Slender and barely five feet tall, Janny Stratichuk (MeanderAlley.com)
isn't imposing, but wearing a bleached apron splattered with blood certainly makes her out of the ordinary. With dark make-up under her eyes, her easy smile belies her outfit and hair, dyed and straightened to match the character from American McGee's Alice.
She's also brandishing the limp body of a felted rabbit that will never make his very important date.
"There were lots of Alice costumes in the store," she says, explaining how she decided to make her own Halloween outfit based on a character from a violent video game. "But what's fun about being a regular
Then she touches a place high up on her leg. "Plus, all the skirts from the store ended about here," she adds.
Even though she owns both a Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox, the 24-year-old Canadian doesn't consider herself a hardcore gamer. She doesn't play online or defy expectations about what types of games girls like to play; The Sims is her favorite title. But even so, she often finds herself defending games from people eager to place blame on a social scapegoat.
"I remember I was playing Prince of Persia one day," Janny says, now seated on a blue love-seat in her living room with her legs tucked under her. "I went to get some food, and when I got back I found one of my roommates staring at the TV, sort of angry. She said, 'There's a very militant looking figure on the screen. Please turn it off.'"
Janny laughs at the memory, but in a second her expression is much more somber.
"She hated video games and had never even played them. She didn't know anything about them, but she would lecture you about how horrible they were, how they were worthless."
Janny's sense of disbelief is shared by many in the gaming community, which faces an ongoing public relations battle against advocates that constantly categorize all gamers as violent, brainless, or simply stupid. But living in a tiny apartment in British Columbia, just outside of a small town known for its bear sightings, concerns about the game industry seem out of place. Instead, the fall colors appearing in the trees and the fresh smell of rain on the miles of forest outside of her house bring home all of life's other realities.
After her father lost his job during her senior year in high school, Janny was forced to drop out in order to earn money for upper education. She finished her schooling at night, struggling to earn her diploma each day after work.
When she was done, she moved from Toronto to the West, to the mountains she had always dreamed about as a child.
"I knew I loved the West," Janny says. "I've known I was going to come out here for years before I graduated. But it puts me a long ways from my family."
Janny shifts her gaze to the 13-inch TV where her Xbox and GameCube are set up beside a row of games. Zelda: The Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time, Prince of Persia, Mario Sunshine, Eternal Darkness, and Pikmin are all there, leaning against either the Xbox or GameCube. So are Halo and Max Payne.
"I miss all my friends, really," she says.
Now, located over 300 miles from anyone she thinks of as a close friend or a part of her family, Janny spends her time doing homework, playing games, and walking her dog, Tybo. Without a car, she lives near her school so she can walk to class on a daily basis, and as a consequence lives too far away from town to be able to do things like rent movies, go grocery shopping, get a job, or easily hang out with friends.
"It sucks," she says, sighing. She looks down at Tybo, who's asleep on the floor. "Sometimes I wake up and I don't know what to do. I feel overwhelmed because my friends aren't nearby, I don't have money because the job market here is really bad, and I'm really worried about how I'm going to make it through next year."
She hesitates, thinking. After moving west, Janny worked two full-time jobs before quitting and moving to British Columbia to go to college. She's not used to feeling helpless.
"It sucks," she says again finally, and shrugs.
"Mainly I play games because they're fun, but sometimes I play games when I'm stressed," Janny says. "You read about people that are using games to teach children things, or help people that are sick - and that's great ? but that's not all that games do. Sometimes they can be an out for anyone."
"It's like music or movies. On bad days, when you're really worried, you just have to make it through, and games can help you do that."
As Janny says this, it's just weeks after California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law restricting the sale of video games, singling them out above music, X-rated movies, or books as a dangerous medium. In an environment where video games are often portrayed as "cop killing simulators" and the product of a morally deflated society, stories about hard working, capable people using games as a way to deal with the hardships of life are often ignored.
"I wish I did better on tests," Janny confesses. The rain has stopped outside, but the shift in daylight's savings time means the light is fading earlier than normal. "I have a bad tooth that I can't afford to fix right now. So if I get a bad grade, or my tooth hurts, playing games like The Sims is a good way to distract myself."
The concept that entertainment is essential to human happiness is not a new one; entertainment industries like movie theaters are some of the few that are resistant to the effects economic hardship. When life becomes difficult, people often turn to alternatives to allow themselves a way to relax a little. Where music and movies allow only one or two hours worth of escape, video games can often last dozens of hours, and have far more interactive elements to draw players in.
The interactive elements that critics often point to as a reason video games require more strict controls than movies and books are also the elements that make them such excellent ways to step away from difficult realities. Whether or not that's escaping the reality of a patient dying of cancer, or just dealing with being alone and struggling with school doesn't make a difference.
Everybody needs a little escape.
"I study Art Therapy because I believe that things like immersion in pottery, for example, provides people a way to relax, and that can be healing," Janny says, now sipping from a cup of hot chocolate she's made herself. "I think games can work in the same way."
She hesitates a moment, and points at the hand-made mug containing her hot chocolate, mixed with red hearts and marshmallows.
"The marshmallows are important," she adds. "Can't have good hot chocolate without mini-marshmallows."
The conversation turns to Xbox Live, and elements of social gaming. Janny reveals that one friend close enough to visit often does so with his Xbox controller in hand.
"Non-gamers don't always realize how often people play games with each other. They're surprised to find out most of us don't just live in our rooms and never go out."
Surveys taken by the Entertainment Software Association show that gamers are not socially isolated. According to the ESA, 93 percent of gamers report reading books or daily newspapers on a regular basis, while sixty-two percent consistently attend cultural events, such as concerts, museums, or the theater. In the same survey, it turns out that gamers report voting far more often than the average citizen, and exhibit a far higher level of social participation.
Online gaming can be a bit more difficult for a girl, though, Janny admits, mainly because so few women have made the transition to online play. Or at least, if they do, they've learned not to talk about it. Surveys by the ESA show that 40% of online gamers are female.
"I don't have an Xbox Live account anymore, but I once did," Janny says, and then laughs. "I got accused of being a seven year old boy all the time."
But she's also quick to point out that Xbox Live allows people to communicate, playing together at the same time as chatting over similar interests. At least in concept. Other times gamers just use the online chat as a method to abuse each other.
"I'd like to get Xbox Live," Janny says, swirling the last of her hot chocolate at the bottom of her cup. "It would let me talk with people. It adds to the experience."
She looks out the window and then finishes the last of her drink, tilting her head back and swallowing the remains of the melted marshmallows and all. She smiles.
"The marshmallows make it perfect," she says.