I have been a gamer for a little over seventeen years now. I never ran nor hid from the distinction. While growing up, I was proud of my love for video games and never ashamed that my thoughts were more concerned with saving a digital world than saving face in front of my friends.
As I finished up my last year in college, the term did begin to gnaw at me. Gamer. Such a simple word packed with so much meaning. Someone labeled with the name was marked as different; not necessarily a bad different but different all the same. Someone’s love for video games meant they did not fit into the norm. They were the “other” – a type of person who could be summed up with two syllables.
Now humans are a species of labels. We like giving names to things. So originally I gave the title of “gamer” little thought. But as I reflected on it, more and more things just didn’t seem to add up. First off, people who like video games seem to be the only group of people who are labeled by their passion. Those who enjoy movies are not called Moviers and the only Booker I know is from BioShock: Infinite. There are film buffs and book worms of course, but those terms rely on an additional word to describe one’s fascination. So why are gamers the ones with special treatment?
Could it be because video games are still the relatively new kid on the block when compared to movies, books, and other forms of artistic expression? Doubtful. Sure, video games haven’t been around all that long in the grand scheme of things. They have, however, been around long enough for the majority of people in developed countries to know the basics of what a video game is. Perhaps they don’t know all the nuances of the genres or that video games are now designed for more than just kids, but ask someone to name one video game and they will probably be able to recall the name of one title. I cannot imagine Mario is so obscure that the name would just leave an entire room of people befuddled. I mean, the dude was seen announcing Tokyo as the location for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games!
So perhaps the term gamer still exists because so few people actually play video games, making the moniker of ‘gamer’ almost an admission of acknowledging us as a foreign culture? Pokémon Go (a Game of the Year contender in my opinion) completely annihilates this theory (as do quite a few previous mobile titles). Pokémon Go brought a lot of new people into the Pokémon fold and proved that if a video game is accessible enough and fun to play, anyone will temporarily adopt the gamer label. With the recent surge in mobile gaming’s popularity, the gaming scene has become less and less foreign to more and more people.
Could the term gamer, frankly, just be an insult? This theory does have merit. Gamers were not as widespread back in the day as we are now, and people tend to throw hate at cultures they do not understand. The notion that video games are only for kids and a shameful pastime for adults has largely diminished. Just as specific cultures have adopted certain racial and sexual slurs (and surprisingly transformed them into labels of acceptance), so too have gamers. I can’t imagine too many people are still throwing the word gamer out as an insult when the gamer culture as a whole accepts the name with a great deal of prideful smugness that just promenades as, “Yeah we still play video games as adults. Don’t be jealous.” So no, I do not think that the word is still around as a derogatory term.
Tradition then? Again, a strong possibility. Tradition is usually the word we just tack on to any action we continue to do when we no longer even know why we are doing it. No one seems to even know why the term gamer started in the first place, let alone why we still use it.
At least, that is what I thought for the longest time. But I have slowly come to the conclusion that gamers have always known why they continue to uphold the distinction. I realized it when I recognized I was being too limiting in my scope. There has to be more to the gamer culture than just playing games. If that’s all it took, everyone could at least be considered a gamer. So what was I missing?
It actually took putting together a video game themed podcast with some fellow college alumni that brought me to the answer. Gamers do not just play games. Gamers know games. We understand them in a way that no outsider can. We know how a video game can be both a sport and a work of art at the same time. We know that years before society fully realized the importance of allowing such expression, video games provided a safe space where people could escape into any race, religion, sexuality, or gender they wanted. Gamers recognize that even though a lot of toxicity comes out of the video game community, it is nothing compared to the overwhelming amounts of love, acceptance, and camaraderie it also produces.
As gamers we know this. We know it as naturally as breathing. We can recognize it in others like us – our fellow video game fanatics. Perhaps this knowing sprung into our lives subconsciously? Or perhaps we always knew it was there, hidden in the excited kinship of a secret we could not adequately explain to non-video game fans, even if we tried. All I know is that we never had, and still do not have, a word for this knowing, so we just tell people what currently makes the most sense: “I’m a gamer.”