Texters and Gamers

Video games are a brilliant art form or the end of the world. But what about the other game — the one we all play, all day every day?

Virginia Heffernan


Teenaged personalities make themselves known by cultural choices. In earlier days, a style allegiance to Madonna or Morrissey might have marked you as a gregarious type, or a solitary one. Today high school identities coalesce around digital images, text and music. But one stark social dichotomy persists among teenagers: Flitty butterflies and couch-grounded bears.

Texters, let’s say, and gamers.

In monograph after monograph (“Extra Lives,” “Console Wars,” “Reality Is Broken”) gaming surfaces as the surrender of one’s mind, usually coded male and represented by an androgenic shooter, into another’s mind, that of the ludo-genius designer. (Also coded male.)

But texting — punching in a few characters at a command line. We hardly give a thought. What is texting? For one, it’s an extremely cognitively demanding and physically repetitive social practice, defined by something like chronicness. According to Experian, Americans between 18 and 24 now send an average of 2,022 texts per month. That’s about sixty-seven texts each day. Forget about text replacing email or phone calls. It’s replacing speech.

In contrast to gaming, texting is coded female. The cartoon of the yappy girl with the pink princess phone has been replaced with the cartoon of a silent girl, prayerfully bent over a bedazzled iPhone, who can’t stop texting. She’s the form’s virtuoso. Keeping up with group texts and multiple one-on-one text threads, often with dozens of people in a single day, she processes yottabytes of emotional and mental data with darting eyes and flying fingers.

Texting appears banal, maybe, to everyone but teenaged girls. Far from it: the reading and writing of texts is in fact so intoxicating and habit-forming that it’s fast replacing alcohol and drugs as the chief catalyst of traffic accidents. Even adults, apparently, will risk our lives to keep texting.

Texting also comes with a serious quotient of role-playing. Lower case? Text abbreviations? Emoji? Obscenities? Punctuation? Sexting? A default to the bygone 160-character limit — or a push-over into multi-paragraph email length? The invention of a texting style — a texting persona, no less — can consume the first year or two of a texter’s practice.

When I first realized I had to settle on a texting style, it took me years to decide between “you” and “u,” and sometimes I still put that question up for grabs, or make the call depending on my text partner.

I don’t use emoji, but aspire to, even as it might look forced in an adult; at the same time I’m drawn to more formality. (I notice that my 9-year-old son and my 75-year-old father, both still finding their way on text, like to close and sign each message: “Love, Ben” or “Love, Dad.”) I love text jargon, and hashtags, the more arcane the better. I like being sent to Urban Dictionary. And a text to me that ends in #fml (fuck my life) or #smh (shaking my head) is a good text.

And if you’re an all-lowercase type, or you let autocorrect get the upper hand without protest, or send auto-texts (“On my way!”), or — gah — call in response to a text, that becomes a piece of your digital avatar. Linguists may dismiss the form’s shortcuts and tacky neologisms, but in texting is the beginning of the full-fledged digital grammar.

For all we do it, though, texting is culturally invisible. No wonder we screw things up with texting — sexts, solicitations, quarrels, misfires and misunderstanding. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing. Unlike with gaming, no books exist about the dark allure of texting; its elegant storytelling; its shocking semiotics.

danah boyd’s book “It’s Complicated,” about the habits of digital teens, urges parents to respect the difference between first-person shooter games like Halo and antiquarian games like The Legend of Zelda. She argues that to miss this distinction is to cultivate blindness; it can be part of a larger refusal to see a whole human.

To see the chasm that separates texting from gaming, however, is the first act of understanding not just teens and tech, but our complete digital civilization. The split between texting and gaming is a signature difference: what anthropologists used to call “the difference that makes a difference.” That is, we can only tell Halo from Zelda once we recognize they’re both games, and we can only do that once we recognize that together they are not texting (or messaging, tweeting, chatting, DMing, PMing, IMing).

If video games are portrayed in bipolar turns as surpassingly beautiful and straight-up deadly, texting is still seen as doing nothing, wasting time, staring at the phone like a zombie. In some ways, the cultural blindness to texting has allowed it to thrive. When texting does surface in public consciousness, as in sexting scandals, it becomes suddenly clear how emotionally complex the practice has become — and how little we know about it. In other ways ignorance about texting has allowed it to be represented as an enemy of literacy when it’s more likely an ally. The evidence is there, based on a number of academic studies.. A typical finding, published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, was “a positive relationship between texting proficiency and traditional literacy skills.”

But the point of attending to texting is not to vilify or valorize it. It’s first to see it, and recognize that text messages are a vast and variegated set of cultural artifacts. When we stop overlooking the bread-and-butter of our online lives — and learn the infinite number of Halo/Zelda distinctions that define it — we may find that texting can be seen in its own right as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. SMS = addictive as an MMORPG? #fml.

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