Conspicuous Consumption

On growing up wanting.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Editor's Pick Editorial Life Reflections


I used to love going to the grocery store with my mom. It was a bonding experience, an excursion, an opportunity to compel her to buy me unhealthy snacks. But mainly, I went for the game demos set up on the latest, hottest consoles smack at the store’s entrance. I knew (because I had asked, more than once), that I’d never get my hands on this tech, but at least I could distract myself with the first level of Crash Bandicoot for PSX. My mom could dump me there while she went about her business with the milk and cereal and eggs, and she knew I’d be in front of the cutting-edge CRT television of the era, nearly catatonic, as soon as she had paid her bill.

We weren’t particularly affluent. Growing up, my mother supported the three of us on her nurse’s salary and my father—and I say this with as little hostility or self-pity as possible—was not one to contribute or participate in the act of healthy parenting. That’s about as diplomatically as I can phrase it. So, my access to games didn’t match my level of interest, and I took whatever I could get.

The retail store demos, my brother’s elderly NES, the N64 my aunt bought me for my birthday one year, the Gameboy Color my grandparents were generous enough to buy me for another birthday.

The N64 for which I had the Pokemon Stadium cartridge that came with it. The very battle-beaten copy of Mario Kart 64 that my mom begrudgingly bought for me from the sport and game memorabilia store up the street. She reminded me, whenever I protested for more games, that even buying used wasn’t cheap. I did not yet understand the fiscal constraints of lower-middle-class family budgeting. To be fair, I still don’t.

The NES for which we had Al Unser Jr’s Turbo Racing and a single cartridge containing both Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt.

Pokemon Blue, Pokemon Gold, a used copy of Kirby’s Dreamland with the awkward New Game Plus code.

Sonic on the Genesis at a friend’s house, where I had to beg for half an hour to get him to hand me the controller for 30 seconds.

Playing on my cousin’s consoles in my grandmother’s basement because there’s only so much you can do on your family vacation to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

These were my luxuries. They were, I see in hindsight, indulgences I wanted in large part because wealthier kids in my neighbourhood were guaranteed to get them and flaunt them. These were also, I recognize, things I felt legitimized me because they were boy’s things, and being coded as a “girl” repulsed me for everything it represented. I know this last fact worried my mother to no end.

I won’t pretend as if I haven’t always simply liked games; I’m not so sullen and joyless. I’ve always wanted to play them and think about them, to some extent or another. But I took what I could get resentfully. The desire to own devices had little to do with the pleasure of actually playing the games. It had to do with material possession, and for feeling for a long time that ease of access to gaming eluded me and was a thing I could only hope for or aspire to if only I was one of the boys in my classes with the rich PTA parents. I probably wrote this down in a diary somewhere.

I know that gender must have had something to do with it, because I played Doom on our piece-of-crap home computer that ran Window 3.11 and that I prized, even when my peers were running Windows 95 with dial-up Internet. I played Doom because my brother played Doom. I liked Doom, and I still do, an awful lot. But at four, it scared the living shit out of me—and without the masochistic thrill that I would acquire later like a new appetite. I failed at progressing often because it frightened me, and it frightened me even more because I kept failing at it.

I played it because it was cool and edgy and hardcore and even my very young self had begun to place cultural currency in these values, coveted all the more because of how distant they seemed to me.

Kate Cox, too, grew up without much financial access to the popular games of the day. Describing how the PC opened up a gateway to inexpensive gaming for her, Cox writes,

“I reached adulthood with no fond childhood memories of any Zelda or Final Fantasy game, and the time I spent navigating Sonic around in circles was all at the neighbors’ house down the street in one summer. But the computer that was my tool for writing term papers in college also brought me Heroes of Might and Magic III, Diablo II, Worms Armageddon, and even a painful number of hours of Snood. In grad school, between arduous chapters of my terrible thesis I could nip into EverQuest II or Sid Meier’s Pirates!”

Like Cox, I didn’t actually grow up with Zelda or Final Fantasy (or Goldeneye or Starfox or, or, or…). Many of these games I wouldn’t actually play until my early adulthood, and many I still haven’t played. Because of this, I often feel as though a certain pedigree and cultural cache is missing for me. I don’t necessarily get all the referential nerd humour, and though I am now practised with controllers and keyboards and mice, I don’t necessarily have knowledge of all gaming conventions imprinted in me like a second nature.

This is part of why I don’t like playing games with strangers, or out in public. These blind spots water the seeds of doubt that my credibility as a critic is hampered by my being a woman or by my missing certain formative skills. Mattie Brice has written about these cultural obstacles to accessibility in gaming—a kind of literacy that “gamers” have and “non-gamers” often don’t, which is often used by said gamers to tightly control who gets to participate in the culture. This extends across and often intersects physical ability, gender, age, race, sexuality and class.

I know that relative lack of access, because of my gender and because of my class, made it difficult for me to inherit the culture that I now actively participate in. I know that many of the people who did inherit this culture early were given access often because they belonged to a more dominant gender or class, among other things. And I know that this lack of cultural inheritance can and often is used against people as proof of inferiority or lack of merit. And yet the seeds are sown, watered, ingrown.

Cox was able to find her outlet through that obstacle in the PC. Maddy Myers, by contrast, recently took the elitism of hardcore PC gamers to task, asking on Twitter, “Are PC gamers richer, in general, than console gamers? Serious question. Is that war secretly a class war?”

There are barriers to entry for PC gaming: building your own computer, knowing enough about computers to upkeep it, having $ to buy it…”

Bringing the forum-speckling, meme-generating phrase “PC master race” down a few notches, Myers questioned the insistence of this community that gaming consoles like the Wii, or things like aim-assist in console versions of FPSs, are somehow naturally inferior. “…Affordability and accessibility makes the Wii less ‘cool’/‘hardcore’ etc which is not only gendered but classist,” Myers tweeted, touching on the comorbid biases implicit in this common sentiment. Even Cox observed that generally, there has been an inversion in the status symbolism of consoles versus the PC, tweeting that “10-15 years ago…many houses had a computer, but consoles were $$$ toys.”

I probably relate more to Cox’s original article in terms of having found access to games in the digital distribution networks of the Internet (including user-generated content sites like Newgrounds, whose amateur games and videos filled my adolescent hours.) But Myers’s tweets raise a valuable dialogue about the link between material possession and the creation of status symbols in nerd culture, and, ultimately, how that relationship reflects much larger systems of inequality and the prejudices they tend to encourage.

It echoes, once more, that nerd culture is by no means extricable from these systems and in fact often embodies them. It echoes into a cavernous feeling of isolation in which I still struggle with my anxieties of not being adequately “gamer” enough. It tells me, instead, not to sweat it so much. There are so many people working on this access thing, on blurring the lines between who is a creator and who isn’t; on who is a real gamer; on what a game even is; on shifting the values of mastery, achievement and control to something a little more cooperative, a little less capitalistic.

It’s probably quite fitting, then, that so many of my gaming memories involve going to supermarkets or department stores of some description. I barely even remember the games. I mostly just remember wanting them.

Filed Under: Editor's Pick Editorial Life Reflections

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

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