On “If you love games you should refuse to be called a gamer”

Earlier today Simon Parkin wrote a piece for The New Statesman denouncing the word “gamer” and the concept of the gaming community. I agree with his conclusion that we should stop using the term, so I find the sentiment of the piece to be commendable. In getting there, however, Parkin shares some thoughts that I feel are worth catching and reflecting on, as I suspect there’s a little bit going on behind the scenes that benefits neither his argument nor the specific mentality advocated.

I’ll start with the last one, as it’s the most direct claim he makes and it’s only really incidental to the gist of his argument, but it’s one I fiercely oppose. This notion that games are “the great contemporary leveller”, as he puts it, where everyone exists on an equal ground, is not an original thought. It’s long since been incorporated into the inside cultural narrative of the medium that games offer treasures and possibilities only a hair’s breadth from the trials one might face daily. It inspires nostalgia and pride and a sense of protectiveness bordering zealotry. Sharp advertisers have ran with it, spreading the concept that no matter who you are or where you are, you can be the hero.

It’s nothing but a romantic daydream, a very successful fiction that many critics now struggle to dispel from two directions: that games on an individual basis are inherently political, and that games on a general basis tend towards inaccessibility. For the first, fans of GTAV and Hotline Miami 2 rebel at the accusation, at the very thought, that their beloved game might carry a message, and that this message might be hazardous to the social well-being of some of its players. Games as forms of expression, as things carrying along and preserving the cultural baggage of the creators, even by accident, is as if a brand new concept to the vast majority of people. Anecdotally, I’ve found comparatively few people even outside of games who consider the latest movie or comic as a cultural text. That games are “just games” is an enormously difficult attitude to penetrate, in and of itself, never mind appending on the idea that the accidental baggage of a game might make it a nasty piece of work.

So when I say this, bear in mind that many messages can make a game inaccessible to many people, precluding them from enjoying it on the simple basis of its nature. The existence and necessity of trigger warnings are evidence enough, although less prolific, more conventional sorts are abundant. Remember, for instance, those people who protested that homosexuality was included in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, who were so outraged they couldn’t even play it. If politics in involved, and politics is always involved, a game’s narrative will likely be inaccessible to someone.*

Further to this, a game might be inaccessible to players by its language, the level of skill needed to manipulate and progress through its gameplay systems, the technicalities of ability it asks of the player (eg. I have trouble with platforming mechanics, someone else might have trouble with shooting mechanics, another person might have trouble navigating in a first-person perspective). There might be a level of knowledge of videogame conventions expected of the player, which excludes players new to the medium or genre. Then there’s the platform it’s on, the internet requirements it mandates, the technology it needs to run adequately, and the costs of all these things and more. Then there’s the tangible market availability of the game, the place where someone can go to buy it. There’s also the buttons it might require the player to be able to press or the speed they need to be input, which can be a very real physical obstacle to players for all sorts of reasons. And there’s further obstacles in the auditory and visual expectations of the player’s capacity – there’s very few videogames for those sight-impaired, colour-blind people might struggle with colour conventions widespread through the medium, and sound can be a very important component for progression in some games. And so on.

In claiming games as an equal-opportunity space, Parkin assumes everybody is homogeneous in ability and context – ironic given his earlier railing against that precept.**

Would that his internalization of common gaming community wisdom ended there, but I suspect there’s something more in his denouncement of the term “gamer”, just a hint suggesting a wound needing tending to.

I agree with Parkin that “gamer” needs to go, that it’s used to categorize people and exclude them from the treehouse. “Gamer” is a response to the pressure that people need to be on the inside of the treehouse to legitimize anything they say. He refers to the responses to Anita Sarkeesian, which is a great example for this exact phenomenon: early in the course of Tropes vs Women in Video Games it was a common criticism, framed as concern, that Sarkeesian might not be best suited to critique games because she’s not on the inside (note that at that point in time, it was assumed she was an outsider). Later on, only a few months ago, word hit the web that she had herself denied being a gamer some years prior, reviving the same ‘concern’ and scorn at her daring.

It’s worth repeating that “gamer” is the result of standards swollen by tradition, it’s a way of filtering out people and their opinions by measure of some arbitrary identity criteria, and not according to the sophistication of their arguments. I’d hazard that Parkin’s on the money in identifying the medium’s youth and the stereotype of its hobbyists’ as causes for their insularity. Parkin suggests this defensiveness is protected and demarcated by something called the “gaming community”, that this term is synonymous with “gamer” in their usage as banishing tactics. By virtue of the external consensus that the community is homogeneous (composed only of your straight white males), a belief out of tune with the reality of videogame players’ diversities, he says the concept of the community needs to die.

