Gaming as Counter-Hegemonic Subculture
K. Harper, Instructor
Through examination of the English modern music scene, Hebdige discusses subcultures as a societal phenomenon of youth. His strongest metaphor is the visually striking punks. Through their style of dress and mode of living they explode the 'norms' of class, gender, and sexuality; they visually express their disdain for the dominant hegemony. However, it occurred to me that there must be subcultures that are not quite so eye-catching, yet no less strongly felt. I examined my own life to see what possibilities I might find for examination, and came up with the intellectually cohesive subculture of role-playing gamers. Gamers are, just as are punks, dealing with popular sensibilities in their creation of a variant hegemonic ideal. In this paper I will explore both how gamers view themselves, and how they feel society views them.
Role-playing gaming is not a visually cohesive subculture. There is no concept of 'style' (as Hebdige defines it) as a dramatized slap in the face of societal norms. Nevertheless, the perception of gaming by the hegemonic mainstream is usually one of vague discomfort or disdain. As a subculture, gaming is a viable scapegoat for any perceived cultural ills, and the gamers are quite aware of this. It is not entirely clear why this is so, although there are several possible reasons. Gaming is a chance to try on a different persona or mask; to be someone you are not. This can disturb some observers; as Durkheim noted, "The human personality is a sacred thing; one does not violate it nor infringe its bounds, while at the same time the greatest good is in communication with others." Gaming transgresses this standard. Small groups of young people close themselves away from dominant/popular sensibilities in order to play their games. Furthermore they do so by playing 'parts' or 'personas' other than their own, 'rightful' roles within mainstream culture. To the uninitiated individual attempting to understand a gamer this "role-swapping" may be confusing and disturbing - just who exactly is this person?
As with most subcultures, gaming is a mediated response by its members to the banality of everyday life. It is far less visually dramatic than many, but still represents an "interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media (Hebdige 1987)." In its own, very small way, gaming is to the hegemony "a metaphor for potential anarchy 'out there' ... a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation (Hebdige 1987)." Thus we have (as with rock and roll) loudly trumpeted incidences of youthful "deviance" closely linked in the press with gaming. Probably the most famous example is the MSU "steam tunnel incident:"
When [James] Dallas Egbert [III] "ran away from it all" the mainstream media waded into the story in pack formation. His alleged drug use, reported homosexuality, to say nothing of the pressure that a 16-year old 'genius' in college must have faced, was overlooked entirely. The media seized on rumors that a mysterious game was being played in the steam tunnels beneath the university. ... Not until five years later did the family's private investigator, William Dear, break his silence and reveal that Dallas Egbert hadn't played much D&D at all, let alone any sort of live-action D&D in the steam tunnels (Freeman 1995).
As it turns out, Egbert was actually in Texas with a middle-aged male lover. Several years later, due to the public embarrassment he received upon his being located, he tragically took his own life. Ironically, gaming was blamed for that also.
Unfortunately this was not the end of the mainstream culture's "moral panic" concerning gaming as a factor in or causative of "deviant behavior" (Hebdige 1987). True, this perception was based on misinformation or outright lies -- but the vague impression stuck, augmented by small, radical groups that have seized on gaming (and D&D in specific) as rallying causes. As one study notes:
Ultimately [the anti-D&D proponents] had only one allegation remaining that anyone would listen to -- and even then only fundamentalist Christian groups were willing to believe it. Fantasy role playing games, they asserted, were occult indoctrination tools that lured white suburban teens into horrific satanic cults. Furthermore, these cults were everywhere. The popular "fortress mentality" of certain religious groups -- the belief that the world is a wholly corrupt, evil place that only their faith protects them from -- latched onto this "evidence" of Satan's power. Proof that the world was in Satan's grasp could be found by demonizing every aspect of pop-culture. Anything popular among teens was satanic, therefore one had only to make note of how many satanic things were popular to validate the fortress mentality (Freeman 1995).
