Monday, June 29, 2015

The Gamer Identity

The whole "gamer" thing is making the rounds around the blogosphere again, as it is wont to do. Murf talks about his perspective in that being a gamer to him is, "you both love games and want to broaden that love." Ravanel over at Ravalations echoes this, and talks about adding the label "girl" to "gamer".

Whatever you believe "gamer" means, at the end of the day you're applying a label to yourself which you can easily describe part of your identity. Wikipedia describes Identity from a sociological/psychological bent thusly:
[I]dentity is a person's conception and expression of their own (self-identity) and others' individuality or group affiliations (such as national identity and cultural identity).
Identification of others and who/what you identify as are very important in human cultures. These labels allow you to quickly communicate to others what you believe makes you, well, you. Identity can be very much core to who you are; you can have many identities, and you can eschew identifying as something if you feel it doesn't apply or don't believe plays a large role in who you are, even if someone else believes it should.


If you're a male in a large family you may identify as a father, a husband, a son, and a brother simultaneously. You may also identify as a sports fan, a dancer, a gamer, and a knitter. When meeting someone, what identity you present first in that context would hint as to what you think the most important part of your identity is: at your daughter's ballgame, you'd likely introduce yourself as a father; at a hockey arena, you'd probably identify as a sports fan; on Kotaku's forums, you'd probably identify yourself as a gamer. You may not identify with all of your own labels equally, either. You may put more weight on being a programmer versus being a dancer, for example.

I grew up playing games of all sorts. We had an Atari--which I destroyed in my infinite 3 year old wisdom trying to put stuff in the cartridge slot because that's what my parents did to make it work--and shortly after a Nintendo. I grew up on Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, Duck Hunt, Dragon Warrior, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, and so on. Our household was big into games for the most part. In my teens I was massively into D&D and even wrote my own pen and paper RPG. As an adult, I play board games, video games, role-playing games, you name it.

As one may guess, I very strongly identify as a gamer. I love games. I love how expressive they can be, their interactivity, the stories they tell, the neat mechanics the can exhibit, and so on. I've devoted my education and career to making them, and my blog to writing about and dissecting them.

I also identify as other things. I'm a computer scientist by education and a software engineer by trade. I'm a friend, I'm a Canadian, I'm an uncle. Coincidentally I'm writing this blog post as the Seattle Pride parade goes by my window (it's been going 4 hours, for the record, so I figured I'd seen enough to do something else), and I identify as gay, or even "gaymer" or gay gamer. But gamer itself is probably most core to who I am and what drives me.

Identity Going Mainstream Feels Like It's Under Attack

Identity is a tricky beast, though, because it can be so core to who you are, whether you think about it consciously or subconsciously. When someone attacks your identity, you often can feel it personally. Especially if that label is by far your primary identity.

For gaming, an easy thing to bring up here is Jack Thompson's crusade against video games, trying to get them banned. As television news like FOX derided gaming and gamers as an identity, it was clear that something we loved was very much under attack. Thankfully, Mr. Thompson got himself disbarred.

When we look at the "Gamers are Dead" fiasco last year, a number of people felt attacked. While the articles themselves generally talked about how the stereotypical neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd (I say this as a neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd myself) isn't something the companies need to target specifically anymore because there are so many more people interested in games now--basically, what makes a "gamer" is a broader net than it was previously--the titles were a deliberate and direct attack on the "gamer" identity.

The push back on "SJW" values can also be viewed as a lashing out at something people feel is threatening their identity. The broadening of gaming culture to the mainstream means that gaming as a refuge becomes diluted in a sense. It was something that felt "ours" in the 80s and 90s, and now in the 2010s gaming "belongs" to everyone (assuming it could "belong" to anyone to begin with), and with that broadening comes new ideas and different sensibilities. Ideas and sensibilities that may not jive with the previous gamer demographic; they claim ownership of the term "gamer" and therefore ideas from outside of what they consider to be a gamer are treated as an outsider's point of view at best, and hostile at worst.

That expansion is akin to other privileges being broadened to apply to more people--like gender becoming irrelevant to being married. The privileged may feel threatened because they're no longer a unique or special group, even if they were pariahs like gamers used to be. You also actually see this within the LGBT community as well, as more letters get added to the acronym. You see folks deriding it as "alphabet soup".

