100-Percenting It: Video Game Play Through the Eyes of Devoted Gamers
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100-Percenting It: Videogame Play Through the Eyes of Devoted Gamers examines video gaming from a cultural sociological standpoint. The paper is based on my undergraduate honors thesis, which I wrote during my senior year at Rutgers University in 2006-2007.
Back then, gaming research was not as prevalent as it is today (and most of the studies I encountered involved violence in games). When I decided that I wanted to study gaming, many people told me that it was immature, stupid or that there was nothing worthwhile that anyone could learn from gaming (not surprisingly, my first chapter was a strong, 26-page defense of why one should study gaming).
However, I was fortunate to find two extremely supportive advisors who were willing to indulge my interests and guide me. Neither of them were gamers, but they saw the value of studying gaming and encouraged me to produce something that would make me proud. The end result was a 260+ page thesis that received the distinction of highest honors and several awards, including the award for best thesis in the department.
The publication, which appears in the December 2012 issue of Sociological Forum, is considerably shorter and significantly more polished than my original thesis. Below, I have provided a brief overview of several of the publication's topics. The full text of the article is available on the journal's website.
I relied primarily on three forms of data: one-on-one interviews, participant observation (you guessed it: watching people play video games), and a questionnaire. I interviewed 20 "devoted gamers," 17 male and 3 female, ages 18 to 27. These people were a mix of core and hardcore gamers, but they were unwilling to attach such labels to their gaming. I spent over 12 hours observing my gaming participants, four 21-year-old males, play video games.
All of the quotations in this article are either from the interviews or the participant observation sessions. The 50-question questionnaire was administered to a random sample of undergraduate students at Rutgers University: 101 female and 69 male, ages 18 to 25.
Defining the "Devoted" or "Hardcore" Gamer
Earlier, I used the term "devoted" to describe my interviewees' gaming habits because no interviewee wanted to identify as a "hardcore gamer," fearing that it carried a negative connotation of playing too many video games or being obsessed with them. In fact, interviewees went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the stereotypical "hardcore gamer," though they did not attempt to downplay their own dedication to video games. Thus, the interviewees did not personally think that they were too invested in gaming but believed that others could be.
Because no interviewee was willing to accept the term "hardcore gamer," I relied on the term "devoted gamer," which I elicited and defined through my questionnaire data. The definition of "devoted gamer" is just as imprecise as "hardcore gamer," the former being a person who has a passion for games, plays them more often than the average casual gamer, and for whom games are meaningful.
Gaming as an Immersive Experience: Atmosphere
Interviewees described gaming as an immersive experience both because of the gameplay itself and through other absorbing aspects of the game. For example, many interviewees appreciated in-game music, defending it as real music, and the artistic quality of games, including the art found in game manuals.
One interviewee referred to a game's immersive quality as its "atmosphere," which he explained is "something that when you play the game and when you hear the music from the game afterwards [it] sends chills down your spine" and makes each game "feel different." He described Metal Gear Solid as a game with such atmosphere -- a "masterpiece" that "works on so many levels."
Gaming as a Social Activity
Almost every interviewee agreed that gaming is a social activity, both online or offline and whether multiplayer or single-player. Indeed, gaming facilitates gamers in forming and solidifying their friendships, leading to a rich social experience. Gamers play games alongside one another, often discussing subjects unrelated to the game itself. And gamers discuss and reminisce over games even when they are not playing them, adding a social dimension to single-player games. One interviewee described how he became better friends with an acquaintance because they both used Xiaoyu in Tekken 4. Another interviewee explained how gamers met and played games together at her college's gaming society.
Ironically, many interviewees believed that gaming made people less sociable, but every interviewee (except for one) felt that games had personally made them more sociable. Thus, the interviewees subscribed to the image of the stereotypical socially-isolated gamer -- "guy with glasses, greasy hair, Cheetos stains on his shirt . . . sitting in his mom's basement" -- but did not believe that they fit that image. If such a stereotype exists but does not apply to most gamers, then how accurate is the stereotype?
While watching gamers play multiplayer games (specifically, two-on-two Super Smash Bros. Melee timed games on the Final Destination stage), I noticed that the players simultaneously, but separately, interacted with each other and with each other's characters. When a player spoke to his teammate in-game, he referred to his teammate by his teammate's first name. However, when a player referred to his opponents in-game, he referred to them by their characters' names (e.g., "Greg, way to just look at Yoshi!" and "Aw, fucking Bowser!").
In fact, when a player picked a female player, the other team referred to the player as a "she." Thus, allies were players but enemies were characters. Interestingly, the players referred to the opposing team by their characters' names only in-game but did not do so in between matches, i.e., while on the character selection screen ("Peter, keep Greg off of me as much as you can"). I observed the same phenomenon when the players switched teams.
An important social dimension of gaming is a gamer's status: how good they are at a game. Getting a high score or unlocking certain in-game features are just some of the many ways that one can flaunt one's gaming ability. Several interviewees described how, as children, they would taunt their siblings by outscoring them in certain games, like Tetris.
