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Gaming Below the Poverty Line

For people living on the edge of homelessness, gaming communities are one of the few places that allow them a continued sense of dignity

Rocking back and forth in his red and black leather gaming chair, inside his nine-by-seven-foot room at a homeless shelter in Washington State, 40-year-old Michael Guyton is having a good time. His mouth opens and closes in slow-tempoed iterations as though he’s chewing air. It’s a quirk he’s developed that suggests it’s time to focus as he nears the end of a round of League of Legends — Guyton’s favorite online multiplayer video game, where players form teams of five and assume the role of “champions” and compete against other teams. Behind him, and beneath the yellow of a cheap fluorescent room light, his microwave glows as it warms up his third cup of coffee. 

Still rocking back and forth in his chair, Guyton looks on as the chaos of slashing swords and the sound effects of sorcery invade his computer screen. He lets slip a tiny smile. “Good game,” he announces into his microphone, congratulating the other players he’s communicating with on Discord as his team declares victory.

For Guyton, life is “pretty okay” right now, thanks in part to the competition of League of Legends and “having a similar interest in a game and being able to talk about it and interact with some people.” He pauses, before adding, “It’s easy because it’s something I love.” And if your life has been anything like Guyton’s, who’s spent more time homeless than in a home, “easy” is something worth holding onto. 

Just nine-years-old when his sister gifted him a used copy of the original Legend of Zelda, Guyton tells me that gaming came into his life “when stuff really got hectic.” “We were homeless and my mom was trying to find a job and I had just went to jail,” he says. Earlier that year, he had accidentally burned down a mobile home with a magnifying glass. “So they tried to call it first-degree arson and I spent time in prison,” he says. During the 29 days Guyton was incarcerated, he tells me that he ended up in the emergency room seven times. 

But when he got out, he got Zelda. “It kept me off the streets, kept me away from the bad stuff,” says Guyton. It also, occasionally, brought along people to talk to — an experience Guyton was desperately missing for much of his youth. “I’m socially behind other people my same age,” he says. In part, he attributes this to a bad reaction he had to a vaccine he received when he was a baby. “For the first seven years [of my life], I didn’t get to go outside,” he says. And in subsequent years, if he had a roof over his head, it was never stable. But through League of Legends, Guyton met his buddy Ronnie. “He goes by Static Games [online],” Guyton tells me. “We Discord all the time.”

These pixels of joy may not seem like much to the average person: According to a 2015 Pew Research survey, a quarter of all adults regard most video games as a waste of time. But for Guyton, gaming is a hobby like any other — an activity that values a momentary feeling of immersion above other forms of success. And despite living on the margins, Guyton remains eager to spend what little coin he has, sometimes waiting in long lines for a piece of the latest digital adventure. There’s no shame, he says, in “wasting time” seeking fun in gigabytes of alternative realities. For him, gaming is as priceless as peace. 

It’s no accident that a greater percentage of lower income people consider themselves “gamers” (the same Pew survey found that across income groups, although those making less than $30,000 a year were the least likely to report they played games, with only 46 percent saying so, low-income respondents were still the most likely to actually describe themselves as “gamers”). Chris Arnade, a photographer and author of the recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, explains that gaming is “one of the few virtual communities open to a lot of lower-income people.” Arnade, who’s spent “a lot of time basically sleeping in cheap motels when I was on the road or in my van,” tells me that while looking for a good WiFi connection, he often came across people from families with Section 8 housing vouchers in search of prime gaming real estate “with their old, beat-up PC.”

Through his lens, Arnade has been clued into a more intimate, nuanced view of the low-income gaming community than most. As such, much of the discourse around gaming pisses him off. “This whole language of, ‘Young men should be doing something better with their time,’” he says. “Like what?” 

But even within the gaming community, Arnade has noticed a discrepancy between how people judge rich gamers versus poor ones. “You have rich kids who game, but that’s not what I usually see people making fun of,” says Arnade, who believes that this sort of antagonism comes from the “idea that poor people shouldn’t be allowed to have fun.” “We celebrate consumption because our society is built on consumption,” he argues. “Yet when poor people consume, it seems ugly and crass.”

He uses the example of the way people look with disgust toward those who line up to get deals at GameStop on Black Friday because they don’t have a lot of money. “With something like the PS5, when there’s a new game launch or a new console launch, wealthy families like me, we pre-order well ahead of time and put a deposit down and put it on credit and that’s not really hard,” he says. “A lot of people can’t do that. I mean, they don’t even know they can do that. They don’t have the money to do that. They don’t have the cultural capital to know that you should do that.”

