One of the things that blew me away when I first went to a roleplaying club here in Montevideo was that the people who were gaming were normal folks. I mean, there were some that were on the "slight nerd" side of things, guys who wouldn't exactly be playing for the world cup or lifting weights, guys with thick big glasses or a touch of shyness. But besides those guys, there were a lot of guys who were completely average people, that would fit in just as well at the local bar, or at a football game, or working somewhere respectable, or what-have-you. That was the majority really.
And the other thing was the percentage of women who roleplay. The Uruguayans still complain about the "lack" of female gamers, but there are more regular female gamers in the gaming community here than anything I saw anywhere in North America, girls who are wicked hot, too (he said, thinking of a certain Sailor Moon DM...)!
The key to the larger female presence was based on two factors:
1. Much higher percentage of gamers with girlfriends.
2. Much easier for those gamers to convince their girlfriends to play, because gaming has none of the social stigma here that it does in North America.
I have been involved with my share of women in my life, and most of them have been "alternative" kind of girls, not the sort to stick to mainstream things. Several of them were into science fiction, anime, watched buffy, read lord of the rings, etc etc.
However, in all my romantic lifetime in North America I had NEVER managed to convince a girl to regularly get into RPGs. None of them could get past that "ultimate geek barrier", the perception that roleplaying games were not alternative, they were social marginal somehow. That it was far too geeky a thing to be allowed to enjoy. The best I could manage was a sort of resigned toleration.
Here in Uruguay, the instance I got myself a girlfriend she also joined my gaming group. In fact, she told me that she'd heard of RPGs and thought they'd be lots of fun but just hadn't known where to go to be able to play them before.
So the difference, between here and "up there", is that in North America gaming has been driven to a level so far on the social margins that people who consider themselves "normal" are seriously fearful of getting involved in the hobby, in stark terror of some kind of irreparable social damage to their reputations.
Leaving aside the foolishness of such an attitude, what has led to the conditions where this attitude even arrives? Because it wasn't always like this: Those who roleplayed in the late seventies and early eighties can attest that way back then the gaming crowd was much bigger, and filled far more demographics. In college campuses, back then, gaming was something that anyone would have fun doing, and people of all varieties: jocks, women, nerds, frat boys, any of these would be fine playing without thinking it would damage their social rep any more than playing a game of monopoly or backgammon would.
In the teen set, there was a time when D&D was played by pretty much all types of kids. When I started roleplaying it was still like this. The athletic kids, the cool kids, the metalheads, the band geeks, they'd all be willing to play. Hell, my first gaming group was one where I was easily the "geekiest" of the lot, little nerd that I was, while the rest of the group was composed of guys who were part of the cool set, plus one or two sort of stoners and a serious metalhead. Back then, roleplaying games actually bridged the adolescent cliques.
But by the time I left Canada, I was the exception to the rule in a whole other sense: far from being the "geekiest" of the gaming community, I found myself in an ever increasing minority of "normal" gamers, in an environment where being a gamer in his 20s who didn't live with his mom, had his own place, had a steady and relatively good job, regularly had a girlfriend, and had a social life in general outside of gaming, was becoming ever more the exception to the "gamer norm".
So what went so horribly wrong? Why is it that now, in this foul year of our lord 2005, North American gaming has become the domain of the total freaks and losers? Who is to blame?!
If you guessed the Swine, you got it on the first try.
As I had earlier said, the "swine" are not a phenomenon limited to gamers, most hobbies end up being infected by the same sort of problem: Star Trek fandom in the 70s and early 80s was a relatively normal hobby, for example. Few people back then would dress up as klingons or make any effort to look unusual outside of gimmicky Mr.Spock ears; whole families would appreciate going to the conventions together, and the general public felt that Star Trek was a pretty cool show. But somewhere along the line the fandom fell more and more under the sway of the most extreme elements of the movement, fans who would pride themselves on dressing like idiots or insulting those who hadn't obsessively pored over episode guides and technical manuals; and over time the hobby willingly marginalized itself, excluding the socially normal by making this kind of sick behaviour acceptable and eventually the rule. The result? Today being a fan of Star Trek is code word for being a 27 year old virgin.
Comic Books suffered a similar fate. What was once a "hobby" of sorts for children of all types, and for adults who didn't mind being a bit childish, a small group of adult "collectors" began obsessing over the medium, and the comics industry began to make the mistake of catering to those collectors rather than to the kids. The result? The comics industry as a whole imploded in the 90s, after the kids stopped being interested in (or indeed even able to buy) grossly over-priced comics that had now also gained a reputation of "geekiness".
But perhaps the worst example, and a powerful warning to any other hobby interest, is the furry fandom. Furries, for those who may not know, are (or rather, they were) anthropomorphic animal comics and drawings. In the 80s, this was a normal subset of comic fandom, and comics like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Usagi Ujimbo were high-quality mainstream works with large followings. Conventions were held where people could exchange furry art and small publishing companies could show off their wares.
