Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Uber Goober"

Nat-Wu loaned me his copy of the movie "Uber Goober" about six months ago, and I finally sat down to watch it last night. As far as documentaries go, I'd give it maybe 2 1/2 out of 5 stars. As far as documentaries about role-playing games and the people who play them, I give it a 5 out of 5 (it was filmed by a gamer and honestly, you have to handicap anything these people do that doesn't involve dice or costumes.) If you're looking for something that gives you a fairly decent portrait of the people who play RPGs and wargames ("gamers" in the lingua franca of the art) then you could certainly do worse than to watch this movie. It covers the range of activities that the term "gamer" entails, from old-school wargamers who cringe at being associated with the RPG movement, to old-school role-playing gamers of the sort that most people are probably familiar with, to the live-action role-players (LARPers) of both the fantasy and wargaming set (the latter of which have gained some notoriety thanks to another documentary, Darkon.) It also covers the various types of people who are involved in gaming, from the cop who has a great sense of humor about it all but prefers to be interviewed anonymously for fear of social backlash at his job, to the true social misfits who LARP in public parks and don't care who makes fun of them for it.

The movie is flawed in some respects. For one, I think it plays up the anti-gaming sentiment in society as a whole a bit much. Now it's true that anyone who's ever played an RPG has had to consider in what social settings the subject of his or her involvement should or shouldn't be brought up, but RPGs hardly bear the stigma that they did maybe twenty years ago. I think that's largely the result of the overwhelming popularity of MMORPGs, online games that are based on RPGs but which attract people who'd never consider sitting down at a table with dice and a paper character. After all, it's hard to make fun of somebody's hobby when you're doing an even more virtual version of it yourself. As the on-the-street interviews in the documentary make clear there's still quite a few people who associate RPGs and gaming in general with loser-dom, but I think that view has diminished greatly. Additionally, the opposition to gaming by certain fundamentalist Christian groups is hardly a prominent phenomenon these days. No doubt conservative Christians look askance at gaming, but they look askance at anything that isn't mainstream in popular culture (hence their pedestrian tastes in film, music and recreational activity) and only truly fundamentalist denominations take an issue with the magical element of certain games, or consider RPGs and wild imagination in general a doorway for Satan to wreak havoc. I think a lot of people would consider hard-core Christian opponents of gaming to be even sillier and more ridiculous than gamers themselves, especially after listening to them in the documentary.

Unfortunately, we must broach the difficult subject of exactly who games for a hobby. As you can probably imagine, a movie about gamers by a gamer, is going to make an effort to cast gamers in a positive light. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. While I think the anti-gaming stigma is not as pervasive as it once was, it certainly still exists. After all, the cop/gamer probably was right not to show his face for the interviews; while a lot of his co-workers might not care what he does in his spare time, there are probably more than a few who will judge him critically for wanting to paint miniatures and play wargames into the wee hours. But there are probably a few people out there unfamiliar with gaming in general who were either forced to watch the movie by gamers they know, or who watched it by accident, whose opinion of gamers was softened by the movie. That being said, the movie ends with a montage of many of the gamers featured in interviews describing themselves in one word, with many of them choosing the word "geek" as the word that best suits them. That, to be frank, simply isn't true. Or more accurately, I should say it isn't true in every case. Merriam Webster defines the word "geek" to mean "a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked" or "an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity" (it also defines it to mean "a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake", a definition that's not exactly relevant here.) Unfortunately, gaming requires neither intellectual acuity nor a fascination with technology (though it doesn't preclude those traits) which means that all sorts of people who are not geeks can enjoy gaming. In truth, a more appropriate word to describe many of the people who indulge in RPGs is "dork" which defines as "a stupid, inept, or foolish person." Another appropriate word might be "loser", which defines as "a misfit, esp. someone who has never or seldom been successful at a job, personal relationship, etc." Gamers are well known for their inability to excel at either of the latter, a matter which is discussed at some length in the movie itself. Of course the definitions of "dork", "geek" and even "nerd" are flexible and the terms tend to blend into each other; but whereas "geek" and "nerd" have something of a positive connotation in today's technologically driven society, the term "dork" does not, because dorks are generally as socially inept as nerds and geeks, only without the intellectual talents that nerds and geeks can use to acquire things like stable (and successful) careers, prized possessions, and members of the opposite (or same) sex.

Now that all may sound like a rather harsh judgment of gamers, but I know of which I speak. As a lapsed gamer who was never so socially inept as some of the people featured in the film, I'm nevertheless quite aware of the kinds of people who are into gaming, and at least in the circles I ran in they were (mostly, but not entirely) the people who were not doing well in school, didn't particularly care for science or technology beyond game consoles and televisions, had no particular plans for their lives, and were not particularly successful in the arena of human relationships. They were, in short, losers. Now I don't say all this because I'm about to go on and making a sweeping condemnation of RPGs and gaming in general. Far from it. If anything, RPGs and gaming gives these people an outlet for the misfit-ishness, and a vehicle by which to connect to others. Watching Uber Goober, you can see how clearly happier many of these people are to have found something that allows them to bond with others, when the rest of society would prefer to rejct and marginalize them. And it surely is of some benefit to their lives outside of games. A gamer will keep a job, if only to afford the supplements for the games he/she likes to play. A gamer will go to school or college, if he knows other gamers there. A gamer may be able to meet someone of the opposite (or same) sex who can relate to what he/she does (though generally, women have far more options in this regard, being as gamers are predominantly male.) A gamer may even acquire skills that are valuable in his professional life (as I recall from Darkon, where one of the LARPers used the leadership skills he acquired on the field in the boardroom as well.)

That being said, I do think the movie overplays the positive influence gaming can have on gamers. After all, it's still an activity you can waste countless hours on, hours that you could be at work, learning something new, acquiring other skills, meeting other people outside of games, etc, etc. Even Gary Gygax stated clearly in the movie that he has a life outside of gaming. Of course, this assertion can be made about any human activitity, especially sports. But then again, no one has ever been socially marginalized for being too fascinated by sports.

So, those are my thoughts on Uber Goober, and gaming in general. If you're looking for a fairly accurate portrait of what gamers do and who they are, you've found the right movie. If you think it would be a good idea to show this to your significant other so they can finally understand why you like to be gone on all-night gaming junkets with your friends...well, don't get carried away. It might be more appropriate to ease them into the process of accepting you for who you are. Or, just continue to claim that you and your friends are out hunting or watching "the game" or something.