Will someone define “gamer culture” for me?

Prior to 2010 I didn’t know I was a gamer. I knew I was someone who loved video games, much more than other pursuits like comic books and science-fiction and anime and toy collecting, but I never thought of my love for video games as something that could define me. In April of that year I attended my first PAX and heard Wil Wheaton’s keynote speech.

He talked about how playing Dungeons and Dragons had created deep friendships that lasted him to the present day, and how anyone who thought video games weren’t as good as movies should look at Heavy Rain, and he ended with a crescendo of identity citations – black, white, Christian, Jew, male, female, etc. and et. al. – punctuated by “We are all gamers!” Cue wild applause. That was the day I accepted the appellation gamer and assigned a lion’s share of my identity to the word.

Fast-forward to the present. I read a thing about Kotaku representing a gamer culture that someone didn’t feel was inclusive, and another thing about when gamer culture was going to grow up regarding gender issues. They both hinged in part on the idea of video games having a culture whose members were being addressed, and I’m not entirely convinced there is a culture around video games. I think there’s nerd culture, and there’s internet culture, but I think game culture may be an artifact of a psychology that we really don’t need anymore, and which probably doesn’t serve us.

Once upon a time I saw Jamin Brophy-Warren, the co-founder of Kill Screen Magazine, give a lecture at the MIT Gambit Lab in nearby Cambridge, MA. He spoke about wanting to found an outlet that tried to tie video games to the larger culture. It’s not something we do terribly often in general, and I think that’s a product of video games not having been accepted by the mainstream historically. The people who loved video games had to form their own spaces and networks, hence the birth of the gaming press online.

All new media goes through this pattern, but video games are coming out of that early stage when they were new and weird. That was one of the big narratives in the games press in 2011, wasn’t it? The rise and relevance of social and smartphone gaming? My sixty-year-old father is addicted to Angry Birds. My father-in-law’s business partner has a spreadsheet to track all his Farmville activities. We’ve arrived at the point where I think it’s fair to say that it’s more strange for someone to not be aware of video games at all than for someone else to be very into them.

Ian Bogost complained in an interview with Forbes about our adoption of the word gamer. “You don’t think of yourself as a ‘pubber’ because you go to the tavern after work,” Bogost says. I’ve historically defended the use of the word gamer because I’ve parsed it down to mean video game enthusiast, the same way a bookworm is someone who loves reading and a film buff is someone who digests a tremendous amount of movies on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, even what I would consider the proper use of the word has resulted in the idea that gamers form the nexus of a sub-culture. Where would we draw its boundaries? A most liberal definition of the word culture is “the beliefs and behaviors that are characteristic of a social group.” Cultures are defined by what make them unique. So…what’s unique about those of us who play video games besides the fact that we like video games?  And are we actually a social group?

I watched footage of that Wil Wheaton keynote recently, and rather than sounding like a rallying cry of pride it came across as an attempt to justify playing games. Who gives a shit why we play Dungeons and Dragons or whether Heavy Rain is as good as a movie or not? And no, I don’t have some special bond with all the people who were in that theater with me at PAX any more than I had one with the members of my tabletop wargaming club back when I had the time for it. These are just things we do like anything else.

I think the more this becomes our default perception the more easily we will realize the connections between video games and culture writ large. I suspect that video game enthusiasts have been conditioned to believe they require a special, dedicated space to openly display their love of video games, but I also suspect those spaces are all around us. They float about and coalesce organically when people require them, just like people who enjoy sports or movies or television can always find each other at any social gathering. Now that gaming as a word includes so much more than it used to, surely those of us who are dedicated adherents can at least find someone at any social gathering who plays games on their iPhone and strike up a conversation about games in general.

I stand ready to be convinced that “gamer culture” is a real thing. Can someone give me a cogent definition that doesn’t blend in seamlessly with nerd culture or internet culture? Or which doesn’t depend on the ownership of tchotchkes and trinkets?

7 Comments

  1. Jason T says:

    I don’t think we need a cogent definition of gamer culture, perfectly distinct from other cultures. After all, can you even give a cogent definition of nerd culture that doesn’t blend with other subcultures? If you can, you’ve outdone me, and I literally wrote a doctoral dissertation on precisely that topic. That’s not really how culture works: Culture is a messy, amorphous, lived-in thing, and more useful to the people who claim it as their own than the people looking in from the outside. Even if we can’t precisely define it’s boundaries, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist. (And, for what it’s worth, I did interview people who identified as gamers but NOT as nerds or geeks.)

