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Opinion: Let's retire the word 'gamer'

"The word 'gamer' is regressive. It accepts the portrait of us painted by the mainstream news media, and every time I hear it or read it it actually makes me feel a little sick."

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

May 15, 2013

6 Min Read

It's time to retire the word "gamer," argues Game Developer editor emeritus Brandon Sheffield. The word "gamer" has fully infiltrated the game developer lexicon. It's the adjective we use for our customers, for ourselves, and even for our lifestyle. But should we really be letting this one word define us? I say absolutely not, which is why the word was banned from Game Developer magazine (as was "gaming," because that has been a synonym for gambling for years before video games were around). "Gamer" is a marketing term used to put you in a box. If you agree with that, maybe you can stop reading right here and never use the word again. But let's continue for the rest of us. What other media uses a single term to describe its audience? Movies use movie-goer, viewing public, or for enthusiasts, cinephiles. The printed word uses "readers," or for the dedicated, bibliophiles. For music, you've got listeners, concert-goers, audiophiles (which is something else entirely), and much more. There are levels of gradation here, allowing different descriptors for different levels of interest and dedication. The word "fan" applies to all media - it implies a rabid dedication to something specific - a musical artist, an author, a director. But for games, we have one word in common usage, and that's "gamer." Think about what that means, and how all-inclusive it is about a person's life and interests. It's a simple enough word to break down - it means one who games, right? But there's nothing more to it. It defines someone who plays games, to the exclusion of all else.

Derisive Roots

In the early days of games, you had the Atari 2600, the ZX Spectrum, and others of their ilk. These were all billed as cheap family computers that you could balance your checkbook on - but they also happened to play games. They were meant for everyone. TV ads showed a full, smiling family gathering around the television screen. But at some point it became obvious that games were selling these devices. And games were for kids, it was supposed, so these "home computers" became kids' toys. They began to be sold like toys, as well -- in Toys R Us and in the kids section of department stores. When the industry famously crashed in North America in 1983, many in the news media considered the "fad" of games to be over.'' Unfortunately, that's also when most mainstream media representatives stopped paying attention, and their cursory relationship with that era represents the depth of their knowledge. For evidence of this, watch any recent news program about games - it's almost guaranteed that they will either talk about how they don't play games and "hey, remember Pong?" *or* they will say "games have come a long way since Pong." Either way, their frame of reference will be rooted in something that came out over 30 years ago. This is not only because of their own ignorance of the industry, but because of the presumed ignorance of the audience. They're guessing that their viewers haven't had to deal with the idea of video games since the 70s. After the big North American console game crash of 1983, and Nintendo's subsequent rise, you got a new group of people playing games. But popular opinion was now firmly established -- these things were for kids. Then these game players grew up, and they kept playing games. This was viewed as regressive -- people still playing with children's toys. From here, you got games as villainous, creating a Peter Pan syndrome in our youth, or the "basement-dwelling manboy." The impression is that "gamers" are just playing with their childhood toys. In the 90s, there was a mainstream view of the older game player as a deviant. I have a friend whose mother works in film. A film associate of hers decided to make a movie based on who he thought my friend was, depicting him as a pathetic Japanophile who did nothing but play games and siphon money off his parents. (My friend is a very smart, well adjusted, and successful guy, by the way). The impression of "gamer" as an adult child runs deep in aging media. If you grew up playing games, it's likely your parents warned against playing games, because they'll "rot your brain," and you'll never amount to anything. And now here you are making games for a living. Hmm. But that impression of the game player as a do-nothing, thoughtless drone persists to this day. And that impression is perfectly encapsulated in the word "gamer." That is the word marketing people created to target and describe the basement-dwelling manboy. The person who just wants to play games and cares about nothing else. That person who only exists to shriek with horror and offense on internet forums about something he or she absolutely loves. And yet we have embraced this word with open arms, and proudly display it on our twitter tags. Microsoft even has its Gamer Points.

Who are we, really?

A "gamer," if we follow the rules of English, should be a person who plays games to the exclusion of all else. If you use a word that fully defines you, leaving no room for extra interests or hobbies, what does it say about you? It immediately becomes something to defend, or qualify. You can say "I'm a gamer, but I also read books." That's a bit forced, and doesn't it sound strange? Why the need to define oneself by one's hobby anyway? In what context could one naturally use the word, except derisively? And the news media does exactly that. "Gamers are lined up to get their hands on the new Call of Duty video game." Interviews with over-excited youths with far-away stares ensue, encouraging every mother watching to say, "I'm glad that's not my baby out there." The word "gamer" is regressive. It accepts the portrait of us painted by the mainstream news media, and every time I hear it or read it it actually makes me feel a little sick. I believe in this art form, and I believe in the people who make it. That's why I am so hard on this industry, because I believe that as great as it sometimes is, it can get better. So play games, of course, but don't let the playing of games define you. Why would you ever really need to describe yourself as someone who plays games, anyway? Do you walk up to people and say "Yeah, I watch movies." Well, of course you do, everyone watches movies. If games are to become part of culture, shouldn't it be assumed that you play games? Shouldn't it be presumed that we all do? In first world nations, isn't the person who doesn't play games in the greater minority, when you factor in Facebook, Angry Birds, and the like? The folks who play these more casual games don't consider themselves gamers, because they don't think of playing games as a thing that defines them. They're just casually consuming entertainment. And frankly, they're right. They see "gamer" as a term that describes someone else - they just happen to play games, it doesn't define them. And in their way, they're being more progressive than we are, as a result. If you want to call yourself a gamer, fine. I can't tell you what to do. But if you want to start changing the public perception of the game playing public, so that the definition includes everyone who plays games, I say it's time to retire the word "gamer."

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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