Why I can't call myself a gamer anymore

I love video games, but "gamer" culture is insular and prejudiced. It has to change

Published January 2, 2014 1:00AM (EST)

      (Reuters/Ina Fassbender)
(Reuters/Ina Fassbender)

Journalist Simon Parkin recently published a brilliant editorial for New Statesman  titled “If You Love Games, You Should Refuse to Be Called a Gamer.” Parkin feels that the idea of the “gaming community,” and its endemic misogyny, transphobia and rape culture, all need to die, and by extension, anyone who has adopted an identity as a "gamer" needs to give it up.

“Gamer” is an identity I’ve been wearing since I attended my first Penny Arcade Expo. PAX is to gamer culture what Woodstock was to hippie culture, only PAX takes place annually in Boston, Seattle and Melbourne, Australia. The Penny Arcade Web comic that spawned PAX could be seen as a birthplace of gamer culture -- it provided a spiritual center for gaming fans of all stripes to enjoy their community’s inside jokes, and by doing so, recognize that they were a community.

In April 2010, at the inaugural PAX East in Boston, I listened to actor and geek personality Wil Wheaton’s keynote speech about how tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and video games had been centerpieces of his friendships, keeping those relationships together despite geographical distance and the passage of time.

Wheaton’s infectious passion endeared me to the idea that I was part of a subculture I’d never realized. I was a gamer. Board games, miniatures games and especially video games had been some of the few constants in my life, and some of the closest things to my heart.

I had never wanted to take on any sort of identity before that, as it always meant giving up some aspect of my individuality in order to blend in. But I’d been lonely for the lack of a group to belong to, and here was a subculture and identity I could take on without giving up a thing!

I was so taken with this newfound sense of community that when Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik took the stage for a question and answer session after Wheaton’s keynote, and the microphone I’d been waiting in line behind died, I drew upon the powerful lungs I'd developed as a jazz trombonist and shouted down my question from the balcony on which I stood, filling the amphitheater with booming sound, to express to Holkins and Krahulik how special PAX was, and how I felt like I’d finally found “my people.”

Now, after three years of being ensconced in video game culture long enough to be disgusted by it on a regular basis, I’m ready to give up my identity as a gamer, even though giving up the word itself sometimes feels impossible.

* * *

The Spike television network recently held the VGX video game awards, formerly known as the VGAs, a production that often plays to the lowest common denominators among the video game audience. Last year, for example, an actor in camouflage fatigues "teabagged" guests who appeared on the show -- virtually teabagging an opponent's virtual corpse is a popular way that first-person shooter players embarrass their opponents in multiplayer matches.

This year's offense was a transphobic comment made by co-host and comedian Joel McHale, assuring video game fans that the rumor that Wario, a popular character in Nintendo games, had undergone sex reassignment surgery was not true. Transphobia in the video game community has been a major issue this year, as marginalized groups among the video game audience refuse to be ignored anymore.

Microsoft offended women in late November by providing a customizable form letter, in the fashion of one of those notes you may have written to your mother as a child explaining why the gifting of a new toy would benefit the entire family. In this case, one of the ways to customize the letter was to address it to one’s girlfriend, in the hopes of convincing her that, among other things, the ability to use exercise software or interact with television programs for women using the Xbox One made it a worthy holiday purchase.

To be fair, the interactive letter could also be tailored as from a woman to a man, but in any case it validated the idea that gamers are a group of people separated from everyone else. The letter was another reminder that gamer culture is locked into old patterns precisely at a time when video games seem poised to break out of their niche status and become just another mainstream form of media. A familiar drumbeat from the progressive wing of video game criticism and cultural observation is that gamer culture slows this process.

As Parkin points out, the term "gamer" is idiotic. We don’t call movie fans “moviers” or literature enthusiasts “bookers.” We didn’t even call video game players "gamers" until the fairly recent past. I certainly don’t remember hearing the word "gamer" in the mid-'90s when I was gorging on my Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or in the early 2000s when I was mainlining video games on my PC and PlayStation 2.

