What do mainstream perceptions get wrong about fitness culture and the gaming industry?
The gaming and fitness subcultures are both subject to some of the same misconceptions, and both fall victim to the traps of stereotyping and oversimplification.
But neither of these communities are one-size-fits-all. It’s the diversity of their participants, and the bonds between them, that make them great.
We sat down with award-winning video games writer Sam Greszes to clear up these misconceptions. As a writer, streamer, and fitness game speed-runner, Greszes provides a uniquely complete perspective on writing, gaming, fitness, and building community.
Conquer Life: When did you start your career in games writing?
Sam Greszes: I started it seriously back in 2013. I had a personal blog, and was writing video game content for a couple other blogs and it just kind of snowballed from there.
CL: Why are you passionate about gaming?
SG: It's about stories! Stories that I can insert myself into and take part in. They can make me see the world in a bit of a different light.
It's the same reason people are passionate about music or movies: it's a different way to see the world. And the medium of gaming allows people to tell stories that aren't able to be told in other mediums.
For me, it's something I really get invested in emotionally, so I wanna share my excitement about that with everyone else.
CL: Thoughts on mainstream gaming culture?
SG: I challenge the idea that gaming and gaming culture is a monolith. It gets a bad rep, and deservedly so, in a lot of cases, but there are also so many people doing so much important work. Polygon- I write for them as much as I can, they’re great. Fanbyte is great, Launcher is great.
They have been doing some of the most important work about gaming as a cultural phenomenon, and I know that that sounds like the same thing that everyone else is doing but it really isn't.
The language of gaming is still referred to like the language of movies, even though we don't have the same kind of game criticism that we do with movie criticism.
Uppercut Crit does a great job putting all of that into context, whether it's through social theory, politics, or queer theory. A lot of game developers and people in the gaming scene are very afraid for their work to exist in larger contexts and that is something that separates games from other, more accepted forms of art.
And Uppercut Crit doesn't shy away from that - not that other publications do, but that's what I think of first when I think of Uppercut.
Yeah. Gaming isn’t a monolith, gamers aren't a monolith, and it's wrong to treat them that way. I'm very, very excited by a younger generation of gamers and games writers helping make the space safer and less less toxic.
CL: What’s the most rewarding part of games writing?
SG: The most rewarding part of games writing is actually getting something published. There's a lot of work that goes into games writing, whether you're writing a feature about a game or doing a games guide or a review, and a lot of that can be invisible work that makes it hard to a piece as a cohesive whole before it’s done.
At least for me, seeing it all come together in a finished piece is really, really satisfying and it makes me feel like I am able to express myself. [In the beginning], seeing it as just words on a page and doing the research, it isn't always cohesive and sometimes I worry about that, right?
I wanna get my point across because this is all stuff I care a lot about and a lot of times, it's not until I actually send it off or even until I see the finished product on the website that I'm like, “Oh yeah, I actually did a good job.”
CL: What's the most important thing you've learned since you started?
SG: The most important thing I've learned about games writing, or writing in general, since I've started is that it's most important to write for yourself first.
I’m really lucky to write for sites like Polygon and Fanbyte that let me write about things that I’m passionate about.
But of course, not every pitch is accepted, so not everything that matters a lot to me gets picked up, so it’s really important to have an outlet that isn’t my job so I can just express myself.
Greszes recently founded a new blog, Robots Fighting Dinosaurs, to document his experiences with gaming culture.
SG: It does a lot of good to divorce the act of writing with the act of making enough money to have food. It’s a creative act that feeds my soul, so I don’t want to fall into the trap of only thinking about it in a utilitarian way.
The best writing advice I've ever gotten was just to keep writing. It's a common refrain, but it's advice that I don't think a lot of people generally follow. If you are not being paid for your writing but you want to be a writer, you do need to still write. And I'm not saying work for free, right?
I'm saying that if your brain and soul are fed by the act of writing, get your stuff out there and make a personal blog! Go make a website real quick just because it's good for you!
If you're wired that way, that is so crucial, so that piece of advice really kind of helps me reframe my own writing.
It's for me first. I'm writing because I want to write. The most important thing is that I'm able to express myself that way and get better at the craft.
CL: Why did you start streaming on Twitch?
SG: I started streaming because I wanted people to look at me. That's the real answer: I honestly started streaming to feed my ego. [he laughs]
I love being in front of crowds, I love having people's eyes on me. I majored in theater in college.
Gaming and fitness are often perceived as mutually exclusive, but Greszes’s work as a writer and streamer bridges this gap.
Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure is essentially a gamified, story-based take on Pilates. Greszes covered the game’s takedown of toxic fitness ideals and its Covid-era significance in an article for Polygon. He has also become a highly-ranked Ring Fit speedrunner.
SG: It was a short-lived victory, but I did break into the top five on the speedrunning leaderboard. That was a big goal of mine when I started streaming and it was really good to see my slow improvements paying off in a real way.
The upshot of that is, right after I sent that record someone beat it.
So now I'm back on the hunt, as it were. But seeing that slow methodical process as a reward in and of itself is something that has been very salient to me.
Although writing, gaming, and fitness all have reputations as individual pursuits, Grezses contends that community plays a vital role in all three.
SG: I’ve learned that streaming is about building community. I think that it's important to realize when you're streaming, even if you have a small audience, that's people taking time out of their day to hang out with you.
It's not a faceless mob: whether you have one viewer or 1000 viewers, those are all individual people with things to do, but they have chosen to hang out with you, and that's huge!
