Gaming Communities: Real or Imaginary? [REPOST from]

Note: This article was originally written on May 05, 2005 as a Article. In my process of switching all articles over to this blog, I will be reposting old entries. What follows is in its original form without any editing.

Why is it that the most visible critiques on video games come from people who are obviously not even casual gamers? I always hear “violence” and “sexually explicit content” thrown around without the writer having an understanding, or offering an in-depth critique, on what those words mean for video games. I find that these so-called “anti-game crusaders” often buy into alarmist extremes, thereby misrepresenting the influence of videogames, without ever asking why such a correlation exists. Most times, this perspective misses the intricacies of the games and, in the case of online games, the gaming communities.

It’s understandable, then, when I lumped a Vancouver Sun article entitled “Those MMORPGs: Threat or Menance?” (March 24, 2005, A13) written by Erin Morisette, a political science undergrad, into the same category. Morisette seeks to prove that MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games) are “sedentary, solitary and anti-social, offering little in return,” or so the subtitle under the header would have us believe. While I can’t argue with the sedentary aspect, I find it hard to believe that anyone could accuse online gaming of being “solitary and anti-social.”

I suppose the pertinent question to ask, then, is “What makes a community?” For Morisette, one requisite is that it be in a tangible environment that enables the “developing of essential social skills or connecting with their real communities and cities.” What only someone who has played an MMORPG can fully understand, though, is that the games are designed to discourage progressing without the help of others. Most online games, and especially MMOs, are not for the anti-social; the whole point of being online is interacting with others! One of the staples of MMOs are online groups (guilds, linkshells, clans, etc) that give players a community, oftentimes of like-minded people, with which they can chat and play with beyond meeting people at random. Morisette goes onto criticize these games for being “effective at isolating and disconnecting players from their real-life communities because of their design,” again playing into the extremes and missing the fact that often parts or whole of real-life friendgroups will play together. I, for instance, play on a World of Warcraft server in the guild of one of my friends and will soon be starting a character on another server to play specifically with my mother and her boyfriend. Many people in my guild play with real-life friends, and I would be playing with more of mine if I had started playing sooner and tried to encourage us all onto one server.

To be fair, Morisette does admit that not all gamers tend towards the extremes, and that games can be fun. Yet, she is unaware of, or ignores, that some MMOs fit into her wish that the technology being used in “creative ways [that] contribute to the success and interconnectedness of future communities that will be dominated by today’s youth.” While the gaming communities are in no way better or worse than other kinds of community, one benefit of meeting people online is that you aren’t immediately aware of their physical aspects – gender, race, age, etc. These environments provide a way for players to connect to people outside of their immediate vicinity, giving them access to a wide variety of people with their own ideas and experiences. This gives you the opportunity to be friends with someone who you would never meet in real life because many real life communities tend to be on the homogeneous side. MMOs also develop teamwork, since having an effective party is an essential part of most gameplay, as well an understanding of social mobility and hierarchy as one levels and, in their guild community, becomes better known and higher rank. There is also the possibility of being ostracized, or in extreme cases punished by a GM, if you don’t play nice. Those who exhibit selfish and anti-group traits often find themselves kicked out of parties, guilds, and thereby effectively cut off from levelling in the game. Most online games also have guidelines on language and harassment, which is not always effective but with such large environments, as in real life, it is hard to deal with every occurrence quickly and easily.

In the end, though, while Morisette did bring parents into the equation I am disappointed that yet another article blames video games for being entertaining rather than blaming parents for letting objects do the parenting for them. Video games, surprisingly, are not the root of kids problems. Neither is television, or pornography, or D&D, or books, or sports, or any other entertaining hobby. These are merely tools for spending time, all of which develop different skills and can be good in moderation and bad in excess. Every aspect of life deserves to be critiqued, and video games are no exception, but this alarmist malarkey is old, tired, and completely off-base. Parents, you want your kids to lead an active lifestyle and be involved in your community? Don’t take away their video games, but do your bloody job and make sure they engage in a wide range of different activities, get involved in their life (if that means playing video games too, then you should make the sacrifice; you might find you enjoy it), and stop looking for a scapegoat for your own failings – be an adult and admit that you’re not perfect.

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