The word "gamer" has a particular stereotype: white, male, single, usually between the ages of 18 to 35. Nationally, the trend of what a gamer looks like has completely shifted, yet that cliché remains.
"There is the stereotype of the poorly socialized gamer, or nerd type," says Tyler Stewart, owner of Cambridge's Pandemonium Books & Games.
This stereotype permeates gaming culture, reinforced by the internet and depictions of gamers in the media.
Sali Kamara does not fit that image. She’s black. And queer. And manages trading card games at Pandemonium.
"I think the reason that there is more visibility for white men is that they get harassed less and don’t have to face that kind of vitriol based on their gender or their race that other people who would want to be more visible would have to face," Kamara says.
From cult classic films like "Clue" and "Dungeons & Dragons," to contemporary entertainment like "Stranger Things" and "Game Night," board games have long been a fabric of pop culture. A recent revival of board games has shifted the audience to include more voices, thanks to millennials.
Millenials are more likely to purchase board games with an emphasis on strategy and cooperation over conflict and chance, according to Euromonitor International, which tracks sales of different types of games. These games produced a record-breaking $9.6 billion in sales in 2016, and sales continue to rise.
The culture of board games is unique: It may not fit into the traditional mold of "culture" but it can fulfill people’s needs for community.
"When you say a 'culture institution,' there’s this whole meaning of culture like, 'look at our art,' " says Stewart. “We’re not role players, we’re artists telling these special stories."
The store has daily programming featuring different styles of games, from role playing, to trading cards and war games. Each style has person-to-person interactions, creating a community-focused environment.
Stewart adds: “Any time a group of people hang out or get together for any reason, a culture arises from that. I think culture and communication are really one and the same thing, when one comes from the other."
On one particular game night at the shop, a diverse group of gamers — ranging from a college student of color to a white middle-aged professional in a button down shirt and slacks -- gather around two giant maps. They play "X-Wing," a war game based in the "Star Wars" universe.
"X-Wing" features different sizes of spaceships, and a map where players place asteroids to be avoided during the game. The objective is to outmaneuver the opponent and destroy all of their ships.
For this night's "X-Wing" game, player Ander Shultis describes: “Each of them will take three ships to the table, then take turns placing said obstacles. If they land on the obstacle with one of their ships, they take damage.”
Gamers have a range of options to pick from, depending on what play style fits them the most, says Stewart.
“It’s easy to think that there are tribes within the customer base ... like the cheerleaders, the nerds the jocks in high school, but generally speaking, it’s a lot more integrated than that," he says. "People who play 'Magic' also do role playing games. It’s what they have the time for, what they have the money for, and what their passion is.”
With such a huge audience, and with different levels of interest, Stewart tries to create a place where everyone feels welcome. There was one recent incident, he mentions, where a female cashier was harassed by a male customer.
“We do have a problem with toxic masculinity," Stewart acknowledges. "That doesn’t happen here and if it does, it doesn’t happen very long.”
Stewart strives to make Pandemonium more inclusive.
"We have some people who are in their 50s and 60s, we have kids, so ages and races. It’s a very diverse crew, and that’s one of the things I like about it," he adds.
Gaming offers a chance to escape, the opportunity to be creative, and has proven to foster teamwork and lateral thinking. While Stewart doesn't consider Pandemonium to be a culture institution, community is a big part of the shop’s success.
"I think it really is a community builder," says Kamara, the trading card games manager, "all of these people of different backgrounds and genders, ethnicities and everything can just come together and have fun and be competitive, or not competitive as they wish, and find their community.”
Gaming culture has shifted to include more women and people of color than ever before. With the rise of millennial board gamers, that shift will continue to change preconceptions of who and what a gamer is.
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