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Why does the term 'gamer' feel important?

7:30 PM on 08.31.2014 // Jonathan Holmes

There are gamers at the gate, but they may already be dead

Earlier this morning I told my Twitter followers I was thinking of starting a post about why the term gamer might be "dying" or an article about positive representations of schizophrenia in videogames (like, all two of them). A couple of people wanted me to do the schizophrenia one... but mostly just because they didn't want me to do the gamer one. I got the feeling that they didn't want another ugly, negative post about videogame culture to exist. 

That said to me that this "gamer" term has some inherent power to it. It makes people feel something, for better or worse. Compare it to terms like "golfer" or "golf journalism." Imagine if golf pros and commentators were to declare that the term "golfer" is dead. The collective golf community would likely raise an eyebrow, shrug, and get back to golfing. That's not what we're seeing in the "gamer" community right now.

Right now we're seeing groups of once-unified "gamers" look at each other with disappointment, anger, and frustration. The thought is "you're not what I wanted you to be." The gaming press is saying that to game consumers. Game consumers are saying that to game developers. Game developers saying it to the gaming press. It's a constant three-way of pure disdain.

This disdain is born from the budding awareness of how different the goals, perspectives, and priorities of those three groups are. The illusion that we're "all just gamers" has been shattered. That said, the term "gamer" will likely never die. It's just not working as an applicable catch all for everyone who is passionate about videogames. Not anymore. Not after all of the misuse it's seen. That doesn't mean we have to give up on it though. 

"I'm a nerd, and I'm pretty proud of it"

I haven't fully researched where the term "gamer" came from or how long it's been around. The oldest use of the term I've seen goes back to Diehard GameFan magazine from October 2000. GameFan EiC Eric Mylonas uses the term in an offhand way, like it had been a round for a while, but I can't recall hearing it before then.

Here's a word-for-word quote: "It's been said before, but today's gamer isn't cut from the same cloth as those of yesteryear -- then again, I suppose it would have helped if you'd started playing games prior to PlayStation, right? Yep, back when a gamer was a gamer and the only thing he had to look forward to on a Friday night was a date with Mario, a bag of Doritos and a six-pack of Mountain Dew -- oh, and some of that Skinemax stuff. Nope, today's 'gamers' are watered down, shrinky-dink versions of the old school player."

Pulling the Skinemax card? Whoa.

Strangely enough, he also makes one the the first mentions of game journalism I've ever seen -- "A 'gaming journalist' (how's that for an oxymoron) telling you a game is too easy and it's over before it starts? Well we've all heard it since the days of the home Neo Geo when a Earlier Great Magazine (my, how things have changed over the years) used to rail the carts for that system because they were 'too easy' due to infinite continues. Nowadays, though, you'll regularly hear both game editors and players prattle on at length over how 'little-bus easy' games are these days; how things just aren't as hard as they once were."

Here is where it gets intense -- "Hey cellar dweller, here's an idea: Why don't you stop hitting the continue button like an under-sexed teen, constantly flipping over to his newfound obsession, Skinemax... oh that's right, then you'd be the prison bitch."


You're not likely to see that kind of wordage on the big-name game blogs of 2014, but a lot of the sentiments sound familiar. Primarily, the sentiment of elitism. The idea that there are certain kinds of gamers that deserve to take pride in that name, and others that should be ashamed. The process of establishing superiority over another group of gamers by belittling them. The idea that gaming journalism isn't a real thing is also a part of that, so it's no surprise to see it's been around just as long as "gamer" has. All this stuff has been simmering for years. For whatever reason, it feels like a lot of it has come to a head in the past couple weeks.

For a lot of people, self identifying as a "gamer" is a way to cast off other labels like "nerd", "fanboy", or in the case of GameFan 2000 "prison bitch". It's something that AAA game marketing has been quick to latch on to, selling people on the idea that if you buy their game/console/whatever, you're not a "nerd" or a "casual". You're a "hardcore gamer", which is something to aspire towards. Much of the Achievement/Trophy/Club Nintendo system is based around this idea too -- propping up people's egos for how much they play videogames or how many videogames they've purchased, giving them praise where the rest of the world may apply scorn. 

