I “Researched” My Teenage Brothers to Understand Gaming Culture

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Photo by Fredrick Tendong on Unsplash

Methodologies: observation, diary study and in-depth interviews. My “research” was conducted prior to the pandemic and involves descriptions of social gatherings. Published with permission from the subjects.

Nigel Latta in his book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers” pronounced this age as a period of temporary insanity. Almost overnight my identical twin brothers who are 11 years my junior, who I helped raise, became cavemen. I consider myself lucky to still get hugs when I go home for visits. Beyond that, it’s grunts or shrugs. All of a sudden, they’re speaking a different language. Words that only other temporarily insane cavemen from the “interwebs” could understand.

My mum, who not only has a generational gap but also a cultural one, is worried sick. She sees this behavior as a sign of blatant gaming addiction and a fast track towards social isolation. I couldn’t blame her. I felt the same way. My brothers’ 15th birthday was the beginning of their transition into cavemen. Around the same time, I was beginning my career as a researcher and immersing myself in the world of ethnography. This social science discipline is most well-known for understanding remote communities like Amazonian tribes.

I began observing my brothers with newfound fascination as though I had stumbled upon a new species of man. Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to dismiss their gaming language and “anti-socialness” as just “teenager things”. I wanted to explore their world as a wannabe anthropologist curious about what she would uncover from this new culture that has emerged right from under her nose.

So, one day I picked up the phone and asked, “Hey, can you two be my guinea pigs?”. I’m not sure what motivated my brothers to say yes but they quickly got on board.

Photo courtesy of me. Faces blurred out to protect privacy.

We set up the project as follows: every day they would record their online activities and specify which platforms they used, which games they played, how much time they spent on it and what their impression was.

My “research” objective was to understand their obsession with spending time in front of the computer. I observed them for a couple of hours over two weekends that I was home during the two-month project. Finally, I conducted final interviews with each of them. The questions for the interviews were formulated after going through their diary entries. We used a simple shared Google Docs system and if I noticed that they had not recorded for a while, I reminded them over the phone.

Between the months of September and November 2016, my brothers recorded a total of 85 entries and mentioned a total of 20 digital platforms and 1 offline game.

So what did I learn?

Memes are a way to make sense of the world

They used memes to express emotions like their excitement over a new game. Sometimes the meme was just for simple amusement. Other times, it was a way for them to “express feelings without having to express them”. It helped them make sense of the world. They were described as “inside jokes” that the “Denizens of Earth” came up with to help alien species understand the humor of humans.

Gaming helps them escape the monotony of life

I know this might seem obvious but what surprised me was how strongly this came across. It was made clear to me how crucial the immersion aspect of gaming was to their happiness. Specifically, the happiness came from the ability to forget about two things: the monotony of everyday life and the bad things that are happening in the world.

“Real world is just so boring. Everyday! You see the world every day: the news, the trees, school, and buildings. Everything’s real. We know it’s real. We just know this is the world we live in, nothing is going to change that. A lot can change in the world we live in but it’s still going to be the same world. If everything turned green for a day, I’d think that’s interesting.”

Games provide an altered version of reality where such changes are possible. “Reality” was not only boring but seen as a less than ideal place to be.

“Playing games is fun, a good way to pass the time, to be happy. When you play, you immerse yourself and forget about things that are happening like all the bad things that are happening.”

Games facilitate diverse experiences that life does not

Previously, it was easy for me to label everything they played as “just another online game”. This project allowed me to see that the games were actually facilitating diverse experiences. Some, like Fallen London, had limited actions. It was partly to fill the gaps and partly to see interesting outcomes from slow storyline progressions. Other games like Minecraft were purely about building something in a made-up world that they have control over. Then there were seasonal games like Team Fortress 2 that had a Halloween special. Dungeons and Dragons, the only offline game mentioned, was a collaborative effort that facilitated face-to-face socialization.

From their perspective, no two games are similar. For example, Team Fortress 2 is a first-person shooter game and Neverwinter is similar to the adventurous and collaborative play of Dungeons and Dragons except online. Hearthstone is a card-based game, Fallen London is a browser-based story game and Minecraft is a sandbox game. Having different games to play adds variety. What they all have in common is the ability to create a sense of immersion and feeling of accomplishment.

“Thinking about the real world, all I need is me, the game and my hands. For that short 20 mins or half an hour, the real world is irrelevant. I suppose that’s why I play video games.”

Gaming is a way to socialize

Often, they would pick up a new game if they stumbled upon a YouTube video or overheard friends talking about it. Minecraft is an example where they saw some students playing the game in primary school and decided to give it a go themselves. For online games, the social element seems to feature more in the aftermath when they have discussions about gameplay. This is normally on a tool called Discord (similar to office communications tool Slack). They would also read about other people’s experiences on online forums. This process helps them form a pool of knowledge to share with friends.

For offline games, the rules of the game force socialization. In the case of Dungeons and Dragons, it is via creating campaigns (or quests) that result in different storylines. Socialization is welcomed if it is central to the goals of the game. Otherwise, it is a beneficial by-product of gaming in the form of topics for discussion in social circles or points of interest for further exploration on forums like Reddit. They were not interested to socialize for the sake of socializing and therefore were not on social media. When asked if they were on Facebook, one brother responded:

“No. Simple reason: there are no video games on Facebook.”

