Sunday, September 03, 2006

Wired Magazine / On "Gamers"

Wired Magazine's site crashes FireFox frequently. Attempt #3 is just a link to a list of other links from this guy who actually more or less knows everything he's talking about. I don't read Wired and I'm not about to start for one column, but this is good stuff.

Go read, if you care about gaming.

Speaking of gaming, who are "gamers"? I would never call myself a gamer; would you? Most of my leisure time is spent playing games, thinking about games, talking about games, or writing about games. You might think this qualifies me as a "gamer", and I might wear this label with pride. In fact, I don't quite understand why anyone would describe eirself as a gamer. Let's think a little more deeply about this.

If you love books, you might call yourself a "reader". Yet even at first glance, we see that this word has very different connotations. There's no reader "culture" or "lifestyle" to speak of; reading is just something you do as a hobby and in no way identifies how you culturally identify yourself. You can find a T-shirt on the internet with the Konami code emblazoned on the chest quite readily. You'd be much harder-pressed to find a shirt with, say, the definition of an intransitive verb.

The same goes for movies. If I go to movies often, I'm not a "movie-goer" in a strictly cultural sense; I'm a guy who loves movies. If I like music, am I suddenly part of the "audiophile culture"? I could make up terms and shove them into quotation marks all day, but I think you get my point.

So, why "gamer"? I have a couple of ideas, and I'm going to list them from least- to most-compelling:

3. Gamers are stereotypically awkward in social situations.
I get the impression that the idea of a nerd who plays video games and has no social skills was fairly accurate in the days of ye olde gameing when compared to a sample of similar non-gamers. If those that have laid the groundwork for the culture don't get along with non-gamers, a desire for soldarity follows. Suddenly that T-shirt with the controller input for a hadoken greatly resembles the rainbow accessory for homosexuals. They're both subtle but unmistakeable declarations on the respective identities of each wearer: "Yeah, I'm one of you, and there's nothing wrong with us. I won't call you a [nerd/queer] or make a crack at how you [don't know the names of atheletes/are attracted to your own sex]; strike up a conversation."
Given that the concept of being a gamer is becoming more and more familiar to the public at large, and not many people find moral issues with games in general, this is becoming a continually less-compelling hypothesis as time goes on, but the the concept of "gamer" is growing, so we need to move further down the list to build a complete answer.
2. Gamers are competetive.
If you play games enough to wear a T-shirt with hylian text, you like winning, even if it's against an AI or just an environment. The shirt becomes a statement of acumen: "I know what this means and you don't, because I'm more 1337 h4x0r than you." The wearer of such a shirt eats up the confused stares of non-gamers. The in-joke or esoteric reference is not specific to gamers, but as far as presumably-mainstream entertainment, it is; books aren't popular enough with the young people who love to be hip and in-the-know, while movies are too popular for any joke to be very "in".
This might single-handedly explain the T-shirts, but not all the people who call themselves gamers, nor the gamer "lifestyle", which seems to amount to - aside from playing games - cursory habits, like drinking Bawls or Mountain Dew instead of Red Bull.
1. Gamers are viewed as a clearly-defined marketing segment.
This is my pet theory. Let's say you want to market something, and your target audience is less than 30, not specifically female, and - this is critical - may or may not be a party animal who likes to drink plenty of acohol and use products with "X-treme" in the name. How do you identify with and appeal to this wide, vague group? They may be 15 or 25, male or female, dull and plain or wild and always trying new things, or responsible and polite or edgy and in-your face. What can this group, from a general perspective, have in common?
Games, of course. Lots and lots of these people play games, while relatively few people outside this demographic play games. Tell them they're "gamers", and sell them "gamer" products, and they'll buy them. They'll buy them because the product is for gamers.
It's not really for gamers of course; it's for the demographic which just happens to also often play games. A high-performance network card might be desirable for someone who opens his computer to vast numbers of unconventional connections, for some information-age utility. But these people are gamers, so they sell you a gamer card. It reeks of young male rebellion, but manages to duck out of actually putting "X-treme" on the label.
So, there you have it. If you ask me, no one is actually a "gamer" per se; it's an illusory group implied-at by marketers to sell things to a demographic. There's no sin in this type of marketing; it does indeed give people the correct impression as to who would want or need the product, and so I can't pin the blame on them.

The problem arises when people who have never worked as marketers call themselves gamers, and think that it in any way defines or clarifies who they are as people. If you tell me that you're a gamer, I still know nothing about you except that you play lots of games, not all of them sports. They might even be only one kind of game; maybe you only play non-squad-based first-person shooters. There are people who have only played half a dozen games regularly at any time in their lives and call themselves gamers, because of their devotion to that half-dozen. Calling yourself a gamer means you are involved in games a lot, but it doesn't imply scopes, degrees, or qualities, so it carries very little meaning, and thus is not at al la useful term. In fact, if you go so far as to call yourself a gamer, I get the vague (though not at all definite) impression that you don't have enough interests or hobbies to be a mature person; you're not so much a "gamer" as a "loser".

Don't call yourself a gamer except to say that you play games.

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