    I can understand the feeling that gamer culture might not feel personally relevant to you, and even that it might not always be good for the games industry or for the average video game player. Still, if there ARE people out there who are finding personal meaning in considering themselves gamers (and the uproarious applause at PAX suggests that there are), I think it’s problematic to suggest that the term doesn’t deserve to exist. Who are we to define other people’s cultural affiliations for them?

    • Dennis says:

      Isn’t culture also something that binds a people? That’s central to my query:
      I don’t feel “bound” to other people who play video games, any more than I feel like I’m in a unique culture with people who like cats as pets. Or who are writers.

      Any statement that begins with “Who are we to…” always sounds to me like it tacitly implies that someone is, but we’re not. 🙂

      My question was whether or not someone *could* define it. I said nothing about wanting to be an authority on defining it. I am questioning the existence of something, and seeking evidence that it exists. Just saying a thing exists doesn’t mean it exists. Were that the case, damn, I’d be in real trouble in regards to this whole “God” thing…

  2. Jason T says:

    P.S. The accidental apostrophe in “its” in that last comment is going to haunt me. I welcome you to edit it out and delete this post if you’re so inclined. (Just in case you had any doubts about my own claim to nerd culture…)

    • Dennis says:

      That just has to stay now because it’s too damned funny, but I regularly delete and re-post tweets when I screw up spelling or punctuation, if that helps.

      So, are we now part of a “spelling police” sub-culture? 😛

  3. Daniel says:

    I am 35 and have about 4-5 friends with PC’s, Xbox’s and Macs all between them. We play some games together, others we don’t.

    I am part of no gaming culture.
    Is there one, yes but I have a feeling that it is some terrible youth culture definition that people only vaguely take part in.

    Game culture is an art culture, like painting, or music, it has wings.

    I am in the too slow to BF3 so now play RPG’s wing of gaming, how about you ?

  4. West says:

    I’d say that gaming culture is different from nerd culture.

    Nerd culture is a term for a wide range of interests – table top gaming, anime, computer programming, gadgets, and of course video games to name a few.

    Nerd culture buffs without a gaming background don’t get inside jokes from specific games. Anime nerds don’t know why people hate Barrens Chat; I don’t know why they like One Piece. We have a lot of common interests, but we express them through different media, which leads to a different cultural background.

    Another point in favor of gaming culture being a unique cultural entity is the formation of online communities that exist almost exclusively within games.

    Consider a WoW guild. I raided with the same group of people for almost 2 years, which meant speaking with them daily. Now that I have quit WoW, the association is much more distant – we have less in common. We’re all still part of nerd culture, but gamers seek out other gamers with similar interests.

    The last piece of evidence that springs to mind is exclusion. I play games instead of watching movies, playing sports, or keeping up with fashion trends. The less experience I have in other areas, the less interesting I am to non-gamers. I can’t establish a conversation based on ideas like “what’s your favourite TV show” or “which sports team do you root for”; I lack the experience. That functionally excludes me from society, leading to the label “gamer”. There’s a whole subculture of people like me, so the label has something to be applied to.

    There’s a big difference between that level of gaming and the Angry Birds / Farmville version, traditionally discussed in terms of “hardcore” vs “casual” gamers. People who play 1-2 games frequently may not necessarily consider themselves “gamers”, but it’s hard to avoid having that label applied to you by others if you spend the bulk of your leisure time on games.

    • Dennis says:

      A friend of mine says that nerd culture is all about language familiarity. A Whovian might not play video games, but chances are they have friends that do. So even if they don’t understand video game language, the words themselves aren’t alien to them, and that indicates a bond of “nerd culture.”

      I don’t think inside jokes alone define an entire subculture. I’ve been trying to think about subcultures, and I always rest on punk and hippies. Language, political beliefs, aesthetics, activites, each sub-culture had all of those by which to define and bind their members.

      Gamers are just people who play video games. There are no underlying aesthetic or political connections between them. Hell, most gamers don’t even read the gaming press! I know this from many depressing conversations with my game-playing buddies who don’t know who Ken Levine or Cliff Bleszinski are and why it’s cool that I interviewed them.

      I think those of us who are really into the games press have a skewed vision of what gamerdom actually looks like and is. I think the vast preponderance of people who play games *just play games,* and there’s no culture there whatsoever.

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