Isn’t Life just a MMORPG*?

Isn’t Life just a MMORPG*?

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*Acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Role  Playing Game

The Gaming scene in Lebanon has developed considerably over the past decades. Tanite Chahwan, a MA graduate in English Literature from the American University of Beirut (AUB), has visited some of these places for us.

Creator: Maya Zankoul. All rights reserved.

In Lebanon, during the late 90s, home computers were expensive. Internet connections were slow and costly. Networks or ‘Computer Lounges became popular by offering easy access to computers at an affordable price. Internet use was 1000 LL (0.57 euro) an hour, and gaming was 500 LL (0.26 euro) an hour. The set up was there, games and computer software included, and staff offered customers guidance and solved technical problems. Soon enough Networks weren’t just available in the cities, but became widespread, reaching villages, small towns, beach resorts, etc.

 “Networks,” as they were and remain locally called, had a huge impact on kids in the ’90s. Online multi player games hadn’t been created yet, therefore Networks gave players the opportunity to play multi player video games in a social context, forming new friendships while teaming up with other gamers.

Even though computer lounges might have faded away in some countries, probably because of the rise of online multi player games facilitated by cheap and super fast internet connections, Networks are still very present in the Lebanese gaming culture. While the costs of both gaming equipment and an internet connection play role in keeping Networks alive, gamers mostly appreciate the social aspect of attending. 

Network goers prefer to play with and be surrounded by other gamers. They refer to each other by their game names. Playing at the Network is better than being home alone. “It’s just more fun!” explained Karim Karam a 25 year old civil engineer known as K, “whether it’s watching other players, interacting with them, or meeting up with your friends to play together.” Gaming, contrary to common belief, is not an entirely solitary hobby. Even for those who have a good set up at home, some would rather play at the Network, spending an average of 2 to 8 hours per visit. Charbel Nehme (Charb) a 32 year old who works in marketing and advertising, said it’s become “a routine, a sanctum from daily life.” He drives to the Network straight after work. “Gaming is like meditation to me, I also come here to see the guys, we do more than play games, we talk, we vent, we have fun.”

With the invention of smartphones and tablets, and the constant availability of the Internet, Network customers are now exclusively gamers. And Networks look much different than they did in the ’90s, with darker lighting, cooler posters, edgier and more sophisticated interior design, and comfier gaming chairs replacing the old basic plastic ones. As soon as you walk in, you’re overtaken by a calm, dimly lit, bluish sci fi feel. But the Network becomes a paradox when the tranquil environment is interrupted by the players` vocal contempt, frustration, anger, excitement, fulfillment and even pure satisfaction. You can’t help but enjoy observing how invested the gamers are as a unit. Players often take a quick smoke break outside, but I’ve been told that the indoor smoking ban is sometimes ignored during an intense game.

Although not as cheap as they were 20 years ago, gaming lounges today offer bundle pricing, and they’ve increased tenfold in presence. The hourly rate changed considerably, increasing from 500 LL (0.29 euro) to 3 000 LL (1.72 euro), so bundles have been created to reward loyal customers by offering all you can play daily offers at around 20 000 LL (11.47 euro), and monthly subscriptions at around 300 000 LL (172 euro) a month, as well as other various perks like Happy Hour rates.

The old generation of gamers still have their usual Network spots that they’ve been frequenting for up to a decade in some cases, meanwhile newer gaming lounges are successfully attracting the younger generation with well known game characters printed on shop windows, friendlier logos, and bolder colors. There’s no large distinction or rivalry between the different types of spots. as Client bases overlap and Networks are open to people of all ages, and popular with age groups from teens looking to socialize and play new games, to university students that meet up with the same group of friends, to the veterans seeking a nostalgic retreat.

Arcade Culture: Modern Gaming’s Father Figure

Gaming earned its independence and built its cultural significance as it grew out of arcade culture in the early ’80s. Arcade games weren’t multi player ones but encouraged competitiveness by keeping track of the top scores. Players could save their high score under a three letter alias or nickname and the top score would be visible for all to see, serving also as a reference goal. Arcade gamers were not connected. High scores were not international. They were stored in each individual machine. Modern gaming is significantly more competitive because it allows international players to compete simultaneously. The wide open playing field is not a daunting deterrent, however. Even if a player is much less likely to win, it does not make it less fun for them to play the game. Competitiveness is even what attracts part of the demographic to gaming, such is the case of Bkbk  – Joy Fadel, 29 year old owner of Blooming Events and an HR manager at an insurance company –  a competitive person who comes to gaming as a way to earn the recognition of friends and peers.

“Showcasing your skills” is another important aspect of the Network appeal. Bragging is part of gaming culture: “Gaming needs a special skillset, we’re proud because we play difficult games. Not everyone can do what we do,” Bkbk offered.

 The first rule of gamer code of conduct seems to include respect and admiration towards another gamer’s dedication and skills. A lot of games are incredibly competitive, so gamers start growing a certain ego when they reach a certain level. But then again, it’s natural to feel pride in your achievements.  Game developers often dedicate features to reward gamers for their loyalty and dedication, Charb called it “vanity in the virtual world”: elite titles, rare weapons, etc... These rewards highlight specific achievements and make sure those successes are recognized by other gamers. In sociology, “Social Embeddedness” is a phenomenon which assumes that one’s belonging to a particular social group impacts that individual’s behavior, and not vice versa. The in game rewards previously mentioned create a hierarchy, thus bringing forth this “Social embeddedness,” anchoring it in displays of social support and respect.