The "fortress mentality" is, of course, a classic indoctrination and propaganda technique of cults. Nevertheless, Christianity, however perversely interpreted, is hegemonically more acceptable than young people who are resisting the usual ideologies of power - and their claims are far louder and more exciting to the press.
Gamers themselves are quite aware of the reputation their hobby has. They themselves frequently characterize their hobby's members as poorly socialized individuals who escape into the world of imagination to find pleasure and enjoyment. This doesn't seem to bother them much at all, however. As one correspondent cheerfully put it, "Isn't the idea for everyone to have fun?" Like Radway's romance readers, gamers are almost defiant in their enjoyment of their hobby, and view it as resistance to the 'mundane' world around them. Frequently they point to gaming as a positive socializing force in their lives.
Also like Radway's romance readers, gamers frequently are quite aware of the addictive value of gaming. Some gamers refer to a hypothetical "line" which one can cross. It is poorly defined; I did not find agreement on its precise borders, nor on its exact definition. Nevertheless, it seems basically to be considered the line between a firm grasp of reality and allowing the games to take over one's life. This can be defined as loosely as excessive time spent gaming, and as stringently as believing that one is one's game character.
Gaming (as a newly discovered hobby) has an uncanny ability to eat up all of one's free time. It is frequent to hear someone speak of discovering gaming in early college, and being fanatically absorbed by it. One person mentioned the pride his former college gaming club had at their "33% kill ratio," as in a third of the people in the club flunked out during their freshman year. Relationships and families have also been known to take a very dim view of extensive gaming. Occasionally my consultants would mention their parents limiting their available free gaming time. More commonly, gamers would ruefully mention significant others putting their foot down and setting a rigid schedule for them, such as no more than one or two gaming nights a week. The most wistful correspondent I spoke with was allowed no gaming whatsoever, and spoke longingly of how much he missed his former hobby. Oddly enough, I heard recently that his wife is divorcing him, and he "can't wait to start gaming again!"
More unusual is the individual who prefers to 'stay in character out of game.' Staying in character was always laughingly referred to in the past tense, as something my correspondents denied doing any more. However, it had a definite allure to many during the time they described doing it. As one correspondent clearly put it, in a world where one is young, disregarded, perhaps works in a dead-end job, one's gaming character is a conduit to respect, power, control of one's destiny - and who wouldn't prefer that? In extreme cases there's the risk of losing one's own personality in that of the assumed persona. In these exceptional cases, gaming seems to be a facilitator, allowing an already extant personality problem to overwhelm the individual. As one correspondent put it,
My college gaming group ... included one member who ... was extremely psychologically unstable, and the [gaming] did not seem to have a healthy effect on him. He became quite ill, actually, and the fact that his illness drew upon aspects of the games we had been playing was deeply disturbing for everyone concerned. Admittedly, it is hard to determine whether the games really acted as a catalyst for his eventual breakdown. Who knows - perhaps they actually delayed it by allowing him some outlet. From my own admittedly layman's perspective, however, it certainly did not seem that the gaming was at all healthy for him at that point in his life.
Interestingly enough, while I heard several people mention acquaintances who approached or crossed this line, I spoke with only one person who claimed to have actually done this. They did not wish to discuss it.
Oddly enough, gaming as a subculture has been repeatedly validated. Gamers themselves are frequently quite aware of the facts concerning their hobby, most notably:
Not a single authoritative source has found any veracity to these claims [that fantasy role-playing games cause suicide or murder] at all. ... No study yet has revealed any sort of danger to playing fantasy role-playing games. Instead, researchers discovered that gamers as a group have fewer criminal tendencies than average, no psychological abnormalities, a slight increase in creativity among long-time players and a greater sense of self-worth (Freeman 1995).
