now, my profession).

But for everyone who fits the mold, for every gamer we see who looks like a gamer or who wears the tribal fan-gear markers of belonging, there are others who don't. I can always spot a few other PAX-goers, on my flights, but I'm sure I only see a tiny fraction, and I doubt they once have ever spotted me. I don't look the way a gamer "should."

A recent, widely-shared GQ feature on PAX East highlighted the problem without even meaning to. The gentlemen's magazine, even today, aspires to an image of sophistication and class more in line with Mad Men than with Mega Man, and so that they ran the story at all is an indication of just how large and mainstream gaming culture now is. It's an interesting piece, worth a read, but one moment in the introduction leaped out at me for all the wrong reasons:

The underground double bus on Boston's silver line is filled to capacity with an unusually homogeneous crowd this morning. Mostly male, mostly twenty-something, mostly white, mostly dressed in slouchy windbreakers, cargo pants, and baggy jeans.

Seated not too far from me is a pair of black guys who for a minute might seem to be the only other people going somewhere else-until I listen in and hear: "Nah, dawg, it's like a first-person adventure/fantasy. You're saving these villagers from like an evil sorcerer..." and so on.

Writer Dennis Tang's initial assumptions about who was and wasn't "in the crowd" disappointed me. It is a sad truth that gaming absolutely still needs to be more diverse. In our games, our development studios, our press, and our culture, we have many miles to go in dealing well with issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, as well as accessibility.

But while our games really still need to mix it up more, the players are already a genuinely robust and diverse bunch, and that goes for the gamers who make it to conventions too. For me, PAX East in 2010 and 2011 unintentionally became ladies' weekends, spent almost entirely in the company of other women. And the women I met were a fairly mixed lot, coming from all manner of different backgrounds and perspectives.

It's true that a number of us head toward a convention as if wearing a uniform, and we certainly speak a specialized and exclusive language. Tens of thousands of revelers, exhibitors, speakers, and journalists descend on the Boston waterfront for PAX every spring, and you really can observe the legion approaching from miles away. And yet for all that we are legion, we are far from homogenous.

The two black guys on the bus weren't the only gamers to surprise Tang. Later, he tells the story of meeting Sam, a Marine, while queued up for the Friday night concerts:

When asked if this isn't kind of unacceptably strange for a Marine, he doesn't exactly say no; in addition to the rampant Call of Duty-type first-person shooter play you'd expect from that set, more than a few of Sam's peers are serious gamers. "Twenty guys in our platoon, maybe seven of them play MMOs."

By the point in the evening at which Tang met Sam, he was at least starting to understand that stereotypes were clouding his thinking: "Maybe it seems daft that it has taken me all day and dozens of conversations, to still be surprised that a person from this or that segment of society is secretly or publicly an obsessed gamer."

It's about opening your eyes and seeing what players are already in the room.

Tang's piece is a good reminder to all of us to open our eyes a little more widely a little more often, and to see beyond what we think we'll see — both within ourselves, and when looking at others. The world expects the army of gamer geeks to be young white men of a certain physical type and demeanor. And to be sure, a huge number are, which is totally fine; we all are who we are. But those expectations go a long way toward making a surprising number of gamers invisible.

Diversity isn't just about letting female characters wear actual clothes, or writing better roles for black characters, or considering that some characters in games might be gay just as some players are (though all of those things need to happen). It's about opening your eyes and seeing what players are already in the room. It's about not being horribly dismissive when someone you dislike likes your pastime. It's about realizing how many players out of the mold are already here. Overlooking what you don't think you'll find is just another, insidious, kind of exclusion.

I'm glad that Tang eventually realized that—from the black passengers on the bus, to the gainfully employed thirtysomethings, and to the upstanding marine—gamers come in far more types than his preconceptions allowed. The best thing about a large event like PAX East is that it does bring such a wide swath of the community together, face to face. The more we see each other not only as fellow gamers but as fellow people, and not just as anonymous pixels, the better off we'll all be.

Get Him to the Geek [GQ]

(Top photo: Flickr user dropslash)