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Game On - How the fringe went mainstream

By Jonathan 'Killstring' Herzberger

"Sorry, our Princess is in another castle." It was in the fall of 1985 that those iconic words first blazed across television screens around the world. After a surge of popularity in the 80's, video games seemed primed to stand beside the Pet Rock, Pogs and (with any luck) Disney's singer-actors as forgotten fads.
But despite the millions of unsold Atari cartridges buried in the Nevada desert, the bankruptcy of virtually (unfortunate pun not intended) every video game company at the time, and the advent of Personal Computers, Nintendo's N.E.S. Console rekindled the embers of the industry, and the rest is history.
Now, some 24 years later, even as gaming becomes a more prevalent part of our culture, many stereotypes remain. Myths of The Gamer still persist - he is male, socially underdeveloped, unemployed, possessed of poor hygiene, and likely lives in his parent's basement. But are these preconceptions based on facts, or are these stereotypes the lingering ghosts of misconceptions long since unproven?
To find out, we conducted interviews around the campus, speaking to Professors and students alike - and some of the answers may surprise you. When asked, Professor Paul Skalski said, "The 'official' reason I game now is because it's part of my job, as a video game scholar... But in truth, I also game because it's fun. I grew up with games and have been a huge fan my whole life. I don't know what I'd do or where I'd be with(out) video games... I'm proud to be a gamer."
Graduate student Pete Lindmark agrees, saying that he "plays to relieve stress," even after studying video games for work on his thesis.
And according to Jamie, a sophomore here at CSU, the perception of gamers being holed up in their rooms, cloistered from society simply isn't true. "(Gaming is) social," she said. "Even a when playing a single player game I compare how I'm doing with friends or talk about how good or bad a game is. Before gaming, I didn't really fit into a social group, and after I started I found people I was comfortable with."
The various facets of gaming, whether they be digital, or more traditional board or improv-based, have long been victims of unfair characterizations, but Skalski thinks that is changing.
"There are some stereotypes associated with players of online games like World of Warcraft that are kind of amusing," says Skalski, "but even those gamers shouldn't be embarrassed. We live in a tech-fueled society and dorks, nerds, and geeks are taking over!"
And according to a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the 12-17 age bracket seems to gel with Prof. Skalski's forecast, with 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls actively gaming. Their tastes run the gamut, with Activision's wildly successful Guitar Hero being the most popular, closely followed by Halo 3, and the various iterations of Madden NFL, Solitaire, and Dance Dance Revolution.
Roughly two-thirds play with family or friends, and about 25 percent socialize online. Quite frankly, the next generation looks to be saturated with gamers of all stripes. But in regards to the populations as a whole, a similar study by NPD found that over 63 percent of the United States population plays video games. Sixty- Three Percent. That's a healthy majority. However, that's just the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned earlier, Of course, all this discourse is ignoring one of the more enduring facets of Gamer Culture - that is to say, that the term has enveloped 'hobby' gamers since long before Mario took that first fateful jump.
While many assume that 'pen and paper' role playing games (RPG's for short) began in the 1970's with Dungeons and Dragons, tabletop gaming can trace its roots back as far as 1824, where Otto Von Bismark's General Staff would play Kriegsspiel - a game which introduced conventions such as red and blue representing different armies, complex mathematical rules for movement and combat, adjudication of said rules by independent umpires, and the use of dice to simulate randomizing factors. 184 years later, the innovations of Kriegsspiel persist.
However, strategy gaming would not be forever the domain of armies and the independently wealthy. Like so many contributions to 'geek' culture, it would take a Science Fiction author - noted pacifist H.G. Wells - to move the concept of wargames into the commercial market, with the publishing of Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years to One Hundred and Fifty and for that More Intelligent Sort of Girl Who Likes Games and Books.
Despite the fact that this is essentially the greatest title ever, the name was truncated to the much tidier moniker Little Wars. Within its pages, Wells argues for gaming- as-catharsis: "Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster - and no smashed bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties ...that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence."
However, classical Gaming - if such a phrase could be coined - was by no means confined to the table. In a sense, the roots of 'roleplaying' date back to 16th century Commedia dell'arte - an energetic brand of Theatre with predetermined characters, and 'set pieces', but was otherwise improvised. 19th century parlour games, Mock trials, murder mystery dinner Theatre, and Viola Spolin's Theatre Games all carry the same traits of predetermined characters, a set of rules, and improvised interactions. Even the legendary comedian Harpo Marx talked about live-action gaming during the 1920's in his autobiography, Harpo Speaks! - and while the subculture of live-action role playing games or LARP's is a topic that reaches far beyond the scope of this article, students have no shortage of commentary on both the hobby, and social element of the Role playing subculture.
Jessica - a biology major in her junior year at CSU, games in large part due to this social aspect. "(Gaming's) pretty much the only social experience I have. I am trying to prepare for Medical School, I study all the time, and sometimes I just need a break, go and pretend I'm someone else for a while... but in all honesty, the friends I've made gaming are the nicest people I have ever met. I am not embarrassed to say I am a gamer." CSU Art professor Peter Wells echoes the sentiment.
"Think of it like softball -" he said, granting an interview in the middle of that most hallowed post-game ritual, breakfast in a 24-hour diner. "You play softball, or go to a LARP - that's about 40 people, most of whom you might not know otherwise. You've got things in common - Softball or Gaming as the case may be, and you're going to meet people who share other interestsl, sporty things in one case, nerdy things in another. It's social networking - only difference is nobody gets hurt LARPing, and the government will provide you with a place to play softball."
But large gatherings of adults in costumes ranging from Mad Max to Victorian waistcoats isn't the sort of thing one can do without a building. Many groups have solved this problem by renting halls at party centers, but for the average college student, this can get expensive quickly. In response to this situation, Wells sought an unorthodox solution, and in 2003, with cooperation from a few other Cleveland area Gamers, founded Undead Ltd, a partnership of Role-players turned real estate investors. Purchasing a set of three properties in the West 25th neighborhood, the group proceeded to renovate and rent out two of them. The third property, however was in complete disrepair.
"We got the property stupidly cheap," says Wells, "because nobody wanted to touch that house - it was a wreck." Nevertheless, gamers from all around the Greater Cleveland area embraced Wells' vision, and beginning in the summer - when the unfinished walls, and drafty roof posed less of a problem, groups began hosting their games at the house, asking for donations of $2 to go towards renovations. Today, the so-called "Vega House" stands as the only building of its kind in the entire world - a site dedicated exclusively to gaming, and financed entirely by donation. "If this was going to happen anywhere in the world," said Wells, "it was going to be Cleveland."
As studies suggest, and our interviewees echoed, many gamers play as a form of stress relief. And while many have been quick to blame crimes that are difficult to understand on a subculture that has proved just as elusive, in his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games As Social Worlds, Sociologist Gary Fine finds that Suicide, violent crimes, and many of the other negative behaviors attributed to gaming are not caused by fighting imaginary goblins today, anymore than they were by listening to Elvis in the 50's. Fine found that Suicide is caused by depression and feelings of isolation - and social networks, the kind that gaming subculture can provide - are the best way to address and support these individuals. Like rock-n'-roll before it, the subculture of Gaming is migrating from a marginalized and often misunderstood cultural phenomenon, to an accepted and integral facet of modern life. So game on, my friends - in a very real sense, the world games with you.


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