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Recently I got a new doctor. He asked me what my hobbies were—I think he was trying to set me at ease, or at least see if I said anything like "motorcross with no helmet" or "drinking until I fall down."

I, of course, being a savvy graduate student who wants her doctor to think of her as responsible, immediately said, "Oh, biking, I do a lot of biking . . ."

". . . and video games. I play video games. One video game. Online. Uh. You know, with the online games you don't really have a lot of extra time for other games, so . . . Uh. Yeah. Video games."

I think I then started blathering about the social character of online games, not really because I think it's interesting (although I do, obviously), but because I was by that time specifically oriented to the possibility that I was self-presenting as an enormous loser. [1] This is interesting, since I don't actually believe that gamers are losers, and in fact, I get very annoyed with people who imply the dichotomy that I was also obviously addressing in my hierarchical listing of hobbies. What do I do for fun? I ride my bike! And play video games. But note that I ride my bike! I am not one of those lazy gamers!

This comes up in casual conversation a lot. I mention that I like to game, and someone pipes up, in a moderately-to-extremely snide tone of voice, that they prefer to spend time outside, with people.

Well, you know, yes, I do like to spend my time outside, too. Not all my time. I don't sleep in a freaking tent. On the other hand, I do ride my bike a minimum of five miles a day, six days a week, even when it's raining, and—not that I would name names here—the people who say things like this are often people who drive a mile to campus when it is 75 degrees out. And since yes, I play a massively multiplayer online game, it is pretty much a given that I am interacting with other people when I play, although as yet all my efforts to get my father to start an account have come to naught. Maybe when he retires.

But then a guilty little critical voice pipes up: And what about the time you skipped a party to game? What about the other time you bailed on a party taking place in your own house to game?

Is this so terrible? On the one hand: yes. I'm pretty sure mainstream society would agree that such behavior marks me as an antisocial loner who should be monitored and kept away from firearms, [2] or at the very least pitied and drawn out of my shell. On the other hand . . . it's not that I don't enjoy parties, but what if I felt like staying home with a book? Would that be so weird? It seems likely that it would be more socially acceptable than staying home to game, even though gaming involved, in both party-skipping cases, a prior commitment to friends. I didn't schedule that party in my house. And I don't regret skipping it, or the other party—in the second case, there was also a factor of not really wanting to go out and preferring an activity that could be conducted in the privacy of my own home, in pajamas, I admit. But I bike!

The thing is, games are getting so prevalent in mainstream culture that it's pretty ridiculous to assume that everyone who plays them is some kind of sedentary basement troll. But I wonder if my non-stereotypical characteristic—female, one of those pesky Master Statuses—actually makes it more likely that people will apply other negative stereotypes to me, or, on the other hand, if it renders me entirely atypical in the eyes of non-gamers.

The other day at the gym—see, not a lazy gamer!—I was working the elliptical and, by virtue of its position in the room, inadvertently watching Parental Control, an MTV program that I find marginally less appalling than What Not to Wear, although objectionable on similar underlying lines. The basic premise, according to IMDB, is that "parents pick dates for their son or daughter to try and replace their current boy or girlfriend." So you have a couple who loathe their child's current significant other, and they audition a number of potential replacements, and then they get to sit with the child's current significant other and mock him/her while watching remote footage of their child going on trial dates with the candidates. There's nothing like semi-reality TV. In this particular episode, the parents were auditioning replacements for an unremarkable blonde junior frat boy-looking type who probably was kind of a dumbass (as identified by his girlfriend's father), but given my own adolescent dating history, I'm not heaving any stones.

At any rate, one of the potential replacements showed up for his "interview" wearing a t-shirt that said "gamer" on the front. I may just be internalizing perceived prejudices, but I really can't imagine that this was supposed to be anything other than an intentional negative cue for the parents, along the same lines as the one who responded to the question "Why are you a good boyfriend for our daughter?" with "I always wear a condom." [3] Semi-reality TV is about theater, after all, and frequently "theater" in this context means "making people look exceptionally freakish." I'm not sure if that kid got picked for one of the two candidates—they all kind of looked the same, not that different from Current Boyfriend—but the shirt definitely seemed to fit into the overall Freaks On Parade atmosphere of the selection process. Gaming: not a point in anybody's favor.