Commentary on the preposterousness of the label’s existence speaks clearly to me when I consider that prior to 2010 I had never thought of playing video games as part of my identity. It was just a hobby. I invested more personally in my love for movies, going so far as to give up a promising career as a historian to instead study film as an undergraduate, but I was never part of a "movie culture." I imagine that maybe, had I moved to Los Angeles and pursued a career in film, that might have been true, but otherwise the idea sounds ridiculous.

I took on the gamer identity because it was easy. I'm male. I'm straight. I love first-person shooters and action games. I am the quintessential example of the way gamers have traditionally been understood. The offensive jokes and comments regularly produced by the gamer community are legion precisely because they're so easy to make in this climate of traditionally understood homogeneity.  And the gamer community resists introspection when confronted by the privilege this attitude engenders.

When Dustin Browder, a game director at the immensely successful and trend-setting game development studio Blizzard, was asked about the hypersexualized female designs in an upcoming game, his response was typical of how the average gamer might respond in the face of such a question. “We’re not running for president. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that,” Browder said.

Two days after the interview was published, Browder apologized for what came off as his dismissal of these concerns, which are increasingly being noted by social justice activists in the video game community and their allies. There’s hope for the future in that similar observations about the nature of gamer culture often result in acknowledgment and the promise to do better. But the fact that the instances of this sort of privileged perspective feel like they're becoming louder with each passing year seems to support Parkin's contention that the term "gamer" as a whole needs to be abandoned.

* * *

I don’t know if getting rid of the word "gamer" is a tenable proposition, however. I can’t seem to detach myself from use of the word because it’s such a convenient shortcut. “Video game players” and “video game audience” are such unwieldy phrases. The word "gamer" is a mainstay in any and all coverage of the video game culture and industry because no matter how idiotic the word may be, people know what a gamer is.

You can identify yourself as a gamer at a social function, and even if the result is having people think of you as a socially challenged recluse, or a potentially violent person to keep an eye on, they can picture an Xbox or PlayStation controller in your hand. Throwing out the word "gamer" in conversation is an excellent preemptive first strike against those sorts of reactions, which are predictable and boorish to those of us who love video games. Best if we figure out how to table the topic as soon as possible, and not waste our time preaching to the unconverted.

But the biggest roadblock to giving up the word may be its marketing value. Sony established a narrative about its PlayStation 4 console being “about the gamers."

Kotaku, one of the biggest video game journalism outlets in the world, identifies itself as "the gamer's guide." Playboy has a holiday gift guide for “the gamer next door,” presented by a hostess whose half-naked pictures run directly below the embedded video, accompanied by an invitation to see her nude, a statement about the nature of game culture that is hilariously depressing for its candor.

* * *

I'm ready to no longer identify myself as a gamer, but not for any shame over loving video games. My continuing education, as a writer on the video game beat, about how video games are developed and the people who create them, has only deepened that love. And I can't say that I judge people who call themselves gamers strictly because they adopt that identity. It's a shame that the preponderance of problems in the gaming community has left such a bad taste in my mouth, such that I've come full circle back to where I was prior to April 2010.

I'd be lying if I said I thought it was going to be easy to stop thinking about myself as a gamer. Video games are stuck in an awkward phase where society at large is aware of but not conversant about them. Too many mainstream media outlets don’t cover or review individual video games, even though they are as or more relevant in 2013 than the television episodes or movies that do receive regular coverage in those outlets. It's difficult not to feel relegated to a subculture no matter the degree to which I want to interact with that subculture.

The word "gamer" and the subculture that rallies around it are going to die when they’re no longer necessary. Their death will be the ultimate sign that the adoption of video games by the wider culture is no longer a future event to be anticipated, but has finally taken place. Until then, not thinking of myself as a gamer is going to be a matter of conscious effort and avoidance of temptation, because it’s just so easy to do otherwise.

By Dennis Scimeca

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA who covers the art and business of video games. Follow him on Twitter @DennisScimeca.

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