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A guide to gamers (for non-gamers)

United Kingdom
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Original Post

Yesterday I read an article breaking the gamer code, which aimed to paint a picture of gamers, for the benefit of non-gamers. I see the merits of that, but I've got a few problems with this article and I'm not alone in that. The BGG thread on the article contains its fair share of criticisms. However I'm firmly of the opinion that if you don't like something it's better to try to build an improved version that to criticise what's there, so I thought I'd have a shot at writing such an article myself. I expect it'll be harder than it looks.

So let's talk about gamers. The first and most important thing to understand is a somewhat dated, but somewhat powerful theory from social psychology. Individual's hold social identities, which can be based on pretty much any aspect of their life, personality or beliefs. They will generally be happy to display membership of this group, in at least some situations and where they perceive a difference between their perception of the group and their perception of themselves they will feel discomfort and work to change it. Different people go about this in different ways, depending on a whole bunch of factors. They might choose to change their own behaviour (or even beliefs), they might try to change the group or they might form a more specialised subgroup.

The last two have had (and are having) serious impacts on gamer culture. There are a lot of gamers who live happy lives, have great jobs and deal with their friends much like anyone else who are pretty upset about the whole "awkward nerd" stereotype, so the group as a whole is moving away from that, gets upset by the notion that it's not happened yet (and in their defence it may never have been true, but however true it was it's becoming less true as time goes by). The subculture thing is important too, "gamer" is a hugely broad term that encompasses all sorts of things. You have computer gamers, roleplayers, wargamers, LARPers and any number of other things. Within those are nested other subcultures, a computer gamer might define as a console fan or PC gamer. Within those there are nested other subcultures, some console gamers have a Sony/Nintendo/Microsoft preference and definitely don't see themselves as belonging to the other groups. Within that there get the idea.

So that very briefly gives you an overview of the background literature necessary to understand a summary of the theory I mentioned in the second paragraph (Warning: Brief summaries on the internet may be simplified and misleading. They should not be used as a substitute for actually reading about a subject, no matter how awesome a floppy hat the author was permitted to wear at graduation).

People have multiple social identities of various importance. An individual might have a core identity that defines a lot of their life, other important identities that inform a lot of their attitudes and behaviours and more peripheral ones that are only relevant occasionally. The context of a given interaction will determine which identities are salient to the interaction and how they will be used. In short, someone who is a "gamer" is likely to be a lot of other things too. They might also be a "mother", a "cancer survivor", a "rocket scientist" and a "muslim". Five would still be a very short list of identities, but you get the idea, if you're dealing with a "gamer" remember all of the other things that they also are and that these will have a huge impact on their life independent of whatever their "gamer" identity might bring to the table.

Still, the "gamer" social identity definetely has some features and there are some unique social interactions that tend to happen around them, so it's not entirely without merit to discuss it. So with the caveat that to understand a person you need to look at more than one aspect of them, what things should a non-gamer understand about gamers?

Like everyone else who has passion, they like to talk about the things they care about. I mentioned earlier about identities being salient and about the dissonance caused when someone perceives themself to differ from their group, if someone identifies as a gamer then they generally want to act that way. Creating a context in which that can happen generally makes people happier. Moving away from psychobabble to normal person talk: "If someone has a hobby, generally talking to them about it is cool." Actually just understanding gaming in terms of other passions is a fair way to go. There's nothing special about gaming that stops you going "I hear you're into this, tell me more." and all of the usual interactions that might follow from that. For some reason gamers talking endlessly about their hobby is somehow treated as a special case of peoples' general tendency to talk about stuff that interests them and some people take that as permission to skip the usual politeness/respect you'd use to change to topic of conversation. That's got no basis in fact; treat it as any other hobby.

Where you might encounter a difference in behaviour is in dealing the cultures and subcultures. Gaming subcultures are not widely understood so gamers of various stripes are confused with each other all of the time, this causes more than its fair share of upsets. Imagine if you played professional basketball and someone ran up to you and asked "I hear you like kicking the rubgy ball around, I've played tennis so I know what that's like, don't you just hate it when you get a fault?" Some people would be bemused, some confused and some offended, which is pretty much what happens when you approach a gamer and say "Man you like board games? I've played Dungeons and Dragons once in school and it was pretty fun, are you into all that Games Workshop stuff then?" Now conversation is a two way street and you'd expect a graceful person to politely correct the misconception and answer the question in the spirit that it was intended, but not everyone will do that and the person you're talking to may already be having a bad day for some other reason, so why start off with something that could cause an upset?

