Dr. Rachel Kowert is an associate researcher at the University of Münster where her research focuses on the social impact of online video game play. She also serves on the board of the Digital Games Research Association and the Game Studies SIG of the International Communication Association.
[This post originally appeared on VG Researcher. It has been re-posted here with an expanded conclusion. FPS does not often re-post material but exceptions are made for timely articles that warrant increased exposure.]
Recent events have called into question just exactly what it means to be a “gamer” today. What was once a title associated with being a member of a fun loving community now seems to have become intertwined with the promotion of misogynistic and discriminatory behavior.
This perceived shift in gamer culture has been spurred by a series of recent events: the influx of threats directed towards Anita Sarkeesian following her Tropes vs. Women YouTube Series, the scripted unscripted interaction presented at Microsoft’s E3 event that seemed to condone “rape culture”, and the transphobic comments by one of the hosts of the Video Game Awards, just to name a few. These incidents have called into question what it really means to be a gamer today and has led some members of the gaming community to consider the resignation of their “gamer” title.
A recent article by Dennis Scimeca, entitled “Why I can’t call myself a gamer anymore”, highlights this shift. Scimeca discusses his personal need to distance himself from identifying as a gamer. He states, “…after three years of being ensconced in video game culture long enough to be disgusted by it on a regular basis, I’m ready to give up my identity as a gamer…”, and Scimeca is not alone. A recent Statesman article by Simon Parkin, entitled “If you love games, you should refuse to be called a gamer”, expresses similar sentiments. Parkin argues that the term “gamer” is a legacy of the medium’s niche past and solely functions to reinforce negative stereotypes of the gaming community. He states, “Gamers are depicted as the contemporary nerd group…shunned by the jocks and achievers. Gamers are the losers who spend their days in darkened bedrooms furiously tapping on controllers or keyboards in a solitary pursuit…”. As the video game industry is now a multi-billion dollar market and because video games are now being played by a wide spectrum of individuals that spans across age, gender, and ethnic lines, Parkin believes this term no longer serves its original function. Exacerbated by the recent influx of discriminatory behavior perpetrated by the gaming community, Parkin calls for an abandonment of this title.
However, abandoning the term “gamer” is not a straightforward process because the label represents much more than a simple title one adopts to easily identify oneself as a person who enjoys playing video games. While the term is often used as a shorthand to organize the world into people who play video games and people who do not, self-identifying as a gamer also signifies a shared identity with other members of the broader gaming community and culture and denotes an alignment with the group’s idiosyncrasies, traditions, and social practices. As noted by Scimeca and Parkin, individuals who read books are not called “bookers” nor are avid movie goers called “moviers”. This phenomenon occurs because the term “gamer” has not only come to refer to the enjoyment of a particular leisure activity but also to part of one’s self-conception. Being a “gamer” is more than just a label given from the outside; it is a part of one’s self-conception and an expression of one’s affiliation with a group of society.
This fact likely plays a significant role in Scimeca’s explicit disappointment in today’s meaning of term “gamer” and his self-imposed detachment therefrom. He states, “[it is] a shame that the preponderance of problems in the gaming community has left such a bad taste in my mouth”. When Scimeca makes the conscious resolution to reject his “gamer” title, he is not only removing himself from the gaming community and all that is associated with it, but he is also leaving a part of himself behind.
However, Scimeca’s decision to detach himself from the gaming community raises another question: at a time when gamers are perceived as being overweight, reclusive, and socially inept, who would actually want to identify as one?
Perceptions of Game Players and the Game Playing Community
Turn on the TV at any given hour, and you are bound to find a reference to the stereotypical “gamer”. Popular TV, web series’, and news media have all portrayed the same reclusive, socially inept, basement dwelling gamer stereotype to some extent or another. While some have taken a more comical rather than serious approach, the sentiment remains the same: gamers are social outcasts that are unable or unwilling to integrate into mainstream society.
This stereotype is not only noted in popular culture. Researchers in the UK empirically examined the stereotype of gamers and gaming subgroups (e.g., online gamer, arcade gamer, console gamer). While there was some statistical variation in the perception of gaming sub-groups, video game playing groups were generally perceived as unpopular, unattractive, lazy, and socially inept (Kowert & Oldmeadow, 2012; Kowert, Griffiths, & Oldmeadow, 2012). As summarized by Williams et al. (2008), “Game players are stereotypically male and young, pale from too much time spent indoors and socially inept. As a new generation of lonely and isolated ‘couch potatoes’ young male game players are far from aspirational figures” (p. 995).
