Point-Counterpoint — The “Gamer” Label: Should It Be Retired?

Image by Flicker user Official GDC
Image by Flickr user Official GDC

Inspired by the recent Gamasutra article, Opinion: Let’s retire the word ‘gamer’, the Duck, Hatm0nster, and I take a point-counterpoint approach to discuss what we think about the “gamer” label. Should it be “retired” as the article suggests? Do we accept the label ourselves? Is there some way for the term to escape the stereotypical notion of video game players? Read on and let us know what you think. Are we on target or way off base? Join the conversation in the comments below!

Cary: It took me a long time to come to terms with being labeled a “gamer.” I distinctly remember a point several years ago after a long round of Mass Effect my husband turning to me saying, “You’re such a gamer.” To which I replied quite loudly and indignantly, “NO, I’M NOT!” As the article points out, the term “gamer” held a very negative connotation in my mind as someone who had no life outside of video games. But this was during a time when video games were just coming back into my life. Once I had fully re-integrated them alongside my other hobbies, I began to think of myself as a gamer…but only when I was playing video games. I also label myself as a reader, a cultural-watcher, a knitter, a cook, etc…but, again, only during those activities to I think of myself in those terms. I don’t have a problem with the term “gamer,” and I don’t mind being labeled as such even though it’s not how I fully define myself. I also don’t feel a strong need for the term to be “retired” – if we are not “gamers” then what are we as a community?

The Duck: I agree, what else do you call us then?  People who play video games?  Video game players?  Gamer is the only word that works.  Though, I too didn’t consider myself a gamer until maybe a couple years ago, even though I’ve been playing for over 12 years now.  It does seem to have a negative vibe about it.  Like the word “nerd”, which I’ve also embraced.  I think people believe gamers are these pimple-covered geeks that do nothing but play video games and have no life (someone once pointed out to me a video game magazine that felt the need to include an ad for pimple cream), and as we all know, that’s certainly not true.  I usually don’t tell people I’ve just met that I like games because they automatically assume, for whatever reason, that’s all I do.  So many times, strangers have told me, “You need a different hobby.”  Well, excuse me for answering the question honestly.  I didn’t expect to be insulted by someone I just met.  Ahem, like you, Cary, I do lots of things.  I’m a writer and an artist and a blogger and a very novice piano and guitar player, along with all manner of other things.  But, one of the biggest terms I associate myself with is “gamer”, and I’m not ashamed of it, despite what people think.

Hatm0nster: While I’ve never had a problem being thought as a “gamer” in the sense that I’m a person who plays games, I don’t like the “pimply-nerdy-basement-dweller” connotations that come with it. It’s something that I see as a relic from when games were still only found in arcades, had simple, objectives like getting the most points or to the end of the stage, and whose primary audience was young children. Games aren’t what they once were, and neither are those who play them (most of whom are gainfully employed and in their late 20’s). I agree with The Duck that “Gamer” is the only word that currently works, but only because we still call these things “games” which I don’t think is entirely accurate anymore. So yeah if we could change it, I would be in favor of doing so.

Cary: Hatm0nster, you bring up an interesting point — that many of today’s video games no longer fall into the category of “games.” They aren’t designed to be won or lost, but rather completed and experienced.  It’s too bad that the gamer stereotype still lives strong despite this progression in gaming. And surely games will only evolve further. Maybe the word “gamer” will evolve as well? I’d like to think it would. I don’t know if the public at-large will ever see “video games” with the same eyes as those that play them regularly. The term “gamer” has kind of been imposed on us over time, and many video game players have come to own the word. So even if “gamer” was somehow eliminated from the lexicon, it would still probably be used by some. Sure, maybe the community could somehow agree to use it less in the media, but it’s not like we can just stick it on the wall like a retired sports number.

The Duck: I never would have thought of video games as something other than games, but I suppose “game” isn’t the exact right word for it.  “Monopoly” and “Life” are games.  You play with others, and there is no story or characters.  Video games are more like books or movies, but the “viewer” takes an active role in it.  Their actions determine what happens, if the story continues, if the hero wins or loses, etc.  So what are video games really?  They are more like immersive stories.  An early form of virtual reality.  I will likely always use the word “gamer”, as I’ve come to like it, but perhaps it is not accurate.  What would be a more accurate term for video games, though?

Hatm0nster: There’s the tricky part. I would describe games as “Interactive Media,” the problem is that the term can apply to other things like websites. Essentially we’d need to not figure out a unique definition for games, but also define it in a way that allows us to come up with an easy to say, short-hand term for them. It’s difficult to do that since there are so many things that fall under the “game” label. We’d have to start with what makes games like Skyrim and Mass Effect distinct from something like Angry Birds and go from there.

