Monday, June 10, 2013

Gamer Culture

Let's say you're a kid from the '90s (even though they weren't that great). It might be the case that you grew up on video game consoles and - if you were lucky - you knew other kids in your area that you could play video games with. If that doesn't fit a description of you, then maybe you knew somebody like this.

Well, uh, maybe not like this.

But with video game products being expensive and the game industry still being fairly young, video games in the '90s were still fairly underground, primarily seen as children's playthings. Since sitting inside all day pushing pixels around was antithetical to running around outside, video games got a very strong "nerdy" association with them, too.

Fast forward to today, and 67% of American households play video games, with the average age being above the age of 30 and with the gender split being about 60-40 male to female. Gaming is certainly a prevalent hobby in our culture today, and the Internet was a driving force behind that happening. Not only did the Internet allow for gaming to become increasingly sophisticated, it also allowed fans of gaming to discover one another and shape the concept of a 'gamer'.

There was once a time when playing video games conjured an image of sitting in your living room alone with only the glow of your television screen, trying to beat another game level. Gaming was once very much a solitary hobby - it was expensive to get the extra controllers for other people, it was rare that you found a game that could actually support multiplayer, and it was difficult to always find people who'd even want to sink hours of a day with you in front of a television screen. If you were having trouble playing through a video game, then your only tool was persistence, and maybe a player's guide if you were lucky.

Games were part of a mysterious industry where grown adults pitched their video games and tried their best to relate to the 10-15 year old demographic. Your brand loyalty was determined by which console you could get your parents to buy you, and the company that designed your console was going to seem superior to all of the other console-producing companies. There was certainly no trouble getting kids excited about the games that they played.

No no, spend a week's worth of groceries on me!

The generation of people growing up with gaming were also growing up during the development of the Internet. The Internet had some superficial similarities to video games - both were indoors activities, both involved electronics, both kept you confined to a room in a solitary setting. Being on the Internet certainly wasn't a foreign environment to a person who played video games regularly, and online hubs began to develop by gamers, for gamers. Websites like IGN - a game media site - and GameFAQS - a place where people could submit walkthroughs and tips about video games - got their starts in the mid-90s.

Games themselves also began to change based around online capabilities. The mid and late '90s saw the creation of, an online service that permitted some games to be played with other players online. This innovation eliminated the barrier of finding a person in immediate proximity to play with you, and would eventually be followed by services like XBox Live and PSOnline. Multiplayer took on new meaning in games like World of Warcraft and Second Life. Competitive games like League of Legends could flourish in an massive online environment. The open online platform also allowed amateur game developers to make games - at first crudely manufactured out of Adobe Flash for websites like, but later in the form of a vibrant indie game market.

But the Internet didn't simply bring new ways for gamers to explore video games. They brought in new ways for gamers to explore the thoughts of other gamers.

The above video was uploaded on YouTube in 2006 by an individual named James Rolfe. Video game fans who spend a lot of time online will likely know him as the Angry Video Game Nerd. The AVGN is Rolfe's online personality, who records himself playing old and obscure video games while reacting to them comically. His videos became so well-known among gamers that he won an award for his videos in 2009. Plenty of gaming-related entertainment followed in Rolfe's footsteps. Nowadays, plenty of enthusiastic fans upload YouTube videos relating to their love of video games.

There were many other ways that people began to express their passion for gaming online. Game-themed webseries gave gamers common media pieces to follow outside of games themselves.  Game entertainment behemoths like Machinima emerged with skits, podcasts, and generally higher-budget works.

Numerous video game forums and an number of game news websites emerged all through the course of the 2000s, demystifying the tides of the gaming industry. Some of these media creators even started organizing conventions where gaming enthusiasts could meet and mingle with one another. Even previously opaque functions of the gaming industry - developer conferences, press releases traditionally disseminated by companies themselves - were now easy to access for anyone with a good Internet connection and access to a live stream.

Some gaming enthusiasts have even found ways to monetize their gaming hobby. The Let's Play, a form of gaming entertainment, has allowed some people to get steady income out of playing video games. This phenomenon has become so popular, some gaming companies have actually stepped in to collect income being made on their own games.

In a similar vein, we see the rise of e-sports, or competitive gaming organized in ways similar to how we think of sports leagues. E-sports events often receive the official endorsement of the game developers, as well as funding from companies looking for advertisement exposure. E-sports has created the concept of the "professional" gamer, someone endorsed by outside entities and paid to play video games competitively.

