What is a “gamer?”

Posted: July 2, 2013 by Twitchdoctor in Game Players
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Videogame Library

We Are What We Buy
(Original photo by Dj ph. Used in accordance with Creative Commons License)

The answer to this question seems blindingly obvious.  A gamer is a person who plays videogames.  But with any activity it is important to circle back to first principles occasionally.  In this case, the common sense answer to this fundamental question is arguably not helping the cause of providing all of us with better games.  In fact, this answer may be a fundamental part of the reason why every year the gaming industry seems desperate to emulate Hollywood: scattering a handful of diamonds throughout a giant shit pile.  If the diamonds land on top, all well and good, we recognize them and celebrate them.  Most of us, however, are left having to do a lot of unpleasant digging and spend time cleaning residue off objects that may or may not prove to be the gems we seek.  All too often the resultant gem proves simply to be a particularly well fossilized turd.

I’m not a gamer, I’m just misunderstood
I’ll start by admitting that I’m a little torn.  On the one hand, I often hate answers to this kind of question that insert the word “real” before “gamer.”  This invariably leads to (or, more usually, is motivated by) people making mean-spirited comparisons deeply rooted in their own insecurities.  “Real” gamers are men not women.  “Real” gamers play consoles not PCs.  “Real” gamers play hardcore stuff not casual games.  Typically the people who utter such sentiments are giving voice to their own sense of entitlement (they are powerful in RL and gaming is a natural extension of their domination of others) or insecurity (they are powerless or inadequate in RL and games are much cheaper than buying a Lexus or a BMW).  The voices from each group are loud, persistent, obnoxious, exert a disproportionate influence on developers, but are completely beside the point when it comes to defining “gamer.”

And yet defining “real gamers” is probably what I’m going to end up doing.

One starting point for looking at this question is the Extra Credits “Gamer” episode from season one.  They note that the term itself is rather unusual.  With virtually no other medium do we use the label for the medium to describe the people who enjoy the medium.  We don’t talk about “filmers,” for example, or “painterists” or “sculpturers.”  In a characteristically thoughtful take on the issue, the EC team locates the reason for this in the many negative cultural stereotypes associated with the term (it is being applied to us because of people’s fear and/or lack of understanding of what games are) and the consequent pushback where many players embrace the term in a (frequently OTT) “Loud and Proud” way.  Both of these dynamics are clearly at work in the way the term circulates in our culture.

In this case, however, I think EC misses the point in at least two ways.  One, ironically enough, is captured in the first comment in response to the web episode.  I say ironically because the comment is a classic example of your typical internet poster with obvious mommy/daddy issues.  Rather than highlight a point of disagreement they choose to lambaste the EC team for bad faith and malign intention at every turn.  Beneath the grassy knoll paranoia, however, the aptly titled “Puny Human” makes a good point: there are all kinds of things humans do where they are labeled according to the interest in which they participate: biking, jogging, hiking, etc.  This in fact gets us a little closer to why the term “gamer” exists.

Games are not a medium.  Games are activities.

Let’s dig a little further, however, because Puny Human’s analogy itself doesn’t quite hold.  Out of all the activities that s/he mentions, the odd one out is biking, where the name of the activity just happens to coincide with the equipment we use to perform that activity (and I suspect this is an artifact of English; other languages have other words to describe cyclists, e.g. rouleur).  We don’t, after all, refer to a jogger as a “running shoer” or a “singleter;” we don’t refer to a tennis player as a “racketeer” (awesome as that term would be, it has unfortunately been appropriated to describe the preferred activity of many government representatives and business people).  If we as “gamers” were to adopt an analogous term based on what it is we do (rather than the thing we use to do it) it would be, simply, “player.”

What would be the logical choice unfortunately breaks down in the face of cultural norms.  If there is a stigma attached to “gamer” there is, arguably, even more of one attached to “play.”  We are allowed to wallow in the joyous, happy definitions of play only in childhood.  After that, unless you are a professional athlete, and then only in certain sports (we talk about hockey players but not discus players) play becomes unseemly and–the greatest sin–inefficient (a machine that has too much play in it is one that is inefficient and may be about to break).  Working is Serious Business.  Raising a family is Serious Business.  Getting laid regular is Serious Business.  And yet. . .we’re also troubled by the sense that all of these activities have a dark underside where people don’t approach them with the requisite seriousness, where people do in fact treat them as only a game.  Think about the mix of admiration/opprobrium attached to someone who is a sexual “playuh.”