"Gamer" has been very good to AAA game marketing, and to people who really needed something, anything, to help them from buying into the the larger culture's notion that there is something wrong with them for liking videogames. The better people feel about themselves, the more they're likely to make other people feel better. That's how it should work anyway, but sadly, "gamer" is a lot like communism. It's great in theory. In practice, people screw everything up. 

When being "pretty proud of it" gets ugly

Things started to go wrong when the gaming community started to develop its own politics. Sure, we've always had console war "politics", and there's a history of barriers between "gamers" in their teens and older folks such as myself, but that's nothing compared to what we have now. 

Today we have more than just "Nintendo Vs. Sega", or "old school gamers Vs. prison bitches". We have Game Journalists, Youtubers, Gaming Consumer Advocates, Indie Developers, Social Justice Warriors, 4Channers, their cousin the Redditors, the Fighting Game Community, Pokemaniacs, Bronies Who Game, Gaymers, Casual Gamers, Girl Gamers, Faker Girl Gamers, Fake Guy Gamers, Men's Gaming Rights Activists, Fanboys, Videogame Hipsters and uhhhgggggghhhhhh I want to die. Most of these labels don't actually mean anything. They describe how other people look at strangers on the internet, and don't describe how many people feel about themselves. They certainly aren't appropriate terms to truly define any human being. An aspect of someone's life maybe, but not the whole person. All the same, they are used at a constant pace in the "gamer" community because they are easy, evocative, and quick routes to the outrage culture superhighway

The term "gamer" isn't really a problem. It's all those other terms that are the problem. Gamer in-fighting -- it's dumb and gross. 

Over the past two weeks, various things have happened to cause this in-fighting, but the central conceit has been that game developers, journalists, and enthusiasts don't want the same things. For whatever reason, they are just starting to wake up to that now, like if one day all actors, paparazzi, and readers of Hollywood gossip magazines woke up and said "Whoa, we all like acting, but for pretty darn different reasons! I guess we shouldn't expect too much out of each other." If they had had a blanket term that they all used to define themselves for years, like "Moviers", then maybe that would have happened. Unlike "Gamers", Hollywood has never had an illusions that everyone in their socio-economic system is after the same thing, so they aren't angry and surprised when they find themselves at cross purposes. 

There is also a resentment around how much we all need each other. Gaming journalists rely on game enthusiasts to stay in business. Without them, there is no revenue. Often times, it's also an emotional need. Many game journalists want to be respected more than anything else. Their careers depend on being seen as "an important voice in gaming", but so does their self esteem. If they are of a certain age (and most are), its highly likely that they were made fun of for playing games growing up, told by their parents that videogames weren't real jobs, and the rest. They saw game journalism as a way to be loved for their interest in games. It's often a rude awakening for them to be accused cronyism and nepotism, despite the fact that they are likely paid less a year than your average landscaper.

The same can be said for how game developers feel about game journalists and enthusiasts. Developers need them both, which can inspire constant disappointment, and many rude awakenings. A lot of them are sick of the fact that journalists seem to only want to win popularity contests, and that enthusiasts only care about having the world of gaming revolve around their particular tastes. Seeing indie developers voice these resentments, unencumbered by the usual game publisher gag orders, is a relatively new phenomenon. They are just now seeing how much support they may find within their own communities for loathing game journalists and enthusiasts. It's not something the press or the players are used to (yet).

