I'm proud to call myself a gamer. It's a hobby which has brought many friends into my life and helped me practice my creative skills. It's something I hope to pass on to my children as they grow up.
But damn it all if I don't cringe every time I see gamers represented in the media. Whether fact or fiction, gamers are still most often shown to be unwashed, socially inept creeps, often with an apparently limited grasp of reality.
Now some of this ties to a period in the 80s when ultra-conservative religious groups decided that roleplaying games were the tools of the devil. Unfortunately, this is not the only thing to blame for how roleplayers are presented.
Gaming attracts teenagers who don't fit in elsewhere. It's a non-physical activity, so you don't need to be fit or athletic. Many games, especially those released in the 80s and 90s, involve a fair amount of rules and math, so academically-minded kids have typically found it an easy outlet for using and expressing that side of themselves. And of course, those are the kids so stereotypically picked on for being nerds. Whether that's the case in real life doesn't matter, though I speak from experience that it was the case in my school, because it's how the media often chooses to portray people who love science and fantasy. Just look at The Big Bang Theory, a show taking high school clichés of science nerds and applying them to modern adults.
So gamers make easy targets. Despite the mainstreaming of sci-fi and fantasy pop culture, it's still acceptable, even expected, for gamers to be the lowest of the low when it comes to geeks and nerds. In Shrek The Third, to show how much of a loser Artie is, even the roleplayer kids pick on him. The 2006 mockumentary, Gamers, depicts the lives of several adult roleplayers and sends the message that these people, all men either still living with their parents or desperately trying to get a girlfriend - the easy clichés, need to grow up and leave their hobby behind if they want to achieve anything in life. Worse, going further back to 1982, an early Tom Hanks movie, Mazes and Monsters, depicts Hanks as a young man whose parents forbid him to play roleplaying games, and when he becomes involved with a new gaming group without their knowledge, winds up literally believing he has his character's powers and can fly, culminating in his friends stopping him from jumping off a building.
Unfortunately, real life doesn't offer much better. Most documentaries about gaming feature individuals who live up to the negative stereotypes, often showing snippets of gamers talking about their character as though they were real people. One of the more hard to watch examples I've seen is The Dungeon Masters, a documentary centering on three Dungeon Masters (or Game Masters/GMs) and their lives. We have a woman with an abusive past who spends much, if not all, the documentary shielded by the guise of her drow (dark elf) persona, in full make-up even at a tabletop game (full costume such as this is typically reserved for live-action roleplaying, or LARPing). A military reservist who abandoned his first wife and family and brags about his goal to kill off all his players' characters. And the one who hit hardest for me, a wannabe fantasy author being supported by his long-suffering wife and refuses to take on more hours in work because he claims it will take time away from his gaming and writing. While I have the utmost sympathy for any abuse survivor, these are not healthy people, certainly not examples of what so many gamers are really like. These individuals need help, not to be scrutinised and held up for the judgement of others like this.
While I think there's great responsiblity on the part of the people producing these films for how they choose to portray gamers, I think that we, as hobbyists, need to accept our share of it, too. It always seems to be those of us who most fit the negative image that are most willing to talk openly and share their interests. Maybe if more gamers, as a whole, could be as open, a greater variety of personalities and lifestyles will be shown.
There have been some steps, thankfully, to show a more positive image.
Role Models features Augie, a boy who loves LARPing and whose parents disapprove. However while the movie presents unlikeable characters who also play the game, the eventual message is that the game is fun and Augie is a great kid and his parents should be proud of him.
We also have Wil Wheaton's Tabletop showing people getting together and enjoying a range of different games. It's great to see this sort of thing, because it not only shows a side to gaming that's totally normal, but having anyone with celebrity status endorse something lends it extra credibility and acceptance. I'd argue that this is probably essential viewing for anyone either curious about the hobby or who is uncomfortable about it and seeking reassurance that it's not all cloaks and cults.
The tv show Community even had an episode based entirely around a session of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), one of the oldest and certainly the most famous (infamous?) roleplaying game.
Perhaps fittingly, going back to 1982 again, E.T. depicts one of the most realistic groups of gamers I've ever seen in a movie. It's easy to miss, but before Elliott meets ET for the first time, he's trying to get his brother Michael to let him join in a game of D&D he and his friends are playing. Are these kids drug-users? Are they dressed in funny outfits? Do they call each other by their character names when they go to school? No. They're just a bunch of teenagers having a good time with a game.
Gamers are a lot of things, far more than we get credit for in the media. Among those in my own circles of friends, we are accountants, software developers, PhD students, authors, graphic designers, teachers, doctors, civil servants. Even the priest who married two friends of mine is a gamer. We own our own homes. We have our own children.
We're normal people, we just happen to like sitting around a table to play a little make-believe and roll some funny-looking dice once or twice a week.