In defence of ‘gamer’

Simon Parkin in the New Statesman has an excellent take on the ways gamer culture strikes out at those outside it, and the way homogenous stereotypes reinforce that behaviour – it’s a great piece, and you should definitely read it, but the headline is wrong. It says “If you love games, you should refuse to be called a gamer.” But I love games. I’m a gamer. I’m a player too. And the good guys don’t get to do boundary policing and gatekeeping any more than the bad guys do.

(To be clear I don’t think Simon’s advocating this position – his point is that this is not a homogenous community, that people who play games aren’t just one thing, and I am 100% with him on that score.)

A friend of mine did some research looking at women who play games, their experiences of games and game culture, and found that a great deal of the people who responded to her survey would not define themselves as gamers, in part because of the stereotype and the hostility they felt from the community. I don’t look like the stereotype, so I can’t be one – a similar issue to the one facing feminism, where the strawfeminist is assumed to be the definition of feminism. Except that in gaming the stereotype is celebrated, rather than criticised on all sides.

Gamer as an identity isn’t going to disappear. It’s not limited to videogames (though lots of videogamers seem to think it is). It’s not limited to those who play vs those who don’t play. It’s a useful label, something that people bond over and around – and that’s not limited to dudebros playing CoD. It applies to me playing PC games, and tabletop RPGs, and board games, and live games, and finding commonality with all those gamer communities. It implies a shared vocabulary and a shared set of interests, but it’s also big enough these days to accommodate a huge number of overlapping sub-communities. And one of those – in fact, several of those – are mine.

Gaming has a huge identity problem. Many gamers see gaming as an integral part of their identity, and one of the messier results of that is that many people still perceive criticism of the games they like as criticism of them as people. That leads to all sorts of awfulness – backlash against those who are discriminated against in games and who dare to speak out, critics being attacked for doing valuable work. Some groups of gamers behave more like fandom than most of fandom does – ingroup/outgroup policing, jostling for status, assuming an outsider position, banding together against perceived adversaries. None of that is healthy or particularly sensible given the spread of the hobby.

But that doesn’t mean that’s all the label is. That headline falls into the trap that the article laments: assuming gamers are homogenous, and that the identity itself holds no value. It holds value for me: it’s been important in fostering a sense of togetherness, in creating shared spaces where I feel like I belong, diverse spaces that include other gamer women and other queer gamers. And many of us fought to be called gamers, used that label in public in spite of hostility, and we would not have done that or continue to do that if it wasn’t a valuable and useful thing.

I can criticise the actions of others who identify as gamers while also calling myself a gamer. I can be proud to be part of a community that makes Journey and Gone Home and Dys4ia and all those other games. I can be proud of being part of a community that’s – slowly but surely – getting broader, more accepting and more diverse, and I can fight against – not disown – the backlash against that process in my small corner of this culture.

Owning this identity helped me find friends on the other side of the world. It would be a shame to lose it.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

7 thoughts on “In defence of ‘gamer’”

  1. It occurred to me that when I use the term “gamer” I’m not using it in the sense of the grand, unified gaming hobby, but really I’m just being lazy and referring to the specific gaming tradition/community of which I’m a part; and it’s very easy to perceive that as “mainstream” or “true” gaming, to which others are subsidiary. I think a lot of that comes from being part of the educated, middle-class, white, male group that has had the most opportunity to express itself in published gaming media, and I briefly wondered if it would be helpful, or at least meaningful, for there to be a specific term for that (like Anglo-gamer or WASP-gamer or something).
    But as you say, we can’t assume that gamers are homogenous, or even that the histories from which that term originates are homogenous or even shared – the background of tabletop role play is very different and separate from that of computer gaming, and the people that called themselves gamers from each of those communities were referring to themselves before a larger gaming community emerged to claim the title. Which leads me to the thought that really, when I say “gamer”, I actually mean “*gamer”; a template term that will vary in meaning depending on who says it and who hears it. I don’t propose that anyone actually use the word, but I think in future I’ll remind myself that that’s what I’m really saying, rather than an implication of a mainstream gaming culture to which all those johnny-come-lately casual gamers, girl gamers, console gamers et al are merely pretenders.

    1. I do the same thing. I wonder if that’s a big part of what’s going on here. It’s the same word for lots of different overlapping sets of stuff, and one of those meanings is this really exclusionary cultural thing, but lots more of them are other things. And people assume the speaker means one when actually they’re talking about one or more of the others. A lot.

  2. [Achievement! ::Writer on Fire::]

    Gaming development to me seems to be in a transition its grappling with itself in terms advancement. Its not an identity crisis but possibly a decline in profits that has made them think and say hey maybe we need to learn how to collaborate (or maybe its just Steam Early Access taking effect) which is kind of the essence of game design unless your indie then its not so hard. But then again maybe its still affordable to staple things together as long as you have co-op. A cross-road perhaps.

    The gaming community on the other hand seems shamefully discordant and recent events really make me mad but there’s no way in hell I would quit calling myself a gamer, I am prepared to fight for the things I hold dear. Why stop being proud to be associated with having fun with friends, and cherishing something whatever it is that’s so beloved: gaming. Maybe its some sort of Shakespeare effect a “medium” bowing down to the lowly.

    Gamer as a stereotype is pretty awkward these days but at the same time that’s part of what makes it so charming its accessibility and ability to put you out in the middle of the square and say something without being physically stoned to death. I had Dys4ia at the back of my mind pretty much all the way through that.

    Sorry if I went of topic; but you know I am a gamer.

    1. Alongside the decline in “mainstream” “console” gaming there’s also this rise of new audiences, or broadening of the hobby I guess. And where we used to have hardcore vs casual gamer now we have gamer vs I don’t even know what, this nebulous thing which is just people who play games but don’t consider themselves gamers. That makes gamer a much weirder identity because it’s trying to define an out-group and there just isn’t one, any more.

      1. Who could forget the casual vs hardcore war it was basically TheJunglist vs everyone else even though he was off playing every tower defence under the sun, Crabitron and FSynapse.

        Even the gaming media is dangerous I feel just compare say the likes of Extra Credits and TTL Biscuit to someone like Bogost.

        Wait a minuite was that guys whole article making gamers the scape goat yet again! Cowards surrounded by cowards surrounded by incompetence.

        I guess your not allowed to point out law is askew to reality in concern of the Genie factor.

        1. Sorry I only just finished reading that great article it was a bit tense at the start. And yes your absolutely right. There’s was constant sense of wielding in it for me.

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