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The Social Stigma of Gaming: Down but not Out

I’ve always been a gamer.

One of my earliest life memories is being three years old in 1986, bawling my eyes out in the wake of the EDSA Revolution because my mom had just bought me a Family Computer but hadn’t been informed enough to buy a game cartridge along with it. I spent hours sitting on the carpet with the Famicom all hooked up to our small black and white TV, watching how the noise on the screen melted away into an infinite blackness everytime I flicked the power button. There was nothing on the screen, but still it held a promise that threatened to hold on to me for life. I may not have realized it then, but it sure seems that way now.

Flash forward about ten years. My friends and I are having our first lunch break together as high school students. The usual gang from our grade school days was more or less still intact, and some of my buddies were already breaking out the Magic: The Gathering cards. I never really bought into the hobby myself -- only two or three of us really did -- but we all played with everybody’s cards anyway.

A group of young toughs from our batch happened to be passing by and they took the opportunity to sneer at the cards splayed out on the long wooden table.

“You still play with that stuff?” one of them balked. “You’re in high school. Act like it.

No one got pushed around or roughed up or anything like that -- even most of the dickheads knew enough to avoid unnecessary trouble -- but their contempt stung all the same. Discussing or showing interest in anything game-related began to feel like a declaration of my personal refusal to grow up. Gaming became a secret shame.

I learned from a very early age that every person is one of two possible things: a gamer, or a non-gamer. The distinction isn’t a terribly significant one as far as the criteria for friendships and relationships go, but it has always been there.

Gamers just got it. It’s hard to think of a more precise explanation than that. Gamers understood the concept of timing platform jumps, of performing special moves, of willingly taking the dead end route on the fork because missing something that can be picked up is unthinkable. Gamers understood resources and strategy. Gamers knew how to translate numbers and life bars into tangible ideas. Gamers got it. Whenever I needed to explain something to a gamer, there was always a gaming analogy that fit.

For everybody else, I had to really exercise my language skills.

Curiously enough, as I started to develop my gamer-sense or (and it pains me to drop this, but it was just too stupidly fun to pass up) game-dar, so did everybody else. And it wasn’t just the gamers who started getting ideas. That moment in high school was one of many early incidents that planted the idea in my head that maybe I was different somehow -- not different in a unique way, but different in an abnormal way. To the non-gamers, only children are supposed to play games. Grown-ups are expected to study and work. Therefore, a grown-up who enjoys playing games isn’t so grown-up after all.

During the late 80s, my aunt threw out my cousin’s collection of Dungeons and Dragons books because concerned parents were led to believe that they were tools for devil worship. The gamer stigma reached my social circles in the 90s. People started believing that video games led to bad grades, unhealthy obsession, and social ostracization. Doctors came up with the term “Nintendinitis” to describe all sorts of finger and hand conditions that kids developed after marathon sessions of gaming. My mom got into the habit of taking away my Famicom’s power adapter and hiding it somewhere in the house during weekdays to keep me from ignoring my homework to play games.

All that managed to do was to teach me the value of diligence: the diligence required to ransack my house from top to bottom to find that damn adapter. I secretly gamed for an hour or two before she got home from work most days, and still I managed to get through grade school without a single failing mark. I don’t think she ever found out. Mother, if you ever read this, understand that I’m a dirty rotten liar and I’ve been deceiving you for all these years.

The shame of being a devoted gamer remained all throughout my young life, although I hid it well: I learned to like the right things and to say the right words to fit in with the people who didn’t get it. It was difficult, but I slowly discovered how to silently flip that switch within myself that allowed me to get into the things that I was supposed to be into so that other people can understand me, and so I can relate to them as well.

At some point during 1996 or 1997, things began to change. The cool kids discovered Snake on their Nokia cellphones and began bragging about their high scores. The same cool kids saw the amazing CG cutscenes from the PSX-era Final Fantasies and played them for the eye candy. Parents and siblings began to pause in mid-step while the gamer in their family was playing to get updated on the latest soap-opera happenings in Metal Gear Solid. A decade after that, everyone was playing games like Plants vs. Zombies on their slick mobile devices. Today, gaming dwarfs the movies as a towering billion-dollar industry. People are not just getting rich making games -- people are getting rich playing games.

And yet the same division between gamers and non-gamers still exists. I know, because I don’t get to interact with many gamers in my day-to-day life. Sometimes, I still struggle with the same language barrier of not being able to express things in gamer-speak for the rest of the world. The success of the industry has only managed to muddle the lines even more: now, people who don’t get it are playing the latest Call of Duties and Legend of Zeldas and they’re treating games like throwaway entertainment -- not challenges meant to be analyzed and mastered, but a mere sequence of events to be experienced and then set aside for the Next Big Thing, of which there are several that come out every year.

Today, everybody is a gamer, and yet only few of us get it like the gamers of my childhood did. We are still the only ones who devote any serious amount of time to play some games. We’re smart. We have marketable life skills. We have real jobs. We form friendships and relationships and get married and create families. We function in the same world that other adults do, and yet we still get the funny looks from time to time: why do you play those games? Aren’t those for children? And still, sometimes but not as often, I would feel ashamed that I indulge in this hobby as much as I do.

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