It also, however, stayed within the boundaries of a kind of "boys will be boys" freakishness. Many of the candidates were presented as obviously flawed, but in normative ways: they're horny, they're rude, they're gamers. Boys will be boys, although obviously you wouldn't want your daughter to date just any of them. The kid with the gamer shirt was not otherwise remarkable in appearance; he was reasonably clean-cut, attractive enough in an adolescent way. He was also within the accepted gamer category recognized by mainstream society and, if not approved, tolerated: young, white, and male (yes, I know how many gamers are married adults over 30; tell it to America).

So if you're under 20 and male, and you game, it seems, you are in some ways less susceptible to stereotypes about gamers, in much the same way that if you are female and under 10, you can spend as much time as you like playing with dollhouses. Past college, I feel like the sedentary basement troll stereotyping sets in with a vengeance, and for women of any age, gaming is an automatically suspect behavior, although in some cases gaming may mark a woman as a tomboy rather than a nerd or a loser.

And that's the other side of it: as a female gamer, my minority is nowhere near as tiny as many people—including some of its members—believe, but I'm "weird" enough that I can be dismissed out of hand as non-representative. I was also recently explaining to my veterinarian why my new cat is named after Robin Hood (Loxley), and made some remark along the lines of, "Well, I am a big nerd." She said I didn't look like one, which is typical of normative responses to self-deprecations (cf. Pomerantz 1978; 1984)—not that I really meant it as a self-deprecation; unsurprisingly, I locate some degree of value in my nerd status—okay, I recently got into an argument with someone about who was a bigger nerd, in which I specifically invoked my gaming for nerd cred (let's say five points). But leaving aside for a moment the contested valence of the nerd identity, this could be another piece of the puzzle: female and not wearing coke bottle glasses or braces, I am just not a representative gamer, girl or otherwise.

Either way, I'm not sure what I'm so worried about. I find myself more sheepish about revealing my gaming than talking about gay porn fan fiction, from which I can only infer that I would rather people perceive me as a total pervert than a slacker. I think, although this is my retrospective account and thus subject to recall bias, that I used to talk more about gaming when I first started playing City of Heroes a couple of years ago, which could be partly because it was new and exciting, but also, I hadn't yet gotten the "Oh, well, I like to play outside" response 50,000 times.

And yet! it still sort of astounds me, even knowing that gaming has gotten more, not less, mainstream over the past 20 years, and that the kids in my classes didn't even watch 90210, for godsakes, let alone Mathnet, that almost no one has any idea what I'm on about when I break into the chorus of MC Frontalot's "It Is Pitch Dark."

I love that freaking song. You know why? It plays on all the geek stereotypes; the humor depends on the incongruity of nerdcore, geeks + rap, and there's MC Frontalot in a button-down shirt and 1950-issue glasses. But the nerd passion is there, and it's real. This is a guy who, like me, played Zork, and, jokes aside, remembers it, lives a life shaped in some tiny way by spending frustrated hours trying to find a way out of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. I know there's a difference between what we're willing to tell the internets and what we're willing to admit face-to-face to our doctors when questioned about our hobbies, but I have to imagine that here is a man who is not afraid to tell his doctor that he is the World's 579th Greatest Rapper—although even he might want to avoid having to explain grues to the uninitiated.

He is an example to us all, and I have purchased his t-shirt . . . which has already baffled several of my coworkers. Probably I will not wear it to the doctor any time soon.


[1] Although I did manage, somehow, not to tell New Doctor that he had some ineffable quality that was really, really, REALLY bringing to mind old school Star Trek Red Shirts, for some reason.

[2] I do not dispute that I should be kept away from firearms.

[3] As a teaching assistant for a human sexuality course, I would like to note that I personally would consider this a Very Good Quality in a potential suitor for my teenage offspring.


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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