Although stereotypes are often thought to be grounded in a “kernel of truth” (Prothro & Melikian, 1955), there is little demographic evidence in support of these stereotypical characterizations. Despite that there still seems to be a disproportionate ratio of male to female game players among representative samples (Lenhart, Jones, & Macgill, 2008; Lenhart, Kahne, Middaugh, Macgill, Evans, & Vitak, 2008), no evidence has been found to suggest that game players are substantially more overweight, lazy, or reclusive than their non-gaming counterparts (Kowert, Festl, Quandt, in press; Williams et al., 2008; Griffiths et al., 2003).
Although there is little empirical foundation in support of these stereotypes, Parkin suggests that the negative stereotypes of gamers are fueling the community’s recent intolerant and hostile behaviors. As stated by Parkin, “The stereotype is powerful, and … informs gamers. Many gain instruction as how the world views them and the expectation becomes self-fulfilling: they play to type”.
On the surface, this claim is not as preposterous as it sounds. People are often perceived to behave in ways that conform to their stereotypic attributions. For example, a plethora of classic social psychology experiments have been conducted that investigate the self-fulfilling nature of the stereotype “beautiful people are good people”. Researchers have found that even when visual cues are absent, such as when talking via telephone, people who are thought to be attractive are rated as more friendly, likeable, and sociable than their less attractive counterparts (Goldman & Lewis, 1977; Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977). However, living up to the expectations associated with likeability vastly differs from conforming to expectations of sexist, aggressive, or any other anti-social behavior.
Additionally, unlike the “beautiful people are good people” scenario, individuals do not particularly perceive the stereotype of online gamers as being an accurate depiction of the online gaming community. A recent study found that neither self-identified gamers nor non-gamers endorse the stereotypes of the online gaming community to the same degree to which they think other individuals, gamers and non-gamers alike, believe the stereotype is accurate (Kowert, Griffiths, & Oldmeadow, 2012). In simpler terms, they believe “others” generally see online gamers in a much more stereotypical way than they do themselves. While this study was limited to examining the portrayal of online gamers, there is no evidence to suggest that the same would not be found when looking at “gamers” more broadly.
As the stereotypes of gamers are not perceived, or found, to be particularly accurate, it is highly unlikely that the recent influx of bad behavior perpetrated by “gamers” can be attributed to individual gamers conforming to the negative stereotypes that society has imposed upon them, any more so than they conform to other stereotypical expectations of how they should look, live, or act (e.g., overweight, lazy, reclusive, and aggressive).
All this discussion about gamers and gamer culture seems a bit presumptuous when it is not exactly clear what one means to convey when they employ the term “gamer”. If I were to qualify my personal self-identification as a gamer, I would provide examples of my video game playing experience, knowledge of classic games, participation in game related activities (both in and out-of game), and my fashion preferences. For me, being a gamer is more than just playing and enjoying video-game related activities; it is about being part of a broader community, participating in game-related events, and displaying my membership to the community through my choice of attire. The degree to which I consider myself to be a “gamer” is contingent upon a range of factors.
This self-definition is a vastly different approach than is taken by a number of researchers and even other members of the gaming community. Some gamers are quite fervent in the conviction that there are unofficial prerequisites that one must fulfill before one can adopt the “gamer” title, such as having experience with certain games or consoles or boasting a long history of game play. Do a quick search of Reddit, and you will be sure to find numerous threads discussing what it is that qualifies an individual as being part of the gaming community.
There are also numerous differentiations of the “gamer” title. For instance, Wikipedia discusses eight types of gamers than can be quantitatively and qualitatively differentiated: casual gamer, core gamer, hardcore gamer, pro gamer, newbie, retro gamer, girl gamer/gamer girl, and gaymer. Other categories like online gamer, console gamer, and arcade gamer are also commonplace.
In scientific research, the distinction between those who play video games and those who do not is often the criteria used to differentiate between “gamers” and “non-gamers”. While some researchers adopt a simple play-pattern (playing or not playing) approach, other researchers differentiate by play-frequency (i.e., whether or not individuals dedicate a certain amount of time a week to gameplay). Variations of play pattern or frequency measures have likely become the standard for distinguishing between gamers and non-gamers due to the ease of assessment (i.e., simply asking “Do you play games?” and “How often do you play games?”) and their intrinsic relationship with video game involvement, as playing many video games, or a higher frequency of play, indicates greater exposure to video game environments.
