Earlier today Simon Parkin wrote a piece for The New Statesman denouncing the word “gamer” and the concept of the gaming community. I agree with his conclusion that we should stop using the term, so I find the sentiment of the piece to be commendable. In getting there, however, Parkin shares some thoughts that I feel are worth catching and reflecting on, as I suspect there’s a little bit going on behind the scenes that benefits neither his argument nor the specific mentality advocated.
I’ll start with the last one, as it’s the most direct claim he makes and it’s only really incidental to the gist of his argument, but it’s one I fiercely oppose. This notion that games are “the great contemporary leveller”, as he puts it, where everyone exists on an equal ground, is not an original thought. It’s long since been incorporated into the inside cultural narrative of the medium that games offer treasures and possibilities only a hair’s breadth from the trials one might face daily. It inspires nostalgia and pride and a sense of protectiveness bordering zealotry. Sharp advertisers have ran with it, spreading the concept that no matter who you are or where you are, you can be the hero.
It’s nothing but a romantic daydream, a very successful fiction that many critics now struggle to dispel from two directions: that games on an individual basis are inherently political, and that games on a general basis tend towards inaccessibility. For the first, fans of GTAV and Hotline Miami 2 rebel at the accusation, at the very thought, that their beloved game might carry a message, and that this message might be hazardous to the social well-being of some of its players. Games as forms of expression, as things carrying along and preserving the cultural baggage of the creators, even by accident, is as if a brand new concept to the vast majority of people. Anecdotally, I’ve found comparatively few people even outside of games who consider the latest movie or comic as a cultural text. That games are “just games” is an enormously difficult attitude to penetrate, in and of itself, never mind appending on the idea that the accidental baggage of a game might make it a nasty piece of work.
So when I say this, bear in mind that many messages can make a game inaccessible to many people, precluding them from enjoying it on the simple basis of its nature. The existence and necessity of trigger warnings are evidence enough, although less prolific, more conventional sorts are abundant. Remember, for instance, those people who protested that homosexuality was included in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, who were so outraged they couldn’t even play it. If politics in involved, and politics is always involved, a game’s narrative will likely be inaccessible to someone.*
Further to this, a game might be inaccessible to players by its language, the level of skill needed to manipulate and progress through its gameplay systems, the technicalities of ability it asks of the player (eg. I have trouble with platforming mechanics, someone else might have trouble with shooting mechanics, another person might have trouble navigating in a first-person perspective). There might be a level of knowledge of videogame conventions expected of the player, which excludes players new to the medium or genre. Then there’s the platform it’s on, the internet requirements it mandates, the technology it needs to run adequately, and the costs of all these things and more. Then there’s the tangible market availability of the game, the place where someone can go to buy it. There’s also the buttons it might require the player to be able to press or the speed they need to be input, which can be a very real physical obstacle to players for all sorts of reasons. And there’s further obstacles in the auditory and visual expectations of the player’s capacity – there’s very few videogames for those sight-impaired, colour-blind people might struggle with colour conventions widespread through the medium, and sound can be a very important component for progression in some games. And so on.
In claiming games as an equal-opportunity space, Parkin assumes everybody is homogeneous in ability and context – ironic given his earlier railing against that precept.**
Would that his internalization of common gaming community wisdom ended there, but I suspect there’s something more in his denouncement of the term “gamer”, just a hint suggesting a wound needing tending to.
I agree with Parkin that “gamer” needs to go, that it’s used to categorize people and exclude them from the treehouse. “Gamer” is a response to the pressure that people need to be on the inside of the treehouse to legitimize anything they say. He refers to the responses to Anita Sarkeesian, which is a great example for this exact phenomenon: early in the course of Tropes vs Women in Video Games it was a common criticism, framed as concern, that Sarkeesian might not be best suited to critique games because she’s not on the inside (note that at that point in time, it was assumed she was an outsider). Later on, only a few months ago, word hit the web that she had herself denied being a gamer some years prior, reviving the same ‘concern’ and scorn at her daring.
It’s worth repeating that “gamer” is the result of standards swollen by tradition, it’s a way of filtering out people and their opinions by measure of some arbitrary identity criteria, and not according to the sophistication of their arguments. I’d hazard that Parkin’s on the money in identifying the medium’s youth and the stereotype of its hobbyists’ as causes for their insularity. Parkin suggests this defensiveness is protected and demarcated by something called the “gaming community”, that this term is synonymous with “gamer” in their usage as banishing tactics. By virtue of the external consensus that the community is homogeneous (composed only of your straight white males), a belief out of tune with the reality of videogame players’ diversities, he says the concept of the community needs to die.
If the idea of the gaming community is intrinsically linked to the exclusivity of the gamer label, perhaps the world would be better off without it. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. I see “gaming community” as a parallel to the concept of gaming culture, that there are values and ideas and norms largely propagated as sets within the medium as a sphere for meanings and expressions. I see people as involved in that sphere by virtue of their presence, just as we soak in the values and ideas and norms dominant in our physical locale. (Having been yea long in Ireland, I have absorbed within my subconsciousness a lot of Irish culture – you say “thank you” to the bus driver, beans on toast are normal, etc.; the same principle is true for videogames.) I know there are quite a few people who would prefer to do away with the concept of gaming culture, too, but I can’t shake my conception of it as a particular cultural subset, as something that exists as a social and political structure. Even if its identifiability is ambiguous and fluid just like any other culture, still it is a thing within the world. And it’s incredibly useful as a structure through which to frame various phenomena and events centric to the medium and industry of videogames, although perhaps this is my laziness speaking as I clutch to the ease of the shorthand.
This said, I make no attempt to beautify the gaming community. As it exists, much as the culture exists, it is more often than not a putrification of lost childhoods and romanticized evil. But I’m not sure if pretending it doesn’t exist solves that, or if it would merely serve to hush up talk of it and delude us that no problem persists. Simply saying “the word gamer needs to die” is not enough to absolve ourselves of the habits by which we say it, nor ease away the cultural pressure that birthed it in the first place. Parkin still sways to it – he feels the need to quality Samantha Allen as “herself an ardent game player”, as if that’s relevant in justifying her perspective that the VGAs entertained transphobia.
The solution isn’t simply to stop saying a word, it’s to shift one’s whole mentality to be more inclusive. It means accepting a games-related post on a non-gaming blog as perhaps valuable for its insights into games, and not giving out that the author is ‘ill-informed’ on the ins-and-outs of the industry. It means conceding the point that mainstream games criticism is still an unattained goal, that while Critical Distance and similar sources provide much needed life in the right direction, the work you and I do is still comparatively niche and hidden. Very importantly, it means no longer romanticizing the medium. If ditching the term “gamer” is at least a starting point, grand, but we need to be sure we’re not just replacing it with the word “player”.***