The Joys of Going Solo

[Lan note: A guest post by A. who also studies video games.]

I’m a loner when it comes to gaming. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy playing with friends (I do) or that I haven’t spent hours on end playing with friends (I have), but my default, my preference, my orientation is to solo-gaming. The link to sexual identity (that I hope was obvious in that last sentence) is not too far off. There’s a scene in the movie Go Fish (Troche, 1994) where the character Daria, abducted by what Lisa Henderson (1999) calls the “Sex Cops,” defends her identity as a lesbian despite the fact that she just had sex with a male fuck-buddy. I may enjoy playing with other people, I may even seek it out sometimes, but when I fantasize about gaming I imagine myself playing alone (insert masturbation joke here if you wish).

This realization of my identity as a player came to me as I travelled home from campus following an invited lecture on “video games, identity, and digital media” tonight. At one point in our discussion the students and I were trying to work through why solitary play is so disparaged, while social play tends to be viewed as the “redeeming” fact of video game culture. I have critiqued elsewhere (Shaw, 2010) that game studies often defends itself against the lonely, isolated gamer stereotype by proving that gamers don’t “bowl alone” (Williams, 2006). It’s true, gamers are a social bunch, and gamer identity is highly defined by sociality. I’m not questioning that, and in fact applaud those that study social gaming (some of my closest friends are social gamers). I am, however, questioning the easy dismissal of the loner gamer as somehow “sad.” As a proud and out loner gamer, I take issue with being the straw (wo)man against which game studies defines itself.

One of the little known secrets about online gaming is that one can actually be a solo online gamer. Indeed, that’s how I was talked into playing World of Warcraft in the first place. You can play a surprisingly large amount of the game alone (and in fact many of the hours I played were solo hours). Sometimes, after a long day of teaching and meetings, it was lovely to spend an hour or more leveling up my mining skill while catching up on podcasts of Rachel Maddow. Yes, going on a raid with my guild or or even just chatting with a friend while playing separately was fun too (a lot of fun). The ways in which both kinds of play are fun, however, should not be placed into a contest with each other.

During the course of our class discussion, a few students pointed out that reading alone is not seen as “bad” while gaming alone is (as is eating alone in a restaurant). As we explored the idea further, however, we realized that there are ways in which even reading alone is seen as “sad.” I remember many a joke made at my expense or dirty looks when I spent a good deal of my childhood whole life reading alone. I know many people who have had parents ban them from reading, urging instead that they “go outside and play.” What is it about aloneness that is so disparaged? I confess I have not gotten around to reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together yet, but in one interview she says “if we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will always be lonely.” I don’t know if I support that, but I do think that overemphasizing sociality runs the dangers of disparaging (though it need not have to) the joys of going solo.

Henderson, L. (1999). Simple Pleasures: Lesbian Community and ‘Go Fish’. Signs, 25(1), 37-64.
Shaw, A. (2010) “What is Video Game Culture: Cultural Studies and, Game Studies.” Games and Culture 5: 403-424.
Williams, D. (2006). Why game studies now? Gamers don’t bowl alone. Games and Culture, 1: 13-16.

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6 responses to “The Joys of Going Solo

  1. Fabulous post!

    I wonder how much of the anxiety that others seem to have over seeing solitary activities they aren’t invited to be a part of (I say this as a fellow child/adolescent/adult who was scolded for reading alone instead of playing with others) is actually an anxiety that there is something they don’t understand about the relation between your body and the object of fascination. Not saying it’s a logical anxiety (anxieties rarely are), but there’s an intense intimacy that is corporeal at work in solitary pleasures like gaming and reading–and yes, solo sex–that seem to set off alarm bells in some.

  2. @channabach such a good point. it’s as though some see reading/gaming/building model airplanes/whatever alone as some kind of fetish that both shuts out others (without shame, no less!) and represents an unacceptable (read: too strong) interest. The intimacy represented by those activities – but that doesn’t include *other* bodies – is read as somehow unnatural and creepy. I actually wrote about one aspect of this reaction a while back (link below) noting that part of the problem is about it being “entertainment.” After all, people don’t seem to get so anxious when our work sends us off alone…
    http://wp.me/prJDc-96

  3. Pingback: A cyborg type of social | WoW and Other Musings

  4. Great post, A! I’ve long been a solo gamer myself. Sure, there are times when I enjoy playing with others (both on line and off), but for the most part I prefer to play on my own. For me, it has to do with getting lost in the world of a particular game — something I’m just not able to do when someone is sitting beside me or someone is virtually looking over my or tapping me on the shoulder.

  5. Pingback: Flying Solo « Jaded Alt

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