Being good at a game is not just about bragging rights, however: pro-gamers base their careers on competing in tournaments, maintaining fanbases, and signing endorsements. Thus, being good at a game commands some respect and awe. One interviewee respected a player who beat him in a tournament because it was the first time in a long time that he was so excited and nervous. Likewise, another interviewee described his admiration for the winners of a Street Fighter tournament that he attended, stating that "the admiration that I have for someone that is good at a game is usually because I also play the game [...] so that admiration is borne out of my own desire to improve and [...] knowing what it takes to be so good."
In contrast, one interviewee characterized a tournament winner he watched as "precise," but noted that the player's skillfulness detracted from the game's fun because he played too mechanically. In that sense, being too good at a game can sometimes be a bad thing.
Indeed, a game is more immersive and meaningful when players are competing against well-matched opponents. Obliterating your opponent (or being obliterated) can get boring; it is the back-and-forth edge-of-your-seat closeness in ability that keeps players engaged. An interviewee described this as recognizing his opponent's "play style," which allows him to adapt and learn from each encounter he has with his opponent. He explained that a truly great match is between equals who constantly keep changing the way they play, making the match uncomfortably close until the very end.
For this reason, he (and many other interviewees) expressed a strong preference for playing against human, rather than computer-controlled, opponents. Of course, a human opponent provides an opportunity for social interaction that a computer cannot, but human opponents also make the gameplay more dynamic and challenging. You never really know your true skill level until you have played against other people who have invested time in mastering the game.
Thoroughness and 100-Percenting It
Games are not just about having fun; they also give us a sense of accomplishment. Many interviewees described a sort of duty they had towards their games, which went well beyond just playing the game for its entertainment value. Interviewees best described this as a need to "100-percent" games by playing them thoroughly and to their fullest: exploring every cave, assisting every NPC, collecting every golden coin, defeating every boss and mini-boss, beating every mini-game, and so forth.
One interviewee found it "extremely satisfying" to look at the catalogue of games he had 100-percented, thereby reminding himself of what he had achieved. Another interviewee drew a distinction between his gaming habits, making sure that he had "gotten every little thing you can get," and the habits of "some people who . . . will just go on and beat it in a few hours." His comment suggested that playing a game without 100-percenting it is a less honorable method of gaming.
Similarly, several interviewees touched on a common struggle that "haunts" them -- choosing between playing every game that interests them versus wanting to play every game thoroughly. The need to 100-percent games was not limited to just a desire for completeness but also extended to an obligation or way to pay homage to the game's designers. Specifically, one interviewee felt that it was important to "take the most out of the games, everything that the creators intended [...] [like] feedback or a way of showing respect for the creators of the game." If a game's designers put in the effort to include quests beyond those required to beat a game, how can you justify not completing them?
The Etiquette of Gaming: Spoilsports, Cheaters, and Being Cheap
What irritates a gamer more: the spoilsport (i.e., the person who does not take the game seriously) or the cheater? Interviewees generally found spoilsports to be more aggravating, which is the same kind of attitude you would probably find in competitive sports. No one wants to watch a sports game in which the other team is goofing off or losing on purpose because such behavior destroys the game's importance (and its balanced, competitive aspect, which I discussed earlier).
The same goes for video games; spoilsports break the delicate illusion of reality, that the game is meaningful and that winning is important. There are very few things more irritating than beating someone in a game and then having him or her respond, "Who cares? It's just a stupid game." We care; that's why we played it!
Interviewees found spoilsports to be annoying because such behaviors made them feel as though their opponent was not taking them seriously. In contrast, the cheater was taking the game seriously, which is why they were cheating in the first place. With the cheater, winning was so important that it was worth going through the effort of cheating.
One interviewee explained that dealing with a cheater is easier than dealing with a spoilsport because at least he could still try to beat the cheater or stoop to their level and "cheat back." Another interviewee used the term "bad cheating" to describe extreme cheating that could not be overcome. Other cheating, like screen cheating in FPS games, was acceptable because the opportunity was "right there in front of you."
Cheating was not just limited to multiplayer games, however. Other than following the explicit rules that limit how players can play a game, gamers also imbue games with their own set of rules and norms. One common theme among interviewees was the notion that relying on walkthroughs and online guides is a form of quasi-cheating or is at least a bit shameful. Interestingly, one interviewee who looked down on the use of walkthroughs also qualified that he would instead ask a friend for help whenever he was stuck in a game.
Similar to cheating, many interviewees used the term "cheap" to describe gaming that was not quite cheating, because it was still within the game's parameters, but was nonetheless unfair. Two examples of being cheap were abusing unfair tactics (e.g., "snaking" in Mario Kart DS) and using overpowered characters (e.g., "burn characters," like Cable and Iron Man in Marvel vs. Capcom 2).
