Vague Patch Notes: ‘Gamer’ is not an identity

    
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What you consume is just that.

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.

Tell me you DO something.

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.

There's a primal dark might here.

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.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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kalech

Saying that only what you do, and not what you enjoy, counts as your identity is just plainly untrue. People identify using the things they enjoy all the time. Ever heard anyone describe themselves as a movie-enthusiast? Avid reader? Animal-lover? It’s completely daft to act as if what we enjoy doesn’t relate to who we are as a person. And even more daft to act as if identifying ourselves using our interests isn’t a totally common and normal thing to do.

I agree on some points, like not falling for marketing ploys or that gamers aren’t a marginalized group, but the rest is just kind of eh. People are allowed to identify however they want, there are so many aspects that make up an identity. Everything from serious life-changing things like gender or sexual orientation, to small things like someones love for bollywood movies or looking at pictures of hamsters in hats. Something doesn’t have to be big and important to be a part of who you are.

Veldan
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Veldan

Seems like I’m late to the party, but I just want to hop in and say: Eliot is wrong. Sure, for some people gaming is just a hobby, just an activity to have some simple fun. But for many people, it’s so much more than that. It’s a passion to rival any other. Even if you’re part of the former group, denying that the latter group exists is stupid.

Also, regarding “it’s not a group because almost everyone in the world likes games”: I would not call everyone who likes games a gamer. Someone who plays some candy crush at a bus stop is not a gamer, someone who plays mario kart twice a year at family get togethers is also not a gamer, etc.

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Fervor Bliss
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Matthew Ward

I’ve played the guitar for many years.
It’s a skill I honed and a pass-time that I passionately enjoy.

Being a guitarist is a part of my identity.

Other people may see it as a nonsensical part of my identity, or refuse to acknowledge it, but they can all go fuck themselves.

People are allowed to identify however they like on a social construct such as gender (gender is not sex before you all fucking explode on me) so how can you dismiss being a gamer as something that no one should be allowed to fold in to their identity?

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Maggie May

I could argue that the concept of identity is an artificial construct which has absolutely nothing to do with who we really are. I don’t identify as a gamer because what attracts me to games is not competition but interacting with a virtual world and playing a part in that world. Basically what drives me is my imagination and it informs all of the things I enjoy doing. This includes things which require work and things that reside only in my head. If I was to come up with an identifier it would be “dreamer”. But everyone is free to choose their own path and how they see themselves.

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kgptzac

It’s a criteria that consists of people who like video games, also known as almost everyone in the world.

I bet there are a lot of people who dislike video games than you think.

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vasvary5050

I find it interesting that you begin with the so-called “red letter media” test of personal identity which suggests that its not what you do that counts for identity but who you are, and then pivot to a supposedly “similar split” which is in fact almost the opposite, where it is what you do that counts rather than what you enjoy. The only thing this would seem to demonstrate is that identity is complex and can be viewed form many perspectives.

In my mind, someone is not automatically a gamer just because they play games. The important factor is that they self-identify as a gamer. In the same way that someone might enjoy painting but not self-identify as a painter, but someone else may have being a painter as part of how they think of themselves, which does makes them a painter. I should emphasise that I’m not bringing quality of skills into this. One could be a novice painter, or not very skilled at games, and yet still be a painter or a gamer if that is how one self-identifies. For example, I’ve played games most of my life – like most people – but only recently started to think of myself as a gamer, not so much as a personal identifier, but as a cultural identifier. To me that means more than just playing games, but also thinking about what makes a good game, reading articles about games, following gaming blogs, thinking about how games have changed over time, and worrying (rightly or wrongly) about the future of gaming. Of course there are many toxic gamers who bring the label into disrepute, but the same could be said for other cultural identifiers. There are people who self-identify as religious (of whatever creed or denomination) who say toxic hostile things about so-called “others”, but that should not be generalised as a criticism of all people who self-identify as religious, and similarly for gamers.

I’m also not sure the relevance of not being born a gamer. No one is born with any self-identity (I would argue), and no identity is permeant. In fact, call me a post-modernist if you like, but I would say that identity is intrinsically protean if not fluid.

