What’s a ‘Gamer’?

Updated: September 26, 2013

I feel like the vast majority of this is stating-the-obvious stuff. But I think sometimes words change without people realizing it and it’s time we all tried to get on the same page.

Being involved in games tends to mean a lot of reading and hearing about the word ‘gamer’ in a near infinite number of different contexts. More recently however, I’ve been reading and hearing a lot of different opinions and stances on the word gamer itself. Or the collective that they imagine ‘gamers’ to be.

The problem is that the only useful, established and well understood meaning of the word ‘gamer’ (being someone who plays games) has become one of the most useless ways of describing a person there is. The people that fall into the category of “playing games” is so vast and huge that it’s barely any more useful than the category of people who “watch films” or “listen to music”. There’s next to nothing you can learn about a person when you’re told they play games.

So when I hear opinions like “I really dislike modern gamers”, “I don’t think of myself as a gamer anymore these days”, “such and such is not a real gamer” or “this and that is designed for gamers” I’m always left trying to work out who it is you’re actually talking about. What does being a gamer entail to these people? Because their opinion on “all people who play video games, ever” is almost never what these people are actually trying to express.

You could say something like “Well when I say gamer, I’m talking about people who are really invested in video games, are big fans and play all kinds of video games.” but not only is such a description really vague and subjective, (what counts as qualifying for ‘true gamer’ status is as ill defined and full of one-upmanship as the hypothetical contest for being a ‘true star trek fan’) but the culture you’re describing won’t match up to someone else’s vision of the word. You’re going to cause misunderstandings.

Sure I could (and probably would) say this about any noun that tries to describe a collective of people united under some kind of vague or widely interpreted culture. Like trying to define religious or political groups. But ‘enjoyment of video games’ has grown so widespread that the problem has gotten a little bit ridiculous, and it’s because it’s grown so much that the problem came to be. Ten years ago, if two people were ‘gamers’ in the sense that they enjoyed playing video games at all, then it was much easier to say for sure that they had some kind of shared interest. The number of games, genres and platforms that existed were relatively small, gaming wasn’t as accessible, or as accepted. It was a niche for nerds, who would sometimes feel forced to hide their interest in games from others. Back when in-joke stuff like¬†this was being released.¬†(and was awesome! shout outs to everyone from the Pure Pwnage era, you are totally My People.)

But ‘gaming’ isn’t really like that at all anymore. Sure this subculture still exists but it’s no longer useful or intuitive to describe it with the word gamer by itself. The problem stems from the fact that It didn’t use to be a subculture, it was the culture full stop. But now it isn’t. And that’s not a bad thing. It feels absolutely awesome to have been a part of something that has grown so massively and quickly. To have witnessed a niche grow, change, spread and evolve into worldwide appeal and to be able to continue to watch and help it to grow further today. We have league of legends tournaments being shown in bars now! We have arrived. But this community is now far too large and all encompassingly fantastic to be sweepingly described anymore. Having an “opinion on gamers” is like having an opinion on “people who go to the cinema”, “blue eyed people” or “women”. My own brand of “interest in games” is worlds apart from the next person who has one. The medium is just too enormous. There’s no need for me to try and safeguard the word gamer as if it’s somehow vital for the “protection” of my old-school gaming subculture.

These days if I tell someone I’m into games and they respond that they like games too I feel a little bit like we both just told one another that we liked listening to music. Sure there’s potentially shared interests, especially from my position as a game designer. But you’d have tell one another what bands/games you liked for the information to actually be useful.

So who are you talking about when you say gamer? What do you mean when you say that you are/aren’t one or when you say what you think of them? Try and think if there’s a better word to describe what you’re trying to express because you’re all confusing the life out of me.

“RPG Fans annoy the crap out of me” “I love the Fighting Game community!” “the 18-24 year old major console demographic gets on my nerves” are all sweeping statements but at least I have some place to start when it comes to understanding your opinion. Narrowing down from “I think X about everyone alive today playing games.” is more than a little bit impossible. There’s no single word noun for someone who likes music (A ‘listener’?) so why do we still need one for games. It’s useless.

These days I tell people that I’m really into computer game design/game mechanics. This tends to be the best way to express that I have some level of professional interest in more or less everything across all genres and have a big history with games. I would agree to being a ‘gamer’ if asked but it wouldn’t tell you anything about me or my interests. And I certainly wouldn’t answer what I thought of “gamers” or even “gaming culture” without having to ask who or what you were talking about.