Games train them on strategy, planning and collaboration

I wanted to understand what made Dungeons and Dragons so popular. Perhaps the most recent depiction of this game in the mainstream is a popular show on Netflix called “Stranger Things”. I didn’t have the opportunity to observe my brothers playing D&D with friends, but I’d imagine it would look somewhat similar to the opening scene of the show. Four boys sitting around a table with character figurines deciding on the best move to avoid being killed by the Demogorgon.

The game starts with picking characters for a campaign. Each player gets to come up with aspects of his or her character such as their qualities and “whether they’re going to go after a dragon or save a town from Orcs”. The players then have to collaborate on crafting a storyline based on the adventures of these characters. They work together to strategize and plan their actions and thereby have a direct influence on the outcomes of the plot. This gives players a “direct hand on things” while letting their creative juices flow.

The game presented opportunities for players to step up and, as a result, develop leadership skills. My mum recently commented that she thinks one of my brothers might be “the leader type”. Now I know where he’s been developing those kinds of qualities.

“In addition to my friends’ campaign, I decided to run my own one. Short D&D session strung together to form a storyline. It’s not just telling a story but creating a story. […] We choose which paths to take.”

The collaboration did not stop there. To my surprise, it created a valuable spin-off project. Because each campaign became a different story, the boys were compelled to record their best plotlines to remember the awesomeness of its creation. Most importantly, it was a way to remember that they were the ones who made the story happen.

“[We] wanted a better way to record our adventures. Once the session is over, we felt like the adventure only lingered in our memories. The adventures were important because WE were there, WE stormed the city, WE fought the army of orcs and trolls and ogres, WE stormed the city… I felt like we were playing in this world, I became part of it and I influenced it.”

During one of the observation sessions, I saw one of my brothers typing profusely into a Google Doc. He calls it the novel that they’re writing based on the best campaigns they’ve ever run. I wonder if this is how Stranger Things came to be. The tap tap tap of my brother’s keyboard is evidence of his ability to create change, even if it is only in a made-up world.

Gaming gives them a sense of influence in a way that real life doesn’t

In the show Stranger Things, the boys take things into their own hands to solve the mysterious disappearance of their best friend Will. What follows is a real-life adventure that mirrors their Dungeons and Dragons campaign. In the case of my brothers, the game gave them opportunities to do “major things” and have a big influence in a world they chose to become a part of. They recognized that in the game world, they call the shots and make things happen in a way that they’re not currently able to in the real world. They also recognized that they do want to be influential in real life too but not in the same way.

“In D&D you’re doing really major things like beating back an army or killing the giant that’s terrorizing the towns. In real life, you need to put in a lot more effort and take way longer to have an influence. In D&D when you start the campaign to when you become something really major is less than a year. In real life, you have to do hard work for many years before you’re good enough to do stuff. And even then it’s hard to do the major stuff.”

“‘Major stuff’ means like influencing the economy, getting into good position in life, making money, helping people. It depends on the path you take (if you want to do major stuff in life) ‘cos in D&D you get paths and choices. But real life is not so black and white — believe me, the grey area is this long (arms wide open).”

Part of what really captured me about the show Stranger Things is that I do think kids can be influential in the gaming universe as well as in the world of reality.

They are using gamification to improve their lives

The gaming life has led them to intuitively understand the concept of gamification. Habitica is a tool that helps you build habits and achieve goals by using gaming psychology like rewards for completing tasks and leveling up as you reach certain milestones. My brothers swear by it. I didn’t start doing this type of life hacking until I was well into my 20s.

It made me think about whether certain aspects of online gaming predisposes them to a successful career in industries like tech. Aside from their innate understanding of concepts like gamification, they also use tools such as Discord, which look just like the internal communications tool Slack that is favored by tech companies around the world. My brothers are also being introduced to AI through games such as Google’s Quick Draw Tool.

Games are a way of life, for life

They see gaming as a life-long pursuit rather than just a phase.

“Ideally I’m going to enjoy them for life because they’re fine. The way to unwind at the end of a long day or to spend the time when you haven’t got anything else to do.”

I can’t wait to show these findings to my parents. I want my mum to have a better understanding of her teenage sons so she’d stop worrying so much and realize that games are not as bad as she may think they are. I’m definitely not on a mission to try and increase the amount of time children spend on games but until we understand what the experience of gaming offers we cannot make informed decisions about whether it is “bad” or “good” for them. It is often a mix of both so how do we take the good and enhance it? Case in point: Habitica and using gamification for young people to better manage their time.

In the end, I realized I did this project for me. My baby brothers are becoming young men right in front of my eyes and I could see the gap between us widening more and more. When they entered the awkward teenage stage, I’m ashamed to admit I even became a bit concerned about their gaming lifestyle. Doing this project has made me realize that being judgmental blinded me from seeing the qualities each of my brothers have and are developing as a result of gaming. I now see their creativity, their determination and their ability to lead taking shape and I’m so, so proud of them! I encourage them to apply the same courage in real life as they do in their campaigns because they DO have the power to influence the real world.

Since writing this story, I’ve sent my parents the article and my brothers are now studying at the University of Auckland. One brother competes in coding competitions while the other has no interest in becoming a developer but is managing his life like a professional project manager through digital tools like Habitica.

Design researcher by trade. Mental health advocate. Personal & professional growth writer. Storyteller.

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