How Gaming Has Helped Me and My Boys During the Pandemic

While the real world is stalled out and spiraling, we’re busy leveling up

Whiteness, it seems, has a monopoly on all things.

It’s no surprise in the real world, but Whiteness is also in the distant reaches of our most imaginative galaxies. And that’s frightening.

In too many fictional worlds, the idea of being a Black space pioneer or Brown wizard is inconceivable — even when we’re able to suspend our disbelief around intergalactic travel or riding bareback on dragons.

We’ve all seen a White man with a gray beard as a sorcerer. But when’s the last time you saw an Indigenous spell caster in a U.S. fiction context? I’d have to go back to my childhood; even then, I couldn’t name any. And for someone who grew up in a diverse community, it’s shameful to internalize this sort of truth. Because even — and perhaps most especially — when nerding out, we still couldn’t see ourselves.

I grew up in the 1990s in a mixed Bay Area suburb, where most of my neighborhood friends were kids of color — Samoan, Mexican, Persian, Black, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, or some variation of immigrant, including Russian and Czechoslovakian, among so many others. The homes where I spent my early years varied drastically, depending on whose mom would make us tamales, lumpia, or curry that day. No matter the menu, we all shared a love for one thing back then: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

For hours, we’d traverse into the depths of Brinstar in Super Metroid Prime as the White heroine, Samus Aran. Other days we’d swing lightsabers as the master Jedi, Luke Skywalker — a blond-haired, blue-eyed, White farm boy from Tatooine, a world with two suns. Or we’d straight up fly through a space vortex in the Lylat planetary system as nonhuman pilot Fox McCloud — an actual fox who captained a crew of space animals fighting for galactic justice.

I don’t think any of us realized it back then, but the older and worldlier we became in our own ways, something became painfully clear: None of the characters looked or sounded like us. That was perhaps one of my earliest lessons in the subtle complexities of our systematically racist socialization — that only a White person or, in some cases, a personified space creature, could be the hero. As a result, only White people were meant to be the true nerds who could enjoy these adventures in the most wholesome ways.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly the case. I don’t imagine game developers — many of whom are Japanese — sat in rooms and thought of how best to detach young kids of color around the globe from their cultural identities. They merely reflected capitalistic demands, which Western eurocentrism has aggressively dictated. Whiteness got reflected in every dimension of our being, from our parents’ workplaces to the video games we obsessed over. It’s a deeply embedded and troubling psychology; we may question and challenge it more than ever, but it undeniably persists.

This is where gaming — with all of its flaws and inherent biases — becomes an oasis for men of color to talk shit, crack jokes, have each other’s backs, and practice some version of growth, even if in a computer-generated realm.

Though there are light-years of progress to be made in establishing equitable norms, the video game industry has shown signs of promising change. In a recent Quartz report, research revealed two things: The stereotype of the average gamer as a White, heterosexual man is false, and more people game than you think. In a Pew Research Center study, Black and Hispanic teens reported playing more video games (83%) than their White and non-Hispanic counterparts (71%). In other words, gaming consumers reflect a more diverse population, and this generation will continue to shape the virtual landscape. (The male bias, however, does remain. Although female players have increased in recent years, teen men outplay young women by a 25% discrepancy. White men are also the egregious majority of game developers, at 68%.)

That said, the research goes far beyond the racial and gender makeup of players. At our core, nerds like me are driven by a desire for community, like the Nerdtino Convention in Philadelphia. Nearly one-third of young gamers reported sharing their video game contact info with new friends to form a connection, while also claiming to play online with these friends every day. For those who don’t play daily, the amount of online interaction with peers skyrockets to a convincing 91%. It’s statistical proof that the online world of gaming is where most of America’s young people learn to communicate — which is hardly news.

I may not be not a teen anymore, but it’s not only young people who pride themselves as gamers. I’m a married 33-year-old millennial trapped in a real pandemic that shows no signs of ending soon. And though I’ve had my gripes with video games — such as the severe underrepresentation and stereotyping of Latinx characters — I’ve recently returned to them as a source of joy, release, and friendship in times of extreme social distancing.

A friend’s daughter lent me a spare Playstation 4, so I’ve been back online for the first time in my adulthood. After each day’s demands of working as a professor at the University of San Francisco and teaching community writing classes, I fire up the system to unwind: I pop open a fresh IPA, toss on my headphones, log into our group chat, and return to my inner nerd.

It’s only a month into 2021, and I still haven’t seen my brother and closest boys in person more than once — if that. Though most of us live within a two-hour drive of each other, scattered around Northern California, we haven’t kicked it during the pandemic. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without linking up with my goons IRL.

So, we hop into our spaceships and squad up for raids in Destiny 2, or break out the blasters and go to battle in Star Wars Battlefront 2, or occasionally gang up on the Western Frontiers of Red Dead Redemption 2. If I’m desperate and need a quick pickup, I hit up my cousin and run some NBA2K before resuming my ordinary routines.

This is where gaming — with all of its flaws and inherent biases — becomes an oasis for men of color to talk shit, crack jokes, have each other’s backs, and practice some version of growth, even if in a computer-generated realm. While the real world is stalled out and spiraling, we’re busy leveling up, both literally and figuratively.

Many of us live in neglected areas, where a stroll around the block means getting barked at by pit bulls behind chain-link fences, passing vagrant older men congregating on corners, or generally feeling the weight of some form of poverty or visible segregation. I love my neighborhood — especially the liquor store across the street — but it’s not the type of place where you’ll see people happily jogging or walking their dogs. I drive to the nearby coast (a California privilege, I know) if I want to get some fresh, peaceful air. But many days I don’t have the time or energy for that, so I plug into the universe at my fingertips.

Gaming releases that feeling of daily entrapment that has suddenly become our reality. It gives me a connection to an intimate circle I rarely get to enjoy anymore — the feeling of being a kid and gathering around a Nintendo 64 with four controllers at some homie’s house, shooting each other up in Goldeneye. Even though that may sound like some form of violence, it prevented many of us from becoming violent in other ways. Instead, video games kept us engaged in not-so-meaningless coordination and critical thinking exercises and improved our social skills and empathy (despite what some suggest about gaming nerds).

Gaming is as complex and multidimensional as those of us who decide to pick up the controllers. It has become a healthy outlet for us to feel seen and successful, in a way we might not always have access to on our literal planet.

Bay Area writer, blogger, teacher. Books: Piñata Theory (2020); This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019). Twitter + IG: @alan_chazaro

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