Inside the Davenport Cottage’s infamous two-story party suite, stacks of chocolate bars, San Pellegrino, Bounty paper towel rolls and cereal boxes clutter the bar. An empty cooler from the past weekend lies in the other corner, the tap dried out. In the entryway door, beer bottles and other remnants of Saturday night’s party clutter the entrance.
But another kind of party takes over the common room on Tuesday afternoon — one of bloodshed, guns, aliens, and, of course, video game controllers. Just two feet away from two television sets, Taylor Giffen ’09 and Sharifa Love ’09 are plugged into Halo 3.
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“I’m playing terrible … sorry.”
“We’re down four. Let’s take this one back.”
“He just jumped on top of my grenade.”
“I’m on fire! What’s going on… Shit, SHIT!”
More laser lights and bullets fill the screen. More obscenities fly in the air. The room fills with the energy of two rugby players in game mode — not to mention a sweaty tang from afternoon practice.
Though jocks do not fit the traditional video gamer stereotype — which has almost always been synonymous with rampant geekiness — they are actually well-suited to the gaming world, given the competitive, strategic and unexpectedly social aspect of many games. Drawing students of all different shapes and sizes — including the athlete, nerd and frat boy — games from Rock Band to World of Warcraft surprisingly cater to an ambitious drive within the Yale population. And while some intense gamers have quit playing under the pressures of an Ivy League education, many casual players still shoot, pound, fly or dance in a fantasy world with the slight toggle of the joystick.
In the basement of the SigEp house, Jasper Wang ’10 and his two friends, Nick Krug ’10 and Chris Mejia ’10 are playing Super Smash Bros. on the larger set of their two televisions. Wang said video games have become so mainstream that it is fairly common among students to have two screens — one for television, the other for video games.
“But occasionally there are people who don’t play video games, and they really don’t get it,” he said. “The ones in-the-know and the ones out-of-the-know are very separate.”
And while Wang prides himself on “getting” games, he still believes WoW is socially unacceptable, much like the way online dating still raises eyebrows. Even within gaming, he said, “the degrees of understanding are tiered.”
On a similar note, Giffen said he prefers Halo to Rock Band.
“If I put that much time into something that is close to real life, I might as well learn to play the guitar,” he said. “I can’t fight aliens in real life.”
After all, the title “video games” encompasses such diverse genres mixed with various mediums, typically unfamiliar to a rookie unversed in the virtual world. Beyond the MMOs and Non-online Role-Playing Games (Pokemon and Final Fantasy), the main genres include Sports (FIFA series), Fighters (Super Smash Bros.), Rhythm/Music (Guitar Hero), First Person Shooters (Halo) and Platform games (Mario titles).
Not to mention the fact that these games can be played on computer, console, online or in any combination of these platforms — either with single player or multiplayer.
Video games, once harshly pegged as an underground activity for the socially awkward, seems to have finally gained an accepted following among college students, as the age of the average American gamer has moved up from 12 to 35. According to a campus-wide survey conducted by the News, one in every three Yalies play video games.
It’s a group that may be even considered cool.
But World of Warcraft?
For the uninitiated, “WoW” — a popular Massively Multiplayer Online game — is widely considered the nerd’s sport. Requiring a monthly subscription fee of $15, WoW’s objective is to complete quests and defeat monsters while ultimately reaching level 70. Players often spend a tremendous amount of time and energy acquiring materials to build their online characters in this alternate universe.
But just last month, Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail reported that online role-playing gamers are “older, fitter, female” and not necessarily “chubby, male and covered in pimples.” And contrary to popular belief, former WoW player Mejia said the “kids eating hot pockets and Cheetos in mom’s basement” are, in fact, regular people.
And those kids in the basement are not really alone.
While many non-players think WoW is an anti-social game involving one player, the game actually holds an online community of over 10 million subscribers worldwide. Players can interact in many ways, Mejia said, and mostly chat via instant messaging or microphone.
