A recent Nintendo campaign for their 3DS had a very puzzling tagline: a young female celebrity is caught playing the portable gaming device and proclaims, “My name is [insert celebrity name here] and I am not a gamer.”
For example Olympic gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas:
How are they not gamers? They’re smiling. They’re having fun. They’re playing a video game and relating it to their day jobs. Perhaps Nintendo is trying to capture a female audience that identifies with neither the “gamer” title nor culture, but simply playing a game that relates to another pleasure.
Which makes me ask: What does it mean to be (and not to be) a gamer? What is that culture, and why do some people claim the title while others avoid it – enough to embed it into a video game marketing campaign?
A few months ago I surveyed nearly 400 people about their gaming habits – do they play games and if so, what do they play, why do they play, and more. The likely profile that emerged from the data: a minor-aged male who plays more than 30 hours of alternate reality, first person shooter, or role-playing games per week on their laptop or console.
That’s a pretty specific and stereotyped description of a gamer. Plenty of women, casual game enthusiasts, and ages were represented. Take a look at the data results of the survey.
“Yes, I’m a gamer” word cloud.
The data shed light on the demographics and preferences of a “gamer”. What the data missed are the more nuanced details such as why the respondents do or do not identify with the term – all of the previous data are inferences. Luckily, asking “Do you consider yourself a gamer? Why or why not?” provided me with more personal stories than any multiple-choice question could.
It’s important to look at these stories and answer what it means to be a gamer. These are real opinions from real people – they go beyond the negative news headlines and shed light on our fears, explain the motivation behind passions, and clear up misconceptions. In a time where the “fake geek” witch hunt is hitting a fever pitch and cyberbullying is discouraging play, these stories help us move toward a more inclusive community that is millions strong and growing.
Let’s get to the responses. Across the board all answers relating to being a “gamer” could fall into one of three categories: time, money, and social.
Whether they considered themselves a gamer or not, many brought up the subject of time – in a few forms.
Many omitted the term “hardcore” and instead discussed how they can often be found with a game in front of them, making time for a game, or simply thinking about games. Others even mentioned how they skip out on work to attend game releases.
“I am always in the middle of at least one game, from a casual time-filler on my phone to the popular hardcore PC game of the week. I can often be found playing board games as well. I also enjoy going back to play classic games I missed.”
Game players who do not identify with “gamer” felt that it is a title reserved for people who dedicate the majority of their time to thinking about, designing, or playing games.
“I don’t have enough time to play very often, so I think calling myself a gamer would almost be insulting to actual gamers.”
Self-identified gamers were more likely to have played games in their childhood.
“Been gaming since 1986 with 8-bit Nintendo. Fast forward to present day, I’m trying to create a game for Penny Arcade Expo.”
“We called ourselves [gamers] back in the 80s when I started playing tabletop RPGs.”
Nostalgia seems to keep a strong hold on gamers, whether they have time to play games as frequently in adulthood or not.
“Even though I don’t play often, I’m still a game at heart. I think I paid my dues as a kid and own a PS3/Wii.”
Yet, others who do not identify with being a “gamer” still played games while they were younger. The limiting factor now is a shift in priorities or they simply don’t have the time due to other commitments.
“I once played when younger, now I have other projects. I would rather read a book or watch a movie than play a game.”
Interesting to note is that some gamers have worked their way into the industry full-time and continue to play in their free time, while others no longer identify as a gamer in part because it’s their job.
“I design and create games for a living. But I don’t identify with the ‘gamer’ lifestyle anymore. I play games for fun and relaxation, but they are not a major portion of my life outside of my vocation.”
Health concerns from playing too many hours forced some away.
“I used to play WoW and got super addicted. I quit playing about two years ago, and have since cut a lot of gaming out of my life.”
“No, I’m not a gamer” word cloud.
The more we spend, the more we feel invested into the culture.
Many commented on the amount of money they have invested into gaming: attending conferences, buying games, buying game systems, spending a “small African nation’s” worth on upgrading their gaming PC, and more.
It’s more than a hobby for some – gaming is what pays the bills. Some survey respondents are game developers, designers, journalists, QA testers, customer service, and more.
“It’s a major source of disposable income and hobby. I keep up to date on gaming developments even when I’m not actively playing. Also I putter with my own game designs regularly, or modify other designs as part of my hobby time.”
Some even commented that gaming shaped their career, whether or not they’re in the gaming industry. One commented that gaming helped them find a career in social media. (I would say that my online gaming communities inspired my career path as an online professional, as well.)
A few responses from those that don’t consider themselves gamers were lonely comments that read, “I can’t afford it.”
