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?