Still, there’s a reason they get such a bad rep: The typical WoW player spends any time between 10-50 hours a week in front of the screen. In a survey, Yalies cited time as the greatest deterrent from playing video games in general, second to disinterest.
For this reason, among others, Mejia no longer plays.
An Economics major, he said he quit playing WoW this past summer, a few weeks before school started. While his coursework in freshman and sophomore years was easier than his current load of five and a half credits, Mejia said his grades undeniably suffered from playing.
“It’s not something I ever want to go back to,” he admitted. “I realized I was wasting all this time.”
The realization hit, he said, when he heard that Blizzard Entertainment will release a second expansion set, “Wrath of the Lich King,” on November 13, 2008.
Since role-playing is a major aspect of the game, Mejia said, players take up to 15 minutes just in traveling time to collect weapon or armor for their character.
“Once the new expansion comes out, everything you’ve done up to that point is useless,” he said. “I spent all my time doing something that meant nothing.”
Reuben Barrientes ’10, a self-proclaimed game guru, said this is why he prefers the limitless nature of traditional games — like Magic and Dungeons and Dragons (the board version, with papers and dice) — to MMOs.
“You’re just sitting there to level up in this game that will be outdated or antiquated,” he said of the latter. “Just so you can improve yourself in a game that has sequels every 2-3 years.”
But David Soiles ’10 — another retired player — looks back on his WoW days with glory and pride. Soiles, after all, is something of a star in the online gaming community.
Last January, he and his partner took first place in the 2 vs. 2 arena bracket of the game. Afterwards, he sold his WoW account for $700, including the right to play as his character Hellenkeller (“I thought it would be funny for people to lose to someone named Hellenkeller,” he half-joked).
“I did what I wanted to do and then stopped,” he said. “What else do you do after becoming number 1?”
The answer for Soiles was to transfer some of his competitive edge to his varsity sport, Track and Field. In the season following his victory with WoW, Soiles ran the fastest in the 400 meter dash among sophomores in the Ivy League.
Soiles stressed that the WoW experience for him was exactly like being on a sports team. To advance further in the game, he said, players had to team up and join guilds to attack the higher bosses. He said he became a raid leader, coordinating forty people online through microphones. They typically raided four hours a night, from Sunday to Thursday, he said. Since he joined the raid team in the summer before freshman year, Soiles said he kept playing during the following academic years so as not to let down his team.
“But I never felt like I had to do it,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was addicted to it — I would say I didn’t want to do anything else.”
And it is this same self-control that has allowed Soiles to change his lifestyle this year. After all, Soiles admitted he missed out on some major social aspects of his underclassman years.
Now, Soiles said he is taking harder classes in his English major, focusing on track, rushing DKE and spending more time with his friends — even though that includes playing games on their Xbox.
Yalies ‘just like winning’
As a freshman, Wang recalls bonding with his suitemates over Mario Kart after moving in. He said it’s rare to find guys in his age group who don’t play any video games. It would be considered “weird,” he added, if someone had no video game affiliation at all.
“It’s one of those things you have in common with people, like sports teams,” he offered.
Even for girls, Love said, video games are a great way to wind down. While girls in general are much less intense players and more averse to violence, she said gaming is a fun social activity.
Or, as Wang put it, “It’s very much part of being a college student.” After all, 35 percent of survey participants consider themselves as casual players. 17% play one to two hours a week.
And even more so a part of being a Yale student.
“It is really a Yalie thing,” Wang said, “because gaming can be so goal-oriented.”
Just as Soiles became a WoW overachiever, Wang admitted that he and his friends had much more ambitious aims than the average Rock Band groupie.
Krug, Wang and their friend Eric Tsytsylian ’10 in Jonathan Edwards College started a band and played on career mode to go “on tour” in the game with an official band name and virtual characters.
Just as they had planned back in February, Krug said, the guys met up during reading week this past spring to finish the marathon set list of 56 songs — all the songs in the system. It took them a week to finish, he said, playing on and off between library breaks.
