Field Project:
A "welcome letter" to the professor

Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Prof. T. Abshire-Walker
Copyright © 1992, 2000 B. Collie Collier

This was a quickie ethnographic study of a subculture I was familiar with; in this case, gamers in Planet Ten, the comics & game store I used to manage. The paper was supposed to be written in the form of a letter to the professor, describing what she might see in her fictional incipient visit.

"Collie" Collier
Street Address
Even More address
5 October, 1992
Tisa Abshire-Walker
DeAnza Community College
Street Address
Even More Address
Dear Tisa;

I know you are looking forward to coming to view the store I work in. I thought that it might be helpful to you, however, if I reviewed just exactly what you're walking into. The store sells a lot of role playing games, and has three large tables where the people who buy these games can sit and actually play. On weekends especially, there is often a large number of people sitting around in the back, playing in a variety of games. The players are all part of a group I call the gaming subculture.

Role playing consists of creating an imaginary individual, or "persona", if you will. One constructs these "player characters" according to previously agreed upon rules, and then "drops into persona" to play the character. Lead miniatures are often used to show emplacement should a conflict arise in game-play.

With this out of the way, I thought that a quick rundown of the types of people and their behaviors might be enlightening for you.

1) Never show fear. They can sense fear, you know. (Just kidding!)

As you enter the store on a weekend, you are likely to see the occasional single person roaming around with a restless, almost bored look. These are obviously not browsing customers; they tend to go watch the games in back and kibbitz until peer pressure ("quit bugging us, man!") drives them back to the front of the store and away from the other gamers. One can tell these people are not customers by their behavior. This type of person tends to be found in the front of the store.

In the back, you will see three tables with people crowded, seated or standing, all around them. They will be talking, and occasionally arguing, loudly and in unfriendly tones and language. It can be somewhat startling to hear such phrases as "Heal me, or I'll kill you!" and "You stabbed me in the back! I hope this fireball fries you!", or even "Yeah, I died horribly, so I'm waiting for the next game".

Occasionally a new person heavily laden with books and/or backpacks will stagger into the store. This type of person is usually loudly besieged by several other individuals. They heatedly demand explanations for the tardiness of this individual, who is often referred to as the GM, or game master. The advancing people can seem to be on the border of either instant homicide of the heavily laden one by everyone else, or apoplexy. Admittedly, I am using polite language to describe these encounters! I've always thought the only proper response was to barter the excuses for tardiness in exchange for help in carrying one's belongings.

As soon as they notice a watcher (they can get quite absorbed in their games) they will all glance up quickly and surreptitiously, then look back down at the game, which will be resumed in much quieter tones. If you ask what's going on, there is an awkward silence. Some of the older ones may try to explain the rules and concept of the game to you. The rest avoid eye contact, and tend to stare at the table surface, other gamers, or anyplace but at you. Their game boards, maps, and/or miniatures seem to have completely absorbed their attention. They have a small world right there in front of them. What is not part of that world does not impinge upon their consciousness unless it forcibly intrudes. They do not seem to be a very friendly or social bunch.

If you happen to be there when a game finishes, you will see the single individuals you noticed up front quickly flock to the area. Then there will probably be a spirited and loud discussion of what game to play next. Again, this can seem quite hostile on occasion. Commentary such as "I don't want to play with him; he killed me in the last game," or "Not him, he tried to ram the Klingons!"(spoken in a horrified and incredulous voice) can be heard. However, usually it is fairly amicable, and a new game is settled upon with a minimum of fuss. Sometimes the agreement is to go to someone's house to play. This is common if the tables are especially crowded. At that time you will probably observe some half-hearted efforts to clean up the papers and debris that accumulates while gaming. Often, someone will go up to the front of the store to summon me, and I will examine the area and usually ask for some more cleanup before they go. This is usually done with little fuss and the players all settle down or leave for their next game.

This can all seem confusing, unfriendly, and pointless, but I assure you that such is not the case. There may be method to their madness. I think. Let me try to explain what is actually going on.