So deep is the negative stigma attached to “play” once we enter adulthood that even using this term wouldn’t make any sense.  If someone asked you “What do you like doing?” And you replied “I’m a jogger” then they would immediately be able to form a clear picture.  If you replied “I’m a player” there is no correspondingly concrete image that springs to mind.  The first response might be to suspect an ironic comment on your own sexual prowess.  The second would probably be to ask “What do you play at?” (the assumption that playing is a vaguely illicit activity)  or “Who do you play for?” (the assumption that your play must be owned by someone else).  This is why in the gaming world the term player only ever comes up when it is very clear that the context is videogames (on game-related discussion lists, blogs, etc., in academic articles about games); outside gamer culture, it is almost never applied to the digital world without some kind of modifier such as “videogame players.”

So, are we stuck with “gamer” simply because the best term for what we do is taken?

Er, where’s the D-pad for this thing?
Those of you who are good at reading and math will have noticed that I mentioned there were two reasons why the Extra Credits crew uncharacteristically missed the point about the term gamer and as yet I have discussed only one (the misconception that games are a medium).  The second reason has everything to do with the kind of activity that gaming is understood to represent and, I would argue, actually does represent for most of those people we call gamers.  It is an activity given over to, and almost completely defined by, consumption.

We can understand the role consumption plays in facilitating the singular terminology of “gamer” when we look at another kind of activity: reading.  Which brings me first of all to a rather strange moment in the Extra Credits episode.  While making the point that we don’t label other users according to their medium of choice, the narrator says: “You don’t call people who enjoy novels “readers” or “bookers.” ” The narrator goes on to have a little giggle over how much fun it would be to actually use the term “booker” but I’m sitting there thinking, “Wait. . .what?  We do call people who read novels (and other kinds of books) readers, don’t we?”  I think it is at that precise moment, that strange little slip, that the EC folks almost get it right.  We have the term “gamer” because “gamer” in fact functions a lot like “reader.”

Being a reader, like being a gamer, is fundamentally bound up with a specific technology, but the activity is also strangely displaced from its delivery medium.  We have books and games, but being a “reader” or a “gamer” still doesn’t enable us to form a clear picture of what it is that each person does.  Again, contrast this with someone who is labeled a jogger or a hiker. “Reader,” like “gamer,” is a term that defines a kind of activity in which you participate. . .sort of.  In fact, it defines a domain of activities while remaining highly abstract.  So you are a reader.  I understand that such an activity probably involves scanning words on page or screen.  But what exactly do you read?  The term “reader” also carries the connotation of a voracious, indiscriminate and unreflective consumption.  Think of the very different picture that forms when someone says “I read novels” or “I read autobiographies” compared with “I’m a reader.”  In other words, much as our culture valorizes reading (and is often at great pains to suggest that we all should be reading instead of playing games) there is, like the word gamer, something vaguely unhealthy attached to the idea of being a “reader.”

Nevertheless, being a reader still carries with it considerable more prestige than being a gamer.  But a large part of the reason for that is not simply the stereotypical assumptions associated with gamers, as EC suggests.  Rather it is due to the extremely low expectations that gamers have for meaningful participation in their own activity.

To understand the connection between the two terms, as well as some fundamental differences between them,  it is helpful to consider a book I read a short while ago, Peter Kivy’s The Performance of Reading.  Kivy makes the provocative argument that reading (the silent reading to ourselves that most of us practice) should in fact be understood as a kind of performance.  It is an interesting argument for all kinds of reasons, not least for the fact that Kivy reminds us that silent, solo reading, which we now understand to be the archetype of all reading, is in fact a very recent development.  For most of the period during which we’ve had the practice of reading in the West, even when one was reading for one’s own benefit (i.e. not to an audience), it was done out loud (it was also, especially in the ancient world, often done while walking); the library at Alexandria was in all probability a very noisy place, the complete antithesis of a modern library.  As late as the Middle Ages some writers, in describing their reading of other texts, felt the need to specify to their audiences that they read these texts silently to themselves, which suggests of course that the prevailing practice was very different.  And even after silent reading started to become the norm, there is evidence that people still actively moved their lips along with the words, a practice that we tend to associate today with a developmentally early stage of learning to read “properly” (“Sound your words out, children”).