Saw this posted on a friend's Facebook page.
Gaming isn't the only thing to go mainstream. What gamers see today has occurred to grunge, rock and roll, fantasy literature, EDM, and so on.

Hybrid Identities

I talked about being a gay gamer. Ravanel talked about being a girl gamer. Folks talk about being American versus 2nd Generation Chinese-American. For those who express hybrid identities, neither really takes precedence. Being a girl and being a gamer are both important aspects of Ravanel, as expressed by her. Someone who states they are Chinese-American as opposed to just Chinese, or just American, is communicating they believe both aspects of themselves are important in that context.

Bhagpuss left a comment on Ravanel's blog (emphasis mine):
Nope, I think these labels are odd and unhelpful. I much prefer "I play games" to "I am a gamer". The term "girl gamer" however, has a completely different set of values attached, I think. I always see that as a feminist statement, part of the long tradition of reclaiming, owning and subverting negative stereotypes. I'd say calling yourself a "girl gamer" is an overtly political act the way just calling yourself a "gamer" probably wouldn't be, although the hobby of gaming itself seems to be developing its own political infrastructure so maybe even that distinction won't hold for long.
You hear that kind of sentiment all the time. Why segregate yourselves? Why say Black Lives Matter, don't all lives matter? Why do gay people need a Pride festival specifically for them? Why can't we all just be gamers?

Keeping everything else I wrote above in mind, calling oneself a girl gamer isn't any more a political statement than calling oneself a gamer is. At least, it shouldn't be. It's simply a statement that you identify as a girl and a gamer relatively equally in that context. But we don't hear folks identifying themselves as straight gamers, or boy gamers, so why identify as gay or girl along with gamer?

Because--and you'll probably know I'll say this before I say it--male and straight is the default, especially in gaming. When someone says "gamer" the stereotype of the neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd still comes up in popular culture, despite the fact that it's not representative of the gaming populace as a whole (though there are some of us that do fit that image, and that's not a bad thing). So by using a hybrid identity, you are distancing yourself from that default, and that isn't a bad thing either. Gamers aren't some unified ideological bloc, nor should they be.

But let's get one thing clear: identifying as a gamer is a political statement, as much as identifying as a girl or gay gamer is, or as a Chinese-American, or Christian or Atheist. When you say you're a gamer, you're communicating that gaming and the culture that surrounds gaming is important to you. That when you're acting as a consumer in the market, you'll likely lean in a certain direction financially (generally, towards games). That when you're acting as a voter, you'll likely lean in the direction that enables games in society, or that gaming and gaming-related policies will be of great interest to you. You might not be out actively crusading for it, but you're making a statement nonetheless.

So for those who do call themselves gamers (which I note to ensure no confusion, Bhagpuss very much did not), to say that adding "girl", "gay", "black", "trans", whatever to gamer is a political statement is a grossly hypocritical statement. They likely don't realize they're being hypocritical, as they clearly don't realize that even identifying as a gamer is a political statement (to be fair, I doubt any identity label isn't a political statement), but nonetheless, they're applying a different set of rules to others by doing so.

And also note, gamer itself as a label isn't a default in society, either. So to those outside the gaming community, "gamer" is something that may come off as a self-segregation, exactly the thing that hybrid gamer identities get accused of by many gamers. At the end of the day, they're both just labels.


Some folks claim they hate labels. To pick on Bhagpuss a little more (sorry!), while he clearly doesn't identify with "gamer" (totally okay!) and he believes such a label to be "odd and unhelpful", he likely uses other labels in his life. I'd honestly be shocked to find a human that isn't using a label to identify themselves in one way or another.

Yes, you need to be careful about generalizing based on labels, and you need to be even more careful about applying your own labels on others rather than taking what identities they espouse. But like any other tool, such identification can be useful when used judiciously

So yeah, I identify as a gamer, among many other things. But gaming is core to what I love, and therefore it's good enough for me. #Gamer, #Sociology


  1. Thank you for such a thought provoking post. This has presented me with an opportunity to consider this issue from a fresh perspective.

    I am somewhat ambivalent about labels but then again I have the skewed perspective (and privilege) of never having been marginalised or part of a minority group in any aspect of my life.

    In the past I have been somewhat dismissive about"identifying as a gamer" but due to your honest and well reasoned post, I am reconsidering my position.

    I have a suspicion that this will be a talking point on a certain podcast this week :)

    1. I look forward to listening to a certain podcast then :)