The word “gamer” often inspires a lot of discussion among video game aficionados. Sometimes the word is preceded by qualifiers, like “casual,” “hardcore,” or “serious.” Sometimes gamers are divided by their platform of choice: “PC gamers,” “console gamers,” or “mobile gamers.”
But what does this term “gamer” even mean?
Many have tried to answer this question in some form or another. Maybe it’s pointless to search for an all-encompassing definition. The takeaway from many of these discussions is often: game playing is too diverse to come up with a definition that fits everybody. And that’s true.
And yet, as unprofitable as labels often become, in my mind, I still categorize people I meet as gamers and non-gamers. Self-avowed gamers seem to be able to discriminate between gamers and people who simply play games. And while athletes like baseball players, football players, basketball players, and volleyball players certainly spend a lot of time practicing, preparing, and performing, most gamers, from whom I’ve interacted with, usually don’t consider athletes “gamers.”
So rather than trying to find one definition that suits everybody, I’ll elucidate my qualifications for labeling somebody a gamer. I offer this only as a way of sparking discussion; while I certainly enjoy playing games with non-gamers, and want as many people as possible to experience the joys of gaming, connecting with gamers provides me a kind of joy that can’t be experienced directly with people who play games.
1. Gamers derive a significant amount of satisfaction from gaming
People usually play games because they are fun. Games are primarily a form of entertainment: that much is obvious. People who pursue games solely for fun often substitute gameplay for different fun activities: other media consumption, exercise, travel, dining, or any number of other hobbies. Gaming is fun, but the gamer doesn’t pursue games solely for fun.
What I have experienced through games is a much deeper satisfaction. Oftentimes gaming is frustrating. Playing a game for an hour without saving, and accidentally turning off the game and losing all of one’s progress, is not fun. Not understanding the controls of a complex game is not fun. Grinding in an RPG for hours on end to get to the next level, or take on the super-powerful secret boss, is not fun. Gaming is often work, but when completed, that work brings a lasting satisfaction.
Gamers play games not just because they want to have fun, but because they have a need, a deep-rooted desire to experience something great. Games fill a slot in a gamer’s heart intended for something other than fun.
2. Gamers invest time and resources in gaming
A gamer spends a lot of time playing games and a lot of money buying games, right? Somebody who has disposable resources. But being a gamer isn’t strictly determined by an amount of time or money that is spent on games. Rather, gamers invest resources in gaming.
What’s the difference between spending resources and investing resources? For me, investment is about thinking of the long-term health of one’s gaming. Sometimes that means buying a game now, because it is cheap or hard-to-find, and playing it later. Sometimes it means playing older games in a franchise so that one can understand the current games. Sometimes that means purposing playing games outside of one’s comfort zone just to see what all the hype is about. And sometimes it means following all of the developments in the industry to understand the trajectory of the avocation.
A gamer, though, does not often “waste” time gaming. If the gaming is a waste–maybe the game itself is broken or unenjoyable to play, or maybe too much effect is require to obtain a substandard game–then the gamer has no time for it. Not all games are created equal–gamers understand this–so resources need to be invested, not wasted.
3. Gamers game confidently
At first I was going to suggest that gamers are good at games. A gamer is somebody who understands the rules, understands the point of the game, and does their best to play at an acceptable level. After all, would you really call somebody an athlete if they can’t run more than a quarter of a mile or catch a ball? While competence usually follows from serious gaming, many gamers struggle when they first pick up a new game, especially in a genre they have little experience with. When playing a new game, many gamers will struggle, but they get better.
What marks a gamer from a non-gamer, though, has more to do with confidence. A gamer doesn’t get easily frustrated just because she can’t figure out the controls within the first five minutes. A gamer doesn’t give up just because he doesn’t understand the “meta” of Magic: The Gathering. Gamers are confident that, in time, they will learn the rules, they will learn the controls, they will understand the meta, and they will get better.
Gamers are not people who give up easily.
4. Gamers exploit the mechanics of games
This point follows from the first. The mechanics of a game are simply the rules by which that game operates. The mechanics dictate what actions can be performed in the game and which cannot. They dictate how the game is played, under which situations, in which environment. They can be obvious rules such as the “win condition” for a game, or they can be subtle, such as knowing how many frames of animation it takes for Chun-Li to execute her attacks.
Gamers have a way of seeing past the surface presentation of the game to understand the underlying structure. They can see that the original Legend of Zelda is in many ways the same game as Metroid Prime, even though the games are visually extremely different and control in different ways. And once gamers understand the mechanics of the game, they work to exploit them.
