Human beings like to label things, usually as simply as possible. I have nothing against that per se, since otherwise I suspect my brain would explode, but there’s a point at which such labeling becomes pernicious, and it’s usually when we stop questioning it. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a stereotype is “something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”
We all deal in stereotypes, and I’m no exception, much though I would like to claim otherwise. MMOs are rife with stereotypes both inside and outside the gamer community, some of which are proving painfully difficult to eradicate. Here’s one: all gamers are 14-25 years old, male, overweight, white, living in their parents’ basement and entirely devoid of social skills. Almost all of those descriptors are utterly unlike me and, as studies have shown, utterly unlike the vast majority of gamers. Just because most gamers are male doesn’t mean we all are; just because most gamers are white also doesn’t mean we all are. I know gamers who are older than me (no, really). I know white, black, green and purple gamers, if only by hair color. I know gamers who are female nuclear physicists. I’m not at all sure I know any gamers who actually match all the descriptors of the stereotypical gamer given above – though it would probably help if I were in that age bracket, and I’m sure they do exist.
Most gamers these days don’t subscribe to externally-applied stereotypes like the one above, but we do have plenty of our own. Many MMO-stereotypes arose in the early days of the industry, some of them created by a weird mix of the pen’n’paper legacy and internet anonymity; so for instance, “girls don’t play RPGs” merged with “there are no girls on the internet” and became “all the female avatars you see are played by (socially inept and desperate) men.” I’m constantly surprised at how long that particular stereotype is taking to kill, though it does at least seem to be slowly but surely dying; it’s difficult to maintain a patently ridiculous stereotype in the face of so much evident contradiction.
I don’t really want to get into gender issues in MMOs today, though I’m working my way up to that topic (you lot are scary!), so I won’t comment on whether the naked female characters dancing on mailboxes are controlled by a male or a female player. Here’s a male stereotype, though: “All male gamers are socially inept and want only one thing (and are therefore all creepy to some degree or other)”. Its female counterpart tends to be “All female gamers are drama queens and want only one thing (attention and goodies).” Both of those stereotypes really made me gnash my teeth, though these days I try just to laugh at them because they’re so easily refuted. Ponder your own social circle, and chances are that type of player – while almost certainly known to you – is by far and away the exception and not the rule.
MMO stereotypes are often silly in the extreme, and yet they persist just as strongly as more pernicious social or racial stereotypes. Which surprises me in a way, because gamers are as a rule more articulate and more analytical than your average Joe; and yes, there’s research to support that even as far back as the days when pen’n’paper RPGs or wargames were the only things we had access to. We may be geeky and we may be nerdy, but as a general group we’re certainly not stupid. So why do we have such a hard time letting go of useless or even downright damaging stereotypes?
That’s mostly a rhetorical question. Labels are undeniably useful, as long as people remain aware of their limitations when they become full-blown stereotypes. You can’t paint whole groups of people with that broad a brush and expect everything to stick, or in some cases to be even remotely accurate. So while it’s true that I know a lot of gamers who are rather shy in real life and find it much easier to express themselves in a less stressful social environment (i.e. online), it’s absolutely not true that those people are useless lumps who won’t ever be able to form meaningful friendships or relationships with other people. Shy people have a harder time socially, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable.
There’s something undeniably liberating about the online world, and especially online games, which I’d probably describe as the opposite of internet asshattery. When you’re not an asshat or the target of one, the internet can be a great place. You can meet people as distantly or as intimately as you please (and really, I don’t actually care what people do online as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult); you can forget for a while that you’re Janet, Harried Accountant and Mother of Two, and become Janeza The Mighty, Raiding Guild Leader and Slayer of Internet Dragons; you can discuss your troubles with a friend or not discuss your troubles with a friend; you can build worlds out of silly brightly-colored pixels, get killed by zombies, and come back the next day to do it all again, only better. You can do all that entirely alone, or you can do it with 1, 10, or even 100 other people.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. As gamers, it’s about time we came out of this often self-imposed ghetto and start refuting stereotypes – both the ones non-gamers apply to us and the ones we apply to ourselves. It’s one thing to be part of a group, but quite another participate in defining ourselves, as a group, primarily through negatives, especially when those negatives aren’t accurate and never really were to begin with. It’s even worse when we perpetuate perceptions we know with only minimum of thought to be almost entirely wrong. Not all the women you see in game are actually men; not all the men you see in game are teenagers desperate to get laid; and not all the people you see online are bigoted asshats. In fact, most of them – in all three cases – aren’t at all as they’re described.
It’s not strident or hysterical to speak out against pervasive misconceptions; if anything, it’s trying to be a decent human being. The fact that I’m neither gay, black nor male doesn’t stop me seeing that in almost every single game (and fantasy novel) out there, everyone in the world is straight, white and male – or at least all the heroes, anyway. I won’t necessarily push against that stereotype as hard as some of my friends and acquaintances would, because I have less of a vested interest (and my own soapboxes), but I can certainly at least try not to perpetuate such a limited vision. Go Ellen Ripley, go!
If you want more information on the subject, go unleash your awesome Google-fu – according to some of the research that’s been done, chances are you’re smarter than average and certainly have higher than average computer skills, so I’m not going to do your work for you. (Hint: the Daedalus Project, though in hibernation, has some really good starting points.)