Gamers are under attack, but I won’t recap the current gaming industry brouhaha here. If you need a summary, I like this one from Slate:

Gaming Journalists Declare That “Gamers Are Over,” But They Are the Ones Becoming Obsolete

(It’s worth it for the last sentence.)

There are a couple angles to this assault on the gamer identity. The first has been floating around a while, but the second is new and more vehement. I’ll try to address each in turn.

You see, I am myself a gamer.

The concept of gamer has become obsolete

First, there is the notion that as gaming matures the need to differentiate the “gamer” from the rest of the populace will dwindle. This is clearly expressed in the work of Ian Bogost (sorry, Ian):

When we acknowledge videogames as a medium, the notion of a monolithic games industry, which creates a few kinds of games for a few kinds of players, stops making any sense. As does the idea of a demographic category called “gamers”€ who are the ones who play these games.

The issue I take with this is that “gamer” is something more than its base denotation of “one who plays games.” As Ian has himself said, “The problem with this ‘women are the majority of gamers’ line the press loves is that most women (rightly) want nothing to do with being ‘gamers.’”

So if a gamer is not just anyone who plays games, what is it? This turns out to be actually very simple: a gamer, I submit, is simply a gaming enthusiast. That’s all.

Do we need such a category? Well, we seem to draw the “enthusiast” distinction in many other areas of life. For example, there is no living man or woman who fails to eat on a fairly regular basis. Yet we would not consider every living man and woman a “foodie.” We have come up with the term “foodie” to describe those who do not merely eat, but display a refined and enthusiastic interest in their food. (And we’ve had similar terms, such as “gourmand,” for much longer.)

So the term “gamer” is not, in my book, terribly complicated nor especially redundant. And it’s certainly not derogatory, so long as you believe games can be worthwhile.

The concept of gamer describes a reprehensible segment of society

That brings me to the second, more current criticism: that “gamer” remains a useful category, but only because the body it delineates is one which ought to be singled out for censure.

This argument seems to have been first advanced by Leigh Alexander in her piece, ‘Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over:

[I]t’s not even culture. It’s buying things, spackling over memes and in-jokes repeatedly, and it’s getting mad on the internet…These obtuse sh**slingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers – they are not my audience. They don’t have to be yours. There is no ‘side’ to be on, there is no ‘debate’ to be had.
There is what’s past and there is what’s now.

This distinction – between reactionary gamers clinging to a dead past and progressive… non-gamers who still enjoy games, I suppose, working toward a new future – appears again in a subsequent piece Alexander writes for Time magazine:

As video games unshackle from old constraints, traditional fans double down on keeping the treehouse sacrosanct.

(This is, by the way, the sort of “with us or against us”/“right side of history” triumphalist rhetoric that makes one devilishly hard to have a conversation with.)

What did gamers do to invite such vitriol? This is where some will accuse me of burying the lede, although anyone who’s followed this debate knew the lede already: certain game developers and critics have been taking tremendous heat for working to advance their causes within the games industry.

I don’t condone any of it. I’m especially distressed at the effect which this hostility seems to be having on games writer Jenn Frank. Anita Sarkeesian, who must have a skin of adamantium by now, is providing a useful critical counterpoint and ought to be allowed the space to continue doing so.

But a total conflation of “gamers” with the vocal mob will not withstand scrutiny. Some gamers are on the offensive; others are rallying to the affected. To ignore this fact would be to stoop to a level of broad-brush rhetoric no more sensible than the personal slurs which we decry.

As a gamer, I present the following principles for consideration:

  1. Gamers should be free to advance their worldviews, even if those views are unpopular. That’s as true for feminism as for Christianity, or for Marixsm.
  2. Gamers should be as free to advance their worldviews through game criticism as through the medium of games itself.

On the other hand, we need to make more careful distinctions. The gamer is not dying, nor does the gamer need snuffing out. On the contrary, I expect the gamer will only thrive. I love gamers. I’m proud to be one myself.


September 6, 2014