In our high-vocational stress household, the most volcanic tension usually erupts over control of the PlayStation. I’m still – still – absorbed in the game of Fallout 4 I started a year ago, with thousands of hours spent on perfecting the aesthetics of post-apocalyptic settlement-building. My partner prefers a wordless immersion in the splattery worlds of first-person shooters and war games but we reconcile over rounds of two-player Diablo, fighting demons and hoarding treasure together.
I’ve come a long way from the handheld Donkey Kong I cherished as a child, or the Pitfall caves I explored on a home PC, or the small parties of teens that gathered to play Sonic the Hedgehog on the loungeroom TV. The demands of fun are more complex now – but the need for fun remains the same.
Games not only mean different things to different people; they speak to the spectrum of moods and feelings in the individual human heart. As much as organised internet insistence may reduce the image of the modern gamer to a simple stereotype of those who are young, angry, pale and isolated, decades of video games have now spawned generations of adult players who bring their own complexities to electronic fun.
The answer to the question “What makes a gamer?” could be a need for connection, or for isolation, for relaxation or intellectual rigour, but it’s a question that can only be answered by gamers themselves. So I asked six of them.
Sally McManus, 46, Melbourne
Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions
If it surprises you that the new leader of the Australian union movement describes herself as “the definition of a total gamer”, it shouldn’t. McManus came of age within Australia’s onset video game generation. “I’ve been playing games since DOS,” she tells me, “back when the computer was downstairs in the house, like it was a dungeon.”
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the tireless political campaigner also loves playing strategy games in her downtime – even when she’s on planes. “My favourite game of all time is Civilization. I’ve played every version. When a new game comes out, I watch it and wait for it and I’m one of the first to buy it,” McManus says. The multiplayer strategic franchise forces the player to think on multiple levels. “You have to plan, adapt to different circumstances. A good game of Civilization can go for days – but the point where you start a new one and [it] randomly generates a map and you have to evaluate where you are, that’s so exciting. The first five moves you make are essential to what your empire is going to be like.”
It’s hard not to imagine parallels between her gaming instincts and her work. “Many years of my life have been spent waking up and thinking, ‘I know what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to invade from the north’,” she says. “It’s a problem you’ve got in the back of your mind that you’re thinking through all the time. I love it. It’s like a game of chess but it’s much more interesting.”
At home, McManus is playing Metal Gear Solid on her PlayStation. “It’s a first-person stealth and shooter game; you’re one character and you infiltrate everything from oil rigs to camps in the forest.” She’s also playing Skyrim. “Finding new things, choosing your weapons, upgrading your weapons – I love an open world game.” It’s the strategy, the tactics – even the patience – that appeals.
“I will always be a gamer,” she says. “I’ll get bored, really bored, with a bad game … I’ve got low patience with predictable games.”
Anniene Stockton, 40, Melbourne
Graphic design student
“I remember reaching for an arcade game at the fish and chip shop as a very small child, back in the days of Wonder Boy,” Anniene Stockton says. “I’ve been playing since I could hold a controller.”
A longtime PlayStation and PC gamer, Stockton’s relationship to gaming took a significant turn in the aftermath of a personal tragedy. A veteran of Melbourne’s fringe and cabaret community, Stockton shattered her leg in a dance accident. She was left with a permanent disability, in a brace, dosed up with painkillers to treat chronic pain. Her colourful world suddenly shrunk.
That’s when she stumbled onto the modern phenomenon of the live-streaming games community. “I discovered [live-streaming gaming platform] Twitch during a particularly fierce bout with my leg. I came across this video streaming site, had a bit of an explore and I saw a guy dressed as a pirate playing a video game and interacting with an IRC chat at the same time. I thought, ‘What’s this?’ And I stuck around to check it out. It lifted my mood and kept me distracted, and I decided it was a place that I could hang out.”
Now Stockton herself is a “Twitch Affiliate”, audio-narrating her own adventures in PC games to her new community, from home, in her pyjamas. Her equipment limits her to PC but she chooses “what’s entertaining for me to play and people to watch: Minecraft, Shadowrun, Don’t Starve – and my current is Stardew Valley”.
“The problem with chronic pain is that so many tasks and social activities people take for granted are either out of my reach, or so exhausting that I’m severely limited as to what I can do,” she says. “My disability leaves me quite isolated. Twitch not only gives me the sense of other people in the house but social interaction and connection, because I can chat with people in real time.
“Even though my streams aren’t as technologically whizzbang as others, people started tuning in partly because they already knew me from other channels and wanted to hang out.”
Jordan Raskopoulos, 35, Sydney
Performing artist and comedian
Jordan Raskopoulos, of the musical comedy act Axis of Awesome, lives in a home she describes as a “Nintendo museum”.
“I got my first Commodore 64 in around 1989, for my birthday,” she says. “I would have been six or seven. And before that I remember playing my uncle’s old Nintendo games, and I played LCD games like Donkey Kong Jr and I think there was a Zelda.”
But it was Nintendo with which the comedian bonded: her collection of Nintendo devices overspill her house.
Why such a bond with computer games? “I think part of it is that it helps me deal with my anxiety,” she tells me. “My brain doesn’t switch off, I worry and think all the time. Doing relaxing things isn’t relaxing for me. Sitting down in the sun is the worst. If I occupy my brain with something complicated, something that demands a lot of strategy, that takes my mind off my troubles, off everything … I feel like my brain always has to be working at 100%, so if I find something that can occupy it 100% that’s a really good thing.”