Nonetheless, people find a way — people like 53-year-old Mark Phillips, a gamer whose last four driver licenses list the Lighthouse Mission in Washington State as his primary residence. By day, Phillips works at Macy’s so he can “support his expensive gaming habit” — a trade-off he takes pride in — and figure out a way to get his own place. “Staying at the mission is how I’m going to get out of the mission,” says Phillips. “My stability is because of the opportunity here. I wouldn’t be getting anywhere otherwise.”

If anything, Phillips, who didn’t know his “real dad was my real dad” until he lived with him for a year in seventh grade while his mom spent a year in a clinic, and who remains mostly estranged from the rest of his family, says gaming is the luxury that makes “climbing my way up the ladder at work” worth it. “I’ve spent a great deal to purchase not only my gaming laptop, but to purchase all the software,” Phillips tells me. “Oh, how I love the new stuff.” 

Not long ago, buying the new stuff, he says, was “totally unheard of,” and Phillips relied heavily on having to pirate software. Back then, his computer was donated. “I built a shelf for a monitor on my bunk,” he says. “You could say I slept with it.” Today, Phillips says, “I take pride in the ownership.”

Guyton’s computer, also a PC, came by way of an old job he had when he was homeless in Arizona. “I was working at Orangutan Home Services in Arizona, but I was only paid like $12 an hour because I didn’t really have any IT experience,” he says. While being trained on the job, his employer gave him a Dell that wasn’t being used. “I just started from that little old thing and built parts for it and took parts from it and built my computer,” he says. “I probably still have the hard drive.” But today, thanks to some YouTube videos, Guyton’s equipped his gaming machine with an AMD 8350 FX processor — “It’s old school, but for AMD, it’s a pretty good processor” — along with an ASUS motherboard.

According to K’ryzt (the online moniker of another gamer currently living in low-income housing), because gaming helps people create relationships with people outside of their own cultural bubble, “having affordable prices for consoles and gaming PCs is so important.” “Nowadays, voice chat is almost required in some respects for competitive games, from FPS [first person shooter] to raiding in MMOs [massively multiplayer online games],” he tells me. “When consoles are too expensive, they have a pretty steep barrier to entry for people who can’t afford them — and when the peripherals became more and more of a necessity to play games successfully, it’s important to make sure they’re priced in a way that it isn’t just gouging.”

Growing up, K’ryzt’s family was, he says, “fairly poor,” so he never had the next generation gaming system “until it was in its second-gen iteration.” “I got a PlayStation relatively shortly before the PS2 came out,” he says. His Gameboy Color was a hand-me-down from his then-church. “I worked summer jobs for my first PC, which wasn’t even a gaming PC — just some old stock Walmart Gateway [computer],” K’ryzt adds. 

Echoing Arnade’s earlier point, K’ryzt tells me that what he’s found in gaming that he believes exists in few other places, is a level playing field. “Even in the case of pay-to-win loot boxes, you mostly have situations where skill trumps all,” he says. “So when you’re behind a computer screen and you’re playing a game with people from all over the world, they don’t know your economic or social status, what race or gender or orientation you are, or if you have a disability.”

In that way, K’ryzt says, gaming gives low-income people an opportunity to be on equal footing with their peers in a way that often isn’t true in real life. “When I log in to play Final Fantasy XIV, I’m a Male Miqo’te White Mage,” he says. “All that matters to the people around me is, ‘Does he heal well?’ And unless I reveal how I’m somehow different to them, I’m just another Warrior of Light.”

It helps, too, that apart from a few hundred dollars in start-up costs — which is steep, but can, according to Guyton, be “built up over time” — the thing about gaming is that unlike most real-world communities, be they professional or social, there isn’t an impenetrable barrier to entry. “Once you’re in, you’re in,” says Arnade. And though the language of gamers has long been the subject of controversy, in Guyton’s circle, it’s just “kind of bull-crapping around” and “just being weird to each other.” For him, that means sometimes doing “funny dances in the game and just acting out of context.”

“People seek status in different ways,” says Arnade. “[Low-income gamers] are never going to obtain status signifiers that rich people want, like a house,” he says. “That’s just too distant.” Instead, Arnade tells me, you seek the status you can obtain. And getting a new PS5 or, in Guyton’s case, a copy of Cyberpunk 2077which Guyton’s heard is “going to be really good” — is a piece of status that feels realistically within reach.

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