on the dominant discourse of ‘gamer’
Simon Parkin wrote a great piece on the New Statesman about the problems with the term ‘gamer’ and how it often perpetuates a homogenous and exclusionary videogame culture. Mary Hamilton wrote a great blog in response to Simon’s great piece, defending her own self-identity of gamer and commenting on its terrible and ill-guided title that demands people to stop considering themselves as gamers. I would suspect Simon had nothing to do with this title. I’m writing this on my ipad so I’ll stick urls at the bottom.
I had a few twitter discussions about this and I said I’d quickly write up my thoughts because, yes, I think ‘gamer’ is a terrible term that should be disowned and, yes, I think it is wrong to tell anyone that they should not identify as anything.
So this is what my problem isn’t: people who consider themselves gamers. Consider yourself whatever you want to be. It’s your identity; perform it how you will.
HOWEVER! The way ‘gamer’ is often imagined and understood is, unarguably, a homogenised culture of young men who are comfortable with technology and certain kinds of games that value control and challenge and agency. No, that is not the only kind of games that exist. No, not everyone who considers themselves a gamer likes those kinds of games, but that is the *dominant discourse* that is regularly perpetuated.
Mary referred to a friend’s study that showed how many women feel uncomfortable identifying as ‘gamer’ because of this. I assume she is talking about Adrienne Shaw’s study. If she isn’t, then there are two studies that show this. Because of these dominant discourses in game playing communities about who gamers are and what they value, a whole heap of people who play videogames that fall outside of this dominant discourse (people who play casual games, social games, mobile games, etc) don’t consider themselves gamers. They think that ‘gamer’ is a title they cannot use, an identity they do not belong to.
And, not very surprisingly, Shaw’s study showed that when it comes to identifying yourself as a gamer, things were clearly divided across gender lines. Different race and class and sexuality and, of all things, amount of time spent playing games each had little effect on who identified as a gamer (assuming I am remembering it correctly. Preeetty sure I am). But, when it came to gender, women were far less likely to consider themself a gamer because, among other reasons, the games they played weren’t gamer games.
So. Jump sideways for a second. Until pretty recently (and still ongoing in a lot of places), people would use male pronouns when talking about people generally. Without talking about a specific person, they would still talk about ‘he’ and ‘him’ all the time. Most recently I’m seeing this in Susan Sontag’s writing. She talks about how ‘the film director must take account of xyz; he is an artist who does abc’ (not a real quote). It’s super jarring. But it’s gendered language that, effectively, says that the role being talked about in this sentence is a role only for men. Women are excluded in the gendering of the language. More recently, there is backlash against this, and if I read anything with male pronouns I assume the writer is about 80-years-old. We try to make language more gender-inclusive, we try to make sure people don’t feel excluded from parts of society or certain roles or identities through the words we use.
Back to gamer. So. We have this identity that is not representative of People Who Plays Games because many People Who Play Games do not feel welcomed to that identity for one reason or another and, disproportiantely, it is the Women Who Play Games who feel excluded from this title.
So keeping that in mind, let’s say you see a game advertised for ‘real gamers’ or a TV show that is ‘by gamer, for gamers’ or an academic paper talks about what gamers enjoy doing or who gamers are. Lets say you see all this discourses around games culture as someone who feels excluded from the gamer identity. Just like the male pronoun, it’s a semantic turn that excludes large and gendered portions of the game playing community. It makes many women feel excluded and it allows the men privileged by such discourses to maintain their power.
(I wrote a piece for The Conversation a bit back about Call of Duty: Ghosts’s advertising and how women had been ignored. I got a whole bunch of terrible comments from men attacking my claim that men and women play games in equal numbers. Oh, but women don’t play THESE games. They play Candy Crush. The exclusionary work of ‘gamer’ is active. People see certain games as ‘gamer’ games and other games as not gamer games, and the not-gamer games get feminised, along with their players. Gamers are men.)
(See also: every time you spoke to a friend (she was probably a woman, but not necessaily) who plays games and wants to talk to you about the games she is playing but quickly adds the caveat “Like, I’m not a gamer, but…” and then goes on to have an interesting conversation about those genres of videogames she feels like she is allowed to play without being a ‘gamer’.)
So my issue isn’t that some people want to identify as a gamer. If that’s your main drive in life, sure, go for it. My problem is the discourses around games that talk about ‘gamers’ when they actually mean to talk People Who Play Games. I think it perpetuates exactly the same exclusions as casually using a male pronoun when you are not, in fact, actually talking about just men.
Discourses around games culture that use the term gamer when they are not actually talking about just that very niche subset of people who play games perpetuate the idea that that subset are the most important, the most ‘pure’ of a vast game playing community. No, game players are not homogenised, but the way gamer is often deployed by the games industry, by the gaming press, by the press more generally, and by gamers themselves reinforces a dominant homogenous understanding of who plays videogames and why.
And its a part of the much broader issues of videogame exceptionalism, entangled with formalism debates and negative Gone Home user reviews and trolling of Twine game creators and all of that. Despite videogames being played by every gender almost equally, the idea that videogames are still male-dominated persists because the gamer subculture is male-dominated and gets to control the discourse. This is why advertising and game journalism outlets and the industry itself still gets away with a fraternal, masculinist attitude: because a minority male-dominated identity continues to have most of the power.
Not using the world gamer doesn’t solve everything. But just as using the male pronoun in a paper about policepeople perpetuates the idea that every policeperson is a man, using the word gamer in a paper when you are not actually talking just about people who self-identify as gamers perpetuates the idea that ever person who plays videogames identifies as a gamer, which is far from the truth.
So, in closing, my issue with ‘gamer’ is not that people identify as gamers. My issue with ‘gamer’ is it is a word that when used in discourses around games is not actually representative of everyone who plays games and its uses as such often excludes and obscures a much broader and diverse spectrum of People Who Play Games.
Don’t use a male pronoun if you are not just talking about men.
Don’t use ‘film buff’ to talk about all kinds of people who watch films.
Don’t use ‘bookworm’ for anyone who enjoys the written word.
Don’t use ‘gamer’ for the vast and diverse spectrum of people who play games.