Wednesday, 23 December 2009

I Am Not A Gamer

Roleplaying Games, Cultural Artifacts, and Self-Identity

I am not a gamer.

This may seem a strange claim to make for someone who spends a large portion of his free time on various game-based pursuits, writes a blog devoted to roleplaying games, and owns a huge collection of dice, so let me explain.

Roleplaying has built up a massive associated subculture over the years, built around shared humor, shared histories, and shared mythologies. In the public consciousness, roleplaying and gamer culture are virtually indistinguishable - the stereotypical image of a gamer is of a full-blown participant in this gamer culture, albeit an oddly twisted and negative one. It is a distinct grouping that somewhat celebrates its separation from the mainstream of society and revels in building its own traditions and social structures, has its own meeting places, and its own heroes. Knights of the Dinner Table, gamer t-shirts, The Gamers, Baby's First Dice, Penny Arcade - these are all clearly artifacts of a subculture in full and mature bloom. For many, roleplaying games are more than a fun way to spend the afternoon - they're a lifestyle.

There's nothing wrong with having a gamer subculture, and I'd hate to see anyone brutally stereotype it and dismiss it. Like any subculture, it's a diverse collection of individuals who range along a wide spectrum. It includes soldiers and doctors as well as computer programmers and comic book writers, and it's produced a massive weight of cultural material that is enjoyed by millions around the world. Gamer culture sits behind more "mainstream" cultural artifacts than most people would realize.

I question, however, the close association between gaming as a lifestyle and gaming as an activity. It seems to me that the weight of gamer culture makes roleplaying seem more intimidating, more off-kilter, and less accessible to the general public. For people who'll happily sit down for an afternoon to play Halo, chess, or Monopoly, the idea of playing a simple roleplaying game is unthinkably nerdy. Those other activities are no less complicated than roleplaying - and importantly, they all have their own subcultures associated with them. The key is, they aren't inherently seen as being associated with that subculture, and thus people can play them without feeling like they have to buy into a whole new cultural matrix. If roleplaying were more separated from its subcultural context, I believe it would be a vastly more popular activity. And why not? It's fun, creative, and exciting, and can be played in the course of a few hours. I'm truly convinced that the idea of sitting down and building a story together with friends is an immensely attractive concept to many people who wouldn't buy in to the traditional gamer mythos.

I don't consider myself to be a gamer because I don't particularly feel a close association with the artifacts and traditions of gamer culture. While I can certainly appreciate gamer comedy like Order of the Stick or Penny Arcade, it's not what I seek out and not what I enjoy most - the comedy I appreciate most tends to be more along the lines of The Office or How I Met Your Mother, which probably says a lot about my own self-identity. For me, roleplaying is not a way of life, it's just a way of having fun.


  1. Does anyone else have that ambivalence at big cons - you're among your people, in both the Thanksgiving and the Innsmouth sense?

    You may have hit on why I like D&D with Porn Stars/I Hit It With My Axe so much. It's not about the porn stars, but being taken back to my high school/college days when I gamed with groups of nerds and groups of punk rockers. Matching gaming up with more different subcultures is a way to break it out of its ghetto.

  2. I don't go to cons (I've been to 3 in my life) simply because I find them too boring. I also hate gaming stores and can't bring myself to care about whether or not it is 'good for the hobby' for J.K. Rowling to have decided that whats-his-name wizard was gay.
    Maybe it's the old self defeating conundrum of the over educated and under stimulated as voiced by Groucho Marx: "I would never join a club that would accept a man like me as a member..."
    The folks I have seen at cons certainly seem to be having a good time --- so I can't fault them for that --- but like in a group of armed men who are hunting the defenseless quail, I just don't feel at home there.


    I'm in the same boat. I had to scour the internet in an effort to find people to game with; my friends have no interest in gaming whatsoever, and it's entirely due to the whole scene's associated stigma.

    The thing is, I totally understand that. After finding groups of gamers in my area, I discovered that most of them really did match the stereotype, and it took me some time to find folks in that group that I could even tolerate being around. It worked out in the end; I'm now in a group with some relatively cool guys.

  4. I don't really care about the stigma, but I can't stand how exclusionary the gaming and comic cultures get. I've been in stores even in the past couple of years where anyone even remotely different from the silly geek stereotypes get nothing but scowls and bad attitudes from everyone.

  5. Being a Brit-Gamer, I am part of a tradition distinct from American gamer culture.

    As is common, our shibboleths and touchstones are different, but we still share a lot.

  6. good post, and I totally identify. It's a part of the reason why I drifted out of gaming in the late 90's and moved on to punk rock, and now my gaming group consists of punk rockers who had never played a real RPG before their 20's.