Any group that is stigmatized usually finds that they are the object of more than one stereotype. In fact, the stereotypes are often completely opposite in nature. Women are weak enough to be the “frail sex,” yet strong enough to be a “battle ax.” Blacks were considered lazy enough to require slavery to motivate them, yet motivated enough to steal away white women. Gays are either acting like “sissies” or always at the gym working out. The abstract contortions made to bind all these stereotypes into a web that seems to hang together contains many tensions of opposites. In short, stigma creates a lose/lose situation for whatever population is targeted.
I have recently tried to explain the connection between technology and class, a connection that has endured as far back as Greece in 400 BC. And I have often decried the pathologization of gaming as an addiction and gamers as “addicts.” The portrait I often see sketched is that of gamers as monomaniacal, sacrificing work, friends and their health because they can’t stop playing video games. These addicted personalities, the stereotype asserts, are online for hours playing without any regard for real life. Worse, I often hear gamers refer to themselves as “addicted” to video games, which is often a shorthand for and identification with the negativism they have picked up from popular culture and popular psychology. Even therapists who feign neutrality often convey this stereotype: When was the last time you asked someone how many hours they did something that you didn’t think was a problem.
But forever Scylla there’s a Charybdis, and gamer stereotypes are no exception. For people who are so obsessive and driven by addiction, gamers are also referred to as slackers. They’re never working hard enough at what really matters, rarely bathe, are morbidly obese and locked in a perpetual state of early adolescents. As slackers, gamers are purported to be lazy, unkempt, and always slouched over their keyboards. They have no interest in “real life,” which is the term we use to refer to anything we think is interesting. This stereotype presents the gamer as apathetic and avoidant of any work or investment. And one thing we know about stereotypes is that they can be internalized and lead to self-fulfilling negativism, and I’ve come to hear gamers refer to themselves as lazy slackers.
Here’s why I know this isn’t true.
It’s not just the survey PopCap did which showed 35% of executives surveyed played video games at work. Nor is it the fact that gamers have compiled the second largest compendium of online knowledge, WoWwiki, the first being Wikipedia. I know the reason why Gamers aren’t slackers is because as Nicole Lazzaro points out gamers are failing 80% of the time they are playing the game. That’s right, 80% of the time a gamer plays a video game they try, and fail, and try again. That is not the characteristic of a slacker. If anything, that’s a perfectionist.
Video games create experiences that can be challenging and frustrating, but engaging nevertheless. This hard fun would not be possible if gamers were truly lazy or apathetic. And the level of detail that many gamers pay attention to is staggering, whether it be leveling a profession to 525 in WoW, unlocking every achievement in Halo 3, or mapping out every detail of the EVE universe. This is not apathy, this is meticulousness.
One of the most ironic things about the slacker stereotype is that it has its roots in the US History of WWI when the word slacker was used to avoid the draft and avoid serving in the military. One hundred year later, video games have been embraced by the military, with research that shows gaming to be the 2nd most efficacious coping mechanism for psychosocial stressors during service in Afghanistan. Apparently if that’s slacking, it keeps you saner. The US Army has not bought into the slacker stereotype at least since 2008, when it invested $50 million to create and fund a video game unit for 5 years to help prepare soldiers for combat.
Working with gamers as a therapist requires its own cultural competency, and we need to be cautious about using the oversimplification that stereotyping allows. Just because someone is interested in something we aren’t doesn’t mean they are delusional. In fact we may be the ones slacking off if we aren’t trying to understand a video game beyond hours played.
And gamers have their own responsibility in this. We need to stop bandying about terms like addiction and slacker. And perhaps more importantly, gamers cannot and should not resign themselves to being misunderstood in treatment. If your therapist seems unable to discuss video games beyond hours played, encourage them to read Jane McGonigal’s work. Print out some of my posts for them. Let them know that games are an important part of your life and world and that they need to try to understand them in order to understand you. And if they refuse to do that, consider finding a gamer-affirmative therapist.
It wasn’t many years ago that therapists didn’t think they had any gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual patients because they never asked their patients if they were gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual. And worse, because therapists assumed they weren’t. This vicious cycle made learning how to best treat LGBT patients take much longer than it should have. This can only change through therapist education.
We need to stop trivializing video games in life and in treatment. We need to stop rushing to peg gamers as addicts or slackers, and try to listen to them. Because I am convinced that it is within the content of the video game’s meaning that we may best understand the gamer, and how they play the game may hold the key to how they can resolve their difficulties elsewhere.