I wrote this a week ago and should have pitched it somewhere, but the news cycle has moved (not unlike the eye of Sauron?), so no one is talking PokemonGO.
The International Dota2 is on. Almost no one I know in my daily life has any idea what that is, but about 60 million people worldwide are watching along with me.
Egames and esports are huge, larger than most people in our country over age 30 can fathom. The prize pool for The International this year is currently at $19,731,737, with the first place team (of 5 men) taking almost $9 million. These are young men, many still in their teens.* The whole thing is mind-boggling for people who have had no idea esports were even a thing that’s been going on for years now.
Here I am two years ago, swollen with child, at The International in 2014 in Seattle. Being a severely pregnant woman a few months from 40 at The International was sort of amazing. Some women there were in cosplay, as heroes from the game–Windrunner, Luna, Templar Assassin and the like. And there were also some hardcore women gamers, and then me: A fan, a would be player, and above all a student of games and gaming since early childhood.
If you want to feel invisible, REALLY invisible, go to an esports tournament really pregnant. It was fascinating. I guess the range created by full-out young cosplay women and then me, on the entire other end of the spectrum–nearly middle-aged and pregnant, waddling about, was too much to compute… a fly in the ointment.
For me, gaming started so young. Some earliest memories are of being on a family member’s lap during penny Poker, Pinochle, and Euchre. I’d toss in the ante or throw out a bower. One of the things I understand best is the language of the game table–trash talk, shooting the shit, or slowly progressing conversations about important topics, frequently paused by the play of the hand, a mild expletive, the shuffle or the cut. I understand these cycles primarily, and the language and the pace. It’s a natural way to think and spend time and to be with family.
It’s no surprise then that as kids my siblings and I were pretty taken with most games, outdoor and indoor. From TV Tag to Freeze Tag to Red Light / Green Light and Rotten Eggs, and the highlight of every single Summer night, Ghost in the Graveyard. If it was called a game, we three would play it. We had a 6ft. Christmas tree box packed full with board games. On more than one occasion we tried to play every game in a single sitting. I don’t think we ever accomplished it. And now when we are all together, a generous portion of our time is spent at a table, music going, playing cards or games, ideally all in pajamas, and having appropriate snacks and drinks.
And it’s no surprise that at the age of 8, I started falling in with my older brother’s Dungeons and Dragons games with his friends. The alternative was hanging out with our older sister and her friends, talking about boys and social life; supremely dull to me. I was far more interested in virtual adventuring, slaying creatures, casting spells and finding loot. So when we got an Atari around the same time, we were three very happy kids. I have supremely fond memories of weekend nights spent playing Atari with my siblings, feeling safe and in fantastic worlds for what had to have been many hours.
As I grew up, Atari turned into Nintendo turned into computers and Xbox and tabletop gaming remained. There are video game worlds and series that are very special to me; I should always have a t-shirt on that says: “I’d rather be in Tamriel,” because it’s always, always true. Though I no longer have the time to keep up with any video games as a player, I’m always paying attention to what is happening because so much vital social critique and mirroring, as well as progressive art, is happening in gaming. All the hub bub about Grand Theft Auto? Those games are pretty brilliant satirical send ups of our culture–a harsh but true mirror by masterful game developers that outrage people who never play or understand them, which is great marketing.
So when I hear and see people, mostly much younger than me, disparaging Pokémon GO and its players, I always go to bat. It’s a conversation I will gladly have. It’s important to note that these people always seem to be white and privileged–the class I belong to, and the class that by default thinks that everything should be for them, and that their opinion about a subject should always *matter* and be welcomed.
The conversation usually starts with someone listing negative news items about the game–peak fear headlines crafted to foster a shocked, frothing readership. Perhaps it’s because I write as well as game that I forget most people still don’t think of “journalism” and “industry” in the same breath. It’s not that good news doesn’t sell, although it doesn’t, it’s about magnifying narratives that do sell. Simply, writers are often paid to concentrate of the negative slants of any story. It creates audience and drives up advertiser revenues. Isolated, negative incidents magnified by writers who get paid by the word (read: create more news to make more money and try to make a living) for news that’s sure to go viral–requiring more follow-up stories–is how a lot of people pay their bills, including many of my friends. The negative stories resonate with people who don’t game., don’t get it, and have no context or knowledge about the topic. They are walking in on the middle of a conversation and sharing opinions they have been prompted to have by a news outlet trying to generate audience.
The average age of the Pokémon GO player base is mid to late 20s, with 40% of players being over 30. So while news stories about pedophiles or muggers targeting Pokestops are troubling, they are extremely rare. There are 9.5 million active daily players; that many people doing *anything* is going to result in issues. What is conveniently ignored are the wider trends–people with anxiety or depression getting out of the house, walking, discovering local areas, meeting people, enjoying fresh air, comparing Pokédex. It’s like a giant scavenger hunt and everyone is welcome.
As an introvert and person with severe social anxiety, I can attest that Pokémon GO is a pretty warming experience. Though I’ve uninstalled the game, I played long enough to understand it and have the game play experience and be informed. Indeed, there are far more stories about people with ASD or mental illness interacting in ways that they have not been able to for sometimes years, than there are about pedophiles and muggings. Last week when I was feeling ‘meh’ and stressed, I found myself with 30 minutes to kill and parked and walked a few miles around a heavily Pokestop-populated downtown area, where I saw a lot of people seemingly like me who enjoy being among people for a spell, but not necessarily interacting, having a sense of community and happy, shared experience. I saw a 65-year-old woman comparing Pokédex with a 20-year-old man, and an older man in a wheelchair being pushed by a young woman–he was navigating, telling her where they needed to go next.
In just two weeks of playing, I had a number of similar experiences and saw many people having them as well. To decry something that isn’t for you, that you don’t do, isn’t your community, and a medium one has no knowledge of or conext for beside a few headlines crafted to cause pearl-clutching, is awfully naive. Perhaps groups of people gathered in one place staring at their phones trying to catch a creature are having exactly the right experience for them… one that suits them, allows them to be themselves and function in the way that gives them a feeling of belonging. If Pokémon GO is the end of our society as we know it, as many want to believe, then our end times look awfully fun.
* Obviously The International and DOTA2 are playing a myopic short game, unwilling to look a few years into the future and the full dismantling of the concept of gender binary which is steadily, thankfully falling apart. Their leagues separated by birth-assigned gender are already antiquated as well as overtly prejudiced and sexist. There is seemingly no explanation as to why Valve believes women are less neurologically capable than men, and no logical plan to integrate trans and gender queer players into leagues. And no explanation why, despite having playable male and female heroes, teams would not be integrated.