In my opinion, this is a troubling standard to retain. This one-dimensional distinction is far too simplistic as self-identification with any social group is inherently multi-dimensional. The reliance upon frequency based assessments within the scientific community excludes the potentially more important role of other factors that contribute to the extent to which an individual feels and identifies as a member of the gaming community: for instance, the extent to which players engage in gaming related activities, how involved they are with gaming related news, their level of interest in professional gaming, the extent to which gaming defines them in relation to other adopted social identities (i.e., adopting gaming as their primary identity rather than one based on other aspects of themselves), etc. While the importance and pertinence of these variables in understanding how exactly one is involved within the gaming community remains unclear, researchers need to be mindful of the potential importance these extraneous factors may hold.
Kowert & Oldmeadow (2013) made the first attempt to develop a composite measure of video game involvement comprised of both behavioral (i.e., play frequency and variety) and psychological (i.e., social identity) measures. This new quantification of what it means to be a more involved “gamer” provides a more systematic evaluation of video game players across a broader spectrum of game involvement than has previously been utilized. Researchers are encouraged to remain mindful of the multi-dimensional nature of the title “gamer” and to develop and enlist similar composite measures in order to more accurately assess one’s level of involvement within the video game community
The Future of the Gamer
In a time when the gamer identity seems to be in flux and shifting towards a community characterized by misogynistic, discriminatory, and rude behavior, people are abandoning their affiliation with the gaming community. While no one would want to be associated with such behavior, it is likely the sensationalization of the aforementioned recent abhorrent acts (e.g., the backlash directed towards Anita Sarkeesian, Microsoft’s disastrous E3 event, etc.) by the media that has led society to believe that this behavior is disproportionately typical of members of the gaming community as there is no evidence to suggest that gamers are “living up” to the negative expectations associated with the stereotype.
I believe that gamers are, at their core, people who love to have fun. We love exploring new worlds, meeting new people, and achieving what one thought would be impossible. We remember the rush of getting our first epic weapon in World of Warcraft, the heartbreak when Aeris drops her basket of flowers in Final Fantasy VII, and the tune that plays when you slide down the flagpole in Super Mario Brothers. In general, gamers have historically been a group of inclusive, friendly people who are equally excited to discuss Starcraft strategy as they are to understand why your shirt says “The Cake is a Lie”. I believe that it is time to reclaim our community — to begin the shift away from negative stereotypes and discriminatory behavior and towards a community that is seen as a fun-loving, inclusive, and diverse group of people from all walks of life.
…well this sounds great and all, but what is the first step?
Changing the perception of a community is no easy task, but it will start to shift if we begin to take a more active role against the negative stereotypes and discriminatory behavior. In the words of Sam Killerman, the founder of Gamers Against Bigotry, “For culture to shift, behavior has to shift.” For those who are not familiar with Gamers Against Bigotry, it is a non-profit organization that strives to make gaming environments a more welcoming place for everyone. To date, they have recorded over 5500 pledges to not use hateful speech towards other players based upon their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
Vowing to not contribute to this culture of bigotry among gamers is great and a good first step in the right direction. However, there is still more that can be done. For example, a lot of us remain guilty by idly standing by whilst other players spew misogynistic, hateful, or sexist commentary towards others. The presence of these kinds of comments has become so commonplace that they are dangerously close to becoming an accepted (and expected) aspect of the gaming community. This includes homophobic and racist slurs, any sentence that includes the use of the word “rape”, and any form of commentary that could be featured on Fat, Ugly, or Slutty. As a community we need to become more vocal that this kind behavior is not welcomed nor tolerated. No member of the gaming community should be discriminated against, threatened, or made to feel unconformable due to their gender, sexuality, or nationality, in the name of “having a laugh.” Far too often these behaviors are brushed off, possibly because of a communal desensitization to these kinds of comments or a general complacency with the presence of this behavior within “gamer culture,” or both. If we can commit to taking a stand, by not actively participating in this kind of behavior and by becoming more vigilant in combating this behavior from others, we will begin to see it diminish and eventually fall out of favor. I look forward to the day when the gaming community, my community, returns to one that is not only welcoming, inclusive, and primarily defined by the desire to have fun, but also recognized by others as such.
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