Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Perfect Non-Gamer Girl

Robert Rath | 9 May 2013 16:00
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I'm getting married next week. Those of you who've planned a wedding know this means I'm temporarily insane. Sleep is pretty much a foreign concept. I have more wine in the trunk of my car than a Boardwalk Empire character. My mother has single-handedly driven up the domestic price of ribbon. Last weekend, my fiancée and I spent ten hours tying bows on mason jars - a product that once was used to preserve food, but are now manufactured with the sole intent of becoming quaint vases and silverware holders.

I've had three substantive conversations about paper plates in the last 72 hours - seriously dude, don't push me.

Just to be clear: It's not a videogame wedding. Our invitations weren't pixel art. We're not giving grab bag NES games as favors. The decor isn't Minecraft. (Though holy shit, even Minecraft Couple used tons of mason jars, is there no escaping those things?) All these weddings are beautiful and meaningful, but that's just not our relationship. Danielle didn't play NES games as a kid. She doesn't play Minecraft. She doesn't play complex board games like Axis and Allies or Arkham Horror. She's probably the only person in the developed world who's never played Angry Birds. She does play bassoon, guitar, violin, and piano, though Harmonix would have to release some pretty specific peripherals to leverage those skills. Danielle isn't a gamer in any sense of the word - and that's part of the reason I love her.

Wait, wait, wait! Wait. Seriously, wait. I can see your outrage buffering already. Understand me when I say that if Danielle was a gamer, I'd love her just as much. Not any more or less, just the same. But with all the articles and forum posts out there about the "perfect gamer girlfriend" (which doesn't exist, even if you remove the word "gamer") I thought I'd offer a different opinion. Because dating - and marrying - a non-gamer hasn't driven me away from games, it's actually made me appreciate and understand them more.

Danielle and I are different people. While I grew up in Hawaii playing Genesis and having adventures in the brush, she was in Delaware playing music and reenacting musicals in her backyard. She was a hippie art gal in high school, while I was in Marine Corps JROTC. While she was trekking the rainforest in Ecuador getting tropical diseases, I was doing research in London medical museums full of 200 year-old anatomical specimens. Different upbringings are what make relationships interesting, and one of those differences happens to be that Danielle never played videogames as a kid, at least not after a childhood obsession with Prince of Persia.

Now I've known more than a few gamers who saw this as something to be remedied in their spouse. That's understandable, to a certain extent. If games are a big part of your life and your cultural touchstones, there's a natural urge to share that joy with the person you love. I know some people who have accomplished that - couples that plug through Borderlands and Diablo together - and I know people who've lost relationships because they pushed games too hard on their partner. Danielle isn't interested in playing games, so I know our relationship will never carry over to a multiplayer server somewhere, just like she knows that I'll likely never be a talented enough musician to for a jazz duo. We have enough respect for each other that I'm never going to force her and she's never going to force me. (Okay, I did insist she play a little bit of Journey, though that had nothing to do with converting her to games and everything to do with Journey.)

We do, however, talk about games a lot. Like any good partners, we want to know what each other are up to. I'll ask how her work and Yoga classes are going, and she shows an interest in what I'm playing. She reads my column with pleasure. Though she's never played BioShock or Call of Duty, we'll discuss the controversies surrounding them over pasta. She's brilliant at it. Most of the time she crafts better arguments and makes better points than half the game journalists I know, because unburdened by the culture, history and prejudices of gaming, she asks different questions than they would and draws different conclusions.

Danielle is what games and game writing often needs - an outside voice.

"Which do you feel more attached to," she asked me once, "a character you've made yourself, or a character that's given to you?"

I stared at her, unable to answer. I had been explaining Skyrim, and the difference between RPGs and action/adventure games, but this question was out-of-the-ballpark brilliant. This was advanced-level game design stuff - she'd leapfrogged most of the foundational concepts and gone right to the player's emotional investment in their avatar. Most people don't think about that, even after years of playing. I considered the question, at first I thinking I felt more attached to characters I created - after all, we literally inhabit the consciousness of RPG avatars and make them reflect our preferences. But then I considered how connected I felt toward Ezio Auditore and Captain Walker. Finally, I told her that while the individualization of RPG characters reflected my choices more directly, I actually felt deeper emotional connection to created characters because they follow a set narrative arc and can surprise me. In other words, I find outside characters more relatable than ones I inhabit and design. This is something I'd never have discovered if Danielle didn't point it out to me. Again and again in our relationship, she's given me insight into the medium by making me articulate the foundations of game design and asking questions that might not occur to someone who's intimately familiar with the culture. Why are fantasy and sci-fi settings more prevalent than historical ones? Does the type of game shape online interaction, and how? If everyone's tired of Call of Duty, why does it sell so well? Are there any comedy games? Even if I'd considered these questions before, articulating an answer in plain language helps me examine my position in a new context, and often means I end up refining or even changing my assumptions. Sure, Danielle and I will never banter about what's the best way to build a Minecraft castle or wax nostalgic about Mass Effect squad mates, but because we can't talk about the game experience itself, we end up talking more about the ideas the game presents.

These conversations not only make me examine my own assumptions, they also make me better at something our culture struggles with: how to present itself to non-gamers. During the past year we've seen games be the victim of political scapegoating and biased reporting, and this is always exacerbated by the fact that we have difficulty communicating our arguments to people who don't share the vocabulary of videogames. Partially this is because we often only talk about games with other gamers, and that sort of echo chamber doesn't produce arguments geared to win over outside audiences. Sure we know that interactive violence doesn't give people violent tendencies, but how do you explain that to someone who's never played a game when all they see are screenshots full of guns and blood? Well, for one thing you can talk about the violence statistics of other countries and how they don't correlate with videogame usage. You can explain the ideas behind the game so it looks like more than a celebration of gore. In the case of games particularly reprehensible games, often the best thing to do is to admit that you yourself were uncomfortable with the game, and mention that it didn't sell particularly well (as is often the case with the likes of Postal and controversy-baiting flash games). By talking over these issues with my fiancée, I've begun to build a vocabulary for conveying our culture's ideas to the outside world. That kind of feedback is invaluable to a writer like me, especially since I work in the area where games meet reality.

And of course, there's some value in having your own domain in a relationship. Danielle might go off to an exercise class or girl's night to get some headspace, whereas I face down neon Blood Dragons or challenge a friend in Injustice. There's nothing wrong with that.

But when we get together to talk about our day, what we've been thinking about and what we've done, I know she'll be there to hear my theories about how Black Ops misused the Invasion of Panama, how Jenova Chen interwove the principles of Buddhism into Journey, and dissolve into giggles trying to explain the plot of BioShock Infinite ("Then the twins ... what twins? Oh, did I forget to tell you about the twins? There are twins, except not ... wait ... stop laughing. Let me start at the beginning again.").

After all, we don't play games with our fingers, we play them with our minds. So even if I don't play games with the woman I love, when we share the ideas games impart, and enrich each other's understanding of the medium, in a way we're sharing some of the best games have to offer.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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