Thought Bubble: What is a Gamer?

The other week, I attended rePLAY: Symphony of Heroes, one of a handful of shows that perform fully orchestrated arrangements of video game music. At the beginning of the show, the conductor asked the audience, “Do you all like video game music?”

The crowd cheered. I joined enthusiastically.

Then she asked, “How many of you here are gamers?”

The crowd roared again. I remained silent.



I often bring up my interest in video games in conversation when spending time with co-workers, or while at excruciating family wedding receptions. Frequently, someone will ask me, since I play video games, whether I’m a gamer.

A serious gamer. Because gamers are serious. Games – no, gaming – is serious business.

At least, that’s what it is to people who frequently and most fervently refer to themselves as gamers. Lately, you may have heard about an ongoing debate in the video games community known as Gamer Gate. I’m not going to talk about its specifics, or the unusual origins and behaviours of those involved, but suffice it to say it’s about people who take their gaming very seriously.


It’s made me wonder whether I can comfortably refer to myself as a gamer, or even think of myself as one. How should I answer the next time if someone asks whether I’m a gamer?

Because here’s the rub: the definition of “gamer” is currently more fluid and difficult to pin down than ever. There’s the closeted, basement dwelling nerd of the idealized 1980s. There’s the 13-year-old kid yelling racial profanities over his Xbox Live headset while playing an M-Rated online shooter. There’s also the gamer referred to in the news, the one who has played literally any kind of video game.

A recent study in the U.K. reports that 33.5 million Britons play video games – that’s more than 66 per cent of the population. What’s more, 47 per cent of women polled play games, challenging the stereotype of the young adult male as the overwhelmingly dominant demographic.

Women gamers go beyond the Candy Crush casual field, too: “47 per cent of female gamers polled had played a disc-based game in the last six months, and 68 per cent had played an online game. 56 per cent of female gamers have played on a console,” reported The Guardian.


Men and women of all ages are represented in the study. It means that “gamer” has become an increasingly complex identifier, and as that happens, calling myself a “gamer” means less and less.


Do you play Dance Central? Congratulations, you’re a gamer. (Image courtesy Microsoft)



The words “gaming” and “gamers” didn’t originate in the dusty, poorly lit arcades of the Atari heyday. They have a long and storied history in board games and pen-and-paper affairs such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Gaming is also commonly associated with gambling, from the lottery to the craps tables in Vegas. More formally, the term is used by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which regulates the operation of casinos and the sale of wine and spirits. Gaming, then, doesn’t have much in common with video games, unless you connect contemporary gaming to gambling (and pinball tables were illicit at one time).


To “game” as a verb is even more problematic. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as either “to play at games of chance for money,” or to “manipulate a situation, typically in a way that is unfair or unscrupulous.” Gaming the system, as it were.

Anyone who plays games of a competitive nature will probably understand what’s involved in the latter example. I’ve been slaughtered on the fields of Starcraft by enough galling Zerg rushes to know it’s the signature style of many players. But it doesn’t describe the way many – perhaps most – people interact with the video games used to wile away off-work hours.

What about “player,” then? Everyone who plays video games could feasibly be called a player, but that moniker’s history is equally if not more problematic. In the broadest terms, it can be anyone who participates in a sport or a game, or anyone who plays a musical instrument or participates in a theatrical production.

Yet someone who refers to himself as a player is also someone known to “play the field.” Urban Dictionary sums it up well:


“A male who is skilled at manipulating (‘playing’) others, and especially at seducing women by pretending to care about them, when in reality they are only interested in sex.”

That’s where the varied and problematic history of the English language has brought us: two possible terms for someone who plays video games are also associated with unscrupulous manipulation with a generous splash of misogyny to boot.


Are you excited to play Sunset Overdrive? Then congratulations, you’re a gamer. (Image courtesy Microsoft)



I don’t suggest that anyone who refers to him or herself as a gamer immediately pledges allegiance to Poker Stars or a frat house. But it’s enough to make me think twice when a person asks whether I’m a gamer; I wonder what pre-formed image that person has.

It doesn’t help that the loudest gamers in the conversation are often the most insufferable. (That isn’t a surprise. Gaming’s native medium is the Internet). Commentators’ definition of what makes a “true” gamer is as varied as it is unfocused: Only 60-hour-plus role-playing games. Only first-person shooters. Must have built your $3,000 PC by hand (one screwdriver permitted). M-rated games only. Nintendo heritage franchises only (“Ocarina of Time forever!”). No Nintendo allowed (“No kiddie shit!”).

It’s enough to make me want to swear off the term forever, but part of me doesn’t want to abandon it entirely. I like a world where gamer is more akin to book reader or moviegoer rather than bookworm or cinephile.

Contrary to some commentaries, which I otherwise respect the hell out of and agree with unilaterally, I don’t think that gamers are “dead.” But we’re changing, and growing, and learning. That can sometimes seem like death to those stuck in the old, known ways.

When someone asks me whether I’m a gamer, I’d like to answer, “Yes! These are the games I like to play. What games do you like to play?” Then we’d exchange our list of favourites, only one in 10 would be the same, and we’d both walk away from the conversation richer.