Every other week, Bonnie Ruberg contributes Playing Dirty, a column on sex and gender in video games:
"God knows what he does with himself, all alone. He's weird. I mean, he won't hang out with other kids. Probably plays video games."
Trapped in a barber's seat with my hair half cut, I'm listening to a forty-something hair stylist describe her new stepson. Maybe he sounds familiar: nice but shy, a little overweight, smart, into fantasy ("that dragon stuff"). Her son rides dirt bikes and has tons of friends. What the heck's wrong with this kid?
Note how the speculation about video games gets spat out with extra scorn. The most antisocial behavior this woman can think up for a twelve-year-old boy? The thing he does by himself, in his room, when nobody's around? Games. After all, it's his aptitude for flying solo that really bugs her. He's content to be by himself. Apparently there's something about that that's unnatural, even dirty.
Not that this woman is alone in her thinking. For most of us, video games represent fun, exploration, even comradery. But for a sizeable chunk of the American public, they're still shorthand for lazy, messy, lonely males; for childishness; for slacking. The popular media image of gamer as hefty, middle-aged fanatics still holds sway. Even when it seems everyone's playing, games come with their own social stigma.
The lone player sits, frantically thumbing the controller in his lap. Grand Theft Auto may have raised the counterpoint, but for the most part scenes like this aren't considered deviant, just laughably "sad". One more gamer, playing with himself, again and again and again. After a while, the line starts to blur between games and masturbation.
Which isn't to say (as some anti-gamers might) that gaming itself is a form of masturbation -- at least not in the bad way -- but consider how games look to a parent at the door, to an outsider: exciting and totally one-sided. Or maybe it's video games' assumed audience that links them to masturbation. Pent-up teens; frustrated adults. Boys, boys, boys. That, of course, raises questions about masturbation as a male act, or at least a male stigma.
However the cultural connection between games and self-pleasure got started, it's here, even if we don't really think about it. You have to admit there's something sexually judgmental in that original, accusatory, disgusted sneer: "Probably plays video games."
But if it's the "antisocial" nature of games that links them to masturbation, why aren't other solo activities -- like reading, for example -- stigmatized in the same way? True, reading won't earn you popularity points, but at least no step mom ever whined, "He doesn't have friends. I bet he reads."
The crucial difference is in the idea of play, specifically playing with ourselves. Play suggests a dialogue, a back-and-forth, a dynamic response. In games we call it interactivity. In sex we call it ... well, what feels good. Someone touches, kisses, licks; someone else experiences pleasure. Trouble is, when it comes to masturbation, that interplay all happens within one person. Like a gamer in front of a computer screen, the cause and effect exist in a closed circuit.
And maybe that's what makes both masturbation and video gaming so unacceptable. In laughing at the masturbator (or gamer), society is trying to deal with the power of the individual who stands on his own; who doesn't need other people; who plays happily with himself.
As for playing games with other people, in the same room or across the world: Who knows, maybe someday the idea will be as hot and high-five-worthy as finding a partner in the bedroom.
Bonnie Ruberg is a writer, researcher, and all around fangirl with a big crush on games. Find more of her work at Terra Nova, Gamasutra, or her blog, Heroine Sheik.
Playing Dirty: Playing with ourselves
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