The Power Of Stereotypes

I grew up with an older brother whose life revolved around gaming.  He did everything from online video games, to strategic board games, to collectible card games.  As a younger sister I wanted to be like my brother so I too began participating in similar activities.  I fell in love with games such as World of Warcraft and Pokémon, spending much of my allowance on strategy guides and accessories.  Of course I enjoyed the games as a source of entertainment, but more than that I enjoyed the connection gaming brought between me and my brother.  We were as different as two siblings could possibly be and gaming was the one thing that kept us close.  However, as time went on I watched my brother slowly become addicted to gaming.  He began to slack off in school and on his chores around the house.  I saw how aggravated my dad got with my brother and realized I did not want to grow into an addiction as well, so I left the gaming world and identified with other cultures.  I became a more serious cellist and runner as I entered into middle and high school.  Eventually my participation in the gaming culture had vanished completely, as did my relationship with my brother.  Suddenly the culture that I had put so much dedication into had left my life and became an unknown territory for me.

Years after my initial introduction to gaming, I was reintroduced to the culture through a few friends during a summer in Boston as they presented a seemingly complex and intense collectible card game called Magic: The Gathering. Although the game did not grab my interest during my first encounter, it did have a larger impact on me the following summer when I discovered that my high school boyfriend and his close knit group of friends had also been players of the game.  It had been a while since I had been around gaming and after seeing and remembering how passionate people are toward games, I felt an interest in relearning the culture.  I wanted to find out what it was about this game, and similar games, that brought in such a large and loyal community.  Therefore, during my sophomore year in college, I decided to spend a few weeks attending Friday Night Magic (FNM) tournaments at a gaming store called Outpost Gaming.

I would visit Outpost Gaming every Friday at the same time, and every Friday night the same routine was put into play.  Players entered the store and approached the counter, asking the owner, Ken, to sign them up for the night’s Magic: The Gathering tournament.  Ken collected the six dollar participation fee then asked them to choose two packs; one for the prize pool and one as a complimentary gift for participating.  After signing up, players walked to the back half of the store where purple felt tables were ready for the three hour long event.  Here the participants would socialize, trade cards, and prepare.

Before arriving at my site for the first time, I had ideas and stereotypes about what I assumed the event would be like.  I pictured the participants to be predominately scrawny white teenage males, slightly awkward and uncoordinated with glasses and no social life. Or possibly uncleanly middle- aged men who still live at home with their mothers.  I assume I would have found it unusual if an attractive, outgoing female was to be a part of this community.  I thought these things based on my experiences of social groups in high school.  In high school I dedicated my life to athletics.  Being a white middle class varsity athlete was all I knew.  My friends and I based our stereotypes of other social groups on what we saw in the media.  Nerds were portrayed as skinny white boys who wore glasses with extraordinary smarts and got picked on because their choices of activities were proclaimed uncool by someone who believes themselves to be of social hierarchyHowever, all fifteen to twenty players were men, mostly younger middle aged, none younger than 17 or older than 35.  They ranged from hipsters to nerds and everything in between, all of different races and ethnics.  Everything from a middle aged man with facial piercings and rugged clothing to a skinny teenage boy with designer clothes and perfectly highlighted blonde hair could be spotted.  The players were all so different. I wondered if outside of this tournament one could find such physically diverse group of people.

My guess is probably not.  Judging and stereotyping is something we all do, especially toward someone who at first glance seems to be so different than ourselves.   Approaching a stranger can be a difficult task in itself, but approaching a stranger who looks and acts nothing like you can be a whole other challenge.  Therefore for some individuals, avoiding the situation is the most comfortable, and often resorted to option.  Alyssa Bereznak openly admits to her unfair judgment in her blog “My Brief OkCupid Affair with a World Champion Magic: The Gathering Player.”  After meeting on an online dating site, Bereznak met up with a man named Jon Finkel, who at first seem to meet her criteria of normal.  Some way into their date, Finkel announces that he is the World Champion Magic: The Gathering player.  Instantly Bereznak is appalled claiming men on online dating sites should “be required to disclose any indisputably geeky world championship titles”.  It is these types of automatic judgments that can make stereotyping harmful.  Who is to say that Finkel could not have been a great companion for Bereznak?  Surly she would not have known since she did not take the time to get to know him.  She, like so many others, makes assumptions when they hear that a person is a Magic player.  I know many of the participants at Outpost have experienced similar situations of being put down because of their hobby.  I have also had many acknowledge that they at one time or another have felt embarrassed to admit to playing the game for fear of rejection.