The Etiquette of Gaming: Trash Talking
Not surprisingly, trash talking is widespread and accepted as part of what makes multiplayer gaming fun, even if the trash talk is directed at you. Most interviewees generally saw trash talking as something to do among friends, rather than when playing with strangers. However, trash talking was thought to be easiest in online settings, where one was least likely to fear reactions from other players due to the geographical distance between them.
Trash talking is also a tool, which can be used to put a cheater or braggart in place or just to be funny. One interviewee explained that he even trash-talks when he is losing because it is "so ridiculous that you know I'm joking." Trash talk is also another way for players to express that they are engaged in the game -- taking it seriously -- so it is important for solidifying the competitive and cooperative nature of gaming.
"The computer" can also be trash-talked or talk its own trash. During my gaming observation sessions, I observed one player trash-talk the computer when it outscored all of the human players in Donkey Konga ("Seventy-six? Kiss my ass, computer!"). One interviewee described Chipp Zanuff of Guilty Gear as engaging in "a ridiculous amont of trash talk."
Trash talking can also involve sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise obscene language. It is important to stress that this is not unique to video gaming or gamer culture as a whole. Indeed, the analytical framework for this topic came from a 1987 study of Little League baseball players, who used homosexual epithets to taunt one another and express domination. And we observe the same type of obscene language emerge in other competitive activities, like sports (playing and watching), board games, and cards, to name a few.
Like the language that emerges during these other competitive activities, the language that I observed players (unconsciously) use during their gameplay did not necessarily reflect their personal beliefs and does not mean that such language is essential to gaming. As with violence, which I discuss below, I do not think that my findings lead to the conclusion that playing video games encourages people to use obscene language or that such behavior is unique to those who play video games.
Unlike much of the early research on gaming, the causal relationship between games and violent behavior was beyond the scope of my research. Instead, I was interested in two things: how gamers rationalized and talked about the violence they encountered in games, and how gamers felt about non-gamers' attitudes towards violent games.
As an initial matter, I found that whether or not a game is judged to be violent depended on the context in which the interviewee viewed the activity. One of my interviewees put it best when he described his interest in fencing and martial arts; both are non-violent activities within the context of sport but would certainly be violent if performed on innocent victims. Similarly, even non-violent game series, like Pokémon, Mario, and The Legend of Zelda, could be (albeit wrongly) viewed as violent depending on the audience's sensitivities. And some may even view a series like Grand Theft Auto to be non-violent because the animation, such as heads popping off victims' bodies, is unrealistic and almost cartoon-like.
No matter how hard each interviewee tried, no interviewee could successfully argue that games were categorically non-violent. (One interviewee even went so far as to argue that she could play a Grand Theft Auto game non-violently, but by the end she admitted, "it's human nature to like violence, I guess. I find it funny to run someone over, too.'') The argument is as useless as arguing that all movies are non-violent. Like movies, there are both violent and non-violent games, but that does not necessarily mean that games (or even violent, M-rated games) cause people to commit actual violence.
Source: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Identifying with Characters: Good Guys, Badassness, and Morality
Every interviewee identified with at least one specific game character. This sometimes involved imbuing these otherwise one-dimensional characters with certain anthropomorphic characteristics. For example, Ky Kiske from Gulity Gear was described as "a totally good person" who was "a little naïve in his ideals." Two interviewees admired Ryu from the Street Fighter series, separately stating "you never get a bad vibe from him" and "what [he] embodies forms a lot of the philosophy that I consider very much close to my heart."
One interviewee, in particular, spoke fondly of his affection for Kirby, who he said was "so humble and courageous and funny. [...] He never is like King Dedede where he's always showing off or something. [...] Kirby's so cool."
Villains also fascinated interviewees, with many describing them as "badass" and appreciating them for their multi-dimensional qualities. For example, one interviewee spoke fondly of Pyron, a demon lord in the Darkstalkers series, stating that Pyron's goal of eliminating evil was "admirable" even though "he was obviously going about it in a bad way." Similarly, another interviewee described Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid as someone whose "intentions were good" but whose "methodology was questionable."
Being a badass bad guy was almost a redeeming quality because, as one interviewee explained, it is "it is something that separates them from just [a] cardboard bad guy" and makes him or her fun to fight. Some protagonists were also described as badass, though not nearly as often as villains.
Similar to identifying with video game characters, some interviewees explained that games had influenced their morals. One interviewee altered his religious beliefs after playing certain games, and another believed that playing games with others made her a more patient and persevering person. Link from the Legend of Zelda series was also cited as possible inspiration for "standing[ing] up for a kid that was getting picked on one day." For a classically silent character, that is a lot of personality!
The purpose of this study was to analyze the culture of gaming through a sociological framework, thereby exploring how gaming is meaningful to gamers. The study, of course, has its limits: a small sample size of participants drawn from limited backgrounds. Moreover, this study did not explore online and social gaming, which is much more prevalent now than it was when I conducted my research approximately six years ago. Back then, the term "gamer" was also much more limited -- and applied only to core and hardcore gamers -- than it is today thanks to the proliferation of mobile and casual games. Nonetheless, the study still offers a look at the more "devoted" gaming audience that persists.