What Amy Schumer Taught Me About Video Games

My parents made me play sports when I was a kid. I wasn’t an athlete. And I hated it.

I looked forward with dread to every gym class during my junior high school years. I felt a loathing towards going to basketball and little league baseball practices. I just wasn’t any good, and I couldn’t compete with the other boys my age who were stronger and faster than I was. I eventually became fairly decent at soccer after years and years of being dragged to rec ball practices and games. However, for most of those years, I generally found sports to be personally humiliating exercises in futility. They demonstrated my physical inferiority to other boys of my own age.

That being said, I don’t fully regret having played sports. Firstly, I’m not averse to exercise, which is good as you get older and your metabolism slows down. Secondly, as much as I hated the game itself personally, there is something possibly to gain in being a part of a team and just learning to conduct yourself on the field. Finally, I think I have less fear of losing. I’ve lost before. When confronted with failure or the possibility of failure, I can deal with it.

I may not have learned how to catch a pop fly or sink a three pointer, but I did learn that after a competition, you respect your opponent, you say “good game” and you mean it, and you play hard even when you know that you’re going to lose. Losing with dignity is an art.

All that being said, while I recognize the importance of sports in many people’s lives (for these very reasons), and I respect good coaches who teach their players not only how to be a good athlete, but also how to be a good sportsman, I still don’t have a great deal of interest in sports themselves. I don’t watch them, just not my thing.

I did, however, watch Friday Night Lights for awhile, admiring the show, not for its seeming emphasis on football, but its generally good writing and good acting. The first season of that show especially seemed to me to be quite good, and I did recognize in it an idealization of the values that I did gain myself from sports, like the significance of good sportmanship to a coach.

Like many others, though, I still deeply admired Amy Schumer’s recent send up of the show. She and her fellow actors hit all the right beats when sending up the show’s style, characters, and attitude. Additionally, Schumer’s parody contains some pointed social satire that has some relevance to contemporary culture:

I watched the above video a few weeks ago, showed it to a few people that I thought would appreciate it, then largely forgot about it, besides noting that any number of media critics were commenting on its exposure of the problem of the idea of a “rape culture” possibly being attached to sports (and maybe of late especially how that culture may be a part of professional sports).

I didn’t think about it a great deal more until I was reiterating some points to a colleague that I made in an article that I wrote a few years ago called “Sodomy and the Prison of Multiplayer Gaming”, an article in which I claimed that “Competitive gaming is about power, hierarchy, leader boards, and all the ways of establishing a pecking order among players. Owning someone is the goal in online gaming. It’s about making someone your bitch.” The quote brought me back to the ironic punchline of Schumer’s “Football Town Nights” sketch, when the coach, after growing frustrated with his players’ insistence on not being able to play football if they can’t be rapists too, declares, “How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape? It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands in between you and what you want,” and I thought to myself that this description appropriately describes the situation of competitive digital violence in online multiplayer gaming that I observed back in my own 2013 article.

It intrigued me especially that I was making this connection because I had noted then that what online games like League of Legends breed is a kind of “rape talk” in which players discuss “ass raping” the other team and “pwning” (that is, “owning”) other players, which reminded me at the time of men’s prison culture, a physical space occupied by men in which sodomy is often used as a tool for control and domination.

An infographic released in 2012 by Riot Games, makers of League of Legends, which you can find over at Destructoid reported that “over 90% of [League of Legends] players are male.”

Now, let me play gender essentialist for a moment. Violent behavior and the use of it to create a sense of authority is largely associated with men and masculinity. The television show Snapped notwithstanding, crime statistics seem to bear this generality out. Most violent crimes are usually committed by men. In 2011, for example, the Department of Justice reported that in the United States over 90.5% of homicides are committed by men (Alexia Cooper and Erica L. Smith, ”Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2009”, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2011).

If we take as an assumption that there is something to the idea that the more testosterone-bearing members of the human species do tend towards violent behaviors (maybe even especially when they are a part of communities that are mostly made up of men), it should, perhaps, come as no surprise that in virtual spaces with a preoccupation with digital violence that men frequently fall into patterns of speech in which they represent violence through speech that metaphorically resembles those kinds of all male spaces, like men’s prisons. Suddenly, men are talking about digitally making other men “their bitches” in order to establish authority and ethos within such spaces.

All of which brings me back to my original observations about sports and their centrality to boys’ early lives. Seen in this context, if we testosterone-producing machines do have a tendency towards violence and aggression, one of the chief virtues of sports is in creating a space in which violent behaviors are given boundaries. Boys who play sports learn, yes, to hit each other, but also when to back off and also how to react and respond to threats from one another in a surprisingly civilized way, assuming they have a good coach. Sports, it may be argued, value violence, but also value rules, rules that suggest what level of aggression is appropriate and how one should maintain a respect for others despite competing violently with them.

To me, this is what League of Legends‘s largely male community lacks, a foundation of sportsmanship that teaches how to curb violent instincts and the representation of those instincts through violent speech. In a sense, League of Legends players lack good coaches, who step in to define the boundaries and etiquette of competition, not just how to play the game.

Boys in backyards, in parks, and in empty parking lots around the world have often been able to maintain decorum in play without their coaches present. However, I often think that this is because they have some background in sportsmanship to begin with. Someone, as it were, made them play basketball or baseball or football, whether they liked it or not. And maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.