I myself am guilty of unfairly stereotyping.  If it was not for a college assignment, I would have most likely never entered Outpost.  It is not a scene in which I am comfortable.  As I have mentioned earlier, I had acquired a specific stereotype of who a Magic player was.  Even after realizing that my initial physical description was wrong, I continued to make assumptions of the gaming community.  I assumed that even though the participants did not physically fit my description of nerdy, they would still fit my social and behavioral definition.  I assumed that they didn’t talk during the tournaments because they were shy and socially awkward.  I passed judgment on the players, thinking that this event, this store, was the only place they could possibly feel comfortable because they were too different to fit in anywhere else.  I continued to push these stereotypes, because I did not understand the people I was observing. After spending some time with the Magic players and really talking to them, I realized I had been unfair by judging them so soon.  Most participants are not socially awkward at all but are actually quite the social butterflies.  I assumed that they didn’t talk during the tournaments because they were shy when in fact, a player pointed out, it was because the games could get intense and players were usually quietly concentrating.  It is no different than a group of students in a classroom quietly working on an assignment.  They are not quiet because they are unaware of how to interact with their peers, but because they are focused on executing their task.

I feel almost saddened that I, and others, so harshly judge Magic players based solely on the fact they choose to spend their free time playing Magic.  A night after leaving Outpost I had asked my boyfriend at the time, who had played Magic and was familiar with the community, what was so important about this game.  Most players admit to feeling embarrassed and rejected because of their activity choice, so why would they continue to participate?  He said for him, it was just another way of escaping reality when he had had a long day.  I understood as I related it to reading. Every night after I get done with classes or work, I like to spend a few moments with a book to help settle my mind.  There was something relaxing about leaving my own reality to enter an alternate world.   Much like people who watch movies or read books to help unwind after a stressful week, these people spend their Friday night at Outpost where they could create their own unique world to get lost in.  Scholarly journalist, Eric Gerson, explores this idea as well with his journal “More Gore: Video Game Violence and the Technology of the Future” as he walks us through a segment of a fictional character’s life. John (Gerson’s fictional character) is tired of doing the same thing every day.   He is bored and he feels a void in his life.  In order to fill that void, John heads off to the cinema where he escapes his reality to enter a new, more accelerating world.  Here in the cinema, John is thrown onto the streets of Prague as a secret agent, flying down busy roads in his hot, jacked-up black car.  This alternate world satisfies John as he leaves the theatre grinning and thinking “So much for a slow Sunday afternoon”.

The Magic players I met were in a sense no different than John.  Possibly they too felt a void.  They were bored with the lack of adventure and wanted to create some sense of adrenaline in their lives.  And instead of physically leaving and having a spontaneous quest, they created one with Magic.  Why is it that in order to have some peace in our current state, we have to create it in an alter space?  To physically leave and enter new surroundings would only create more issues and is usually a lot easier said than done.  It costs money and time, two things that most people do not have to spare.  Not to mention we are a part of a society where leaving is often associated with quitting, and no one likes to be considered a quitter.  So instead we mentally create somewhere to go, and in the case of these individuals, this place is found in Magic.

