For most gamers I know video games represent a kind of sanctuary. They’re a place to get lost in for a few hours, to take you out of yourself, to challenge you. From the inception of home gaming to the present, gamers have lived under the stigma that people who spend their leisure time gaming are shut-ins, recluses, nerds, geeks, and/or weirdos. Ask yourself which image is more pervasive: the sweaty loner hunched in a basement in front of a glowing screen or the urban professional who gets in a few hours of World of Warcraft before hitting the bars? Despite these prejudices or perhaps partly because of them, hardcore gamers have built tight, insular communities which sometimes reply strongly to criticism or censure.
Whether you prefer to game with like minded people or you play games to avoid any kind of people, essentially the service you are being provided with is a low-level escapism. A safe and familiar space to inhabit for a time. The idea is that regardless of where you fall into the world (race, sex, gender, orientation, class) there is space in the wonderful world of games for you to feel OK in.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, maybe.
Games (console, PC, hell even portables) are increasingly reaching toward using the full potential of an ever more connected society. So much so that major industry players are making predictions like this, which brings us back around to the idea of safe spaces. Back when we were first playing Galaga in the wood-paneled family room, there was no inter-connectivity to speak of. Maybe you had a friend over a few times a month or maybe your weird cousin might demand some play time, but those were pretty much the extent of your interactions with others. But in a world where your consoles are connected to the Internet for the vast majority of your play time what does that mean for the safety and quality of your gaming spaces?
Even as we move away from the idea of gaming as predominately male [caution, PDF] it’s sometimes hard to feel as though great strides are being made in terms of tolerance and acceptance in gaming communities. Drop into any online game of Call of Duty and you risk hearing angry diatribes and screeds containing virulently homophobic, misogynistic and generally misanthropic language. Stop by the message board of any IGN or Kotaku article attempting to discuss issues of the negative portrayal of women in gaming or the relative invisibility of LGBT people and you’ll likely see the evidence of a brewing flame war. In the first case, it’s almost certainly matter of casual thoughtlessness rather than intentional malevolence: calling someone a faggot or a cunt for sniping you is an incidental slur, a casual insult without intrinsic meaning. Yet it creates a toxic environment that ruins the safe space for other players. In the second case, on message boards around the Internet, arguments are being vehemently made that the complaints and concerns of marginalized groups have no place in gaming reportage and commentary. The argument, explicit or implied, is that a significant amount of gamers (a notoriously, ferociously opinionated bunch) don’t want to be forced to deal with anything that isn’t in their purview.
A recent example is the debut of Kotaku Core: a new content filter that can exclude any articles that do not explicitly deal with games, thus removing pretty much any social inquiry for those who just don’t want to be bothered. On the one hand this frees the website to write articles about social trends/concerns in gaming with impunity, knowing that those who come to the website for pure gaming news will simply elect not to the view such content. On the other, it narrows one of the few mediums through which those most disenfranchised by gaming communities are able to directly confront the rest of their peers — such as articles like this or this.
Still, it’s not all bad news. The existence of places like The Border House Blog [found here] — which specializes in gaming among marginalized groups (queer people, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.) — seems to signal some shift toward a more thoughtful gaming community. It is a place where the minority opinion is given full voice and full range to develop alternate narratives about what gaming is and should be.
We’re approaching a point where interacting with others while gaming is moving from the exception to the rule. For every game like Dark Souls, in which players interact with each other in oblique, non-verbal ways, there is an MMO or a first-person shooter which connects us directly and creates opportunities for casual bigotry. A familiar charge in situations where marginalized groups take offense at the content of games or their treatment by other players is: why can’t you toughen up or lighten up? But why should some be denied their safe space when the world and its troubles loom, waiting for when that hour of Battlefield to be up? We’re all looking for some form of escape or transportation in video games, it’s a shame that the predominant gaming culture seems to have decided that only some of us deserve it.