What is a gamer? This question is at the center of what it means to study women or feminism in games. It is in this label of “gamer” that we are most often excluded. Of course we couldn’t be “gamers” because girls don’t play games, they don’t play real games, and so on the responses go. Even as a PhD candidate who studies games, a publishing game writer, and avid player, boys’ response to hearing that I am claiming this coveting label is skepticism and a desire to put a label on my kind of gaming which separates me from them: casual gamer, facebook gamer, wow-er, etc. Whatever gamer’s play, they need to know that I play something else, something that allows them to preserve their identity through the exclusion of me. This is part of the reason women are ALWAYS forced to establish their gamer cred among revealing they game. “Oh sure, you’re a gamer… what do you play?” And the answer is never the right one to let them in the club. And I honestly don’t believe that this is the problem of individual people. It is a problem with the discourse, with the industry, with the dominate communities, with pervasive languages and structures, and so on. So let’s talk about it: what the hell is a gamer anyway?
I’ll use “people” in my description of gaming styles here to avoid risking premature gaming labeling. So, there are people who play all of the COT AAA titles when they come out. Big budgets, big names, big graphics, and these people are all over it. There are people who play one type of game, such as FPS. Each new COD and Halo that comes out, these players are first in line. There are indie games, whose who enjoy being on the fringe of gaming, who play perhaps the Japanese games (still in Japanese) or play games that are trying not to be games, like Journey. There are people who enjoy playing flash games and facebook games, who spend hours every day updating their Tribez and restaurants and farms. There are those who will not spend more than a couple hours on a game, who only want brief periods of play over many months (often overlapping with facebook games). There are those who enjoy beating a game, perhaps they play RPGs and stick many hours over many days until the game is finished. There are those who never want the game to end. They may play games like WoW, Sims, Animal Crossing, or Civ. These games can be played over and over, with little commitment or a lot of commitment. There are experts who pick a game, say League of Legends, and become the best. They follow message boards, national tournaments, know all the names of all of the competitive teams. They know the best strategy and only experiment to improve their gaming. There are those who don’t care about winning or mechanics, but want to be immersed in a world of beauty that games can uniquely offer. There are those who want to literally make a second life inside of a virtual environment where we aren’t constrained by bodies (or are we?). There are those who game to have social interaction. The list could go on forever.
Are all of these people “gamers?” For full disclosure, I believe that anyone who games is a gamer. If you play solitaire here and there, you are a gamer. If you player horseshoes in your backyard and Dixit with friends once a week, you are a gamer. A gamer for me is a spirit of one who agrees to sit down and enter another world (or as Huizinga would say, enter a “magic circle”) where the rules of the big game of life no longer apply. It’s a disposition toward the world, an acknowledgment that things could be otherwise and that we can “play” around to see what it would be like.
But I’m sure this isn’t “right.” And I’m sure there is no “right.” But when it comes to these types of labels, it’s always so complicated, yet so much is at stake. For example, is a child who plays with fingerpaints a painter? Are they a painter in the same way Picasso is a painter? I have painted 4 or 5 things in my life, am I a painter? Teachers are those who teach. A kindergarten teacher is certainly a teacher, but what about a substitute teacher? Are they really a teacher? How about one who volunteers at a boys and girls club? In gaming, who is and who is not a gamer is not an idle question. With it comes attitudes, advertising dollars, production dollars, R&D funding, innovation, and so on. No one will make games for people who don’t game, until of course they do and they begin rapidly taking huge pieces of the pie (ie. the social gaming revolution).
So here is my gaming style: I like always having a few games going that I have to “update” every day. Right now, I’m playing Tribez, PvZ Adventures, and Gourmet Ranch. In addition, I like having a game or two that I am constantly improving a character or building up resources. Right now I like to play a little WoW every day to level my characters and work on my pet battles. I’m also playing Animal Crossing and every day making a few bells, paying some stuff off, collecting shells, and playing the little island games. Those are building up each day. Between those four games, I have about 4 hours of gaming I do every day. But are those “gamer” games? I’m not playing anything new, I’m not advancing persay, I’m not working toward end-game content. I’m involved in a very slow dance where it takes days and weeks to see a little progression. Does this mean I’m not a gamer because I haven’t gotten the new whatever? Does it mean I’m less of a gamer because I’m not working toward 20-“man” raids to see bleeding edge content? Maybe. I’m also trying to finish a few games I never finished this year, namely XCOM. I will also be picking up a game I have already played to bits called Dungeon Defenders, because a friend recently picked that up again and it is one of my favorites. So you won’t hear me talk about interesting things on the podcast this week. And maybe I should get it together and buy some new stuff or do some research about cutting-edge indie games or something. But damnit it’s my summer and I will play how I want, whether that makes me a gamer in the eyes of the industry or not.
Will people who can not possibly see women as gamers ever be convinced by any resume I can give that I am indeed a gamer? Probably not. And I don’t care about them. I care about what they represent, and I care about the way these implicit attitudes and labels continue to poison the games industry, surfacing in every way from what Lara Croft wears to how many women were raped at the last con.