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What Does “Gamer” Mean?

As I reflect on the events of the past week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, one thing in particular stands out the most. During a panel on improving the public image of the game industry, Ian Bogost called for us to throw out the term “gamer” as a label for people who play games. He said it was a perverse term, and no other media labels its consumers with a special term. And to my surprise, this statement was met with applause and fanfare from the audience.

It surprised me because for most of my life I have identified myself as a gamer and it never occurred to me that this was the slightest bit strange, let alone perverse.  I love to play games, so naturally I am a gamer, right? Nevertheless, these statements made me think deeply about why is it that we don’t call people who read a lot “readers” or people who listen to music “music-listeners”.

It then occurred to me that this is the wrong question to ask. It’s clear from every example I can think of that it is silly and somewhat perverse to label someone by what they consume. Consumption is not a meaningful or identifying quality of a person. We are all consumers of different things to varying degrees. The question I then asked myself is what does it actually mean to be a gamer?

The answer is simple. Like the game developer, the writer, the musician and the filmmaker, the gamer himself is a type of creator. Gamers develop skills and techniques, and they create strategies and tactics. They invent stories to give meaning to the decisions they make as they play. Together, gamers form communities to share these discoveries and inventions, and out of these communities, gamers create unique culture around the games they love.  Games are interactive, and therefore they can not be treated simply as media to be consumed.

To resign games to just another form of consumable media is far more perverse than any label we could place on people. As the creators of the games, we need to embrace this truly unique and special quality of our media.  We should champion the gamers who spend their time exploring the worlds and stories and mechanics and systems we create that empower them to be creators themselves.

In his fantastic talk at GDC about the relationship between game theory and game design, Frank Lantz asked us to consider that “rational thought is not incompatible with the sublime”, and that just maybe it’s possible that the game of poker saved the world during the Cold War. It should be clear to us developers that we have something very unique and powerful in this medium of games and its participants we call gamers.  Let’s move forward by making this abundantly clear to everyone else who has not yet realized it.