Keynoted, Captain

Kent and I are going to PAX East. Last year, I attended without really knowing what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised by the experience—PAX is a very well-run con. This year, we’re going again, and so that I can enjoy the experience, I’m deliberately ignoring everything asinine that the PA guys have done over the past six months. This isn’t the first time that the jolly old internet has pardoned its own for offensive ignorance, and it won’t be the last.

What I’m most interested in, right now, is the choice of keynote speaker. Last year’s was Wil Wheaton, and although I didn’t see him give his speech live (Kent and I were busy camping out in line for a panel), I did see it later that week, thanks to a Youtube video. Please, if you haven’t seen his speech, watch it.

That speech has always made me a little sick.

Actually, scratch that. It makes me want to vomit all over my shoes. It’s unintentionally ironic and communicates an awful message to game enthusiasts and game developers all over the planet.

Wheaton is a great speaker. It bothers me deeply, however, when he uses his speech-making magic to summon up the utopian illusion of the unified gamer community and parade it around like it’s a real thing—or even a thing that most game-playing individuals experience. “We gamers”? “Our culture”? Bah! I remember sitting in the hallway right outside the door to the theater where Wheaton was giving his speech, hearing the audience’s muffled roars of approval, and thinking, “Hell, that’s an awful lot of eighteen-to-thirty-year-old males in there.” “Gamer” isn’t a problematic word for Wheaton, but it is for plenty of other people. ‘Gamers’ are not a unified tribe. The gaming community is not welcoming. It certainly isn’t polite to outsiders, but hell, it’s not welcoming to insiders, either, if those insiders are women, homosexuals, minorities, the elderly, or the disabled. Some of us feel this particularly sharply.

When Wheaton gives a speech suggesting that I should consider a room mostly full of men—a room in which I stick out like a sore thumb—“home,” it makes me wanna puke. Just sayin’. I admire the guy, but I think that speech is bullshit. Just take a look at the crowd-shots from last year’s PAX East photo galleries: fairly light on the ladies, right? Most of PAX East looked like Wil Wheaton. Which is to say: white, male, and a little smug.

This year, though, the PAX organizers are bringing in Jane McGonigal to give the keynote. It’s an exciting risk for them, and it’s the reason why I think that it’s better to attend PAX than sit at home and mope about the way they chose to behave this fall.

McGonigal is a polarizing figure to begin with: her language is generally studded with hyperbole, and the kinds of observations she makes—particularly, the ones in her notorious TED speech—are not always useful observations.  I find her a bit insufferable, but I appreciate that she’s out there, publishing books and producing games.

For a variety of other reasons, McGonigal won’t necessarily be a smooth pill for the PAX crowd to swallow. Although McGonigal is reeel ladygamerz, she doesn’t fit easily into the gamer stereotype promulgated by Wheaton, Tycho, Gabe, and their ilk. She doesn’t design games for a ‘gamer’ audience. Mostly, she does ARGs, and her ARGs are often deliberately aimed at the kind of people who would never call themselves gamers. Though she does use the kind of language gamers are supposed to understand—the phrase “epic win” is central to her TED talk—she doesn’t prop up the gaming status-quo in the way that Penny Arcade does.

Some people hate Jane McGonigal so much that they can’t keep away from the gender-specific insults—which bothers me a lot. Given the tone of the non-professional crowd I saw at PAX East last year, and given the kind of over-the-top thing McGonigal tends to say, I’m sure that there will be at least some negative feedback when she speaks this year.

But I’m glad that the PA people are risking it. Although Wheaton’s speech was rousing, it wasn’t challenging. Nobody in that audience went away unsure of themselves or excited about the ways in which this medium and its audiences are changing. Essentially, he got up on that stage and announced, to gamers and game developers alike, “Okay, guys, you’re doing a god job. Keep on keepin’ on.

From some perspectives, that’s a pretty awful message.

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  1. Lara

     /  March 7, 2011

    Thanks for this, Laura. The idea that gamers have formed some sort of inclusive, race/gender-blind, post-judgment community is just so false.

    Some gamers seem to think that their exclusion of “others” is somehow not sexist/racist/ageist/etc. because they are just underdogs banding together, and how could a group of underdogs have the power to exclude or harm anyone based on an established hierarchy? It’s a belief that they are outside of a system/status-quo, and therefore incapable of perpetuating or contributing to it. And only someone who’s never felt the compulsion to hide their gender online to avoid harassment could buy into it.

    I think it’s pretty likely that the “unified gamer community” myth is a result of (feel-good, willful) ignorance. The blogs you posted are terrific, but they’re mostly only read by people who want to read what they have to say. Hopefully, McGonigal will take advantage of her captive audience. The problems in the gamer world need to be challenged in ways that will, inevitably, be pretty uncomfortable.

    I really ought to have gotten tickets to this, since I’m only about a half-hour ride outside of Boston. Dang.

    • lauramichet

       /  March 7, 2011

      Lara!! It would have been great to see you at PAX East!

      But yes, you’re right: gamers like to pretend that they’re not part of a mainstream culture, and therefore are not party to mainstream culture’s social ills. I think you’ll find this interview with a grad student who specializes in science fiction and geek culture– Courtney Stoker- to be SUPER interesting.

      She talks about what she calls the “Growing Up Geek” narrative– the story of victimization that traditional nerds often tell themselves when they’re building their identities as geek enthusiasts. As she says: “It’s particularly precious to see white straight dudes complaining about how marginalized they were growing up.” An interesting read.

  2. The thing that the ‘gamer group’ loves to label themselves with that especially gets me is ‘intelligent’. Yeah right, that’s a good laugh.

    • lauramichet

       /  March 8, 2011

      Yeah– like 75% of the stupid people I know are gamers!

      That said, about 75% of the people I know in general are gamers.

      • For me, it’s just like…could you please point to any actual evidence that this is the case. I’m not aware of any impressive statistics like gamers are more likely to get college degrees, and whatnot. Probably because there aren’t any because, as previously mentioned, the ‘gamer’ label is bullshit.

    • Sulpiisrngry well-written and informative for a free online article.

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