I spent the better part of my K-12 life committed to “fitting in.” I’m sure most of did. While the details of my personal journey are vague, the broad stokes are vivid and continue to permeate my behavior today.
In elementary school, I bounced back and forth between a schoolyard football organizing, video game baseball stat tracking, basketball card trading, Mighty Ducks obsessive to a Star Wars card collecting, Weird Al singing, LEGO building, video game lover. Entering kindergarten, I had my heart set on girls and my reputation set on boys.
Middle-school introduced me to skateboarding, LAN parties, and puberty. Days were spent watching amateur skate videos, failing to land front-side 360-flips down church five-stairs, cooling down with Quake bouts and 2-liters of soda, and stressing about how to kiss for the first time.
This continued through to the end of high school in which I graduated from the Space & Engineering Academy with Honors, maintaining an active role in the ASB, ensuring my legacy in the yearbook, and defending the rise of geek culture in the “popular” audience by means of an established punk attitude.
That said, once college hit, I felt lost. Those years spent focused on uniting divided parties seemed but a loss 300+ miles away from my hometown of Tracy, CA. What felt like a trudge through the trenches for years was met with crowds who couldn’t give less of a shit about my high school trifles and instead cared about college studies and partying.
Fast-forward to age 28, engaged, responsible, and career focused. While career ambitions and household priorities are established, steadfast, and paramount, personal passions and interests are now hidden. In the comfort of my own home, I’ve spent over three years parading around my fiancée about my love for video games, The Lord of the Rings, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while dreaming about listening to jazz and writing for a living. While I praise her earnest desire to understand what drives me, I feel that I am living within a box in the professional world.
On April 8, 2014, a well respected acquaintance informed me of a GDC (Game Developers Conference) talk given by Ashly Burch and Rosalind Wisemana. The title of their talk? The Connection Between Boys’ Social Status, Gaming and Conflict.
At the invitation of this video, I was not deeply excited but remained intrigued due to my adoration for the referrer. However, after only minutes into the discussion, I was nearly in tears.
Early on, the presenters showcase a chart full of descriptors provided by 200 boys. This chart categorizes the descriptors into two separate spaces. Those in ‘the box’ and those outside. ‘The box’ refers to the qualities contribute to high social status and popularity for middle-school and high-school boys. All told, below are the following descriptors:
What contributes to high middle-school and high-school male social status and popularity (The Box):
- Verbal skills
- Smart but not stressed
- Athletic at “right” sports
- Girls like him
- Good style
- Good at video games but not obsessed
What contributes to low middle-school and high-school male social status and popularity:
- Backs down
- Acts like a girl
- Bad style
- Controlled by girls
- Easily Upset
- Tries too hard
After seeing these qualities laid out, memories of pleasing parents, attempting to fit in with multiple peer groups, and impressing girls came flooding back. Those fearful memories of seeking out my true interests by immersing myself in Magic: The Gathering at the risk of social ridicule to being the subject of disappointment at the decision to quit organized sports rushed to the forefront of my mind.
I had been found out. I realized that throughout the majority of my grade-school life, I had tried incredibly hard to fit into ‘the box.’ What was even more disturbing was the fact that at 28, I am still trying.
Though this was not the core reason for the talk, I felt waves of emotion pass over me. I have spent the better part of my life afraid of what others think and what my reputation is amongst those with more power than myself.
However, it suddenly become apparent that throughout all of the exhausting social ladder climbing, weaving in and out of relationships trying to please both parents and peers, I found release and comfort in video games. They do not judge. They exist to engage in fantastic worlds, stories, and puzzles. They showcase the wonder of man; narrative and participatory action architected with 1's and 0's. They stimulate the parts of me I am often fearful to express: my passions for technology, story, world-building, logic, humility, communication, and community.
As I watched the remainder of the talk, time seemed to slow. I remembered opening up a Game Boy on Christmas Day, re-experienced the joy of receiving a SEGA Genesis, spending hours in front of VTech Socrates, pulling all nighters trying to beat Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, convincing ourselves that Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero was a good game, reading the Myst Official Strategy Guide as a novel, getting lost in the world of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, having to shut off my N64 during the final cut-scene of Star Fox 64's hard path, pushing myself to level up in a StarCraft clan, staying up until dawn as Tidus in Final Fantasy X, watching my step-brother complete the entire God of War trilogy, losing track of time designing houses in The Sims, feeling awestruck and inspired by Journey, and waking up in the middle of the night to figure out what is going on in BioShock: Infinite.
While enduring the wondrous journey of identity (and lack thereof), fear of being “boxed in” and at the same time stepping out, I now freely open myself up to the opinions, world-views, and knowledge of others. This is something I take pride in. Though, my continuing insecurity and lack of confidence is ripe for a separate blog post.
Looking back on the GDC talk, I saw myself. Born at the tail-end of 1985 and immediately introduced to the rise of the video game world. I consider this to be the beginning of a sea-change of media ingestion. Like myself, millions of children find safe-haven in this medium where they are able to control a protagonist, work to solve problems, and actively participate in the outcome of a story. They are able to find meaning beyond oneself, have hope of success, experience social connection, and take part in satisfying work; as per Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, these are the ingredients of happiness.
Throughout all of my time, jumping in and out of social identities from jock to nerd, from punk to prep, video games have always been a safe-haven for me to truly experience what it means to be happy. They are the Costco sampler to something larger. Even as an professional in the most prolific of landscapes, my focus remains on gaming. It is the medium that welcomed me. It allowed me to experience life outside of ‘the box’ in a comfortable manner. I never had to explain myself to any of the other players. We were all fighting for a like victory. It is a world of commune for all societal types and is possibly the largest entertainment medium in the world.
Consider this post as a step out of ‘the box.’ It is simply affirmation that video games do mirror social status and popularity. The video games kids play and the time spent playing them is a window into their world depicting their social status and identity. It is imperative that parents, mentors, and educators cast aside their ignorance and skepticism of the medium.