Barriers to Entry: Socioeconomic Class and Gaming

During the Noel Brown controversy last week, Patrick Miller wrote a long, interesting response/open letter to Kotaku, gaming journalists, and his own community. The letter has been getting dissected by just about everyone, but one particular item seems to be getting ignored — one that has been on my mind since I read the article.

Simply put: socioeconomic class in gaming.

To back up the discussion a bit to start, there seems to be an idealistic notion of “gaming culture” that exists throughout the gaming world. Gaming is seen, more or less, as the ultimate meritocracy. That “quality” is something that has been the standard for arguing any issue of privilege within any gaming interest. I’m sure you’ve heard the response before:

“But that’s why gaming is great! Everyone gets treated that way! People just judge you based on how good you are at the game!”

While we could rip that argument apart all day — for various reasons — I’m going to key in on the largest assumption: that video games really are open to everyone.

WE ARE ALL EQUALS HERE
AND WE FIGHT FOR DOMINION TONIGHT
WE DON’T ASK COLOR, RACE OR CREED,
DEDICATED, FREE-FOR-ALL

Machinae Supremacy, Republic of Gamers

The Assumption

Everyone can game. Everyone. Anyone with a controller is a gamer.

Of course, there’s already a problem — to be a gamer, one must have access.

Access is assumed to be infinite — to the world of gamers, access is assumed. From this perspective the only thing you need to be a gamer is the desire to be one. You know, anything you put your mind to and shit like that.

There’s a problem there:

Street Fighter and Street Fighter II became a worldwide sensation in the early ’90s in large part because these games offered the thrill of direct, one-on-one adversarial competition for a mere 25 cents. Over the years, this attracted quite a number of people who loved the excitement and stimulation of competing against friends and strangers in arcades. Since arcades mostly flourished in urban centers, and the barrier to entry was limited only by how many quarters you needed to save for laundry, the people who stuck around in the fighting game community typically tended to be young men of color. This stood in stark contrast to competitive PC games communities built around games like Quake, Counter-Strike and Starcraft; you invariably needed a $1200+ computer and a home Internet connection to to play those games.

Miller’s point is succinct — and likely obvious to some and completely invisible to others: games require money.

Yes, to be a “gamer,” one has to be able to game. You need access.

Class (and all the intersections of race, nationality, etc.) are going to impact this. How does someone who can’t even put food on the table afford an expensive gaming PC? How does someone struggling to get by afford a console plus a broadband connection — not to mention each game they must purchase?

For the privileged — those of us who have the means to purchase games at will — this is an invisible struggle. Yet, despite that, it’s one we entirely ignore. Realistically, there’s a fairly high barrier to entry when it comes to video games.

This isn’t a hobby like, say, soccer, basketball, skateboarding, or even reading (or writing). All of those things require a small “fee” to enter. If you live near a field — or even an open lot — you can potentially join the world of people who enjoy soccer. But if you want to become a gamer? You must have somewhat deep pockets, and if you don’t, then you don’t want to be a gamer.

The lyrics above from Machinae Supremacy seem to signal that video games don’t choose favorites based on race or creed, yet isn’t the financial barrier to entry a pretty damning counter to the video game meritocracy myth?

The Development of a Landscape

I don’t think I need to dip into a bag of statistics or papers to note how poverty impacts certain races more than others.

Likewise, I don’t think I need to dip into the same bag to find statistics on which groups play video games. Jump into a lobby anywhere and you’re likely to find a group of mostly white (and male) individuals. Likely, they’ll also be middle class.

This “open” landscape — the one that is welcoming to all — ends up being quite exclusive. The class dynamics presented within a group structure a community that further builds itself up.

While this has problems on the bottom floor — in individual gaming communities — it also has implications “higher” up. When we look at the critical landscape of those in the gaming world, we tend to see a pattern: the audience dictates the creators and the critics.

As is the case with most in-depth hobbies, the creators and critics tend to be individuals who grew up in the community. Therefore, there isn’t a whole lot of outside exposure. Developers who have moved from being players to creators likely have never experienced their “blind spot.” Likewise, critics (in both academia and otherwise — journalists included) who grew up in the same communities likely are ignorant to the inherent class issues surrounding gaming.

When Jason Schreier posted about Noel Brown, I don’t think he was being malicious. I simply think he was completely ignorant — how could he be expected to understand something he has (I assume) never been exposed to?

That isn’t an indictment, either. Class isn’t something we think about in gaming. We just assume (constantly) that everyone has the means to jump on in, but that clearly isn’t the case.

The Journalism Lock

It doesn’t just end there, though. The depth of class strikes even deeper in the development of the journalistic landscape.

When I decided to write about games a few years ago, I got immensely lucky — almost immediately after I started I was picked up by a site that was willing to pay me. And hey! The pay was good! Great!

Most gaming journos, however, are not so lucky.

While I could rant on (and on) about the nature of unpaid “internships” (especially in the gaming world), I don’t even really have to — even many “paid” positions in the world of gaming are, quite frankly, shit.

So say, for example, you’re a poor individual trying to write about games.

How do you do it?

If you want to make waves, you’ve got to be commenting on the latest games. Unless you work for an established site (which — more likely than not — you won’t, not in the beginning), you’re paying for those.

If you want to be relevant, you’ve got to attend the biggest events. E3. PAX Prime/East. GDC.

Do you have any idea of how expensive these things are? Do you really think you are going to get in for free? Do you think your place of employment is going to foot the bill?

The answer, more likely than not, is no.

If it isn’t obvious already, this is not a cheap hobby, and this is not a cheap profession to jump in on. How does the person who just barely made it to E3 feel about numbers like $399 and $499?

Of course, if you’re from a place of privilege, then all of this is invisible for you. Perhaps you’ll feel the burn in your wallet, but you will live with it. You’ll get by.

But if not?

Chipping Away at the Barrier

Realistically, I’m not quite sure there is a way to “solve” this problem. There’s no way to remove the barrier to entry. Consoles like the Ouya are a good step — as are things like bringing video games to libraries. But even then, there’s barriers to both of those things, too.

So we can’t. At least not now. At least not all at once.

What we can do, though, is stop acting like the barrier doesn’t exist. We need to ditch the meritocracy idea in regards to gaming. It isn’t there. It’s a facade.

Instead, we need to realize that — yes — socioeconomic factors impact our hobby, and they greatly impact the landscape. From the ground floor to the highest levels of “community,” the  ripples can be felt.

While gaming should be an inclusive hobby, it simply isn’t. While we should be striving to make it as open as we can, we can’t act like the optimistic, naive ideal is the reality. Doing so only increases the size of the blind spot that already hangs over gaming.

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