“It’s fine if you want to play for fun,” he said. “But it’s a sense of accomplishment not to play everything on easy.”
Vincent McPhilip ’10 — another casual player who enjoys Halo, Mario Tennis and Call of Duty — agreed that gaming provides an easy, though superficial and delusionary, sense of accomplishment.
“People just like winning,” he said. “You can win by beating Peach in Mario tennis.”
Besides coming out top, many students interviewed said gaming was a good way to relieve some of the stress from school.
Giffen said he plays Halo in the half hour between classes, a time he would otherwise waste. Still, even as a double major in physics and economics and a rugby player — he can fit in video games along with all those problem sets and lab reports.
“It’s intense for 15 minutes, but then you get on with your life,” he said.
The motto in his suite, Giffen joked, is “Just one game?” While it is often more than that, Giffen said his suitemates are forced to take turns playing since they have only two controllers. Even during the couple minutes while he waits for Halo to load, Giffen said he does sit-ups and push-ups in the common room.
But at the end of the day, Mejia concluded, gaming is a chance to sit back and relax.
“There are 4,000 other clubs, but I don’t think anyone can go seven days a week doing stuff all the time,” he said.
Finding a Nexus
But some students do choose to make gaming a part of their extracurricular lives. Community is the founding tenet behind the Yale Games Club, Nexus, Founder and former President Max Saltonstall ’02 said. The now ten member club began in the Berkeley Bagel Bar, where Saltonstall said he and a handful of friends gathered to play all sorts of different games, including virtual games.
Nexus — a word meaning intersection or connection — was the first formal gathering place for regular players, he said. Welcoming Yale and local players alike, Nexus spent roughly $400 on games last semester with assistance from the Yale College Dean’s office.
While Saltonstall agreed that games like Rock Band and Star Trek could be played alone, he stressed that these games are ultimately more fun with others in the room. There is a “synergistic increase,” he said, when 12 rather than two people played Halo in a room. For this purpose, Nexus will host five sessions, four hours each for a gaming marathon titled Elicon this upcoming weekend.
“The collective imagination is satisfying,” he said. “It’s one thing to imagine a fantasy story alone, but getting people together, you can build on each other’s imagination and creativity.”
Barrientes agreed that this style of playing together was a throwback to the arcade days in the 80s. Though he himself does not play MMOs, he justified the community aspect of their appeal.
“There’s a strong community, like on Facebook,” he said. “But instead of sharing pictures of parties, you’re forming parties to kill some beast together.”
But as a former member of Nexus, Barrientes said he was unfortunately exposed to the negative sportsmanship of some gamers.
“Sore losing is common,” he said. “But sore winning is very common when people rub it in your face.” While admitting that he’s a little shy himself, Barrientes also said gamers often reinforce the socially awkward stereotype that make them “unpleasant people to be around.”
But since gamers are used to being competitive, current President Christian Csar ’10 said there was a fair amount of tolerance for competitive people. As a candidate who ran unopposed, Csar added that gaming was “not worth the emotional strife, without any politics to be had.”
Despite the social shortcomings of MMORPGs, which are typically played in physical isolation, all the players interviewed emphasized the communal aspect of games.
In particular, student athletes like Love, Giffen and Soiles said gaming was a great way to socialize while spending the night in before a big game.
“If you don’t want to be in the library all of Friday night, but you don’t to go out drinking, you can just game with buddies,” Love said.
Lawrence Williams GRD ’08 — who serves as Assistant Professor of Marketing at Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder — is currently studying the effects of feelings of power on people’s enjoyment of violent forms of entertainment. He confirmed that violent video games provide an outlet for people to release their daily frustrations without resorting to actual anger or violent behavior. While some psychological research speaks against this notion, Williams said it has an intuitive appeal.
“As a gamer, I can understand this view,” he wrote in an e-mail. “After a few rounds of Halo, I feel that I’m more inclined to relax than to go out and instigate a fight.”