According to research, multi player gaming is typically built on a masculine kind of bonding: Building social and emotional ties based on sharing an activity, rather than on disclosing oneself in intimate conversation. When asked how one can belong to the gaming community and access this specific cultural bonding, Elie Keserwani (Sainty), a 35 year old librarian and gaming community builder, said that “the moment you start playing you already feel like you belong.” Jose Nader (Bloodfrey), a 26 year old Graphic designer/animator, on the other hand, said that you have to invest a lot of your time into playing to belong to the gaming community, and warned there was a fine line between hobby and addiction with gaming. [i]

In sum, you’ll find that the gaming community is mostly inclusive and distinguished through its participatory culture above all else. Even though it’s reputable for being a “boy’s club,” surveys show that more females have been getting into gaming over the years, especially since 2010. Today, the gender gap is almost null, female gamers making up around 40 % of all gamers (Romano). Even in Lebanon, there has been a rise in the number of female gamers, although they do not frequent the Networks as much. The reason for that is that it would “feel awkward to be the only girl there,” as TheQueen, 23 year old Graphic Design Student Jasmine Boustany  explained. T – Tala Tlili, a 22 years old political science graduate working for the International Youth Federation – would simply rather avoid the noisy and crowded atmosphere, often opting for the comfort of her own home. Locally, females are slowly incorporating themselves into a community, that is known to be predominantly male. A few obstacles stand in the way of them feeling completely at ease, the major issue: Not being taken seriously because not many girls are high ranking. Reinforcing the concept that the gaming community is mostly acceptant and inclusive, TheQueen expressed that, if a girl shows her worth in gaming skills, the usually rare misogynistic comments dissipate and turn into commendation. T concurs, “It is not a huge issue, but it is present,” she explained that she rarely comes across any prejudiced encounters, and that when it is the case, those ideas are immediately dismissed after a game, confirming that “gaming brings people together regardless of gender.”

All gamers seem to lose themselves in front of their screens. They take shifts playing and being part of the audience, no matter which role they take, it’s pure entertainment. Some players have a funny, easy going character, and naturally attract an audience, others are more rigid but make up for lack of showmanship with skill.

Networks provide not only a place for these interactions, but it turns this sense of belonging to something more tangible. Gamers build real connections in parallel to the fictional gaming ones.

The New View: Geeky is Cool and Actually Good for a Young Mind

Initially installed on home computers for educational reasons gaming software slowly but consistently gained more value and recognition as computers became more suitable for game enjoyment. ‘Gamers’ were only recognized as such in the mid to late 1980s when they started building their own discourse[ii] (Kirkpatrick, 2015). Thanks to outlets such as gaming magazines, game reviews and a participatory culture where all gamers were encouraged to share their experience, a gamer’s expertise came with a sense of earned belonging. But gamers had a tough time convincing everyone else about the healthiness of their new hobby.

Encouraging kids to stay indoors instead of going outside and playing with others, computer games were quickly perceived as addictive and dangerous. Many argued that with the evolution of technology, the gap between the player and the character in the game shrunk, and the experience got more ”real.” Games became an even bigger threat when studies came out linking gaming to aggression, addiction and depression. The hazard label affixed onto this hobby only contributed to its popularity because it gave players an arguably paradoxical rebel status.[iii]

Today, gaming is being embraced by academia. Several recent studies highlight the benefits. Research has indicated that, contrary to conventional beliefs, playing video games is not intellectually lazy and sedating, but promotes a wide range of cognitive and spatial skills, helps develop problem solving skills and enhances creativity.[iv]

Being a gamer is an identity. A lifestyle with its own “capital.” There are now even professional e sport gamers who ‘play’ for the US National Basketball Association (NBA).  As social media and online gaming platforms allowed more connectivity among players, the gaming community became a subculture with its own history, vocabulary, knowledge, social structures, values, humor, and economy. [v]

In Lebanon, gaming is still widely seen as a useless hobby. That could be changing. In June 2017, Maroun Merhej took home over $10.8 million in prize money from the 7th International Dota 2 tournament in Seattle, USA, the competition with the largest gaming award prize pool.

Merhej has since taken up gaming professionally, thus far earning over $3 million in prize money. One thing is for sure, Lebanese parents were definitely baffled as they heard his gaming victory announcement on the news, and in time, the material rewards might just legitimize gaming in the eyes of Lebanese adults.

 

[i] Jansz, J., & Martens, L. (2005). Gaming at a LAN event: The social context of playing video games. New Media & Society,7(3), 333  355. doi:10.1177/1461444805052280

[ii] Kirkpatrick, G. (2015). Conclusion: Gaming Culture and Game Studies. The Formation of Gaming Culture,125  130. doi:10.1057/9781137305107_7

[iii] Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court: Time to Reconsider the APAs 2005 Policy Statement? PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e585972013  001; Lemola, S., Brand, S., Vogler, N., Perkinson  Gloor, N., Allemand, M., & Grob, A. (2011). Habitual computer game playing at night is related to depressive symptoms. Personality and Individual Differences,51(2), 117  122. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.03.024

[iv] Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engels, R. C. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist,69(1), 66  78. doi:10.1037/a0034857

[v] Consalvo, M. (2012). Videogame Content. The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies. doi:10.1002/9781444361506.wbiems075

Romano, A. (2017, March 08). Adult women are now the largest demographic in gaming. Retrieved from https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/adult  women  largest  gaming  demographic/

Supplemental Material for Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta  Analytic Review. (2010). Psychological Bulletin. doi:10.1037/a0018251.supp

 

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