First of all, the single individuals. They are impatiently waiting for a game. They are of two types. One type is lingering, waiting while one game ends and another starts, so that they can game with presently occupied individuals or games. After all, if a game is designed for four to play, any other aspiring players must wait their turn. The other type is waiting for the GM they've scheduled for their game to arrive. The phrase "GM" is shorthand for game master, and denotes the game organizer. Instant homicide is often threatened when these people are late because the game can't start without its GM. Often the individuals in the games run on very different timetables. Some people take their gaming very seriously, and arrive on time. Others view it as entertainment, and arrive whenever the mood suits them.

The language used around the gaming tables is often heated. Also, it may seem horrendous things are being constantly threatened. This should not be a cause for alarm. The individuals speaking are not truly at dagger point with each other; rather they are identifying with their characters. Thus a persona may be angry at another persona, and may use loud and abusive language. Admittedly, we strongly discourage swearing (we are a family store, after all!), but sometimes in the heat of the moment courtesy is thrown aside for the emphasis of rude language. The actual individuals playing the personas, however, aren't really angry with each other. This, at least, is the theory. Sometimes feelings can be hurt in real life as well as in the artificial world of the game. Generally, other players will step in to smooth down ruffled feathers. After all, gaming isn't worth doing if it isn't fun, and arguments are not fun.

Interestingly enough, there doesn't seem to be a strong grouping according to age--if you are bright enough to understand the rules, you can play. The parties may seem to be clumping in approximate age groups, but I believe they are actually lumping by levels of maturity rather than age. Almost all of the players are young men, roughly between the ages of 15 and 30, who do not fit comfortably in any specific, socially accepted group. These people often are or were a little too smart and a little too non-physical to do sports at school. They like using their imagination, and they like puzzles. Thus, they are often somewhat under-socialized, especially when it comes to people not of their particular group.

Ordinarily, if someone walks up and asks them what they are doing, they fall into an embarrassed silence. An older woman would be especially intimidating to them. Older females are authority figures. Often it is authority figures who mistakenly assume that some of the games espouse "satanic rituals" or cause "demon worship." Thus one can understand the gamers feeling a certain amount of trepidation when a perceived authority figure approaches. In all probability, they won't know how to deal with you at all. Describing the game to you would be difficult for them. There isn't really that much concrete material or props to show while explaining. Often a small group of miniatures and some rule books are all that is visible of the game. Mostly it occurs in their imagination. A bunch of books are not very inspiring to most people.

New players are usually welcome. Women are especially welcome, although many gamers have no idea how to talk to them, or even sometimes how to be polite. They don't mean to be rude, and they'd usually really like the female in question to stay and talk with them. They simply don't know what to say. However, if you seem genuinely interested, there is almost always someone who will stumblingly try to explain the concept of the game to you. These are mostly the somewhat older players; they have a little more confidence in themselves, and aren't too embarrassed about their hobby. They are also usually somewhat more able to handle talking to a female.

I imagine it may seem somewhat odd that a subculture would develop from this relatively obscure past time. After all, they do this mostly on weekends, they seem to have little or no organization, and they seem somewhat embarrassed by it. I believe these reasons are exactly why a sub-culture has developed. Their lack of socialization, the fact that their particular hobby is often something they are derided for ("only weirdoes play those games!"), and their shyness all contribute to a feeling of almost isolated uniqueness. Gaming's physical segregation (they have to leave home and go to our store to play) further increases this clique-ishness. It seems to me that this is a symbol of what makes them a subculture. They have different values from the majority of the culture. To them, the camaraderie engendered by sharing values is more important than fitting in.

Our culture seems to ordinarily espouse strong individuality at the expense of the group, and a feeling that too much intelligence is "nerdy". This is not the feeling shared by most gamers. Some of the things they believe important are storytelling, a love of mathematics, and optimization of points usage. Being just like everyone else isn't as important as being good at these things; being able to work within a group means one can share these values. Thus the gamers have become proud of the fact that they are part of a small sub-group -- a sodality, if you will. As a sign of how unusual they are, and to further increase their feeling of special-ness they have developed group-particular behaviors and phrases. It is these behaviors that I have tried to explain somewhat here. Perhaps you will find them equally interesting.

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  • Collie's Bestiary

    Last Updated: Fri Apr 21 2000