Community is a word that doesn’t always come to mind when one talks about gaming. When you ask what gaming is like these days, you’ll get a variety of answers. Sharing a knowing smile when you see someone else in a Mass Effect N7 hoodie, or catching a glimpse of a Legend of Zelda Triforce necklace, reminds you that you’re not alone. Sometimes, you may get a not–so–welcoming look like Oh, you’re one of those people, when someone notices the pretty necklace you’re wearing and you tell them it’s from your favorite game. It’s not as if gaming has a sterling reputation to uphold right now: some people continue to thrive in gaming, while others are leaving the industry and giving gaming up as a hobby due to unsavory elements making it an unwelcoming place. Some gamers are finding it harder to find a spot to call home. However, I’d like to counter the idea that community isn’t important in gaming and that there’s no commonality among those of us who like to spend our spare time with a controller in hand, rolling a d20, or WASDing our weekends away.
Gaming isn’t always a solitary activity. Even if a game is designed for a single player, we can share love of the game through online discussions, forums, and communication with studios or developers through social media. We can also form communities through watching others stream games we might be interested in, and by helping those who are debating buying a new release but want to check it out for themselves before dropping quite a few bucks on an addition to their collection.
Communities are where we find someone to game with, and sometimes inspiration to try games outside of our comfort zones. It can be hard to find others who like First Person Shooters (FPS) who are local to you, or sometimes love of a hadouken means you need to cast your net a little wider to find someone who’ll jump on with you at a moment’s notice. Most of the folks I’m gaming with are people I met via streaming, or communities like Feminist War Cult or Thumbstick Mafia. I wouldn’t have picked up Destiny or Tom Clancy’s The Division if not for the community I’d found online. I probably wouldn’t have continued to play Mass Effect 3 multiplayer without a core group of women gamers, folks I met through Tumblr and whom I’ve become great friends with over the years.
Fan–run communities on Tumblr, Twitter, official forums, and other social media outlets can be safe havens built on a shared love for a game to discuss your latest achievements, brag about a successful raid, or post screenshots of that character you spent a couple of hours on to get them just right. And the people in those groups will get it. You don’t have to belabor why spending three or four hours chasing a fabled creature in your favorite RPG was totally worth it for the sick gear you just scored. I can talk about the struggle of choosing one console over the other, or bemoan only being able to buy one game when there are four released the same day that I really, really want but hey money doesn’t grow on trees. I have found a very strong sense of community in the BioWare fandom on Tumblr. It’s been a place where I can discuss my favorite characters, go on about a minor character others may have overlooked and dismissed, or sometimes even find a space to vent when fandom goes pear–shaped over a particular plot or character.
Streaming is a place where a lot of us gather to discuss the game being broadcast, wind up making new friends, drop in to catch up with old friends in chat, or hang out because the streamer makes it enjoyable to be there. Twitch is where you’ll usually find folks sharing anything from the latest AAA game to a little–known indie gem to sharing their creative process.
Love of Dragon Age and excitement for the third game in the series, DA:Inquisition, is what got me into streaming. I’d seen a lot of other people do it and it intrigued me. I was really nervous about streaming a game, especially one I’d been anticipating for so long. What if I was terrible at streaming? What if I didn’t talk because I was too absorbed in the story? All these what–ifs and maybes almost made me quit before I’d tried to stream. I’d already decided not to be on camera, that was pushing the whole self–confidence thing too far for me, but I went ahead and shared my first play–through of a game I’d waited so long for; I even took a week off work to play. It brought people to the stream, some interested because they wanted to know the game before they picked it up, others because of their love for the lore–rich world that BioWare had built for us. It was fun and exciting to have people along for the ride.
It was just the beginning of what has become a three–times–a week thing for me to do: sharing my own experiences with other gamers, finding a community of people who enjoyed hanging out with me on stream, and others who enjoy the same games I do. Over a year and a half later, there are over four hundred people who have clicked that little heart to follow my antics. That little heart means a lot. It’s symbolic in its own way of how many folks are now part of my life, and not just when I hit “start” on Twitch. It’s in that chat box of our favorite streamer where a lot of us are building new communities and new arenas where we can share ourselves and our interest in what we’re playing, either verbally or visually.
Games often come with a community ready to form, especially massively multiplayer online (MMO) systems where creating community in guilds, clans, or whatever term that system uses is required to do well, level up, and progress through a game’s storyline. If you fail to form a communal bond, you’ll often be left behind and perhaps you won’t enjoy what the game world has to offer. Conversely, engaging with a single–player RPG doesn’t mean you’re unable share the love of your game with other fans or get lost in the lore of the world that has been crafted for you by a team of developers (in other materials released along with or after the game).