If the idea of the gaming community is intrinsically linked to the exclusivity of the gamer label, perhaps the world would be better off without it. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. I see “gaming community” as a parallel to the concept of gaming culture, that there are values and ideas and norms largely propagated as sets within the medium as a sphere for meanings and expressions. I see people as involved in that sphere by virtue of their presence, just as we soak in the values and ideas and norms dominant in our physical locale. (Having been yea long in Ireland, I have absorbed within my subconsciousness a lot of Irish culture – you say “thank you” to the bus driver, beans on toast are normal, etc.; the same principle is true for videogames.) I know there are quite a few people who would prefer to do away with the concept of gaming culture, too, but I can’t shake my conception of it as a particular cultural subset, as something that exists as a social and political structure. Even if its identifiability is ambiguous and fluid just like any other culture, still it is a thing within the world. And it’s incredibly useful as a structure through which to frame various phenomena and events centric to the medium and industry of videogames, although perhaps this is my laziness speaking as I clutch to the ease of the shorthand.

This said, I make no attempt to beautify the gaming community. As it exists, much as the culture exists, it is more often than not a putrification of lost childhoods and romanticized evil. But I’m not sure if pretending it doesn’t exist solves that, or if it would merely serve to hush up talk of it and delude us that no problem persists. Simply saying “the word gamer needs to die” is not enough to absolve ourselves of the habits by which we say it, nor ease away the cultural pressure that birthed it in the first place. Parkin still sways to it – he feels the need to quality Samantha Allen as “herself an ardent game player”, as if that’s relevant in justifying her perspective that the VGAs entertained transphobia.

The solution isn’t simply to stop saying a word, it’s to shift one’s whole mentality to be more inclusive. It means accepting a games-related post on a non-gaming blog as perhaps valuable for its insights into games, and not giving out that the author is ‘ill-informed’ on the ins-and-outs of the industry. It means conceding the point that mainstream games criticism is still an unattained goal, that while Critical Distance and similar sources provide much needed life in the right direction, the work you and I do is still comparatively niche and hidden. Very importantly, it means no longer romanticizing the medium. If ditching the term “gamer” is at least a starting point, grand, but we need to be sure we’re not just replacing it with the word “player”.***


*This is not to say we should make all games excessively bland to avoid upsetting anyone, nor that all games are exonerated of responsibility because narrative is unavoidable. Which are often arguments taken away by people who only want to protect games as they are. All I’m saying is, first thing’s first, we need to accept the premise that games carry meaning.
**It’s also unfortunate that he identifies Mattie Brice by her labels on the very same day she posted this on her site. Subject to bad timing.
***I’ve found “people” to be a good substitute in every context bar one, to mean the exact same thing I wanted to get at without presenting the subject as a club or dependant on self-identity. The one exception is when I want to refer pejoratively to the exclusionary self-identity that “gamer” culturally signifies. That is all it’s really good for.

7 thoughts on “On “If you love games you should refuse to be called a gamer”

  1. Although I agree with some of the things said here, I find these topics inherently problematic. There is a tendency in recent game studies to focus explicitly on the culture, and not the games that are at the core of this culture. This is why Anita Sarkeesian is often cast as an outsider. It is not that she does not fit some kind of criteria, but that she is, from what I’ve seen of her videos, not very knowledgeable about videogames and therefore does not seem to understand why people play them. “If you love video games..,” isn’t that enough? Why does anyone have to claim the title of gamer or reject it? Just play the things, talk about them, and share them with your friends. This is how most people think of videogames, not as some political territory that needs to be “reclaimed.” This is why I think these feminist types are a bit delusional. The way that they see videogames and gamers is a funhouse mirror of what actually matters to people, whether they identify as “gamers” or not.

    • I honestly can’t see the perspective you’re coming from since 90% of the time feminism is brought up in relation to games criticism, it’s about specific scenes or mechanics or systems in games or about the people who adore those types of scenes and recreate their messages in their everyday attitudes. I’ve seen nobody cast Sarkeesian as an outsider to the culture except those who refuse to give her the time of day – I’ve followed her videos from long before Tropes vs Women in Videogames sought funding and they always, always emanated familiarity with the media discussed.