The real problem with being accurate is that in doing so we’d have to devise new words for the gaming sub-types and so on and so forth. We’d probably have an easier time coming up with a new word that’s not bound by trying to describe exactly what they are.

At least that’s how I’m seeing it.

A thought occurs, perhaps instead of replacing “Gamer” we could rebrand it? You could qualify it based on the games you play. “I an explorer” or “I’m a thinker” that sort of thing. Of course the trick there is not sounding silly or pretentious.

Cary: This is really making me think that there’s no all-in-one solution. Internally, in the community, sure, there’s a big difference between an Angry Birds “gamer” and a Skyrim “gamer;” but outside of the video game players as a whole, coming up with some new terms doesn’t seem to solve the issue. I really like the idea that I’m not really a “gamer” when I’m playing games. Hatm0nster, going off your term of “interactive media,” we could all consider ourselves “students” of interactive media (though you’re correct that it’s an umbrella term). Now, I’m not suddenly going to start calling “gamers” “students,” but we do learn from games. We explore, think, act, and react during games, much like we do when we’re engaged in a classroom. So moving along the lines of rebranding the term “gamer” (a GREAT idea!), we, video game players, need to make, no, help the non-gaming communities understand that there’s more to video games than simply win or lose. That we’re not wasting our collective time in front of a TV, but are, in fact, made better by them.

I feel like it’s an uphill battle, though, to try to get rid of the negative connotations of the word “gamer.” Then again, look what’s happened to the acceptance “geek” and “nerd” as positive terms over just the past few years. Maybe “gamer” will find its place eventually as well.

The Duck: Yes, perhaps “gamer” will get more acceptance someday.  It’s not so much the word as what people think of those associated with the word.  We could change what we call ourselves, but if people still see those who play video games in a negative light, it won’t matter that much.  People like watching movies and reading books where they become attached to the characters, and video games aren’t that much different, but video games are looked down upon, whereas movies and such are not.  That’s because people don’t understand what video games are.  When we play, we become emotionally attached to characters just like when people watch movies, and we also use our minds to devise strategies and solve puzzles in a way you can’t really do in a movie because in movies, the characters don’t require any input from the viewer.  I wish people understood video games can be beautiful.  It’s not just about shooting zombies and racking up points.  Video games come in such a variety, and if people knew what they really were, there’s no way they could truly believe all are bad.  Then, they wouldn’t think all “gamers” are bad, either.

 Hatm0nster: Good point Duck, changing the label rarely does anything to change how something is perceived. In order to change the perception of games and those that play them, we’re going to have to work to change which aspects of gaming and its community gets the most attention. The majority of gamers may not be immature or childish, and the best that gaming has to offer may not be found in Call of Duty or Angry Birds; but look at what gets the most mainstream attention. It’s almost always the worst the community has to offer and many of the games that get the most media hype are your Call of Dutys, Battlefields, Bullestorms, Angry Birds, etc. It also doesn’t help that we’ve got news organizations going after games in general for promoting violence every time there’s an incident involving guns; or not even bothering to do their research and making a game out to be something it’s not, like when Fox did a whole report about how Mass Effect was a sex simulator back when it came out.

Point is that more of the good needs to get out there to balance out the bad.

12 Comments

  1. Katy says:

    I take pride in the term “gamer” but, as Cary said, I also take pride in the fact that i”m a “writer” or a “rider” (in terms of horseback riding). But to me, these terms don’t arise solely when I am taking part in these actions — rather, they define who I am all the time. They are my passions. Although I dislike the negative stereotypes attached to the term, I think they are slowly fading away as gaming becomes more popular. With that being said, even if doesn’t change, most “er” terms has some sort negative stereotype attached to it.

    So I’m for gamer. I have never seen anything wrong with it, and with the way the industry is going I can only see it becoming more positive.

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    1. cary says:

      I certainly hope that positivity is the wave of the future (generally) when it comes to gaming and gamers. As games change and evolve, “gamer” will too. The same has happened with so many other labels that are now widely accepted. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time.

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  2. gimmgp says:

    These sorts of “all or none” issues always come from boiling down anyone’s personality to a single term. The same gut reaction to the word “gamer” and be applied to terms like “sports fan” or “musician,” just because there is a dominant hobby in a person’s life does not exclude any other aspects of his/her world. That being said, I take no issue with the term “gamer,” and I do not feel that retiring the word will change public perception of those who play games.

    I agree with all three of you on the idea that it is not the term that needs to change, but the public perception of video game culture as a whole. Even now, when so many people play Angry Birds or Words with Friends on their smart phones, there is still a huge “us versus them” sentiment on both sides of the fence. Just last week, I was discussing the next generation of consoles with one of my co-workers who regularly plays Call of Duty and Monster Hunter. At one point in our conversation, another co-worker walked by and inquired as to what we were discussing. I started to explain that the Xbox One had been revealed, and what sorts of things this could mean, when the first co-worker said, “Don’t bother explaining to her man, she’s not a gamer so she doesn’t care.” My other co-worker made no attempt to deny this sentiment, and immediately sulked away, in spite of the fact that she regularly plays a variety of iPhone games and even dabbles in video games with her family. With just a single twist of the word “gamer,” she was completely snubbed and her interest in extended video game culture was diminished just a bit more. Just imagine what an open discussion and enthusiastic tone would have done instead.