But really – who needs game money when you got a good ‘ol can to kick?
“I know a lot about gaming, games, and things to play games with, like CANS and such. It’s a lot of fun talking about gaming, LIKE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CANS TO KICK.”
Darn kids these days. They don’t know a good game when they see it. *shakes cane*
Here’s the big kahuna. Social motivations. Social enjoyment. Social stigmas. This is a packed category with revealing insights.
Being a gamer means sharing experiences
Keeping in touch with college friends, meeting new people with common interests, bonding with family – sharing the experience with others makes it special.
“If you don’t understand how communities can grow from a game and that friendships are created in those communities, then you’re missing the point of what it means to be a gamer.”
“I’ve grown a rather large social network of friends that I would not be associated with unless my gaming ‘life’ was not part of my every day life. I don’t have to be the best – I just have to enjoy playing and competing with others that enjoy the games that I play. This is what makes you a gamer, not that you just ‘play games’. The game should be more than just a distraction.”
Some of the largest problems with gamer culture are the stereotypes perpetuated by the media and an “exclusive club” mentality.
“The term ‘gamer’ tends to connote guys who get way too into first person shooters. I am none of those things.”
“I hate the sense of entitlement that seems to come with that lifestyle. Does it really have to be a lifestyle? Can’t you just play a video game and not talk about it constantly?”
“I don’t like the term “gamer”. I think it draws a non-existent line between people who play and people who don’t. Many, many people play games of some kind (I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that practically everybody does), so the distinction isn’t necessary to me.”
The negative stereotypes even cause some gamers to stay “in the closet” about their hobby.
“I don’t want to have to prove to anyone why I deserve the title ‘gamer’.”
“I play (and design!) a lot of games but I’m pretty turned off by ‘gamer’ culture at large.”
“I’m a gamer, but not publicly! It’s too synonymous with laziness. Not that I am not lazy, but it’s not necessarily my fondness of gaming that makes me lazy.”
(Hey, at least he’s honest.)
But there are those who are turning the tides toward a larger, more accepting gamer culture and those who take a stand against stereotypes. Here are a few of my favorites:
“As an adult with a teenager I have fun playing games with him and impressing his friends who think an ‘old lady’ can’t possibly be a gamer.”
“People can make friends with people from all walks of life all over the world and expand their view of the world as a whole, making them better people because of it.”
More cool categories
Patterns surfaced in the responses that deserve their own categories. Here are more ideas on what makes a gamer.
In case you haven’t heard, Hipsterism is the practice of finding ‘cool’ in the most unlikely places. This means staying ahead of the trends, making the trends, and leaving the trends behind when they become too fashionable.
Even gaming has its hipsters. There were a number of mentions from self-identified gamers that they play obscure games, rare games, and games from other countries.
“’Gamers’ are the trendsetters in their respective communities. I couldn’t care less about most new releases, I don’t participate in the news or discussion culture around games, and I’m not a consumer in the specialty market catering to gamers.”
The Art of Gaming
Some of the most compelling responses to me were pointing out that it is more of the art of gaming that attracts them than the gaming itself.
“‘Gamer’ does not imply any particular frequency, only an enjoyment of the art. In that sense, we are all gamers.”
“I play games not only to experience the story line but with an eye to the graphics, design, and unique characteristics that make up the game.”
A few excellent analogies borrowed from other industries on being able to appreciate the nuances of gaming:
“Being a gamer is sort of like being a ‘foodie’ even if you don’t buy expensive food all the time or spend a lot of time on going to nice restaurants.”
“I suppose you can think of the differences between a motorist and a car enthusiast as a good analogy between people who play games and a gamer.”
“It’s similar to people who play a lot of sports calling themselves athletes.”
Where do we go from here?
After nearly 400 survey responses, 3600 pieces of data, and two blog posts later, it’s safe to say there isn’t an easy answer to the “what does it mean to be a gamer” debate. We’ve learned that people who play games are as varied as the games themselves.
This quote from a respondent sums up my opinion after reviewing the responses:
“I’m a gamer because I enjoy playing games. This is the only prerequisite.”
Simple. Powerful. Perhaps we’re overthinking this. When you drop the veil of expectations, what you see may surprise you. A gamer is male. A gamer is female. A gamer is someone who plays Angry Birds on their iPhone. A gamer is someone who plays for hours a week on his/her Xbox.
We’re all gamers.
At the heart of the gamer debate is exclusion – who is and who is not. Who “deserves” the title, and who needs to prove their worth. Here’s my appeal to you. Let’s continue to make gaming and the gaming industry a welcoming place for all who game. Let’s make the term “gamer” something everyone is proud to use.