A few common problems: Gamers who are into boardgames/roleplaying/wargames/whatever may not be into any of the others and may look down on or be offended to be connected with any of the others. Not all roleplaying games are Dungeons and Dragons and some roleplayers hate that game and blame it for everything that is wrong in the hobby (though it probably doesn't deserve it). Not all wargames are by Games Workshop and some wargamers hate the company and blame it for everything that is wrong in the hobby (they might deserve it). Pretty much every group except a LARPer contain members that hate being called LARPers, most LARPers hate people being careful about calling people LARPers because it implies that there's something wrong with the hobby, which there isn't dammit. Actually...there's no way I can cover this in a list.

Probably the best way to go about approaching a gamer about their hobby, if you know nothing about games, is either to be general and work your way down ("What sort of games do you like? What sort of roleplaying do you prefer? What's a 'world of darkness' and what made you say that's the best?") or to quickly nab something specific and work up ("What's your favourite game? What sort of game is that? What's a wargame?").

I mentioned earlier the importance of context to social interactions; I'm running out of space but would be remiss not to talk a little bit about a game in progress. It's a somewhat unique social environment that's not tremendously analogous to anything else you've experienced. Probably the best part of the article that provoked this one was the comparison to a sports match in progress, generally you wouldn't walk onto the court or start talking to the players until the game is over, you wouldn't go wrong following that sort of advice but it's not applicable to everything.

A few notes in no particular order:

Some games require constant attention from all players and a distraction at the wrong moment will ruin the game for everyone. This is most common with computer games, but a few board games have similar issues. I'd equate jumping in at this point to walking into a kitchen, moving the baking tray above the bin and turning it upside down - depending on your timing and what's happening in the kitchen you may simply perplex the chef(s) or you might've just destroyed the result of several hours of activity. With this sort of game it's generally best to wait until its' over to get involved, or to prepare for the situation before it starts ("Is it okay if I ask you about this while you play?" or even better "Can I join in this round?")

Some games require constant attention, but a distraction won't ruin them. Most board games and roleplaying games fall into this category. I'd equate jumping in here to pausing a film that people are watching until you're done, people might enjoy chatting with each other while they wait for it to unpause, but if they were excited or interested by what was going on they'd probably rather not have had the interruption. In this sort of situation it's fair enough to jump in to ask something quick but pulling someone away for an extended period of time is going to upset a few people. Asking a big pile of questions about what's going on is going to have roughly the same effect it does during a film, most people will get annoyed by it, but some are okay with it, best to find out who you're dealing with first.

Games and parts of games tend to be expensive. You can easily destroy £50-£500 of someone's property by knocking over a drink. Computer games, board games, figures and foam swords all cost much more than you might assume they would and are somewhat easier to break than you'd hope. With some out of print board games you could lose a 2cm square cardboard counter and it would cost the owner almost a hundred pounds to make the game playable again. Be careful around this stuff and offer to replace it if you do happen to damage anything.

Most gamers are keen for more people to join in their games, asking to jump in will normally result in a cheerful and enthusiastic yes, as long as it's a little bit in advance. Some games have rules or controls that take a time to learn so jumping in at the last minute is a great way to make everyone wait while they get explained / demonstrated over again. I think it's probably fair to say that gamers of all stripes approach a game with a new player differently to a regular game, so if you're going to be that new player it's better to try to get folks to set up a game with that in mind than to change an existing one at the last minute (though exceptions exist).

Actually that's probably the best piece of advice, if you're going to skip the rest of the article, if you want to understand where gamers are coming from, ask to join a game. Most gamers like introducing new players to the hobby and will free up an evening to do it. If it turns out not to be much fun you'll learn something new and if it sticks you'll find yourself with a new hobby and new friends in a way that'll enrich your life in ways I can't begin to describe.

Have fun!
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