    What we could really use is a sort of public figure or group to dispel nasty myths and rumors about the video game industry and culture. For every poorly researched and completely twisted bull-shit news report about how video games are turning kids into violent killers and feral shut-ins, we should have stories about video game charities helping those in need, or hope filled tales of how video games inspired people to make the world a better place. Parents who feel alienated by video games and the culture that surrounds them should be educated through informative news programs that would explain the role of the ESRB, and just how much one can bond as a family through a fun-filled video game night. There should be piles and piles of popular news media that would take back the term “gamer” from the antiquated and uninformed and turn it into something all-inclusive rather than totally exclusive.

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    1. Hatm0nster says:

      I hadn’t thought of the term as a means to exclude people too, guess there’s always a flip-side to every label huh?

      I like your line of thinking though, a group to respond to all the negativity spread by mainstream and gaming media alike. Maybe that’s something we could all work at too. Every little bit helps right?

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      1. cary says:

        Great commentary here! You’re idea about having a public figure speak up for gamers and gaming is interesting. Adam Sessler comes to mind, though he’s not necessarily that well known outside of the industry. Jane McGonigal has also made small strides in trying to educate regular folks about games and game design. But the shield of negativity and exclusivity around the word “gamer” is so strong that their efforts only seem to make the smallest ripples. However, that doesn’t mean that spreading the good word, so to speak, isn’t worth doing. We, collectively, have to keep up the good talk, and eventually people will listen, learn, and accept.

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  3. Astro Adam says:

    I really do dislike the negative gamer stereotypes out there. But we can, starting with our blogs, change the public’s perception of gamers. I’d write more but may want to save this for a post of my own. 🙂

    By the way, I thought this post and your blog deserved an award. So I nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Congrats! http://wp.me/p2FQoz-f1

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    1. cary says:

      Thank you for the nomination! And you make a great point, that change starts at the bottom. Well…not that us bloggers are the “bottom,” but most of us are working at the grass roots level. And we’re able to reach a swath of gamers and non-gamers alike. We just have to keep the positive spin on “gamer” in everything that we write.

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  4. Danielle I says:

    I’ve always thought gamers are cool and smart people with great stamina. The first gamers I met were like that, so I don’t see negative stuff about the label. Gamers do have a “life”, and they’re very passionate about what they do that they sometimes seem like obsessive nerds to people. I don’t know why some people don’t understand that.

    Besides, I am a gamer, too. 🙂

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    1. Hatm0nster says:

      That’s just how labels work I think, they can simultaneously invoke the best and worst ideas of a group depending on which side of it you happen to be standing on. Gamers get a lot of bad press, hence the poor image. At least that’s how I’m seeing it

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  5. Dean says:

    There’s something very interesting happening in our culture. Terms like “nerd,” “dork,” and “geek” are not only losing their negative connotations but they’re actually becoming compliments.

    I can’t tell you how many dating site profiles list “nerd” as being a turn-on, “dork” as being cute and “geek” as being someone who is just insanely smart in a particular field. “Gamer” is going in this general direction.

    Personally, I’ve never felt ashamed to say I’m a gamer but I understand and realize there’s been a negative connotation associated with the term. I’d argue though that the negativity is going away. Not only are kids playing video games, but also their parents. More people are playing, more people are accepting of that.

    On a slightly different note, it’s important that we realize video games are still very new. As in, they’ve only been around since the late 80s whereas chess, monopoly etc. eclipse that.

    And therefore, gamers are definitely not what they once were (as Hatm0nster says). This is because when video games first started to release, there was no one but us young kids playing them and because we didn’t stop, we now continue (in whatever amount we can) to play them as parents and adults.

    Video games developed with the first class of gamers (for reference I’m in my late twenties). Yes, so many more things are technologically possible now, but even on a basic design level they’ve evolved (Braid, Limbo etc.). There are a ton of simple 2D games that clearly illustrate developers’ understanding and prowess that is making a video game.

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      You’re right, now that gamers are growing up, hopefully that will help people to accept us more. I have had negative responses from people who didn’t understand video games. Once, a doctor asked me what I liked to do. I told her I liked video games, and she told me I need to find a different hobby. Now I don’t tell people about my hobbies anymore, even when they ask. But now, games are not just for kids anymore. Now that nerd and dork are no longer negative, I hope that people will understand that video games aren’t a bad thing, either.

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