Kivy’s argument about reading as performance and why it is important and what we can do with that kind of changed perspective isn’t really relevant at all to the issue of what “gamers” are called “gamers.”  I’m mentioning it completely gratuitously in the spirit of “I never knew that and I bet you didn’t either.”  What is relevant is that Kivy recognizes early on in his book that given the nature of this inquiry sooner or later he is going to have to define what he means by “reader.”  It would of course be easy enough to take the simple approach: just as most people would define a gamer as someone who plays games, isn’t a reader simply someone who reads print?

Kivy, by contrast, defines four characteristics that make up a reader:

  1. “someone with at least a significant degree of literary sensibility. . . .someone who can actually be moved by literary characters, by literary language, and by the other “beauties” of more distinguished works.”
  2.  “someone in whose life the reading of novels occupies a significant place.  I do not mean that he be an obsessive reader: someone who scorns all forms of “trivial” amusement. . .  But he is someone who spends some significant time reading fiction, and feels the need to return to the activity if the press of business and other of life’s vexations have kept him from it for any considerable length of time.”
  3.  “someone who enjoys a wide range of genres and forms.  He does not scorn the shilling-shocker, the lower kinds of sci-fi, spy thrillers, and other time-wasters.  But he also feels the need, at times, to read the “good stuff” . . .  In addition, he reads novels that are supposed to “make one think”: that is to say, fictional narrations that not only tell a story but have as one of their literary purposes presenting (and perhaps defending) a philosophical, moral, political, or other important thesis about which the reader is supposed to think and which may even have a lasting effect on him.”
  4. “someone who is serious enough about the enterprise to spend at least a little of his time reading literary criticism.  He need hardly be a literary scholar with a Ph.D. in English.  Large critical tomes need not be his steady diet.  Book reviews and articles in the popular press will do for him. But I do need a reader with enough interest and sophistication to not only read good novels but to read about them sometimes as well.”

You can see what Kivy is trying to do here: define “real” readers.  This is typically the kind of move that gets people all up in arms and elicits cries of “elitism” and “anti-democratic.”  But Kivy is not saying that people can’t read whatever the hell they like, whenever they like, wherever they like, to whomever they like (or don’t like), while doing whatever the hell else they like.  If your preferred version of reading involves ululated readings of cereal packets while engaging in tantric sex in the middle of New York’s Central Park then Kivy is not trying to stop you.

What Kivy is doing is acknowledging that in functional terms there are different kinds of readers.  There are, first of all, professional readers, those who in some sense get paid to read for a living: a varied group that includes scholars, editors, and authors of various kinds of texts.  At the other end of the spectrum is a group that I would call “spackle” readers.  These readers simply read to fill gaps in their lives, either time gaps (they read books, magazines and newspapers with the same goal as those who play Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies) or to cover over other kinds of cracks in their lives, to help them avoid having to think.  Reading is largely diversion and evasion, undertaken in a spirit of mechanical habit.  A third group takes some pleasure in what they read, but they don’t spend too much time thinking about it; they aren’t going to make much effort to dig into the significance of what they read, they will tend to read within a pretty narrow genre range (only sci-fi, say, or crime novels).  Then there is the group that Kivy is defining above.  These categories may bleed into one another at times (sometimes a professional reader will just want something non-threatening to pass the time while waiting for a bus) but they mark general tendencies that are connected with the role reading plays in your life, its impact upon your way of living.

Why bother making such distinctions?  Kivy is assuming is that there are going to be times when our culture engages in discussions involving reading where there will be more at stake than the simple pleasures associated with individual preferences.  These conversations might involve larger issues of history, aesthetics and philosophy as they do in Kivy’s book; they might be political (censorship; influence of children’s fiction, etc.); they might be professional (impact of e-readers; the decline in scholarly publishing); they might be multi-disciplinary (the connections between the form and techniques of books and other media, new and old).  In each of these conversations, the people who get to participate in those debates should be informed, engaged, reflective readers.  The conversation should be driven by those who assumed some level of responsibility for their knowledge of and investment in reading.

