My commencement was today. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t walk with the rest of my cohort. But it doesn’t seem right to let my entire graduate education go unacknowledged. So below is a sort of hypothetical address I’d wish to deliver at one of these occasions, were I in any position to do so.
One of the first online friendships I made was with a boy from Melbourne. Then, as now, the thing that really seemed to bring us together was games. We were both fans of one game in particular called NiGHTS, a sort of obscure Saturn title by the same people who made Sonic.
This was not a game you played to feel masculine. It was a game very much about dreams, about overcoming self-doubt, about standing up to your fears. It was a game for all those imaginative kids who only ever really felt safe in the comforts of their own heads. And it taught us that being a dreamer was an okay thing to be.
Now as an adult, I can say with pride that I’m still a dreamer. I think constantly of how much more the world can offer, and how much more I can offer to the world. I push myself every day to make something meaningful out of those waking hours, so that when I go to bed each night (or morning, as the case may be), I know that I’ve left the world different from how I found it. There is a pervasive stereotype that ‘gamer’ is synonymous with ‘lazy’– we all know that’s not true. On the contrary, gaming is what taught me to never trivialize a window of opportunity.
You are all gamers today because you feel a similar connection with the games you play. Maybe games help you to understand the world; maybe they help you to understand yourself. But you all recognize the potential games have to tap into something deeper, even if it’s just a sense of fulfillment you don’t get from other media. Games validate our creativity. They ask us to explore the connections of things, to link ideas, to shift our perspectives. Long before the rise of social media, being a gamer was what let me connect with people from Australia, the UK, Brazil and Japan from an early age, and I know it was the same for many of you.
But whether by accident or design, the same attitudes that left many of us feeling alienated and looking to our fellow gamers for acceptance have also been used by us to exclude others. You might be saying to yourself, ‘I’ve never excluded anyone because of their sex, sexuality or race,’ but this isn’t just about the actions of individuals here. This is about how we as gamers collectively address the systems of exclusion keeping others from feeling welcome in our community– to the extent of whether we can even say we have a community if the bar for acceptance is so high and so arbitrary.
That’s the challenge I want to put to all of you today: be the generation that actively, vocally challenges what it means to be a ‘gamer.’ Don’t stand by as others protest about being ostracized, harassed or objectified. Don’t shrug and say ‘that’s just how games and gamers are.’ We get to decide how games and gamers are. If games get to be a safe space to negotiate scenarios and possibilities we’ll never have in our outside lives then let’s see to it that they’re a safe space for everyone, from the way they’re designed all the way on down to how we engage them.
We were all ‘that kid’ once. And if the Web can allow me to meet another ‘that kid’ just like me on the other side of the world, and find a brother in someone I’d never have any chance of meeting on my block, at my school or in my city, it can allow us to make all kinds of connections we’ve never had at any time before in human history. Games have taught us to seek the unlikeliest of solutions for the toughest of problems. They’ve taught us that difference is strength and that flexibility is essential for survival. Now here’s a challenge where we can put all those lessons to the test.
Let’s not shy away from that.
(Original photo credit Pierson Clair. Shamelessly altered by your resident dire critic.)