Now by exploit, I don’t necessarily mean cheating (e.g., when playing a tabletop game, a gamer won’t lean back in her chair to peek at the cards in an opponent’s hand). Games feature a variety of rules and actions the player can perform, and no two executions of a game are likely to be the same. Great games present players with many choices for what to do at any given time: the gamer can assess the situation and figure out what move is optimal to perform at a given time. Gamers find the most efficient ways of harvesting resources or dispatching of enemies. They are not directionless; they play with a purpose.
Gamers don’t just get to the end of the game and call it good. Every gamer finds different ways to be satisfied by a game: playing it as fast as possible, playing it on hard mode, or trying to find 100% of the secrets. Whatever their given play style, a gamer exploits a game’s mechanics to his advantage and satisfaction.
5. Gamers can appreciate games they don’t enjoy playing
Simply put: there are too many games out there. I contend that if humans never invented another game–from video games to card games to board games to sports–we could all find more than enough games to keep us satisfied for the rest of our earthly lives. Gamers begrudgingly accept that they can’t play all the great games out there, so they tend to stick with a few genres that make them most happy. I tend to play Nintendo games (Mario, Zelda, Metroid, etc.), JRPGs, German-style board games, and the occasional building/sim game, racing game, and fighting game.
Gamers can appreciate, though, games of other genres, even if they don’t spend a lot of time playing those games or even like them that much. I’ve never been much for collectable card games, but I find all of the play mechanics behind Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, and all the others extremely interesting. I’ve never wanted to invest the time and money into learning these games, but I can understand the appeal of them.
Gamers aren’t elitist, in my mind. People who proclaim that one platform is superior to another (PS4 vs. Wii-U vs. PC) or people who write off entire franchises because of some quality they dislike (such as those who hate Call of Duty for releasing a new game every year) are only borderline gamers, in my opinion.
Now, this doesn’t mean that gamers can’t have strong opinions about games: there are certainly many individual games I dislike and I have reasons for those dislikes. At the same time, though, I can appreciate the game for what it is: something that brings other people satisfaction. Rather than choosing arrogance and choosing to disengage with other gamers, I find it more profitable to understand why people like that game.
6. Gamers understand the language of gaming
As with all pursuits and industries, gaming carries a large amount of jargon and slang. When my brother and I talk gaming, for instance, we might as well be speaking another language because our parents don’t understand what we are talking about. In gaming, there are jargon for genres, play mechanics, character-types, attack styles, energy systems, treasure collecting, and on and on and on.
Once I tried to teach a friend how to play a simplified version of Dungeons & Dragons that I was working on. I was trying to boil the game down to it’s essence. But my description of the rules broke down when I was trying to explain the concept of “hit points.” She didn’t understand. It took several minutes to explain what “hit points” are.
Knowing the slang terms, though, is not enough for the gamer. Many of the same systems and mechanics find their way into numerous games, sometimes games that are quite different from one another. And other times, developers will change the name of a system or mechanic to give their game a different auditory feel. But gamers see through these gimmicks. They know that whether we’re talking about hit points, health, life, energy, units, or hearts, it all amounts to the same thing: a measure of the amount of damage a person can take before dying.
7. Gamers spread their love of gaming
Sadly, many self-avowed gamers fail in this final criterion. I knew many people in college who spent days and nights playing their favorite games, whether Halo 2 or EVE Online. Many would’ve considered themselves gamers, and probably would’ve fulfilled most of the criteria in this post.
However, these individuals were isolated. They played by themselves (or with friends online), but they were so enthralled by their favorite games, and played at such a high level, that it was impossible for them to play games with non-gamers. Gamers who isolate and surround themselves with other hardcore gamers do not contribute to the long-term viability of gaming. In some cases, they turn people away from gaming, perpetuating stereotypes that gamers are otakus playing alone in the dark.
A gamer with a heart for expanding the industry find ways of gaming with non-gamers. Sometimes that means playing games that really aren’t that good, like Monopoly. Other times, because of the gamer’s more extensive knowledge of different types of games, that means knowing which game to recommend to which friend.
Gaming can be a pretty lonely pursuit if a gamer doesn’t have anybody to game with. Gamers, then, often look for ways of introducing people to new types of games, and in turn, being receptive to new games from others.
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This is what being a gamer means to me. After 1800 words, I’m not sure how close I am to fully defining the term, but this is a start. I’m curious, Reader, do you consider yourself a gamer, and if so, what does the label mean to you?