Nevertheless, for some inexplicable reason, most gamers seem to accept their tarnished public image. To use Goffman's term, it is as if gamers have no dramaturgical discipline. Repeatedly, when faced with curious or disdainful questions from non-gamers about their hobby, gamers seemed to completely lose control of their masks of presentation. The general impression is one of embarrassment and discomfort - a sort of 'yes, you've caught me... I admit it. I'm a gamer...' demeanor. A tactless audience can unwittingly reduce such a person to silent misery in seconds. A tactful audience shares in the gamer's discomfort, however puzzling, and quickly changes the subject - but is left with the strong impression that gaming (like masturbation?) is something to be ashamed of. I received several embarrassed comments regarding this, from mature adults who would ordinarily seem to be completely in control of their lives. Words such as "escapist fantasy" and "kid's stuff" were used to describe gaming, and one individual mentioned that he was thinking of dropping out of gaming due to his now-increased maturity. All of this was from people who only moments before had been describing in glowing terms their love for their hobby.
Why do gamers do this? The above reaction is so frequent that the incidences where a gamer articulately and enthusiastically defends and promotes their hobby are almost startling. Since gamers are frequently shy or poorly socialized within the hegemonic norms, getting information from them is sometimes problematic. On more than one occasion, when interviewing a friend, I've suddenly realized they're repeating back to me an opinion they'd heard me give before - and on occasion they'll even admit it later! This makes me worry about having 'contaminated' my consulting group. However, I've tried to put together what I felt was genuine opinions (as opposed to what they thought I wanted to hear) as well as written discussions (instead of face-to-face interviewing), and come to a few tentative conclusions.
Firstly, role-playing games appears to fill the same niche for gamers as romances do for romance readers. Gaming, like romance reading, is a chance to escape, to vicariously be someone one is not. However, there is one important difference between gaming and romance reading: gaming is a social event. As Radway puts it,
When that character's story is completed, when the book must be closed, the reader is forced to return to herself and to her real situation. Although she may feel temporarily revived, she has done nothing to alter her relations with others.
Gaming, on the other hand, forces one by its very nature to relate to others. In the process of learning how to relate to one's gaming group, skills are learned that can be productively applied in real life. Occasionally, real life problems can be worked through in games. As one person put it, "I ... do not consider myself very emotionally stable, and I think that role-playing has been very helpful, although I do not use it consciously as 'therapy'." Nevertheless, that stigma remains - that gaming, like romance reading, takes one away from real life, that gaming is merely escapist trash.
Secondly, there is the possibility that gamers deliberately refuse dramaturgical discipline. They do not wish to be understood by the mundane world. Like Hebdige's punks, their refusal postpones the assimilation of gaming by mainstream, hegemonic culture. Their rejection of mainstream mores is less dramatic than that of the punks, but it is correspondingly more difficult for their hobby to be adapted, adjusted, re-made as acceptable and palatable, by both the media and the creation of related commodities. When pictures of punks are printed in newspapers as 'quaint local color' it is obvious their message has been negated; to give the punk 'look' a price tag is to make it accessible to the masses. Gamers, on the other hand, individually re-create their own reversals of the status quo, within their game worlds. Since their counter-hegemonic creations are of the mind, there is very little that can be bought and sold. Also, visually gamers just aren't that striking, since they're merely several individuals seated around a table. In everyday dealings they frequently believe in rationality over emotionalism, and as a consequence there's not that much for the media to work with. Thus their rebellion is a small one, but by its very nature it is insidious and subtle.
Thus we come full circle, returning to Hebdige's original definition of style. Like punks, gamers are not satisfied with dominant hegemonic ideals. They express the tension between those in power and those "condemned to live second-class lives (Hebdige 1987)." By social story-telling within imaginative, created worlds they refuse the mundanity of capitalistic labor as a goal in and of itself. Instead of commodities they reposition and recontextualize ideas; their "significant difference" is not visual but mental (Hebdige 1987). Inflections of power are not opposed directly, but rather resisted through a symbolically rich discourse of alternative social possibilities within each created game world. To paraphrase Sartre, the gamer may appear as a totally conditioned social being, but he renders back what his conditioning has given him in a subtly altered, quietly counter-hegemonic form.
Last Updated: Mon Feb 21 2000