This is going to seem especially elitist in the Internet age, where the prevailing wisdom often masquerades as a belief in participatory democracy but is in fact simple demagoguery.  This belief in a democracy without responsibility has given us the modern political system; we love to bemoan the quality of our representatives but forget that they are put there by people who often can’t name who their sitting representatives actually are, and who consistently show themselves to be stunningly mis- and uninformed about the issues of the day.  It has given us the “comments” page, where anyone can weigh in on any topic regardless of whether they know anything about that topic.  (The quality of most comments pages would be vastly improved if prospective commentators had to answer a quick knowledge quiz (nothing arduous, 3-5 short questions) before they were allowed to post (sure they could Google the answers, but I’m guessing that given the poor impulse control of the Ranty McRantys that makes up the majority of Internet posters, even this would prove too much work and therefore would constitute a useful barrier to entry)).  So all Kivy is saying is that those who get to weigh in on the conversations that really matter should know something about this topic and have a dog in the fight.

If we paraphrase all of Kivy’s categories they amount to the argument that “real” readers: a) feel involved in what they read and are able to be moved by what they read; b) consider reading a significant component of their lives; c) are widely read; and d) ensure that they read some informed discussion about reading.  In other words, simply being able to read a book (possessing sufficient basic literacy to enable you to reach the threshold of parsing a text) does not make you a reader.  All of these criteria are designed to separate readers from mere consumers, someone who simply buys, reads, forgets, and moves on to the next book.

But don’t books (or movies, or games) influence us regardless, even if we aren’t really paying attention or engaged?  There are certainly entire schools of thought that argue that they do, most of them predicated upon the negative effects of various forms of media.  All of them have in common what I think of as the All Powerful Text Fallacy.  In essence, this is the belief that media consumers are blank slates with zero resistance to media.  What the medium communicates in terms of content we automatically believe, and this is going to be most in evidence if the medium is seen as having a pernicious influence in some way.  If the movie shows people in black trenchcoats shooting up a school, then we consumers will all move like automatons down to our nearest Gap and Walmart to stock up.  There is a technical term for this thesis.  That term is bullshit.  It is bullshit when it is used to talk about the effect of seeing sex on TV or hearing the word fuck on the radio and it is bullshit when it is flipped around to try and argue that even people with their brains turned off are still going to get some benefit from reading a good book or seeing a great movie (or playing a great game).  We need to allow media to influence us, and that means cultivating an openness to that influence, a vulnerability, if you like.  But vulnerability has some obvious downsides in your media life as it does in your material one; you will be disappointed far more often than you will be rewarded.  And people are generally no more keen on being disappointed in their private reading lives than they are in their relationships with people.  This is why mere consumerism (in media, in relationships) is such a nice, safe choice: treat everything as essentially indistinguishable, and completely replaceable, and life becomes a cross-country journey eating only at McDonalds.

From Great Expectations to Low Expectations
So how can we apply this to the world of gaming?  First, we have to acknowledge that compared with what Kivy is talking about in relation to the term “reader” most of our definitions of “gamer” are remarkably unsophisticated: it is people who play videogames.  Now I’m sure many will argue that to come up with anything more developed smacks of a pointy-headed east coast liberal elitism.  In response I would say that demagoguery isn’t necessarily any better than elitism; claims of a democratic accessibility underpin the world of gaming as they do the larger sphere of the Internet and the universe of information technology discourse.  Many of those claims simple serve to mask the many ways in parts of these realms aren’t open and democratic but are in fact based on privilege and prejudice.

So if we are going to define “gamer,” or, more specifically–OK, yes, I’m going to go with this–“real” gamers, what do we get if we apply Kivy’s criteria?  Real gamers:

  1. Feel involved in the games they play and are capable of being moved by those games;
  2. Consider gaming a significant component of their lives;
  3. Have played a wide variety of games;
  4. Ensure they read some informed discussion of gaming.