After spending more time with Magic players and learning more about the game, I felt almost envious of them for their choice of entertainment and reality escape.  Unlike other mediums, Magic can be an extremely personal experience.  With books and movies, the reader or viewer does not get to choose the space or the route in which they take part in.  They simply immerse themselves into the story and sit back and enjoy the ride.  However with Magic, players are able to personalize their experience, choosing exactly what they want to see or do.  I noticed that each player constructed their deck around a certain color or pair of colors.  I constantly over heard players saying they have “white- blue decks” or “red decks.”  These colors refer to the Color Wheel.  The wheel is made up of five colors (white, red, blue, black, and green) and each color has a specific flavor and set of characteristics that go along with it.  For example, the color white’s flavor is organization and its characteristics are teamwork, peace, harmony, and perfection.  That means that the characters portrayed on the cards in a white deck act in that manner.  While the colors are technically just supposed to represent the characteristics or the character on the card, I could not help but wonder if it could possibly represent the characteristics of the player as well.  Each player is free to choose the colors they want to represent their deck and their choice is based on how they wish to play the game.

The game itself is not the only thing that can help draw a player away from everyday stresses.  It is the community, the others players, that really draws participants in.  I asked quite a few players what it was that brought them to Outpost week after week.  An overwhelming amount of them said it was the people, their friends and unofficial family that made the night so enjoyable.  It still amazes me how night after night, no one seems the least bit bitter.  Everyone left genuinely happy.  Then again there was no reason not to.  Players entered the store prior to 6:30, possibly feeling anxious to participate in their favorite game, or stressed from their ordinary lives and looking forward to an out, and left feeling better, more relaxed.  Not just because of the game itself, but because the people they were surrounded with had some sort of connection with them.  It reminded me of the relationship I had with my cross country team.  We spent most every waking hour together, training and competing.  We became a family.  We understood each other when no one else could.  A lot of people thought we were crazy.  They didn’t understand the high we got from running, but most of all they didn’t understand the relationships we had with one another.  They did not know that that bond was what kept us in the sport.

With Magic players I feel it is the same situation.  They played because of the relationships they made, yet others do not understand the appeal in that, or in the game for that matter.  I hear it every time Magic: The Gathering is brought up around someone who doesn’t understand the game.  What losers the people are for playing it, what a waste of time.  They are referred to as losers because it is common in society to isolate those that are different from the norm.  And what does that say about society?  Possibly that we are self-absorbed and unwilling to take the time to get to know or understand something that is unfamiliar.  Or maybe it says that we idolize our status, and that communicating with someone we consider below us will potentially ruin our reputation.

Whatever the reason, I am sure all of the players heard degrading comments at some point, even making some embarrassed to admit they are a part of this community.  When a person, unfamiliar with Magic, walks past a table of gamers, they may laugh.  By laughing, they are giving the situation an identity.  They are showing their control and power over the event.  They are stereotyping the players as people who are beneath them.  It is situations such as this that make it hard to feel good about yourself, your hobbies, when others speak of it with such disgust.  I would assume that no one would find joy in being put down and maybe that’s what leads to the player’s embarrassment; the fact that they are being singled out for being different.  But at Outpost, they all got it.  They all understood the reasons for playing. And to be in that sort of environment, one has to show respect.  So players would stay until the end, watch the winners claim their prize, and congratulate everyone as they left for the night.  That’s what it means to show respect, and as a human being isn’t respect something we all strive for?

Nevertheless, I admire how the players take the criticism and turn it into fuel to make them stronger. I talked to a 17- year-old high school student named Luke and asked if he had ever hid the fact that he played Magic in order to fit.  As soon as I asked he shot me a look as he quickly responded with a sharp “No.”  I suddenly felt stupid for even asking and came to wonder why I was drawn to ask the question in the first place.  Just because I felt embarrassed?  I felt embarrassed to be in that store, to have friends who played, to have had a boyfriend who played. Growing up I had always surrounded myself with people who were similar to me.  I felt comfortable knowing that I had something in common with the people I choose to interact with.  I do not ever feel that I am better than anyone else.  I didn’t go into Outpost the first time thinking “Wow these kids are going to be such losers.”  However I did go in with a false perception of Magic players.  I assumed that just because they were participating in something in which I considered strange, that they couldn’t possibly have something in common with me.

