Black Geek Moment #1

When You Have to Defend Why You Play Video Games

Sean Avery

“Sometimes, the only safe spaces for Black bodies are invented ones.”

The world is an unsafe place for Black bodies. Store clerks eyeball you or just straight up follow you, people mistake objects in your hands for firearms, police are liable to kill you and walk away clean, and you have a pretty high chance of being born into poverty and suffering terrible traumas (I’m not done yet); you’re always being called nigger by pretty much everything: the media, neighbors, parents, friends, siblings, history classes, government officials (all of these are both direct and indirect branding of the word nigger), I mean, I hope I’ve gotten my point across, it kinda sucks most times to be Black and living anywhere. I feel anxiety in the grocery store, on the basketball courts at the gym, passing through the library detectors, sitting on the bus. I do, however, have a solid defense mechanism for America’s bullshit, something I’ve invested a lot of my life into, that keeps me up even when my head is down.

That something is video games.

This is Jowin. Rapper, producer, and my favorite Otaku; listen to his music at http://iamjowin.com.

PS1, PS2, PS3, PS4, Nintendo Gamecube, Gameboy Advance, Gameboy DS, New Nintendo 3DS, flash games, emulators, I’ve played video games since I was five. That could be a product of class privilege, as I was lucky enough to receive games and game consoles for birthdays and Christmas, but even my friends who grew up at or below the poverty line had similar game systems and experiences with gaming as me, so that means I wasn’t as evenly middle class as I like to imagine, or that video games became dumb popular across class divisions in the past thirty years. Probably the latter. This is where I should bring in statistics and numbers about the growth of the gaming industry and the impact it has had on American youth, but fuck that because I don’t feel like Googling right now. Besides, I don’t want to talk about all young people. I want to talk about Black young men.

Lemme say this: actually, as of 2014, 52% of gamers are women, read here; I’m not sure how many of those women are women of color, that would be a research project worthy of funding.

Escapism is an effective tool for avoidance. What better way to disengage than leave reality completely? Video games offer spectacular opportunities for mental vacations – players can go to dungeons, alien planets, magical continents, WW2, sci-fi alternate realities, Ancient Rome, zombified Africa, war in the Middle East, wherever Crash Bandicoot games take place, whole universes where stars have two black dots for eyes, anything Disney ever made – the possibilities are literally endless. Not to mention the way you play a game depends on its genre, there are shooters (I think it’s obvious what you do in a shooter), then there’s role-playing-games, or RPG’s, where you pick or sometimes create a character and go on quests gaining experience and items for your character while building relationships with other characters, then there’s adventure games, which are mostly based on running, jumping, solving puzzles, and exploring maps, the list goes on. The best part is that games also MIX these genres together, so you might play an RPG shooter, where you build a character and explore worlds and go on quests, but the combat is gun-based. With so many options, it becomes hard to NOT get wrapped up in games, as each game takes a different approach to the genre depending on the unique needs of the storyline, or the artistic vision of the developers. Yes, games are art too (read what Times magazine said about that in 2015 here).

Growing up Black in America, life was cool until about 8th grade, when the race thing came down on me real hard. I had been playing games before that age, but it was during that year specifically that I became immersed in virtual worlds, turning to Google – which, as I write this, on my Chrome there are two windows for Pokemon X because I’m trying to find the Mega Stone for Garchomp- turning to Google for Wiki pages on Castlevania and Kingdom Hearts, and it was then that I realized the full potential of video games. Here was a chance to exist in another place, and have quite a bit of autonomy in said place. Video games became a space for me to feel good about myself, to have victories, to learn from losses and to seek both gratification and pleasure. It was a drug honestly, a drug I could ask my parents for if I behaved well, got good grades, did my chores, and didn’t ask for a bunch of other expensive shit. What a perfect drug!; my friends were using this drug too, just as much or more than I was, and then the habit wasn’t solitary anymore, it was communal.

Characterizing my gaming as a drug addiction might seem a bit morbid, but I’m just being real. Perhaps you binge watch tv? Can’t stop watching sports and going on ESPN.com? Doin’ actual drugs, like illegal drugs? My point is, we’re all consumers, super consumers, this is Walmart-Pharmacy-Commercial-Billboard-Fast food-America, everybody’s on something. For some, gaming has eroded their health (compulsive video gaming is recognized by WebMD as substance abuse), but for me, gaming provides genuine exploration and enjoyment. If it were not for my best friend Quincy and I playing Super Smash Bros. Melee and making up storylines for each of the characters, I may have never found my love for writing and storytelling. At the same time, all the hours I spent playing Bioshock and Call of Duty definitely could have went to more productive things, but gaming is something deemed by society as non-productive because it’s not lucrative: you aren’t making any money replaying Final Fantasy 10 for the tenth time. Although some games have professional leagues where competitors win cash prizes and gain sponsorships (I’ve also spend hours watching these players on YouTube, competitive Street Fighter is unreal, the dexterity and focus those players have mirrors that of trained athletes and soldiers), the only money in gaming is making and selling games, oddly paralleling drugs. Still the “high” I get from gaming, the satisfaction, joy, challenge, knowledge (depending on the game), and pure ecstasy I receive from gaming is enough. I’m hooked, and I don’t want to be sober.

Super Smash Bros. Melee is arguably the best competitive game of all time, but don’t tell Nintendo.

Sometimes I would like to spend less time gaming, so that I can develop other hobbies I love intensely, like this whole writer and rapper thing, but I also understand why I play games, and it is the same reason why I write and rap. I play games to heal, to retreat from the world and regather myself somewhere that is safe. Some days it is very difficult to simply enter a classroom, or corner store, without feeling eyes and expectations cast upon you. None of that happens when I game because I’m not in my body. I’m in the game, moving and thinking and feeling through what someone else has created. That might sound scary weird to you, but just think about how you feel when you’re doing what you love, and tell me it’s not almost exactly what I’ve detailed here. Gaming activates my imagination and critical thinking in a way that only reading, writing, and rap music have; I feel fulfilled while I do it. Sure, I might look up from a game afterwards and ask where my day went, or why I haven’t done any homework, and the same happens when I’m writing verses, or even essays like this one. “Time is money” they say, and any U.S. citizen not following that philosophy is left out of the rat race; well, if I lose out on some cash because I need two Hoshidians to bond on the battlefield so they can marry and have a kickass warrior child, then so be it. If I actually lose money because I’m buying downloadable content, so be it. I trust myself to have discipline and make healthy decisions regarding how much time I spend gaming, and I love myself enough to grant my mind an escape. Sometimes, the only safe spaces for Black bodies are invented ones.

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