This post is written by Rachel Kowert (University of MĂźnster). Rachel has publishedÂ articles about cultural stereotypes of online gamers and relationship between social (in)competence and online video game involvement. She can be reached via Twitter.
Recent events have called into question just exactly what it means to be a âgamerâ 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.Â
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 unscripted interaction presented at Microsoftâs E3 event that seemed to condone ârape cultureâ, 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 âgamerâ title.
A recent article by Dennis Scimeca, entitled âWhy I canât call myself a gamer anymoreâ, highlights this shift. Scimeca discusses his personal need to distance himself from identifying as a gamer. He states, ââŚafter three years of being ensconced in video game culture long enough to be disgusted by it on a regular basis, Iâm ready to give up my identity as a gamerâŚâ, and Scimeca is not alone. A recent Statesman article by Simon Parkin, entitled âIf you love games, you should refuse to be called a gamerâ, expresses similar sentiments. Parkin argues that the term âgamerâ is a legacy of the mediumâs niche past and solely functions to reinforce negative stereotypes of the gaming community. He states, âGamers are depicted as the contemporary nerd groupâŚshunned 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 pursuitâŚâ. 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 âgamerâ 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 groupâs idiosyncrasies, traditions, and social practices. As noted by Scimeca and Parkin, individuals who read books are not called âbookersâ nor are avid movie goers called âmoviersâ. This phenomenon occurs because the term âgamerâ has not only come to refer to the enjoyment of a particular leisure activity but also to part of oneâs self-conception. Being a âgamerâ is more than just a label given from the outside; it is a part of oneâs self-conception and an expression of oneâs affiliation with a group of society.
This fact likely plays a significant role in Scimecaâs explicit disappointment in todayâs meaning of term âgamerâ and his self-imposed detachment therefrom. He states, â[it is] a shame that the preponderance of problems in the gaming community has left such a bad taste in my mouthâ.Â When Scimeca makes the conscious resolution to reject his âgamerâ 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, Scimecaâs 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 âgamerâ. Popular TV, web seriesâ, 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), âGame players are stereotypically male and young, pale from too much time spent indoors and socially inept. As a new generation of lonely and isolated âcouch potatoesâ young male game players are far from aspirational figuresâ (p. 995).
Although stereotypes are often thought to be grounded in a âkernel of truthâ (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).
Despite the fact that there is little empirical foundation to support these stereotypes, Parkin suggests that the negative stereotypes of gamers are fueling the communityâs recent intolerant and hostile behaviors.Â As stated by Parkin, âThe stereotype is powerful, and âŚ informs gamers. Many gain instruction as how the world views them and the expectation becomes self-fulfilling: they play to typeâ.Â
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 âbeautiful people are good peopleâ. 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 âbeautiful people are good peopleâ 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 âothersâ 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 âgamersâ 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 âgamersâ can be attributed to individuals conforming to the negative stereotypes that society has imposed upon the community 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).Â
This is all fine and well, but what exactly is a gamer? (Quantifying âGamerâ)
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 âgamerâ. 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 and out-of-game, game related activities, 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 âgamerâ 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 âgamerâ 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 âgamerâ 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 âgamersâ and ânon-gamersâ. 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 âDo you play games?â and âHow often do you play games?â) 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 âgamerâ 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 âgamerâ and to develop and enlist similar composite measures in order to more accurately assess oneâs 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, Microsoftâs 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 âliving upâ 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 âThe Cake is a Lieâ. 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.
Cross-posted at my blog.
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