Still, while relaxing, Williams explained there has been research demonstrating that frequent gaming improves job-related tasks that require precision and dexterity.
Giffen, who is also an Air Force ROTC student, said he noticed his hand-eye coordination as well as reaction time improved with gaming. Next year, after he graduates, Giffen said he plans to go into pilot training.
“Your brain works a different way with the joystick,” he said. Unlike the passivity of television watchers, Giffen said, gamers have to actively think about strategies and react to what other players are doing.
And since these other players are real people from all over the world — like Giffen and Love behind their screen — games like Halo have a very human aspect.
Back to reality?
The online aspect of MMORPGs brings a new dimension of reality to video games.
Williams explained that today’s notion of a more global social network allowed for close friendships between people across the world. In that sense, he said, “participating in gaming activities…might enhance a person’s sense of self.”
Whether these new modes of social interaction without physical proximity are better than traditional ones, he said, is unclear.
In one social network game called Second Life, players create an online character — an avatar — who can explore, meet and socialize with other residents. As there is no clear objective to Second Life, members — much like the popular Sims characters — are free to create their own content.
Ryan Harper ’10 — whose mother Robin Harper is Second Life’s VP of marketing and community development — explained that a lot of people use Second Life for social interaction and to create groups of similar interests, as well as advocacy groups for people who have cancer or who cannot leave their homes, for instance. Some intellectuals, he added, use Second Life as an experimental region where they can test out different theories.
As a demonstration on his laptop, Harper flies his avatar into a Native American cultural heritage region where clicking on a rock graphic offers a historical overview of the reservation.
In another realm, he approaches a kid who reveals he is an adult in real life: “I didn’t have much of a childhood so this is my chance lol,” the stranger said over instant messaging.
Harper said a sizeable group on Second Life takes the view that “‘We want to get out and meet people,’ because for whatever reason, they don’t want to do it in real life.”
He added that people sometimes act scandalous on the internet, since Second Life members are open to a fair amount of experimentation.
Just as in online games, users demand more reality from other video games, as well.
After all, nothing stays the same in the virtual world. In the ’90s, the super Nintendo system eventually gave way to Sega Genesis, which provided less pixilated scenes and higher quality graphics — essentially, a heightened sense of reality.
“We have nostalgia for blowing on packs to get rid of the dust,” Barrientes said — that is, a time before Sony came out with discs.
When Doom premiered with the first-person shooter feature, Barrientes said the games became controversial for their violence (“You actually see yourself holding the gun”). The detail and variety of graphics for blood, gore and death in other games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap called for an Entertainment Software Rating Board in 1994, which applies and enforces ratings like M for mature and E for everyone.
But, for Barrientes, the enhanced graphics allowed for a more visual or aesthetic experience rather than a violent one. Once he finished a fight on Mortal Kombat, he said he could enter a code to apply a finishing move called “fatality,” such as grabbing a guy’s head and pulling his spine out, while the words “Finish Him” came onto the screen.
“It’s very cinematic and you watch, not participate,” he said. “It’s like a movie for your own benefit, of the body falling and the camera following him down to the pit of spikes.”
For Barrientes, this reality was safer than the real world.
Throughout his childhood, Barrientes said, “freakish occurances” that he observed around him at various schools — including a pedophilic band teacher, a Spanish teacher inviting students for sleepovers, and a suspicious male teacher making out with a female student — were a harsh reminder that, for all its tangibility, reality is not always friendly.
Between these reports and a general distaste for the outdoors (“the park was kind of far and it’s not very nice with pee on the signs”), Barrientes said he preferred to stay in.
Still, a majority of students at Yale see video games as more of a respite from reality than an alternative to it. When asked in a survey why they play video games, students generally cited relaxation, procrastination and means of escape.
As one wrote: “Auron said in Final Fantasy X, ‘This is your story.’ Uncovering the story of a character in a fantasy world is the most fun.”