Developers usually want every developer to be able to create freely in an environment that supports "quality" work being made. That makes them look down at game journalists who are too busy trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, forcing outliers to the sidelines and minimizing the scope of what games can be. They may look even lower down on the game enthusiasts, who represent that lowest common denominator. The fact that the world doesn't work the way that they want it to often drives them to make even more amazing, fully realized worlds in their games. I've talked to a lot of game developers over the years, and its very common to hear them say that they make games because they want to create places that make sense to them -- worlds that feel right. Art, Game Design, and Programming makes sense. People don't. In the past, they'd take that thought and shut it in, channel it into creativity. With twitter around, they have many more opportunities to let it out. Mix some alcohol or other dis-inhibiting elements into that combination and you can have a real hate parade. 

As for gaming enthusiasts, it seems like they just want to feel respected. They want to hear that the people who they think have more power in the industry are going to take care of them, listen to them, continue to support the kinds of games they want to play. Anyone in the industry "above" them who doesn't do this can be quickly lumped into the group of "not real gamers". If you're writing about fighting games and you don't say the right things, you may be called a "scrub" (AKA someone who just pretends to know fighting games but really just wants to be part of the FGC). If you're writing about how sometimes people are depicted in problematic ways , you may be called a "Social Justice Warrior" (AKA someone who just pretends to care about videogames but really wants to be the next Martin Luther King, Jr.). It goes on and on like that. No matter who you are, if you don't reflect back what your audience may be thinking, your credibility may come into question.

Everyone in these three groups likely thought of themselves as a "real gamer" at one point or another, and they're all disappointed to find their illusion of sameness and unity shattered. For some of them, the way of dealing with that disappointment is to yell about how other groups are a problem. It's ridiculous. All that's going to do is perpetuate hostility and push people apart. So lets not do that. Lets do something else!

Be proud of how you act, not how much of a "gamer" you are

Here's the part you've all been waiting for, where I go into full-on Dad mode and lecture about how to unite gamers, end hostility and to be done with all of this ugliness is for people to stop grouping people and then declaring that everyone in one said group (journalists, developers, gamers) is a problem. 

That's not very realistic, is it? If you could just tell people to stop doing that, we probably wouldn't have any more problems. It would be like Biodome, but somehow, maybe... even better.

Maybe I should give up immediately and get back to the purported point of this ding dang post -- the importance of the term "gamer". I know a lot of people who don't want to use it anymore. They don't want to be associated with it anymore in any way. It's because a lot of people who take pride in being "gamers", be they game developers, journalists, or players, use the term as a way to elevate themselves above others.  Gamer used to mean "a former nerd who is now proud of their love of games", but now a lot of people take it to mean "I'm cooler than you other try-hards, because videogames". 

"Gamer" was a way to to take back "videogame nerd" and remove the social stigma, and now it's being used as a pedestal to stigmatize others. So we're going to have to take it back again, this time from the bullies that use it to devalue other people for not having the same type of interests, priorities, and goals as they do.

We've reached a point where almost everybody plays videogames, but not everyone cares about them. If you really care about videogames, you'll spend more time talking, writing about, and of course, playing games than you will talking about, writing about, or attacking other people that also have dedicated themselves to the medium. You should disagree with others, but don't call for anyone to be silenced. Talk about what you would like to see built in the industry, not who you'd like to see removed. Be constructive with your criticism, not destructive. That's what someone who loves something, or someone, will do with their passion. That's what a gamer would do. 

If you see someone who isn't behaving that way, someone who says they are a "gamer" in order to elevate themselves while putting someone else down, or to play the victim role in order to amass sympathy, call them out. Tell them that there was never a reason to be ashamed to play videogames, so therefore, there is no reason to be proud of it either. Not on its own merits. Here's what's worth being proud of; being passionate, dedicated, genuine, and positive about playing games, making games, writing about them, or whatever works best for you. If you're putting some sort of gamer internet turf war over "Open-mindedness and the ability to appreciate a variety of games", you're not acting like a gamer. You're acting like a jerk.

I don't want the term "gamer" to start meaning "jerk" to everyone who uses it. If we don't accept that definition, if we don't define our inevitable jerky behaviors as "just part of being a gamer", then maybe we can prevent that from happening. 

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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