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Zeph

Excuse me, sir, I am a Gamer-American, sir.

But in all seriousness, great article, and I largely agree with you. I don’t want to get too political in the Massively OP comments, but it’s definitely not an accident that we identify ourselves more and more by our activity as consumers.

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Peregrine Falcon

Actually ‘Gamer’ is my identity.

How can you work for a gaming news website and not think that gaming is a legitimate way for people to identify themselves?

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elenie

I am confused by this article. It seems aimed at toxic gatekeepey “gamers” but, for me, goes too far by saying that self-identifying as a gamer is wrong.

I am a person who deeply loves games and books, in ways specific to myself. It is absolutely something that I see as crucial about myself. I identify with other gamers insofar that it is nice to share a connection with someone, to share the joy of a favourite game. It is a part of my identity as a person.

IMO, it does not matter that I could stop gaming, or that I haven’t done it since birth. An identity is just as valid if it comes to you later in life, and I would never stop playing games or reading of my own volition (if I did, I would indeed stop self-identifying as a gamer though). I also know myself to be bisexual even though I’ve not yet had a relationship with a woman (= it’s not something I do, but still my identity).

I do fully agree that some identities are much more consequential in real life. Being into games is very low on that spectrum compared to, for example, being trans. But I don’t see why that in itself means that self-identifying as a gamer is wrong (IMO it just means we should all fight for each other’s rights to live our identities where it doesn’t harm others). As with everything, there’s a big difference between “I am XYZ and it’s great, wanna share?” and “I am XYZ, and therefore I am better than you / you are doing XYZ wrong” etc.

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Baemir

You’ll find many supporters of that last idea on the internet. And I’m not talking about white supremacists, at least not exclusively.

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elenie

I understand that. But the article didn’t say “Don’t identify as a gamer because these days that term’s been poisoned”, it said “Gamer is not an identity”.
I would hate to seem complicit with toxic supremacists of any kind, so I keep the toxic gamer group in mind when talking about my love of games to others – but it is still an important part of me.

Hamblepants
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Hamblepants

You can ignore reality by pretending gamers have it just as bad as people discriminated based on race/class/gender/sexuality, but you’d be wrong.

And that perception/thinking error is very much something that MANY gamers do.

You can ignore/lie about reality as much as you want, that’s what unfair power systems are set up to encourage you to do, and let you do.

Face it or don’t, but just remember, you’ll be old one day and all the bullshit you convinced yourself of will start to be a lot less convincing, and you’ll have to stare all your decisions in the face.

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Malcolm Swoboda

My word for gamers is not really ‘oppressed’, but ‘disrespected’. Similar to things like, for example, the worst most men worry about from women is being ‘insulted’ (and that’s not only to downplay; insults can lead to the worst of outcomes, only *less often*), while the worst most women worry about from men is being ‘endangered’, far often a life-and-death thing. That’s what matters about being a marginalized population, compared to the privilege of being the correct combination.

Hamblepants
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Hamblepants

Well said.

I’ve seen that disrespect, no doubt.

I’m genuinely glad to see you (and other people) here acknowledging that disrespect and massive-state-sponsored-violence are both bad – but also on scales and depths that are wildly different.

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Alejandro Sánchez

I see you have written this many times as a reply to people, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the topic at hand. Debating whether something can be considered an identity has nothing to do with whether or not it is as important as other identities.

Hamblepants
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Hamblepants

I have written it many times!

I wouldn’t expect you to read all of the things I’ve written here, but I’ll repeat one of them here:

Something that a large number of White guy gamers do is misuse our identity as gamers to erase the violence and denial-of-rights and theft that people of different races, classes, genders, sexualities live with.

That on-purpose erasing of other people’s rights being violated is ABSOLUTELY a relevant part of this conversation.

So yes, the debate is about BOTH these topics.

On the topic you’re talking wanting to focus on: I agree that being a gamer is an important part of who someone is. I’ve said that multiple times here.

I’m making both points, but I’m making the latter one way less often because there’s 3 dozen other people making that point as well, and very few others making the first point.