Alone in the Crowd

I live in Manhattan, a city piled wall-to-wall with people. Commuting, strolling, traveling – there are so many people that before long, you cease to notice individual features. We don’t do eye contact here; wrapped in our destinations, we hardly even speak to each other. And yet, we all want to identify, to be identified.

The woman with the Kate Spade bag and Jimmy Choo heels is a fashionista. Baseball fans proclaim allegiance, either Yankees or Mets, by their ball caps and sports jerseys; during the season, the Branded exchange conspiratorial (or confrontational) nods. A successful marketing exec knows when it’s the season to make an impression with a lavender tie, and the coffee houses are overrun with hipster chic – a veritable movement to which the young telegraph their fealty with wristbands, ballet flats and tousled hair.

The man across the aisle on the train with the tweed jacket, reading the Observer? If you assumed “professor,” you’re probably right. What does a biker look like? An artist? A rapper? Chances are, you can guess.

But what does a gamer look like?

The popular stereotype about us is we’re all socially maladapted geeks. That we escaped into digital fantasy because we can’t integrate with society. Are we all, then, utterly nondescript, in an effort to keep our secret? Or does every single one of us stick out like a sore thumb, in those awful oversize shopping mall shirts emblazoned with Japanese characters? Isn’t that just a stereotype?

In the human crush of New York City, the constant invasion of personal space, I know there must be other gamers in the crowd – mild-mannered and well-comported by day, wild-eyed console jockeys by night. Maybe you can’t tell by looking. But the fashionista, the professor, the Yankees fan – couldn’t they all be gamers, too?

The odds are on my side. Recent Nielsen data shows that over 50 percent of the population has a console in the home. Of these, 20 percent are serious players, clocking five or more hours in a day. In a city of 8 million, then, one could safely estimate I share this tiny slice of America with 1.6 million other “hardcore” gamers. But how would I identify them?

How would they identify me?

OK, so maybe I own some videogame shirts. Generally, though, we don’t broadcast our passion in our external presentation. Maybe the surest way to find other gamers is actually the simplest: Look for people who are playing.

And then, I get an idea. Maybe my games can do the broadcasting for me.

The Nintendo DS is Wi-Fi enabled, which means where it can find a wireless hotspot, it can find a fellow gamer. Users on the same wireless network can play the same game together, even when only one user has the cartridge. The DS is also embedded with the PictoChat firmware, which lets up to 16 users create profiles and chat. This kind of capability creates an idyllic mental image: gamers young and old, casually bumping elbows in this increasingly wireless world, pausing for a little head-to-head.

I’ve never used it. I’ve never even tried. But what would happen if I did?

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Suddenly inspired, I check out Nintendo’s Wi-Fi page and enter my zip code, to find hot spots near me. My itinerary set, I prepare to strike out. With my DS as my beacon, I decide the best strategy is just to look approachable. I style myself nattily, in heels, lipstick and cute pants, put my DS case in my of-the-minute metallic purse, and head out on the town. This time, I leave the headphones behind – I’m about to play it loud and proud, fellas. If there’s anyone out there who still thinks gamers are light-starved, style-less and maladapted, I’m about to blow their doors off.

The nearest hotspot is just a few blocks from my home. I can hardly believe it; all this time, everything I’ve been looking for might have been right here, in a Spanish Harlem McDonald’s. Who knew? It’s a gorgeous afternoon, even a little warm for the season, the promise of spring on the air. I feel intrepid, an undiscovered hero.

On the way, I pass an outdoor shrine to the Virgin del Carmen and the open storefront of a local business that sells live poultry in cages. Inside the McDonald’s, which probably looks like every other McDonald’s, Latin music pipes in over the speakers. I take a seat upstairs – beside a deserted PlayPlace and a Hamburglar painting – and take out my DS.

PictoChat, displaying the signal bars of a successful connection, offers me four chat rooms. Each can hold 16 participants, but it looks like right now I’m the only one. With my stylus, I scribble “hello?” And beam it out into the universe. Just in case.

There’s no answer. Not a fellow unit to be seen. Just a roomful of Spanish-speaking families eating French fries and stealing sidelong glances at the girl in the corner holding the light-up box.

I’m patient. I’m not to be discouraged. I play for a little while anyway, competing with the cacophony of ketchup-flinging toddlers, attempting the ambitious undertaking of scoring an “S” ranking on every stage in Elite Beat Agents‘ Hard Rock mode. The kids’ moms – overweight, tired, harried – pass me gazes of curiosity that evolve into irritation. As they work and I play, I feel their resentment.

I’m sitting beside a McDonald’s PlayPlace, tapping, scribbling and grinning, and parents are staring at me. I pack up and hit the streets again.

At a caf

As night falls, I ride the subway home. I’ve traveled over 200 blocks, and I haven’t encountered another gamer. Though there are no wireless signals underground, I break out the DS one last time for the day, just for me. My Balm in Gilead.

A crowded subway train is not a gamer-friendly environment. I’m squeezed into my seat, my stylus hand jostled, and I can’t hear EBA‘s beat over the din. All around me people focus diligently on not making eye contact with one another, heavy with the weariness of the day. I’m on the verge of surrendering to their contagious misery.

And then, I hear something. A voice from above me says, “Yo, check it. She’s got mad skills.” I lift my head, and two guys – rapper types – standing by the door are watching me play.

“You have this game?” I ask breathlessly, unable to restrain my eagerness.

As his friend snickers, the admirer nods. “Sure,” he says. “I love that game. I beat it a ton of times.”

I light up. I start to babble. I ask him what his favorite level is, and I’m met with blank silence. Then his friend starts to laugh.

“He’s lying,” he says, shaking his head. “He ain’t got no videogames.”

As I reassess their expressions, it dawns on me that my cute outfit and my “approachability” strategy might not have been the most constructive game plan.

I laugh it off and go back to my game, but I miss too many beats. The Elite Beat Divas fall on their butts, and I’m more frustrated and discouraged than ever. But then, I look up and around one more time.

A semicircle of commuters has gathered around me, all of them watching the screen in my lap. A middle-aged blue-collar type, a leather jacket girl, an elderly man. I have an audience that spans the style spectrum, and they’re smiling.

“That looks cool,” says the middle-aged guy.

“It is,” I reply, and I return the smile. “You should try it.”

So maybe the world just isn’t made for us gamers; maybe I didn’t see any handhelds in my travels. And, you know, the idea of a private underground empire is kind of cool. But I’m keeping it in mind – half of all the people I saw today, from Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge, are going home to their consoles tonight. There’s hope.

Leigh Alexander is a freelance tech, entertainment and culture writer, who met her boyfriend of eight years in a Final Fantasy VII chat room.She currently writes for an NYC gossip site, reviews games for Paste magazine and maintains her gaming blog. She can be reached at [email protected].

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