The Gamer

Okay, but in all seriousness, that NES controller staff is pretty cool, right? No way I'm the only one who thinks that.

On Monday I stumbled into work like a sleep deprived zombie, bought a package of trail mix for breakfast from the vending machine, and then slumped in front of my laptop at my desk, beginning my morning-long countdown until lunch – otherwise known as my standard Monday routine. Presently, one of my coworkers stopped by on her way to the coffeepot to chat.

“How was your weekend?” She asked, once we’d dispensed with the usual ‘case of the Mondays’ banter.

“It was great,” I sighed, already nostalgic. “I played Bioshock Infinite the entire time.”

(Bioshock Infinite is a newly released steampunk-oriented first person shooter that is simply beautiful in just about every way it’s possible for a video game to be beautiful. My agency designed a lot of the cover art.)

“Wow,” she said. Mind you, this wasn’t the same ‘Wow’ as ‘Wow! You cured polio!’ – it sounded more like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was possible for one person to eat an entire deep dish pizza in one sitting.’ “That good, huh?”

“It’s spectacular,” I said – and it is, so go buy a copy, goddamn it. “But I’m kind of in a gaming crunch – I need to finish Bioshock because one of my friends loaned me Max Payne 3, and I want to try and finish that so I can play Far Cry 3 before The Last Of Us comes out next month.”

“Wow,” she said again. Wow, that’s a lot of used heroin needles in your garbage! “I didn’t know you were such a gamer, Truman.”

I did my best to laugh it off, but to be honest, I hate being referred to as a ‘gamer’ almost as much as I hate the term ‘gamer’ in the first place. Serves me right for talking about my high rate of video game consumption, I guess – if I really didn’t want to be called a ‘gamer’ I could’ve just told her I spent the weekend rollerblading or being interested in baseball or whatever it is people my age do instead of playing video games.

I don’t like the word ‘gamer’ because it’s outdated and carries with it a lot of fairly toxic associations. Even as someone who spends his days alternating between selling and playing video games, when I hear the word ‘gamer’ the image that springs to mind is a heavyset young man between the ages of 15 and 30. His trenchcoat and Reddit T shirt are stained with Cheeto dust, but he’s too busy pulling on the Mountain Dew Code Red clutched in his grubby, sweaty hand to care, the shadow cast by the brim of his fedora concealing all but the worst of his neckbeard and acne.

That description used to be a lot more accurate than it is now. Back when the term ‘gamer’ was first applied to people who played video games*, it was an insular hobby practiced by a vocal – and often fragrant – minority. Video games were gaining in popularity, but they were still far enough outside the mainstream that there were frequent news reports and occasional Congressional hearings about the likelihood that games were turning ‘gamers’ into brainwashed, violent sociopaths. Controversy aside, the word ‘gamer’ back then referred to a group of eccentric hobbyists, like Civil War reenactors without all the direct sunlight and moving around.

*Wikipedia tells me that the word ‘gamer’ was originally used to describe people who played chess by mail and pen and paper war simulators, which is possibly the only thing nerdier than trying to beat Super Metroid in under 20 minutes in hopes of unlocking a fabled ‘nude mode’.

Back then, the gaming world was so small that the people in it could be easily classified by one catch-all word. Sure, there was some diversity to the people who played – a celebrity here or there, and even a woman this one time – but most of them were antisocial nerds. I for one was much more interested in finding every star in Super Mario 64 than I was in making friends or learning to ride a bike.

But things are different now. 56% of American households have at least one current generation game console. Video games routinely feature the voices and likenesses of A-list actors like Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, and Liam Neesons. The game industry has a TV channel, not to mention Congressional lobbyists. Hell, Felicia Day’s claim to fame is that she is able to play video games while simultaneously being completely charming and adorable.

The word ‘gamer’ suggests that playing a video game is such a niche pursuit that it defines you as a person, like big game hunting or a sex addiction. But while that might have been true 30 years ago, it isn’t now that practically everyone plays video games.

Hell, my parents are both hopelessly addicted to Angry Birds – does that make them ‘gamers’? Does that define them any more than their friends, their careers, or their 36-year marriage? “Oh, there’s Kelsey and David – did you hear that they’re gamers? And their son is a real jackass.”

I’ve bought one new video game a month for the past three or four months, and I own so many that I’m starting to have storage problems. But when you ask me to describe myself, the word ‘gamer’ doesn’t even pop into my head. I love stories, and right now video games are telling more complex, beautiful, and involving stories than they ever have before – stories that have an added emotional impact because I get to take an active role in their telling.

If I were to make a list of dire problems in the world, I’d put ‘inaccurate terminology being used to describe people who play video games’ pretty close to the bottom of that list. But at the same time, when we marginalize video game players we run the risk of marginalizing the art form as a whole.

With all that being said, I don’t bear any ill will toward people who use the word ‘gamer’ – which is lucky, because a quick CTRL + F on my blog reveals that I used the word two times in my update about Tomb Raider last month. As it turns out, a catch-all phrase is pretty handy – even when it’s inaccurate.

Truman Capps would gladly go tradesies for a PS3 copy of Crysis, if anybody is interested.