A couple of years back I had a conversation which went something like this: “So, you’re a gamer then?” “Well yes, kind of, I do play a lot of video games but I’m not a gamer as such” – which made me go “huh, why the heck did I feel the need to say it that?” Back then I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to distance myself from the term, and didn’t think much more about it. Lately, though, the reasons have become more and more clear and painfully topical.
So, a little bit of background. I got my first Commodore 64 at 1983 and since then I’ve played video games at least weekly, and for long stretches daily. I played on my C64, on the Amiga 500, on PCs starting with my stepdad’s antique laptop with plasma-CGA and ending in my self-built gaming rig, on my little brother’s SNES and Atari Lynx, on Xbox and PS2 and X360 and PS3 and PSP and DS and iOS and OS X and and and… From since 2000 to about 2013 I was a games journalist (along with being a science, tech, general stories and yeah, adult entertainment writer), I spent a couple of years producing the only TV show about games in this country, I coded a bunch of little games on C64 now lost in some oxidized C-cassettes, I’ve published one award winning IF game and working on a couple of other game projects, and I’m currently actually working in the games industry.
Nevertheless, to a question “are you a gamer” my automatic reply is to dodge it with something like “well, I play a lot of indie, adventure and mobile games nowadays and games have been always important for me”. Why?
First of all, I feel that nowadays “gamer” is a meaningless moniker. It’s on the par with “TV audiences” or “moviegoers”. It doesn’t really refer to a descriptive subculture like it used to. In the 90’s and early 2000’s when you spoke about gamers, it was easy to define what the most likely member of that group of culture was. In the 80’s there was – wildly caricaturing – two groups of guys: those who got a moped and those who got a computer when they were in their early teens. This was the latter group, united with their hobby of playing games and faffing around on a computer. When you went looking for gamers, you found mostly youngish men playing mostly the same set of games on their PC or console of choice. It never was a monoculture, like some people seem to think, but it was quite homogenous, a recognizable group you could define and belong to. But who plays games now? Is your pal’s mom who plays four hours of Candy Crush every day a gamer? How about the pothead pals whiling their afternoons away playing GTA? Your sister who plays interactive fiction? Your brother in law who loves to play Wii Bowling with his friends on beer nights but little else? The guy who puts in 20 hours of WoW per week on his MacBook Pro, or the glorious PC Master Race guy who rebuilds his computer every month and spends hours arguing with console guys about how much cooler 60 FPS is than 30 FPS or whatever? Or me, who currently mostly plays indie and adventure games on a laptop, location based games on the phone and co-op fun with the girlfriend on X360, in addition to the most interesting AAA games? Who is the Real Gamer here?
If I was told to wear a marketing hat for a moment and aim a product at “the gamer demographic”, I would say no – no such thing, please define further. “Gamers” is not a (sub)culture anymore, struggling with being taken seriously instead of being seen as nerdy basement dwelling boys. Games and geekery are mainstream. Hooray, we the gamers of 80’s and 90’s have won, everyone is a gamer now!
The problem is, some of us apparently didn’t get the memo, and they seem to be trying to force the “gamer” to mean something it hasn’t been for a long time.
When I hear someone identify strongly as a Gamer, or god forbid “A Real Gamer”, I go “uh-oh, let the gatekeeping commence” inwardly. There has been a bunch of excellent articles about the death (or rather the obsolescence) of the traditional gamer identity lately, which has sent some people into conniptions. Games media has gotten a lot of flack about pointing this thing out, undeservedly so in my opinion. When you are working in the media, vs. looking at things from inside the community, you’re bound to get a bit of a better view about the whole field. The journalists are not attacking everybody who plays video games, they’re describing the change in demographics as they – and I – see it. That said, yeah, I understand that reading stuff like that hits a nerve – someone saying that YOU don’t define a subculture anymore, and that the community you thought was the be-all-end-all of a hobby is just a splinter cell that’s getting more and more marginal by the day. I get the hurt, since this isn’t in any way exclusive to games as a phenomenon, not by a long shot. I’ve seen the same exact dynamic play out in other hobbies too – old school divers still grumble about PADI-clowns coming to spoil the hobby, urbex-people are grumbling that nowadays “tourists” come into the locations previously treasured by the pros, and so on. It’s hard for the coolest pike in a lake to realize that there’s an ocean next door, full of other fish who don’t give a crap about your little puddle.