      It is entirely within people’s rights to want to play videogames to fill the silence between coming home from work and going to bed, to deaden their feelings, to stop thinking. If you’re using that as the core purpose of why people play games, however, and using it to justify a model of humanity that says people just float through the world like ghosts, unaffected by the media and the cultures around them as they live their lives, I could not disagree more. The simple evidence that the more you’re surrounded by a certain language, the more embedded that language becomes in your mind and the more versed you grow in it puts the lie to that model. There are undoubtedly a lot of people who bobble through life without an express thought to the things they like, but they too are influenced one way or another by their environments.

  2. @stephenbeirne

    Where did I say such things? Why the hostility? “People just float through the world like ghosts.” When did I ever imply this? You seem to accept this kind of Freudian nonsense that people do not understand why they like something; that it is just subconsciously desired. I never said this. I think it’s quite the opposite actually. Most people can probably articulate in an honest matter why they like something, even if that reason is not profound.

    I embrace a clear, objective language; the kind George Orwell writes about and uses. Nothing I have said is a lie. As I mentioned in my post, I think that the cultural echo chamber surrounding game studies and the prevalent postmodern feminism (and it is prominent, just read most articles on Critical Distance, the aggregate site this article was linked to) embraces the subjective, obfuscated language you criticize me of. They make the assumption that video games are purely political, which no one else does. That does not mean we should not think critically of games, but that’s just it. There is a huge difference between discussing the culture and the games themselves. Most serious discussions about videogames today do the former, but we need more of the latter to bridge the gap and stop making assumptions.

    For example, do people really play “Call of Duty” to stroke their masculine ego and satisfy a subconscious desire for bloodshed? Basic psychology would tell us that most people probably do not, but I can see why someone who looks at the game from a more distant cultural perspective would see the game in this way. However, they would only have to play the game for a little bit, talk to others who play it, study all aspects of it (not just story, but gameplay as well), and drop any preconceptions about it going in to understand that people play the game for a wide range of reasons, so trying to characterize the culture and make assumptions about player motivations is not very useful. This is all I am saying. We need to study the games to understand the culture.

    • You’ve put me in an odd position now because you’ve expressly said you go for clear objective language but there’s so much ambiguity and assumption going on here I can’t respond to anything without you reading it as undeserved hostility. Like, the way you view feminist articles is so charged I can’t look at what you’re saying without having to process it through a worldview – which in itself says to me the pursuit of objective language in this context is a red herring. There’s so much you’ve said that’s muddied I don’t really know how to go on without us talking past each other.

  3. I can understand what your saying. The comment section of an article is not the ideal place for a proper conversation. I do not mean to be hostile, and I am sure you don’t either.

    I will be clear. I do not hate feminism or the idea of equality for all women. My beef is with Feminist Theory, or more broadly speaking postmodernist feminism. It’s kind of dogmatic in the sense that there are many premises that have to be accepted. The biggest one is that feminism is the ideal way to study videogames. No one has really explained why this is so. The culture definitely has problems, but to characterize the both entire industry and the formal qualities of craft in this way is a big case of tunnel vision. There is so much more to videogames than just stories and the roles of women in them. There needs to be an understanding of all aspects of game design and how it works. Instead, people lazily use popular frameworks (SLAB theory as David Bordwell likes to call it) and conform all parts of games to these perspectives. I often notice that feminist game writers tend to be very anecdotal (see New Games Journalism) and do not use scientific methods or readily available statistics to test their claims. These arguments would fall apart otherwise.

    Marxism, Psychoanalysis, and Post-Structuralism are other problematic theories that have populated the humanity’s studies over the last 30 years or so. However, only feminism has become that prevalent in game studies, so I have focused on it. Not hating on women, it is just the methodology is faulty and no one seems to have given a good reason to use it outside of where it is considered practical.

    I understand that most critics are not feminist, so my argument may seem like straw (wo)men. Yet, it seems to me that this is the only kind of discussion that are taking seriously by anyone. Am I wrong in saying that most critics are more interested in storytelling and social concepts than gameplay and the craft of designing it? Everyone claims to want diversity, but very few actually do. Diversity means women need to be included. It also means that people who wish to focus on more formalist qualities should not be put down in a condescending manner(which people like Anna Anthropy, and Leigh Alexander have done on more than one occasion). Diversity means that videogames can not be a battleground for politics, but I am afraid many think of it as such.

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