Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m 36 years old. I’ve been a professional writer for about a decade now, and I’ve been working in high school safety for about two years on top of that. By the standards of the people who’ve tried my cooking, I’m damn good at whipping up a tasty meal, although my presentation leaves something to be desired. My first marriage worked and continues to work. I’m an amateur woodworker and study a great deal of critical theory as it applies to movies and literature.
You’ll note that I didn’t include “gamer” in that description of my identity, despite the fact that I’ve literally been a fan of video games since I was old enough to understand what they are. And there’s a reason for that. “Gamer” is not part of my identity. It’s not an identity, period. And examining why that is and why the attempt at using that for self-definition persists is informative as an understanding in what the term actually means and what it isn’t.
This is something that’s going to be a bit more cultural, so let’s all strap in and start by discussing, in broad terms, the Red Letter Media Test as it applies to personal identity.
If you haven’t heard of that particular test, it’s something that came up in an overlong review of The Phantom Menace explaining why the characters in that film are so poorly sketched. The explanation offered is that most of them are impossible to describe except in terms of what they do in the story; Qui-Gon Jinn is a Jedi Master, but you get no sense of who he is as a person.
The Internet being what it is, it became a test. You should be able to describe a character without referring to what they do, but only to who they are. If you can’t say Han Solo is a smuggler with a cool ship, you can still explain him as a brash, overconfident braggart with a bigger heart than he likes to admit to and someone with a penchant for getting into and out of trouble quickly. I can’t describe Superman as an alien superhero, but I can easily explain a warm, humble, and compassionate man who uses all of his power to do the right thing for people with no expectation of reward.
Of course, real life is not media, but I feel like there’s a similar split. There are descriptors that define what you do, and there are descriptors that define what you enjoy. Which is why that first paragraph up there consists solely of things that I do.
You may notice that all of these things are, well, work. They require effort and produce results. Spending years studying critical theory means that I can have a lengthy discussion with the teachers I work alongside about the potential critical readings of books they teach. Learning to work with wood means I can produce furnishings. Learning to cook tasty meals means people (including me) enjoying tasty meals.
But there are a lot of things that I enjoy outside of that scope. I love Brooklyn 99, for example. But watching that isn’t doing anything. I spend half an hour being entertained by it, and then that half an hour is over, and nothing new has been accomplished or improved.
This is something that’s been on my mind a lot because the thing is that video games – MMOs in particular – kind of break down that distinction. They’re entertainment that feels like you’re doing work.
We’ve all long been aware of this fact on some level. The jokes about MMOs being a second voluntary job started around the time people figured out how much actual time and effort is required to do stuff in EverQuest and continued unabated until right now. Sure, Final Fantasy XIV moves a lot faster than that as a whole… but that just means you’re encouraged to take on more projects rather than finish things up faster.
And that’s all fine in and of itself. It’s entertaining, and it’s hard to be too angry about having a game that just keeps giving you things to do. But it does mean that there’s a certain proclivity to stop describing yourself in terms of what you do and more about defining yourself by what you enjoy, as if “I’m an accomplished tailor” and “I’ve read every single issue of the X-Men” are equally useful as achievements.
Defining yourself as what you do means that you’re looking at your accomplishments and actions in a way that informs far more of your actual identity. Playing video games is an entertainment activity, a hobby. And while it’s certainly possible to leverage something you enjoy into something you do – learning to paint miniatures because you like tabletop games, learning about critical theory because you enjoy movies, or learning to write about video games because you like video games – it’s the latter that actually underpins your identity.
You aren’t born a gamer. You don’t belong to any sort of special group because you enjoy video games. There isn’t even enough time in the day to play all of the video games even within a given subgenre, and that’s assuming you even want to. I sure as heck don’t.
Of course, there’s an advantage to making people think that “gamer” is an identity, and quite frankly it’s just a marketing one. Targeting subgroups is a time-honored tradition among advertisers and manufacturers, and one that tends to be easy to fall for even if you don’t think you’re a mark for it.
I give our readers enough credit to assume that none of them would purchase transparently pandering garbage that usually gets marketed to “gamer” as a demographic, like specialized branded snacks or whatever. (You know, the sort of product Cards Against Humanity was parodying with its whole “Pwnmeal” routine at PAX East one year.) But how many times have you heard someone defend one publisher over another because “well, they respect gamers”? Have you ever let yourself be influenced to pick up a snack because of a cross-promotion with a video game? Or just gravitated toward something that had a bit more of a video game flavor?
And this is not to claim exemption, lest you read this as chiding. I have a long-standing affection for Mountain Dew’s Game Fuel that shows up every couple of years or so, by way of example.
But the fact is that “gamers” aren’t a marginalized group and can’t be a marginalized group because it’s not a group. It’s a criteria that consists of people who like video games, also known as almost everyone in the world. And it’s a bit of identification that basically short-circuits our ability to notice that something feels like it’s work when it’s just more interactive entertainment than normal.
None of this is to say that liking video games is bad for you or anything like that. I love video games. But when someone asks me to describe who I am, that’s not high up on my list any more than my love of Transformers or comic books or Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels. Those are just things I like.
Because “gamer” isn’t an identity.