Let’s Move Beyond The Idea That Games Are For Nerds

I’m smart, right? My parents and their friends keep telling me how handsome I am, they aren’t lying to me, right? I’m on the damn football and baseball teams, that should earn me some respect, right? Why the hell don’t I feel popular then? Why don’t I feel respected? What more do I have to do? What makes me different from the popular crowd? Could it be that I love video games and other nerdy stuff? Is that my problem?

I don’t know how many times I asked myself those questions while I was in high school, but damn it felt like everyday. Everyday there was some minor slight that made me feel excluded and outcast. Every day there was another person challenging my worth, my intelligence, and my masculinity. At least that’s how it felt. For years I thought that my love of games was a secret shame that needed to be buried in the service of acceptance and popularity. I bought into the narrative that I had witnessed in so many movies and TV shows, the narrative that nerds like games and are shunned for it, and that jocks play sports and are beloved for their athleticism. I believed that if I just hid my hobbies as best I could and offset them by busting my ass athletically, I could be popular. In my naiveté I thought that I had concocted a heretofore undiscovered recipe for acceptance and popularity. For four years I followed that recipe. For four years I was very wrong.

The Wii might have done more to spread gaming than just about any other console. It was also routinely mocked by devoted game players.
The Wii might have done more to spread gaming than just about any other console. It was also routinely mocked by devoted game players.

The cracks in my plan were readily apparent, if only I took the time to recognize and process what my other class members were actually doing, rather than what my preconceptions dictated they must be doing. While the stereotypical high school archetypes prepared me for rigid adherence to the nerd/jock dichotomy, I found that the lines blurred much more than I was prepared to accept. Oftentimes gaming was one of the fuzziest boundaries of all. While I expected a love of gaming to cleanly demark friend from foe, I found that most all of the members of my class played video games in some capacity. I was a three sport athlete and a pretty huge dork, so I floated around about every social group in my small private school long enough to realize that just about everyone had some experience with video games. Games were such a constant that most of the parties I attended during high school had some kind of console hooked up somewhere with people crowded around it. People even set up a SNES during our senior prank so that they could play Turtles in Time as we flooded hallways with balloons and walled off sections of the school with actual drywall (my grade’s senior prank was awesome). Of course mainstream games like Madden, Halo, Guitar Hero, and Gears of War were more played and talked about than some of the niche titles I enjoyed like Braid or Persona 4. However, it wasn’t particularly hard to find discussion of games that are near and dear to me like Final Fantasy and Rock Band.

Unfortunately, I bought into the false “hardcore”/”casual” dichotomy at the time, and as such I was always subconsciously attempting to prove my “hardcore gamer cred.” I was the dude who at the mention of a game like Halo would immediately bring up how people should be checking out Psychonauts or Lost Odyssey, as though those games are comparable or appeal to the same audiences. I felt at the time like I was performing some kind of secret gamer handshake (You say you like games huh? Well what is your favorite faction in Starcraft and what do you think the ending of Braid really means?). I thought that people who passed my test would be a true friend. That was what my exposure to gaming culture lead me to believe. It didn’t occur to me that sports game players and the console shooter enthusiasts often are as invested in their games of choice as I was mine. I used to mentally discount other people as not “real gamers” at the time (and thus inferior or false in some intangible way). I managed to concoct a worldview in which everyone played games, but only the games I liked counted and came with a social stigma as a result. Thus, I could justify my perceived outcast status as being a result of my liking “real” games, not my snobbishness and self-importance.

This game gave my grade both a shared gameplay experience and a shared musical lexicon.
This game gave my grade both a shared gameplay experience and a shared musical lexicon.

On top of my ignorant distinction between “casual” and “hardcore” games and the people who play them, I found that game appreciation didn’t really say anything about my classmates. Other people playing games didn’t mean that they appreciated the games I liked. It didn’t mean that they thought about games in the same way as I do. It certainly didn’t mean that we shared similar values or worldviews. All it meant was that they were middle to upper class teenagers in the 2000s. I learned that my main hobby did almost nothing on its own to distinguish me, save whatever cultural baggage I brought to the equation.

Appreciation for particular genres and games also did little to separate people into nice, neat friendship categories. One of my fellow athletes shared my appreciation for Final Fantasy VIII and yet we did not get along at all. On the other hand, my best friends played far more FPSs and RTSs than I did and none of them played JRPGs, my favorite genre. It took a while, but I came to understand that games were no different than any other form of popular media. Enjoying Final Fantasy did not put me in some secret club full of similar people, just like enjoying Anchorman did not unite all moviegoers in some cinematic cabal. Like all popular culture I found games to be a great jumping off point for discussions, but they were never meaningful unto themselves. The games that I shared with other people worked great as a common cultural touchstone or language upon which to build greater understanding, but poorly as a signifier of inherent likeness. Learning that games were not a unique or special hobby did more to alleviate my social clashes than my years of pushups and situps ever could.

With all of that in mind, I hope that gaming and game coverage continues to splinter into more niches and fandoms. I hope that someday I can find a community that actually shares the appreciations and perspectives that drew me to games, rather than many communities that share a surface level appreciation for the same hobby. I both know now that game playing has changed my life and the way I appreciate the world around me, and that my love of games did not make me set me apart. I felt like an outcast for a lot of reasons in high school, mostly due to the normal ego clashes and personality differences that occur when a bunch of different people are forced together before they really know who they are, but playing games really shouldn’t have been one of them.

With that in mind, did any of you have a similar high school experience? Was my experience a relatively new one, or has the game player/nerd connection been fraudulent for even longer? Or, was my experience unique?