What does it mean to be a Gamer?
This is probably going to sound like an inflammatory and absurd thing for the head of Video Games and Geek Culture of this publication to say, but here it goes anyway: I don’t think of myself as a gamer. I certainly used to think of myself that way, and I’m sure this announcement will come as something of a surprise to some of my oldest and dearest friends. But the truth is, what a gamer has come to represent for me both culturally and behaviourally no longer feels like an accurate or adequate description of the type of person I am today.
The word “gamer” is a very loaded term. It’s a term that describes a very specific and very narrow cultural identity. You can’t simply be a gamer because you play games. You must earn the right to refer to yourself as a gamer via familiarity with very specific types of game. The “gamer” is a product of marketing more than anything else, and marketing needs to be discriminatory in some way in order to “best serve” their target market. In the case of the “gamer” they chose to target straight white, cis-gendered males with a certain amount of disposable income.
There are deviations from this particular, narrow subset of humanity that are permitted to enter the “gamer” club – just so long as they internalize the tropes, act like the rest of the gamers and promise not to expect or demand any changes to the games they play or the culture at large. You can see this very clearly in the “fake gamer girl” and “real gamer girl” dichotomy. A female gamer is often put under suspicion of being a “fake gamer girl” when she is seen as looking “too conventionally attractive” in her nerdy attire. This may seem odd but it is a suspicion that has grown out of games conventions and trade shows like E3, where for years games publishers would employ “sexy” women to dress in revealing gaming attire for the purposes of promotion – the same sort of tactics we might be used to seeing in the alcohol industry when new beverages are being promoted at a bar. This is just one of many examples of how the videogame industry has cultivated the gaming culture in a way that has made it a safe space for only very specific people. In fact a recent study done on American middle and high school students revealed that females were far less likely to consider themselves “gamers” than their male counterparts, even when they were equally or more invested in playing games during their spare time.
Because of this narrowing of what a gamer can be, gaming culture itself is geared towards a very particular kind of voice. Gaming culture has demands very particular views and analysis from games journalism, and expects certain boxes to be ticked from any game that gets released. This is an absurd situation for a culture to be in. For years gamers have insisted and even demanded that games be recognized as forms of art (which, just to clarify, I believe they are). This became so important that gamers demonized people like film critic Roger Ebert who took the stance that they weren’t, and even relished in his death back in 2013.
But it seems not even gamers think games are art, because if they did they wouldn’t demand that games obey the rules or that they behave a certain way. You cannot expect things from art, or demand art to behave. You certainly can’t demand perfection of game mechanics whilst also demonising those who wish to critique the sexist or racist elements of a game.
At the same time, whenever a game breaks the mould or tries something different, gamers are quick to mock it. It isn’t a ‘real’ game, they say, so it isn’t worthy of our culture.
It turns out gamers don’t really want games to be art at all. They just want the things they already love to be recognized as art so they wouldn’t feel so goofy for loving it. Which is fine and all, but you can’t really have it both ways.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with being a gamer in the classical sense. But I do feel we need to start talking about how to broaden this cultural space. We don’t let those of us who exclusively watch action movies speak for the rest of the movie watching population on what does or does not constitute a “proper movie” or a “proper fan” – and I object to seeing this scenario play out in video game spaces. I love video games. I love thinking about video games as art and as cultural touchstones. But I don’t love the culture. The culture is broken and needs to be fixed.
The word “gamer” is a term that sounds so broad and inclusive, but tragically means almost the very opposite. Gamer culture is narrow and at times hostile, whilst other times simply dismissive and uncaring. So until the day comes where the word gamer could be used as equally to describe your mum playing Candy Crush as your gay friend playing Bayonetta, I won’t be wearing that label – no matter how safe the space is for me.