There is a certain identity that has formed around the term 'gamer' that integrates all of this media. The label is heavily tied to the Internet, which brought together aficionados of an isolating hobby and helped create a network. This network has since pushed very hard to give gaming some mainstream legitimacy, similar to that found with movies and music.

There is a serious problem with such a narrative around the term 'gamer', however: It's not what the term 'gamer' actually means.

Hey, I've got one of these! Can I be part of your club?
If you really wanted to take the term 'gamer' at face value, it would refer to anyone who likes to play games (specifically video games, but tabletop games often count). Video games are now accessible beyond the pricey home console, with the advent of mobile gaming on phones and tablets. Given the available statistics on the subject, it is clear that a majority of Americans qualify as gamers.

Of course, there are lots of self-proclaimed gamers who don't like acknowledging that everyone in this demographic is also a gamer. Even though the term 'gamer' itself isn't particularly meaningful, some will attempt to add extra conditions on their consumer habits that give the term 'gamer' a more exclusive identity. This carries some strong similarities to the problems with nerd culture - I would even say that all the issues with the term 'gamer' are derivative of all the issues with the term 'nerd'.

The way that this exclusivity manifests itself with gamers is also interesting. Some gamers like to make a distinction between the "hardcore" gamer and the "casual" gamer. Hardcore gamers perceive themselves to be better skilled at games, more dedicated to the hobby, and having better taste in games as compared to their casual counterparts. The "casuals", so the "hardcore" gamers claim, aren't really gamers, because they don't play games like "hardcore" gamers play games. Some games aren't even really games to the hardcore gamer - they're merely casual games.

The first big problem with this line of thought is that the terms "hardcore" and "casual" are poorly defined. Saying something is hardcore or casual ultimately gets dictated by what individuals expect out of their gaming companions, and ends up being too subjective to be meaningful. The second big problem is that it's unsustainable from a consumer standpoint. Making games more accessible to the masses leads to greater income to developers. Since gaming is a consumer hobby, gamers have to rely on games being produced in order to sustain their gamer "identity". If "hardcore" gamers try to add a stigma to playing games casually, then they're attacking a significant proportion of the gaming industry's income. It is already known that so-called "casual" games have a very viable market associated with them, so why would hardcore gamers mark themselves as the demographic that's difficult to turn a profit from? Wouldn't that just mean they'll get less attention in the long run?

Another issue with the term "gamer" is that lots of gamers are particularly bad about misogyny, possibly on account of gaming being historically perceived as a male hobby. For some individuals, a part of preserving the exclusivity of their label is to hang on to regressive attitudes about women.  For some developers, pandering to this particular brand of male is considered safe for profits. Women who speak out about gender problems in video games are viciously attacked and harassed. The term 'gamer' is so toxic about gender inclusion that Nintendo even released advertisements about their games that separated themselves from the term 'gamer' altogether.

General bigotry in gaming is alive and well, and succeeds in making "gaming" a more exclusive identity for all the wrong reasons. This, along with the hardcore/casual issue, display a certain egocentrism among self-proclaimed gamers. 

The bigotry starts from a certain degree of ignorance that some gamers may be predisposed to have (since being a self-proclaimed gamer probably means you come from an affluent and/or sheltered background). The changes in game-playing demographics over the years might be seen as threatening to these gamers, suddenly being forced to interact with people that they can't relate to as easily. The bigotry then emerges out of a desire to preserve the gaming community environment that they were used to.

The hardcore/casual dichotomy comes from a similar place, in that it is a reaction to a changing market. It comes from a desire to label people who play games in a way that the gamer plays games. This, along with the aforementioned bigotry, is a problem that may be fueled by the nature of the Internet itself. The problem of cyberbalkanization certainly applies here. Some gamers who seek like-minded gamers will form echo chambers that justify a certain sense of entitlement. Such a gaming echo chamber could be seen rearing its ugly head when Roger Ebert's criticism of video games was met with an outrage that lasted even to his death.

Luckily the push against these negative trends have been getting steadily more mainstream over the years, perhaps being another example of the power of online social justice. The fact that these issues get to be addressed - and rightfully mocked - by various media outlets is certainly promising. It is comforting to think that the Internet - the platform that permitted the creation of a gamer "culture" - is also actively working to improve gamer "culture".

We are at a point where the Internet cannot merely function as a rallying point for gamers, but also as a place to expand gamers' perceptions. The way that the Internet has enabled games to be integrated into our society is phenomenal.  If the Internet could change games, then it can continue to change gamers.

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