But over time, the movement became infiltrated by sexual fetishists who defined "furry" in a very different way, dressing up as animals for weird sexual kicks and demanding pornographic art of the same. Almost overnight the entire hobby went up in smoke as anyone who didn't want to be seen as an apeshit pervert fled for the hills. Today most recognized comic artists wouldn't do furry material if you paid them in gold bricks, more than one was quoted as leaving the genre after the tenth time of being asked at a con if he could draw a picture of pre-teen fox boys being raped by lion-men or what-have-you.
(where somehow this:)
(turned into this because of people like this (WARNING: BOTH links are RIDICULOUSLY NSFW; and sadly still not even anywhere near the bottom of the barrel of the sort of stuff furries get up to))
In each of these cases, as with gaming, the problem arose when a small minority of extremists demanded that the hobby recognize their extreme social dysfunctions as acceptable, and the Swine of these respective hobbies permitted and encouraged this, wanting to transform their hobby into an exclusive rather than inclusive fandom so that they could feel like the persecuted elite. The logic used was generally that "everyone was welcome" because "we were all picked on at some point or another", what is called a Geek Social Fallacy in some circles. But the real motive was not one of inclusion of the freaks so much as exclusion of the "mainstream", the majority of people who are socially functional that most swine despise as the "masses" who could never possibly understand them. Their poisoned logic in each of these instances convinced enough of the hobbyists of the importance of being "tolerant" that the social freaks, obssesives, losers, and/or perverts were allowed in. This ill-thought-out tolerance led to two effects: the exodus of those who were uncomfortable with those of extreme behaviours, and the introduction of ever-more people who were socially marginalized to the hobby based not on an actual love of the hobby but on the recognition that the hobby was a place where their marginalization would be tolerated.
Its like this: if a guy in your neighbourhood regularly shits on his front lawn, and the community chooses to do nothing to stop this inappropriate behaviour, eventually some of the normal folks in your neighbourhood will move away, choosing not to live near the lawn-crapper. After that, other lawn-crappers or worse will start moving into your neighbhourhood, upon hearing that yours is a community that accepts those who follow and lawn-dumping lifestyle. Pretty soon, it becomes a "community of lawn-crappers", where those who don't shit on their front yards are the exception rather than the rule, and the lawn-crappers control the city hall. By that time, no one wants to come live in your town, and everything reeks of shit.
In gaming, there was a twofold phenomenon. One was the gaming hobby's tolerance of the socially marginalized in north america; allowing those who don't bathe, don't change their clothes, can't talk without screaming, pick their nose or rub their crotches in public, etc etc. to be in gaming groups and attend conventions without changing their ways.
The second was the Swine: in the nineties, the industry under swine-influence completely gave up the effort to make gaming a mainstream pastime, instead willingly making every effort to make gaming some kind of twisted underdog-elitist practice. Something that would intentionally exclude the normal, wanting only the self-styled geek elites, the goths, and the freaks. While emphasizing the "acceptance" of those who are outsiders regardless of how obnoxious their personal habits were, gaming's products and people throughout the nineties made a point of being as intolerant as possible of anyone who wasn't part of these "anti-elites". They didn't want simple games with mass appeal that any teenager could get into or that college friends could make an evening's entertainment out of, they wanted obtuse byzantine games with artistic pretensions or insider jobs that only hardcore collectors could appreciate. And the more the normal people left, the more the freaks could take over.
It is true, of course, that market conditions shifted for rpgs after D&D stopped being a "fad", but this in and of itself is not enough to explain the social shift. In South America, for example, gaming is a relatively unknown hobby, yet in it you do not have the guys who reek of catpiss or the ones who look and smell like they haven't ever been exposed to the concept of soap, or the idea that you have to change your clothes more than once a month. Nor do you have the guys who randomly scream at certain intervals for no good reason, or the ones who wear diapers to the gaming group so they don't have to get up to go to the bathroom, or even the guys who just generally can't interact with other human beings.
The reason for this, I think, is a natural choice on the part of the gaming community in Uruguay to not tolerate that kind of "lawn-crapping" behaviour. They spend more time interacting and mingling with each other in the real world, gaming groups aren't static as they often are in north america, instead you have people going back and forth, playing with lots of different people in different locales. This greater social aspect inherently keeps out some of the social retards, and are thwarted by the general preference of the Uruguayan gamers to tell those who exhibit abnormal behaviour that they can either change or go away. The "geek social fallacy" that because you are sometimes seen as a nerd you must accept and tolerate all your "fellow nerds" regardless of how obnoxious, sick, or inappropriate their behaviour might be does not rule here, and Uruguayan gaming is all the better for it.
currently smoking: Savinelli Full-Bent + Gawith's Balkan Flake
(originally posted June 22nd 2005)