Engaging the Real World through Video Games

Video games: Thinking about them conjures images of Mario jumping into pipes, Link claiming the Master Sword, or hijacking cars running wild through a city.

Or you might think of gamers who often get stereotyped as loners huddled in a corner, yelling at machines.

Dr. Megan Condis, Ph.D., English ‘15, sees possibility. Specifically, Condis thinks video game technology can help us  change the way we might understand and engage other people in the real world. And through the game that she  built as a digital version of her dissertation, she wants you to see it too.

In her dissertation, The Politics of Gamers: Bodies and Identity in the Age of Media, Condis examines gaming identity,  or the ways that gamers develop senses of community and of self in digital space.  

We might be used to thinking of identity in terms of bodies (race) or financial status (class). “Gamer” emerged as an  identity tied to a particular medium, which fascinates Condis. “There’s no identity of ‘TV watcher’ or ‘TV head’,” she points out. “Rather, there are just fans of specific shows.”

So how have gamers come to be known as gamers? Condis thinks it has a lot to do with a shared feeling of being marginalized by a broader culture.

“The term ‘gamer’ has a complicated history. Right now, it’s associated with a certain demographic: white, straight, male adolescents who can afford an Xbox or a good computer,” Condis says. This demographic is often located within the larger category of nerd.

As many can testify, being an adolescent nerd does not always equal a great time. So when gamers take the term “nerd” for themselves, it is often with pride.

Some gamers now claim an authentic gamer identity that needs to be protected from external influences. In her research, Condis found that these “real gamers” create informal checklists of experiences people need to meet to qualify as gamers. A primary experience is playing video games as children. And they don’t really want to broaden the category of who counts as a member of the group.

“We’re all playing games now, especially on our phones and through Facebook,” Condis says. “But some gamers want to continue to have this distinction as a gamer. They police the boundaries of who’s real and who isn’t.”

For Condis, identity in the Internet age is policed in no small part through memes, or small bits of information copied (often with small changes added to suit a new situation) and rapidly spread through cyberspace. Memes are often funny photos or catchphrases that people send to each other or post on sites like reddit.com to represent their thoughts about a particular issue.

There’s a particular group of memes that Condis sees circulated among gamers. Memes like Fake Geek Girl, Condis says, demonstrate how claims to gamer identity are often gendered.

Fake Geek Girl MemeFake Geek Girl is a picture of a girl with the word “nerd” scrawled across her hand. But the text that surrounds her is wrong in some way. “In the text, she’s always saying how she loves games so much, but she always makes crucial mistakes. For instance, she’ll say ‘I love Zelda so much when she swings her sword around,’” Condis says. (Obviously, Link, not Zelda, is the hero with the Master Sword in The Legend of Zelda series.)

According to Condis, women have a complicated place in the gaming world. “Women are represented as fakers who only pretend to like nerdy things to get attention or money from men. They’re presented as predators who prey on socially awkward gamers.”

To protect both gamers and the identity of gamer from predatory women, Condis explains, “’real gamers’ use memes like Fake Geek Girl to satirize the idea of female nerds.” The meme spread really quickly within the gaming community.

Condis sees its spread as potentially harmful because the meme can easily become a kind of reality for some people, a tale that becomes true by virtue of being seemingly everywhere you turn. “It becomes a trope online but in real life, if you don’t know that many women, or even if you do, that trope can make some people think, ‘All women are fake nerds because obviously I’ve met them online,’” she explains.

Criticizing sexism or racism in games is also something “real gamers” take umbrage at. “’Real gamers’ continue to feel as though they are maligned in the popular media. Thus, if any individual games are criticized for racism or sexism, confusion happens: some ‘real gamers’ understand the criticism of a game as a criticism of themselves. They want a digital world free of these huge issues. But there’s no such place.”

In this case, claiming the identity of “gamer” becomes a political statement, like saying, “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a Republican.” It can become shorthand that signals support for or rejection of certain real-world issues.

Condis encourages gamers to weigh in on real-world problems. Her work hinges on the idea that technology does not free us from our bodies. Race, class, and gender continue to exist and to shape video game technology and experiences of it.

She’s used video games in the classroom to engage students on real-world issues. In Rhetoric 105: Principles of Composition, Condis taught a module titled “Serious Games,” about games made by nonprofits or charities to highlight issues or make arguments. The idea behind those games matches Condis’ reason for teaching games through games: this media affects people differently than, say, reading a New Yorker article or a chapter in a textbook.

To write about video games is different than writing a video game about video games and Internet culture, for instance. Thus, to accompany a traditional paper dissertation, Condis made Night of the Living Memes. It’s a video game that harkens back to what Condis nostalgically thinks of as the golden era of games, when characters were pixelated blobs gliding across the screen. 

To build the game, she first had to come to terms with how little she knew about computers. She credits the University of Illinois’ subscription to lynda.com with giving her the necessary background and programming abilities. Anyone with a NetID has free access to all of Lynda’s online training courses.

“The campus subscription to lynda.com helped a lot. In the early days, it was like baby’s first ‘how does a computer work?’ and ‘what is binary and how do computers read code?,’” Condis says with a laugh.

She also received a competitive summer fellowship through the English department. The fellowship let her work on the game over the summer and also provided her with the psychological boost that her department saw her work as real and worthy of support.

From there, Condis was able to produce her own pixelated blobs, freely available for Windows as a downloadable file.

Even as the technology has a throwback look to it, the message is progressive.

Night of the Living Memes is about troubling memefication, or how information on the Internet quickly becomes memes, which function as shorthands for truth,” Condis says.

In the game, you play a party of three women on their way to a gaming convention. Along the way, you are met with zombies who are infected with memeism, wherein they just repeat the same phrases over and over again. You can fight them (and you’ll need to) but the way to win the game is to give them new information that can replace what they are currently saying. Some zombies will choose to adopt the new information and some won’t.

When the zombies take up your new message, they don’t change back into humans, however. They change again. For Condis, this action in the game mirrors change in real life.

“You can’t get people to unthink or unsee something,” Condis explains. “Instead, you want to show them another side of the narrative, how the stories we tell can affect other people. When that happens, people grow from an experience.”

“You want to make more memes, not less,” Condis summarizes.

Memes aren’t inherently bad, Condis emphatically declares. They’re just limited. And if people allow limited information to shape their world, how they understand other people and how they understand themselves also becomes limited. We get smaller, likely a bit meaner, and certainly less open to surprise.

“We need to make sure that there are different kinds of voices out there for people to encounter, so that we don’t get trapped in a corner and think to ourselves, ‘Well, that’s all there is.’ Encountering more people and more ideas is how we become not just more complex gamers but more complex people.”

To play Dr. Condis’ game, please go to https://megancondis.wordpress.com/games/ and download the zip file.