What is a Gamer?.

Anthony Coughlin - When I see the titular question asked online, it often strikes me as disingenuous. What is being wondered is not “what constitutes the role characterized in this episteme by the term ‘gamer’”? But “how do we figure out what sort of people play video games?” And then this is further vulgarized into “who understands video games?” and “who are poseurs?” This usually either becomes an exercise in fan-boy elitism, or self-congratulatory victory cries of universal acceptance, i.e. “we’re all gamers!” None of this discussion really considers the word in-itself, where it came from, or what the implications of those discourses may be. When we consider the question, “what is a gamer?” We cannot answer the question as “gamers”, and we cannot continue the universalizing mythologies that emerge as a result.

One first begins to the see the term “gamer” emerging in its current form around the mid-2000s, in relation to the continual assaults on video games in popular culture by Jack Thompson, and during the period shortly before the Wii was released and during its springtime of sales success afterword. During the several Jack Thompson incidents, most of them regarding what he considered the excess of violence and sexuality in video games, the term gamer was used to identify one’s self in a stand of solidarity; a stand against forces that would seek to censor and treat games like children’s toys rather than as art. The term at this point therefore carried a connotation of enthusiasm. It meant that one spent a significant amount of time playing games and that they were more than a “hobby.” The term underwent a bit of transformation alongside the release and popularity of the Wii. With the audience for video games expanding visibly beyond the young male demographic, a certain insecurity and division took hold. Online communities and the enthusiast press began to write about different types of gamers: casual, mid-core, hardcore, etc. The original definition became associated and transferred to the “hardcore gamer,” whereas “casual” gamers and games were looked upon with a certain degree of derision and suspicion. It was implied that there was a divide in the interests and attitudes of these different categories, and certain genres became associated with these different categories. Of course, the terms did not simply enter into the common parlance without some resistance. There is a rather famous moment in one episode of Gamespot’s podcast, The Hot Spot, where Jeff Gerstmann, one of the more notable figures in the gaming industry, attacks the use of the word gamer. Gerstmann makes the observation that there are likely to be more than the six types of gamers a recent article suggested.  The term has persevered though, now being used as a kind of casual shorthand for people who play video games. This generalization of the term has transformed both the community and the relationship between game consumers and the corporations that represent and are peripheral to the industry.

Within the community of people who play video games, the term “gamer” creates a false identity that comes to stand for certain attitudes/interests that may antithetical to the lives of individuals. The individual person who plays video games becomes associated with a vaster community of people and thus an association, whether wanted or not is formed. It allows people to generalize about the effects of video games on individuals, which lead to media hysterics whenever someone who played video games is also implicated in a violent crime. A video game console is no different than a computer, but the user of one is implicated in behaviors the other is not. The term “gamer” is one method by which the ubiquitous use of video games is nullified into a subculture or community, which does not really exist in the first place. The second effect is that the conflicting interests within the “gaming community” are held responsible for one another. Take the recent outbreak over the perceived misogyny and homophobia in the fighting game community.

Journalists were outraged over the way it made other gamers look bad. Why should people who do not participate in playing those types of games be held responsible? Are country singers held responsible for people’s misgivings about rap music? No, they are recognized as different ends of a specific field and are not treated as mutually dependent on one another. The use of homophobic or misogynistic insults within the fighting game competition, particularly at a certain elite level, should reflect only on those involved, and recognition of them as a separate community would work to that end. There is no need to try and rope everyone who lifts a controller into the argument. Another problem with the term is its exclusionary power, the way some people accuse others of not being “real gamers”. This is a general problem in the wider sub-category of “geek culture” but the questioning of authenticity is usually something that reveals just how fragile a certain ecosystem is. The need to divide between “real gamers” and “casual gamers” or whatever pejorative is used against the Other is disingenuous and fosters  an excessive elitism that marginalizes individuals from participating in a

larger discussion as to the use video games may be put. The opposite action however, is equally marginalizing. By suggesting that everyone who plays video games is a “gamer”, you are forcing a community and a false realm of responsibility onto them. As in my previous example, you make the actions of separate communities suddenly their responsibility by aligning them into your interests.  The one possible solution to this would be to suggest that “gamer” is an activated identity, one is a “gamer” while one participates in the act of playing video games, but that also demonstrates how the notion of a unified community of “gamers” is inherently impossible. The term and ideas behind the word “gamer” only complicates the lives of video game players, who are forced into a false homologous community who interests may antithetical or opposite to their individual attitudes.

Furthermore, it’s also worth discussing the way the term has been used to manipulate or establish power relations between individuals and organizations. The most notable instance of this is the way the word has been corporatized, i.e. been used by different corporations and retailers to serve the ends of various marketing and sales campaigns. When terms like “gamer” come into being, they may create a sense of community but in the current capitalist environment (in which gaming is indelibly enmeshed) it also creates an audience of consumers. Gamer becomes a sub-category to whom marketing agents can begin to specifically target their products or rebrand their current ones. Nintendo takes advantage of the stratification of different types of gamers to organize their marketing machine, cultivating a special relationship with its “hardcore” consumers, meaning that products like Metroid: Other M and The Legend of Zelda are just for them. This use of the notion of the “hardcore gamer” to make the company seem relevant to its devoted audience while actually trying to market and make products for another. Reggie Fils-Aime can say that Nintendo makes products for “mid-tier gamers” to justify their simplified products and low-tier graphical designs. Retailers like GameStop advertise themselves to gamers as their allies because they only sell games even though they apply a greater degree of sales pressure than larger stores such as Futureshop and Best Buy. Spike TV routinely promotes the Video Game Awards as a celebration of gaming and gamers but is really using the event to market new games and sell advertising to the variety of gaming based tie-ins. The games industry uses the term “gamer” to serve its own ends, to create an ideal consumer. What is even more insidious is the connection between lifestyle choices and video games. Mountain Dew becomes the gamers’ drink of choice, certain companies make special gaming products such as “gaming mice” for the PC and various websites and outlets begin to sell gaming influenced fashion, a specific example being those old t-shirts with Nintendo controllers on them saying “Know Your Roots.”

Take the recent dust-up over the Halo co-promotion with Mountain Dew and Doritos. What these companies are trying to do is synergize an experience, they’re using video games to establish links between the products so that people who like Halo will also want to consume their beverages and junk food. Gamers in this way are shifted from being defined by a hobby, but by the cultural commodities which they consume. A gamer is not just defined by playing different types of video games, but by wearing certain clothes, eating certain foods, etc. Games journalism is not immune from this marketing edge as well. While some sites choose to omit the word “gamer” and perhaps recognize its shortcomings, other websites use the term ubiquitously. Examining Kotaku’s front page, one sees the word “gamer” occurring in a variety of different instances. The effect this has makes it seem as if the stories they are publishing are communal in their interest. The object of the news becomes the illusory community of gamers they are trying to harvest instead of whatever specific product may be associated with it. It’s not simply a replacement for the word “player”, but a transformation of the word into a universal subject designed to create page views on articles attached to less popular topics. The corporate use of the word “gamer” reshapes the notion of the term, which makes it into a subject, prone to the forces of power rather than simply a communal signifier.

Ultimately, as one hopefully concludes from my analysis, the term “gamer” is untenable. It is an oversimplification and reduction of a vast group of people who happen to participate in a similar activity. Hopefully, once the administration of society is the hands of video game players, which is more and more likely by the day, we can abandon the ludicrous cultural marker “gamer”.