The grumbling from those who consider themselves the old cadre is just par for the course for this dynamic, but for some reason with games things have been tuned to 11. They have turned especially ugly in the “group X is coming in to spoil OUR games” narrative. (Hey, buddy, games haven’t been YOURS for ages, dumbass.) Nowhere is this ugliness worse than when you turn over any stone within line of sight of Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn, or any other female working or writing about games who dares to open her mouth. This is something I have a huge issue with, since the skittering of vile little shits under those stones is mighty indeed. Journalistic integrity and transparency was and is a massively important thing for me, but it’s really fucking hard to see what it has to do with the shit Quinn still receives. While I don’t agree 1:1 with Sarkeesian and I’ve read some good critique about her videos, mostly the comments she gets from self proclaimed “gamers” are just massively toxic bashing that totally skirts around her arguments and is mostly about her as a person (when it’s not rape and death threats – for making a really basic level gender representation analysis of a media. The mind boggles.). Often the logic behind the accusations leaves a lot to be desired. I recently had a massively hilarious Twitter-conversation with someone who prides himself in logic, but apparently without any sense of irony said that because Sarkeesian said in one lecture she’s not a gamer, all her later points are immediately void and null. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes when you stare into the abyss, a fedora stares back. As an aside, what’s at play here is generally a total inability to treat the following points as separate things: a) do I like the person saying this, b) do I like what the person is saying, c) is what the person is saying plausible – put that’s a topic worth its own post.
The sad thing is that it’s these self proclaimed ambassadors of the “real” gaming community who are doing their best to drag the whole culture under with them, kicking the view of games as a culture and art form back step by step. Right now the public perception of the word and the group “gamer” has been co-opted by these vocal bitter little shits, who are shocked that a woman has the nerve to say something negative about THEIR games. Luckily this latest and worst wave is starting to break, with people starting to take a stance. I’m sure a few years from now the term gamer has been co-opted by something more healthy, fun and inclusive, and the Quinn/Sarkeesian haters are in their own little fringe, grumbling about being bullied by Social Justice Warriors and convinced they’re the victims of some feminist conspiracy. This is just how these things go. Will I be identifying myself as the member of this group, I don’t know, but I applaud it in advance. What I will continue to be is a nerd who loves games as a form of art and entertainment, an adventure game fan, an interactive fiction designer, an indie game buff, and a fan of whatever facet of gaming I’ll get interested next. Maybe in a few years I can stop cringing inwardly when I use the shorthand “gamer” when talking about myself, and I won’t feel the need to use the “but I’m not like those guys” qualifier. Here’s to that moment.
On the off chance someone’s interested enough in my ramblings to comment on this post, please be aware that I’m going to moderate the comment section with a fire axe. If you are dropping in just to copy-paste links about how Zoe Quinn is the Illuminati who is secretly running the whole games press and he like totally surely DDOSsed the Moon out of the sky and in fact killed Jimmy Hoffa, just, please, don’t. I read a bunch of those rambling threads and posts with a whole lot of MS Paint flowcharts, I know what the allegations are, and in my view they’re horseshit. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Then again if you want to say how unfair it is that a small minority is taken to represent the whole gamer community, yeah, it’s unfair, but why are you talking to me about it? Why aren’t you shouting down the genuinely misogynistic little shits in #gamergate or abandon that dump totally for something more constructive, why aren’t you posting stuff where you’re telling they don’t represent you? Why are you complaining to the games press instead of knocking down the people tarnishing the term and identity you hold dear? It’s not the games press or people like me who’s the enemy, so please redirect your frustration at the actual culprits.