It’s in these places that our gaming community thrives and grows, but it can also fail when it sometimes splits along lines of favorite characters, or when discussions of race and representation enter the picture. That’s where I sometimes need to find a niche within a niche to have nuanced, deeper discussions if that’s what I’m looking for among the community. Luckily, I can find that because those spaces exist. They’re not perfect by any means but these places we find each other are little pockets of somewhere to call home.
A space that’s been very welcoming is Black Girl Gamers on Facebook, where I can discuss issues relevant to me as a black woman without the usual “Well, actually…” or “But what about me?” kinds of Renegade interrupts that come with being a black woman who’s visible and speaking about these issues online. It’s also been important to find spaces that acknowledge intersections of my identity which have often been overlooked in gaming communities. It’s often our QUILTBAG friends who are left out of the equation when it comes to our shared interests. We’ve seen and heard homophobic commentary in places we expected to be safe from the vitriol, and often it’s worse for those of us who are not straight, cisgender, or white.
Finding other women, and especially other women of color, who are part of the QUILTBAG alphabet soup whom I could happily chat with about games we all loved, allows me to take part in gaming community events more. We flail happily together, whether standing in line for a panel or doing panels together. I’ve been lucky enough to find an event like GaymerX, where I can be out while sharing the love of gaming. It was at GaymerX where I found others like me, who are part of the rainbow fam’ who also enjoy spending spare time with their favorite digital lands, and who understand what it’s like to feel left behind and finally find a place to be fully ourselves. I could be in a room full of people and appreciate Isabela without an eyeroll, or a That’s so gay thrown around as a pejorative; in other spaces, sometimes I can’t be myself openly without worrying about how I’m perceived. It was so nice to be able to exist on all the intersections of who I am without fear. I was able to drop the mask and just be myself and it was great.
The ability to be fully myself wasn’t the only good thing about being at GaymerX Year Three (GX3); it was also good seeing so many other POC there. To have conversations and hear repeatedly, I’m not the only one here, someone else like me is here, was both freeing and a bit heartbreaking to know there are still people who feel like they are the only ones who exist on the crossroads of queerness, being a POC, and also loving games. A lot of times, conventions are the first time we get to meet others like us face–to–face and share our love for our hobby, our passion. It’s why I’m glad that there are spaces for us within the larger gaming community where we can be open and safe.
David Gaider, formerly of BioWare and now Creative Director at Beamdog, wrote a great, personal piece on why GaymerX is needed and it really resonated with me, especially this part:
That’s when it hit me: I hadn’t employed the filter.
You may not have any idea what I mean by that. You may not need “the filter”. Indeed, you might be queer yourself and not even be actively aware of it, because it’s always with you—that filter which you use to constantly censor all your thoughts and feelings based on the comfort levels of everyone else around you. You have to judge where you are, what sorts of people may be there, and what’s okay to talk about.
That filter is exhausting to have up and running all the damned time when you’re in spaces that don’t let you exist without caveats or exceptions. It’s why it’s so refreshing to find a place where you can be yourself and not have to worry about slipping up and possibly driving a wedge between you and newly–found friends. So even when we create spaces for ourselves, there is still a need for another space where we can exist if we fall outside the expectation of who a gamer is. We’re becoming regulars in streams, moderating others, or even getting onscreen ourselves to share that raid or that great avatar we spent a lot of time on with friends from across country or halfway across the globe in real time. Or if we can’t make it to a live stream, we can catch up later thanks to archived streams.
Gaming and the sense of community it inspires has literally saved lives because it helps you find that one other person who gets it, who knows how important that one character is to you and understands when no one else seems to. That ability to reach out, be heard, be seen, and know that your struggle is legitimate because of someone else you’d never have known if not for love of the game, is something that cannot be denied.
For one friend, finding gaming saved her when she was at her lowest point in her life. Feeling as if there was nothing she could enjoy anymore, finding a space where she belonged seemed impossible, until she found gaming and others who loved the same digital playgrounds she did. It helped bring her back from the brink as she found a community and a reason to not give up.
Gaming has always been essential for me. It was an escape of sorts when I was younger since family life wasn’t the best and I needed something to do with my time that didn’t involve staying home with my mother and grandmother. Lots of quarters went into Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Cruisin’ USA to give me time to breathe and find friends who liked the arcade as much as I did. It kept me safe in so many ways, and that safety has transitioned from dimly–lit halls of pinging machines to our living and family rooms, where a friend is only as far away as a button press of the controller, a click of the keyboard.
The strength of community found in gaming proves that what we love is not just a passing fancy, not just something for kids that doesn’t matter at the end of the day. It’s love of the story, the characters, and settings that pulls so many of us into electronic playgrounds where we find others on a swing set, or skipping e–rocks, which forms friendships that last a long, long time. We game for the sheer joy of it—the love of a high score, a once–in–a–lifetime skin–of–your–teeth victory online, or seeing that one scene that always makes you tear up. Getting to share that love is what makes it worth it for so many of us.
© 2016 by Tanya DePass