Now I think a lot of gamers would be quick to look at that list and say, “Yep, that’s me.”  But hold on a minute.  Look again at Kivy’s extended descriptions of these criteria.  A lot of videgame players would fit the second criteria but by no means all.  If games are a simple diversion for you then they are basically filling the same role as a background TV; they are a part of your life but not a significant one.  My sense (and it is largely anecdotal; I would love to see some hard data on this) is that most gamers are also not (in an analogy with reading) widely “gamed;” i.e. they don’t play a wide variety of games.  Most gamers I know have their preferred genres of game (or even specific franchises) and they will rarely play anything else–and this is before we even get into the distinction between hardcore and casual games.  Gamers are arguably even more partisan about their gaming choices than adherents of other forms of other creative entertainments.  Kivy’s “widely read” criteria and by extension my own “widely gamed” also presupposes that people haven’t simple read or played a couple of other options in the distant past but that they continue to seek out examples from other genres to broaden their knowledge.  Do many people who read have their preferred genres?  Yes, but as I pointed out above, we would probably agree that someone who reads only one genre of novels really doesn’t have the cred to weigh in on more general issues concerning books; in the same way we’d recognize that someone who only plays FPS games or the various versions of Madden NFL really doesn’t have enough experience to be able to do more than offer an ignorant, half-formed opinion.  Lucky for us that that is the kind of opinion in which the Internet specializes!

I probably don’t have to say too much about number four.  Gamers read a lot of reviews.  But game reviews, as I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog are crap.  They in fact fall well below the already minimal level of thought provocation that characterizes casual reviews of other media and activities.  Encouragingly, we have seen some reviewers who are aware that most game reviews are crap and so are many of the games reviewed by those reviewers (but which still manage, magically, to get a 7.2 on Metacritic) and are prepared to take a different route; this is Yahtzee’s entire schtick, but it also informs the approach taken by Aegisfang on this blog.  There are also some notable attempts (like Extra Credits) to create a more sophisticated conversation about games that is more popularly accessible.  So, yes, I’m elitistly establishing a hierarchy.  At the bottom of the heap are players who never look beyond Metacritic; at the next level are the players who never get beyond Gamespot or IGN; real gamers by contrast do all of the above but then seek out other avenues like Extra Credits that try to insert games into broader cultural conversations.

But it is the first criteria–that gamers are involved in the games they play and are capable of being moved by them–that honestly gives me the most pause.  Are players captivated by the games they play?  Are they excited?  The answer to the both is clearly yes.  But is this the same as involvement?  One thing that strikes me when looking at how some players play, when listening to them talk about their play, and which I’ve occasionally observed in myself, is the degree to which players appear to hover above the surface of their games.  They don’t live them, or inhabit them, in the way I often feel myself doing with a novel, a film and with certain games, nor do they really play them.  It is more true to say that they operate them in the way someone would would operate a piece of machinery or a spreadsheet (something that is extremely noticeable in the way some players approach raids in MMORPGs, complete with statistics sheet, character build templates and real-time damage trackers).  And all of this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the second half of this one criterion: how many players are really “moved” by the games they play, where “moved” is something much more than simple exciting or challenge, but where a game is capable of leaving a piece of itself in your soul. . .and you as a gamer are sufficiently open to that, sufficiently vulnerable, to permit that to happen.

The Rise of the Gamers
I’ve been very declarative in the above, as is my wont, but I mean it more in a spirit of inquiry.  I’m pretty certain that most players would fit criteria no. 2, just as I’m sure that they would fail criteria number 4.  The other two criteria?  I’m less certain, based on a lack of empirical data.  If I’m right, however, it goes a long way to explaining the lack of respect for the term “gamer.”  Because according to a more demanding definition of gamer, but one based on a set of criteria that are not at all unreasonable when applied to the world of reading, then “gamer” is held in such low regard because we don’t yet have a critical mass of real gamers.  We have a lot of happy consumers doing their happy consumer thing.  That isn’t in and of itself a problem.  But just as getting at least some good books is dependent on having an engaged, informed, demanding set of “real” readers, so being provided with games that are more thoughtful and thought-provoking is going to require a similarly engaged, informed, and demanding (as opposed to merely whiny and entitled) group of “real” gamers.

Am I suggesting that all videogame players need to meet these criteria?  No, of course not, no more so than Kivy is suggesting that the readers he is defining cover the universe of all readers.  Play what you like, how you like.  But unless you can meet those criteria, don’t call yourself a gamer.  And when the cultural conversation turns round to weighty matters concerning games (DRM, homophobia in games, harassment of women, re-writing the ending of Mass Effect) and you aren’t a gamer, then do us all a favor, sit down and shut the fuck up.


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