CL: You've previously written about your complicated relationship with sports and body image issues and how that relates to fitness games and streaming.
SG: A lot of mainstream fitness culture is very damaging. Hot take!
He starts laughing: his statement struck him as overly obvious.
SG: Breaking real new ground here! There’s unrealistic beauty standards in mainstream fitness culture!
I think that when we talk about fitness, a lot of people think about big muscles, thin waist, nice butt. When I think about mainstream fitness culture that's what I think about: the aesthetics of looking hot.
And I don't have a problem with that being someone's personal goal. If you want to, like, slim down so that you can look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself finger guns, that's fine, so long as you're doing it in a healthy way!
The issue is that by making fitness focus only on that, that's not accessible to everyone. That is not a realistic goal for everyone, number one. Number two, it's not an actionable goal in the same way as, say, “I want to run a little bit faster than I could the day before.”
I think that what gets lost in modern fitness culture is what fitness actually means, which is a functional thing. Fitness and health are about pushing your body beyond its limits to do a little bit more than it could the day before.
It's not necessarily about slimming down, it's not necessarily about making your body look a certain way.
I think that’s the reason I really like Ring Fit Adventure, because it focuses on functional fitness and on improving yourself.
It's not just about improving yourself so that you can do more, it’s also about training your brain away from some of the more toxic ideas.
You're not thinking about fitness as a journey with an end goal of a number on the scale, or a clothing size, or even the way you look in the mirror.
It's a journey that never ends, because if you keep pushing yourself to improve even a little bit from the day before, even if you do one more push-up than the day before or run a tenth of a mile longer than you did the day before, you are making slow, constant improvement.
And I get that that’s not as sexy of a goal, but it is healthier.
CL: So you understand why this other view sells, but it's just not sustainable?
SG: Right. And again, I want to avoid making any sweeping judgments, because different things work for different people and if the sexy, flashy “Get Six Pack Abs in 2 Weeks by Doing *This* 30 Minutes a Day” [approach] puts someone on the right fitness path, you know, great!
It's just that right now, it feels like that's all we see. All we see is people’s goals being aesthetic related and not actual weight strength or dexterity or endurance, and that's not all fitness is.
That's not what fitness should be and that leads to about a lot of mental strain for people who might just be starting out on their fitness journey, because it’s not realistic.
And a lot of my personal growth has been coming to terms with the fact that [no matter my level of fitness] I'm gonna be a larger dude. I like the way I look, but I'm never gonna be skinny, and that's fine.
Grezses is passionate about Ring Fit, but his trivia streams are the most popular with his viewers. Tuesday, March 16th was the first anniversary of his weekly remote trivia night on Twitch, which he co-hosts with LA-based actor/composer Ray Rehberg.
SG: Ray and I had been hosting trivia at Friar Tuck, this little Chicago dive bar, for a few years. Then the pandemic happened and it was clear that the bar wasn't going to be open on Tuesday for trivia night.
I had a Twitch channel so I was like, we already have these questions written. Why don't we just try [streaming trivia on Twitch] and see if that works, and instantly we already had an audience, which was really nice.
We spread the word to people who usually came to Friar Tuck trivia and they were nice enough to show up, and a lot of those people are still our viewers on the stream.
CL: So it started with you rebuilding a real-life community in a digital format.
SG: Exactly, 100%. And something I realized after that first stream was that the online format actually allows for that kind of trivia to be even more accessible. People don't have to leave their home and you can add things like on-screen captions for more accessibility.
Greszes views community-building as the most rewarding part of his work, but also as his greatest responsibility.
He feels that creators have a responsibility to make their subcultures into healthier communities, and that individualism and inclusion make these communities stronger. When members of a community buy into hegemonic ideas, the environment becomes more toxic.
SG: Of course there can be technical challenges, but those aren’t a big deal, those are things that a community that’s enjoying itself will just laugh off in chat.
It’s building a community and making sure that everyone feels safe. Something that is a big deal is the importance of setting standards for your community.
If you see any toxic elements there, you get rid of them early. Very early. Because otherwise, it blossoms.
In an online forum, toxicity compounds on itself and as the streamer, as the steward of your community, it’s your job to lay down the law if you need to. Once toxicity has been allowed to take root, it’s a lot harder to ferret it out.
But the importance of community can’t replace the process of cultivating our authentic selves. In Greszes’s view, when we’re being true to ourselves, the daily process of this work feels like its own reward.
This internal stability then naturally leads to stronger bonds with others.
SG: I have a lot of tendencies toward external validation and I know that that is not entirely healthy, so more and more I'm trying to be motivated by myself. I’m trying to make myself proud by trying to be the best person I can be. And then I can be the best friend to my friends.
I feel supported when I'm part of a community. I feel supported when I feel seen and understood by my friends and loved ones. And that’s been hard in the pandemic.
A lot of us, myself included, have tried to put on a brave face for friends who are more visibly having a hard time. And that has helped me, to be able to help other people, but also I need to realize that my friends won’t judge me for being vulnerable too.
I can reach out because I'm feeling lonely or because I feel like I need support or because I need to be around somebody who understands me, you know?
CL: What do you want to be remembered for?
SG: I wanna be remembered for my heart. [long pause, smile]
I would like for people, when they think about me, to think about how I helped them and how maybe the way that I live my life helped them live theirs.
I want to be remembered as someone who lives and loves hard, for better and for worse.
I want people to think of me and... smile. Because hopefully I have made their life better, even in some infinitesimally small way.
At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.
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