Gaming is America

A Florida plumber, a second-generation Vietnamese Texan high schooler, a Canadian carpenter and a recently-transitioned Oregon man. How a 44-year-old father of two discovered a rich and diverse community in the most popular video game in the world.

The narrative of video gaming accepted by the vast majority of Americans over 40 is built on a lie – a convenient cautionary tale of violence and addiction, of time squandered, of childish indulgence without redeeming value. In reality, the expansive ecosystem (and billion-dollar industry) that is world-wide gaming is simply a reflection of the rest of society – a jumbled and complicated landscape of humanity, with just as much beauty as wickedness.

Three years ago, a friend convinced me to jump back into video games. I had no idea what to expect; aside from online Boggle, I hadn’t played any in over a decade. Becoming a father had altered my perception of time, and how I wanted to use that which could still be considered free.

My friend informed me that League of Legends (often referred to just as “League”) was quantifiably the most popular game in the world: not just by the sheer millions of people who played it for fun, but by the international professional leagues, filled with celebrity players who made millions of dollars a year. He said that young people around the world didn’t just play the game, they watched other people play the game (a concept I initially found absurd): a practice called “live streaming”. All of this sounded fascinating, but it didn’t necessarily motivate me to play the game itself.

It was the promise of reconnecting with my friend that eventually drew me in. Right away, I enjoyed the strategy, the mechanics and the competitive drive, but the real hook was not the game – it was the community. I started off playing with my existing friends IRL (In Real Life) who happened to already play League. Then, through group voice chat, I soon “met” and became friends with a host of characters from all across North America. We play on teams together, competing together, laughing together and often, losing together.

I play regularly with two married couples – I am privy to their casual banter, their affectionate smack-talking and frustrations. One of the married couples, from South Carolina, is often joined by the wife’s hilarious and brash younger brother. As we clash on “The Summoner’s Rift”, the family dynamics entertain me just as much as the battle itself.

I have become friends with a 20-something man from Oregon who, in the two years we have played together, has transitioned. In between fending off “jungle ganks” and “dragon steals” we discuss his hormone treatments and sometimes-turbulent relationship with his mom. I’ve learned about his mental health struggles and how he’s using his own experiences to help guide his younger sibling, who has been going through similar mental health challenges.

I have befriended a second-generation Vietnamese American high school kid in Texas, an incredibly confident and skilled gamer who generously helped me improve. Over time, I ended up helping him edit several of his English papers, including an application essay that paved the way for him to become the first in his family to attend college.

Amidst all of these rewarding connections, I must consistently remind myself that I am a 44-year-old man, a tourist among mostly younger people, including children. I must be incredibly careful about how I interact with young people, especially girls. As a father of a teenage girl who spends more time than I’d like on TikTok, I am very aware of the dangers and risk of online predators. I don’t let all of this discourage me – I instead work to act as a responsible example of adulthood.

Yes, there is toxic behavior in League of Legends, as there is in most video games. Gaming communities bring out the same racist and homophobic voices that we encounter on social media and across our country. I do my best to speak up whenever I encounter slurs – I make my objections known to the commonly encountered negative use of “gay.” I use the in-game reporting system that League uses to discourage objectionable behavior.

I play with an ex-military welder in Washington who fires automatic weapons and races cars in his spare time. We don’t talk politics much. I play with a Florida plumber and a Canadian carpenter with whom I probably don’t have a lot in common, outside of League, but we still manage to find connections. We discuss how tough it is to raise daughters, in a world we perceive as dangerous and full of risks. We discuss my job, providing technology consulting to nonprofit, community-based organizations. I answer questions about the organizations I work with, about historical and institutional racism, and why being a person of a color and poor in our country isn’t the same as being white and poor.

The most bizarre and wonderful part of all is that I often play with these people from such diverse backgrounds at the same time. We are all on voice chat together, discussing transgender struggles and Texas proms and Florida hurricanes rampaging through the neighborhood. League is the unlikely platform, the fantastic opportunity for all of us to converge in one conversation. It is entirely too easy to dismiss worlds unfamiliar to us. What is difficult is to take the time to understand them. Pundits love to lament our country’s increasing inability to find common ground. I believe I have found it.