Public TV Investigates Harvard Gamers' Motives

Monday evening marked the last meeting of the year for the Harvard-Radcliffe Science-Fiction and Fantasy Association (HRSFA). As usual, talk among members was a mix of the mundane and the nostalgic, from a review of the group's pre-frosh weekend events to updates on recent science fiction discussions. Above all, the mood in Sever 112 was relaxed--despite a small television crew that had set up camp to film their meeting.

Carl O'Neal, the producer for the WGBH television series "Basic Black," said he wanted to come to the HRSFA meeting because he was curious about the current popularity of science fiction.

"I want to find out what science fiction fans do, why is it so popular," O'Neal said.

O'Neal already had hypothetical answers to some of his own questions, however. He was primarily shooting the group in search of proof.

"I get the impression...that science fiction is an escape mechanism for them and it allows them to shed all their inhibitions," O'Neal said. "They are able to relax and enjoy themselves in a way that is not traditional."


In particular, O'Neal said he believes a place like Harvard is particularly conducive to aspects of science fiction appreciation such as "gaming," role-playing games that make "Dungeons & Dragons" look like "Shoots & Ladders." He described gaming as an escape mechanism students may use to relieve term-time stress, especially at academically-intense colleges like Harvard.

"From what I understand, a lot of people have pressure at a prestigious college like Harvard," O'Neal said.

Gamers at the College, however, have mixed opinions about O'Neal's assessment. Most said they found gaming definitely relieved stress, but added that it also helped them focus and that letting off steam was not their sole attraction to the practice.

Aaron Landry '99-'00 said part of his gaming enjoyment stems from the "power trip" of seeing himself as "cryptic and distantly ingenious" when he designs and oversees the fantasy worlds of a given game. In contrast, he said everyday life is a let-down.

"Nothing interesting has happened on earth since the dawn of time, the only thing worth experiencing is science fiction because it's the farthest from reality," Landry said.

But all-night gaming sessions, (he normally spends several hours during the weekday and the entire weekend gaming), have taken their toll. Landry has, among other things, slept through classes ("I attend classes if and when they interest me," he said) and is currently taking the semester off.

Last weekend, gaming also got Landry fired from his job at the Extension School computer lab. He had been letting game-playing buddies into the lab, but when the boss found out that the students were learning confidential lab passwords, the practice--and Landry's job--came to an abrupt end.

Too much gaming can, it seems, have drastic consequences. However, Matthew G. Withers '01 said gaming doesn't necessarily make people slackers at work. Gaming, he insisted, is about honing interaction skills and quick mental reflexes that can generally be used to great advantage.

"It really lets you exercise your mind," he said. "[Gaming] is not about throwing dice but about dealing with situations."

Perhaps due to the small number of active gamers, stereotypes about the player population abound. Turning against such misconceptions, gamers argued they are a diverse lot.

Kyle W. Niedzwiecki '98 is currently participating in "two to three" role-playing games, to which he devotes eight to 12 hours a week the equivalent, he said, of a part-time job. Yet Niedzwiecki was quick to add that he also juggles a real part-time job, a girlfriend and does decently well in his classes.

"The typical stereotype of the gamer is some guy who has spectacles and a bad case of acne who sits in a computer lab...with a bunch of friends who are similarly acned geeks," said Niedzwiecki, himself a towering 6'4" student without a hint of acne.

Hard-core gamers like Niedzwiecki admit that their numbers are few and far between at Harvard. But in their voices one detects an undercurrent of contentment, even righteousness, about the gaming lifestyle. It is, in fact, their chosen path.

Landry said he sees gaming as a way to subvert the status quo.

"I find normal life to be sterile and lifeless," he said. "I'm very much opposed to being a drone, shouldering societal expectations without any inherent desire to do so."

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