Raskopoulos is currently playing a lot of Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Player Unknown: Battlegrounds, “which is kinda like a Hunger Games sort of thing … You all start out in the wilderness area and start scavenging for weapons, and the game makes the area smaller and smaller until you start fighting each other … I’m also playing a lot of Hero Academy 2 on my phone.”
Gaming isn’t something Raskopoulos restricts to the electronic; her whirring mind expends its energies into table-based board gaming too. “I’m preparing some models for the release of the Death Guard Codex this week. I paint little soldiers and fight the wars on tables full of little trees.”
Raskopoulos attends tabletop tournaments for war games. I ask if she may logically progress into competitive gaming, or eSports. “I think [eSports] is an amazing social phenomenon,” she says. “I find it fascinating how much has been borrowed from the language and performance of [traditional] sports coverage. It’s both a tribute to and a parody of those things. That’s fascinating.
“I don’t think I would be a competitor but I could see myself commentating or playing for entertainment purposes. Like celebrity golf.”
Maeve MacGregor, 28, Hobart
Actor, theatre-maker, artistic director
When Maeve MacGregor’s father was still alive, they used to play games together at the local internet cafe. “My dad wasn’t around in the first years of my life. I went to visit him once or twice a year in Cairns, where he was working in the 1990s. He introduced me to my first games on those trips.
“When he came back to Tasmania, when I was 11, gaming become a big part of us getting to know each other again,” she says. “We played Unreal Tournament together, which is the only first-person shooter I’ve ever really enjoyed, because it handled easily, because it was kinda silly – not based on real war – and because I played it with my dad. Also, I was better than him at it – I could never ever win at real-time strategy games against him. Except, I think, Dungeon Keeper. Once.”
MacGregor still games but is less inclined these days to play in a group. “I hate being threatened with rape by strangers on the internet,” she says. She is currently a keen player of Starcraft II. “I can make change in this tiny, imaginary place,” she says, when asked to describe what she gets out of gaming. “It’s also something that I share with my partner: we watch each other play and introduce each other to new games. He doesn’t play as much as I do but every couple of months he gets a craving for some Xbox and I love backseat-gaming him. It’s really funny.”
MacGregor isn’t averse to the violent content in games, although she prefers the worlds they operate in to be governed by “black and white morality”, to limit the parameters of game violence.
“I’m a big fan of the Fable series and in Fable you can interact with children but the game mechanics won’t allow you to hurt them,” MacGregor says. “I like existing in a world where hurting children is off limits.”
Shauntelle Benjamin, 28, Sydney
Provisional psychologist, completing a PhD
Shauntelle Benjamin was a latecomer to gaming. She started playing around five years ago having long foregone the consoles that amused her when she was a child. Now an adult, she was overworked and needed a new way to relax. “I met this guy and he was like ‘play a video game’ and it seemed to work, to take my mind away from stuff.” She’s no longer with the guy (“he was too relaxed”) but the games have remained part of her life.
What hooked her was the building game Minecraft. “There were three of us living in this house,” she says, “and using a server meant the three of us and other people could join that same game. We were building our own community as we were building things in that shared world. It was really communal.” Others listened to podcasts while Minecrafting; Benjamin listened to her university lectures.
It was a good strategy – she’s now only two years out from completing a PhD. Her game tastes have also expanded. “I usually go for something more strategy based – Civilization, Prison Architect, XCom 2 … anything that involves building – building up a team, building up a group, or a world,” she says. “I’m one of those unfortunate people who can get seasick playing some games, so those turn-based games mean I can play longer.”
As a provisional psychologist, does she recommend games as a safe place to channel feelings? “Depends on the game,” she replies. “Some games are designed to remove empathy from you, so you can kill people. But Minecraft, Terraria – games that a lot of kids play – they tend to be relaxing. Adults tend to enjoy them because it’s an opportunity to do something mindlessly. There’s a lot of people out there playing Candy Crush to take their mind off something. I know psychologists who play games on their phone between appointments, because they need to switch off their brains.”
Lisa Banyard, 50, Brisbane
For Lisa Banyard, a sole parent who lives in Logan City, Queensland, gaming began as a way to bond with her teenage son.
“It started with both of us playing the Lord of the Rings games together,” she says. “He would have been 11, 12, 13. It was when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out. We’d go see the movie, treat ourselves to Gold Class and have a special mum and son day, with the video game on pre-order. Then we’d spend days playing it. You needed two people to defeat the orcs – they’re pretty hectic.”
Banyard’s gaming experience has developed alongside her relationship to her son, over many years. As a soccer player, he gravitated towards the Fifa game series, and Banyard played too. She came to see the game as an extension of their physical lives: “Driving endless hours to training, him playing games and me watching, and driving to more goalkeeper training. Him playing football himself, me being an observer on the sideline.” Club loyalties are part of the attraction, too. “In Fifa, you can choose your players and choose your team. So I think our bond over Liverpool FC is in there as well … You’re even yelling at the referees – like going and seeing it live.”
When her son turned 18 and started university, the PlayStation was relocated from the family loungeroom to his bedroom – and now, to enjoy the Fifa game experience, Banyard must “endure the chaos.” The game remains no less distracting, with its powerful soundtrack and atmosphere.
“I’m always in teenage mum mode,” Banyard says. “I can’t help looking around thinking, ‘He’s got to pick that up.’”