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.