Playing the Popularity Game

You know the rules. Everyone does.

At least, everyone who’s anyone knows how to play the popularity game. That’s how it works, right? If you want to “be” somebody, you’ve got to be somebody else. Wear the right clothes, say the right things, be seen at the right places with the right people. Of course, you can get through high school without following the rules, but it’s a heck of a lot easier if you play along. I learned this lesson for myself a long time ago.

Thinking back to my freshman art class in high school, I remember the constant pressure pervading the room, urging each of us to play the game that kept us from being alone, unwanted, friendless. There was already a hierarchy in place, and we all knew it. Jock or jokester, loud or quiet, we all had our place in the society of 22, and no one wanted to be the kid who upset the status quo.

Sometimes, looking back, I wish I would have been the one who did.

On a day like any other, I had my chance. I was sitting next to one of the “popular” guys, the kind of kid who was usually a master at playing the game. His friends were teasing him, making snide comments about how silly and childish and nerdy he was for playing computer games on the weekends. His game of choice? World of Warcraft, of course.

Listening to their jibes, I felt an uncomfortable twist in my stomach. They were only kidding, of course, but beneath their words lay a real threat– don’t talk too much about your games. Don’t be too nerdy, too different. It’s not cool, not popular, and we won’t hurt our game by associating with yours. Your games aren’t good for your popularity game.

How could I possibly tell them that I played WoW, too? At home, with my brothers, being a gamer girl was great. New levels were a coveted achievement, and buying the latest expansion invited envy, not shame. Yet here, in a room full of my peers, I felt compelled to hide my gamer identity like a disturbing secret, a tragic flaw that must be buried in the closet, kept out of sight. I was expected to be the shy, artistic girl, not the gamer. I kept my mouth shut, and for the rest of the class (and year) I played the game that I was expected to play.

Now, four years later, I still look back on moments like that and wish I hadn’t been such a coward. My problem wasn’t that I enjoyed gaming; it was that I played my game with the wrong people. If you must play the popularity game (as most of us, save a courageous few, are destined to do), then play it with people who pressure you to be better, not similar. Play with those who think bringing your DS to college is awesome, not sad. Play with those who admire your ability to quote lines directly from Lord of the Rings, rather than with those who question your sanity. Play with those who expect you to be responsible, friendly, quirky, and loyal so that by playing the popularity game, you’re urged to become all of those things.

The world tells us to be individuals, leaders, breakers of the status quo. If that’s what you want to do, have at it. I won’t hold you back. As for me, I’m just fine playing the popularity game, because now, in my freshman year of college, I’ve finally found the right kind of people to play it with.

After all, as we gamers have always said, what’s wrong with playing a game that makes you happy?


–The Humblebug