Following up my initial question about being embarrassed to play Magic, Luke responded, “As long as you rock it no one can ever have something to make fun of you for.”  I couldn’t help but to smile and agree.  It is all about being comfortable with who you are. It is about identifying who you are as a person and then not only accepting it, but embracing it.  Society teaches us conformity, makes us feel like we have to be or act a certain way in order to be accepted.  Movies, televisions shows and magazines all portray specific social groups in a certain way that media outlets refer to as normal.  It is partly because of the media that stereotypes exist, however cultures and the way someone is brought up can have a lot to do with stereotypes as well.  Coming from a predominately white suburb outside of a large city can give one a different perception of “normal” than someone who grows up on dairy farm.  Personally, my idea of a “normal” pastime is an activity that is either active or outdoors.  I grew up on a decent sized piece of land that was some ways out from the rest of civilization.  It was common for me to go four wheeling, play Frisbee, or go rollerblading.  At school I was into athletics so a common pastime for me and my teammates was to go for a run, a bike ride, or a hike.  Therefore coming to Outpost and watching the group of players spend their free time inside playing a card game was weird.  All the participants at Outpost agreed that Magic players are unfairly stereotyped as nerds.  Personally I am curious as to why that word “nerd” is given a negative connotation.  Too often the term is used to put people down for being different than the social norm.  That strikes me as funny, that people can taunt someone for being different, especially in the high school and college scene, where everyone seems to be trying to find ways to make themselves unique.

“You’d be surprised, but bitches love cards, love the nerd angle.  I have never dated a girl and denied that I played Magic.”  At only 17, Luke seemed wiser beyond his years.  Was I surprised by that? No not really.  When you ask a woman what she looks for in a man, more often than not the characteristic smart is mentioned.  They want someone with intellect.  Someone they can hold a conversation with, who’s well rounded and understands a variety of topics.  And isn’t that the very definition of a “nerd”?  A nerd is often portrayed as someone who is too smart, who makes everyone else looks stupid.  They are that kid in school who does everything right and are always resented for it.  I myself dated people who were considered to be a “nerds.”  So does it surprise me that girls love the nerd angle?  Not in the least bit.  While there may not have been any women participating in the tournaments when I was observing, there were women in the store at times, often the significant other of one of the players.  I remember being surprised at first, seeing the women pop in from time-to-time to watch their loved ones compete.  And why was I surprised?  These women were simply showing support, no different than showing up to support someone at a sporting event or ceremony.

If there was anything I learned from the experience, it was that Magic players really are not all that different than any other gamers.  Yet some gamers are accepted, like video gamers, while others, like Magic and LARP (live action role playing) players are not.  I doubt that will ever change, I don’t expect it to.  Too many people are caught up in their own lives to always worry about how they treat others.  Stereotyping has become second nature for most everyone.  And honestly there isn’t anything wrong with it.  It’s who we are as humans.  We do it for control and to make ourselves comfortable.  It does become a problem when we use stereotyping to isolate or harm others.  It becomes a problem when we use stereotyping to say we, as humans, are different, or more developed than those other people, those gamers.  If there is anything I hope a reader can pull from this, it is that, yes we are all different, but we all are connected in some way.  There are two sides to every story and too often not both sides are heard.  But in the end, it is really up to the person who is being stereotyped to learn to not be bothered by the comments of others.  It is up to them to know that they are who they are and they should be happy.

After only a few weeks at the FNM tournaments, I changed the way I looked at the players.  At first I saw them as social outcasts, coming to Outpost because they weren’t accepted anywhere else.  I thought the players were confused or ashamed of whom they were but I have come to find that it is actually quite the opposite.  The gamers are not searching for themselves, they know who they are, and better yet, they are happy with themselves.  I envy the players for accepting themselves and for accepting me.  They made me feel comfortable.  Being around the gamers has made me understand my close gamer friends better and made me realize that there shouldn’t been any embarrassment in acknowledging that I have friends who play Magic.  Really what is so embarrassing in having friends who like to go out with friends, socialize, and have fun on a Friday night? Is that not what everyone likes to do to some extent?  So what if they do it in a different way.  They know who they are and they know what they like.  It’s like Luke said, “You just got to rock it.”

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