What Being a Gamer Means to Me

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┬álasting 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.

* * *

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?

Game on,
~Dennis

My Hexels for Settlers of Catan Finally Arrived!

Well, it took almost a year, but I finally received my hexels in the mail last week!

What are hexels, you ask? Do you play Settlers of Catan? If so, you know that the hexagonal-shaped board pieces don’t really stay together that well. The game comes with a cardboard frame, which kind of keeps the pieces together, but my frame has warped over time.

I like my tabletop play sessions neat and orderly: cards stacked, my little pieces arranged in rows, all the number tokens oriented in the same direction. No matter how much I fuss about keeping the hexagons fit together perfectly, inevitably fissures appear in the island.

Somebody rolls the dice across the board.

Somebody bumps the table.

Somebody slams a new settlement down too hard.

Somebody drops their beer bottle on the board (empty, fortunately!).

Hexels solve that problem!

Hexels for CatanHexels are black plastic frames with magnets in the sides. The board pieces fit inside perfectly, and the hexels attach themselves via the magnets. The seal is not strong, but strong enough to keep the board together. If your table is smooth, you can even slide the “board” around if needed!

Hexels for Catan

The board pieces sit casually inside. You don’t have to force them in, and they pop right out.

Hexels started as a Kickstarter project in early 2013. I was one of the backers, and for $50 I received 30 hexels: enough for the 5-6 player extension of the original Catan.

The project ran into a lot of problems on the manufacturing end. They were manufactured in China, and it took the organizers a long time to find the right kind of plastic. Late 2013, the pieces finally shipped to America. The creator, Tim Walsh, had to forgo assembly costs to keep the project on budget. That meant that backers had to insert the magnets and glue the covers in place themselves. It wasn’t too much of a bother, though: after about an hour and a half of work, my pieces were ready to go.

Hexel backs

The back of a hexel. A little magnet sits in each of those six wells. The magnet is about the size of those little ball sprinkles you put on ice cream. The covers are held in place with super glue.

How well do they work?

Nearly perfect, I’d say. The game pieces sit on top: no need to have the game pieces touching the board pieces anymore!

Hexels for Catan

An assembled 6 player Catan board using hexels.

Hexels for Catan

Any flaws with the hexels?

Only a few. First, the project didn’t raise enough money to create hexels for the harbor pieces. Thankfully your Catan game comes with harbor pieces separate from the main board frame, so these can be set every few spaces around the board. It doesn’t look as nice; maybe someday he’ll create frames for the harbor pieces.

Harbors next to HexelsSecond, the magnets hold the pieces together very well. But sometimes, the pieces get just slightly off. If you fuss with it, you can get the sides to match together perfectly. But even if you are off slightly, the board will still hold together properly.

Hexels for Catan

Notice how these edges don’t line up perfectly.

Do the hexels fit in the box?

Yes! Even with the 5-6 player extension (11 extra hexels) everything fits in my original Catan box. I had to remove the black plastic tray that comes with the box, but a minor inconvenience. The original board pieces fit in with the hexels, should I ever want to use those again. I even have extra room!

Hexels in Catan boxNow, if you are OCD about keeping things organized, I must mention that it can be difficult to get the hexels to stack perfectly on each other. This is based on the magnets wanting to attach to the hexels nearest them. You can get the stacks completely straight, but even if they are off slightly, they’ll still fit in the box (and once you transport the game, the stacks will probably get a little disordered anyway).

Hexel stacks

A full set for the 5-6 player extension contains 30 hexels. Three stacks of 10 will just fit in the box.

Okay, where do I get these?

Good question. The official website doesn’t have a lot of information, and no detail about ordering more. This is an officially licensed product of Catan and Mayfair Games, so I’m guessing they will be available commercially in the next few months once Tim fulfills all of the Kickstarter rewards.

If you want a different solution for your Catan game, there are Catan boards available from a different company (also officially licensed). You can buy plastic boards for $30 and bamboo boards for $120 (the wooden ones do look nice). These boards offer a similar solution to keeping your pieces together. They aren’t as portable as the hexels. Plus, the wooden boards are quite pricey: the board for 5-6 players is $180!

Settle on,
~Dennis

Need Supplies for Your Custom Tabletop Game? Check Out Superior POD

I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons on and off over the years, but one thing that’s always bothered me is the painfully slow combat system. Too many dice rolls, calculating modifications for environmental conditions, armor, surprise, etc., and too much paging through books to remember what your spells and attacks are. A relatively simple 3 vs. 3 battle can often take over an hour to complete!

So I set about creating my own tabletop RPG battle system. My first idea to make the battles move quicker was to eliminate the need for any rule book. Spells, items, and armor, then, would be presented as cards. Spells and items would be drawn at the beginning of battle, and once they are used, they are discarded. Simple, quick, efficient.

The game that has resulted from all this planning is a card game that’s played on a grid. To increase the immersion, I wanted to create actual playing cards for the various spells and items. Luckily I found Superior POD (POD = Print on Demand), a website that prints professional quality playing cards, plus a lot more.

Superior POD

Custom playing cards

Superior POD’s website looks a little dated, so I was hesitant at first to us it. It’s a small, family-owned print shop, and they print all manner of things: books, posters, business cards, standard stuff. But they also print a surprising number of gaming products.

I experimented with their Poker Size Custom Card Decks. The cards measure 3.5″ by 2.5″. The website features Photoshop templates for the cards (unfortunately you do need to know a bit about Photoshop to design your cards). The templates are divided into 18 cards. You can insert text, photos, really anything you want. You design both the front and the back of the card, upload the sheets to the website, and away you go! They charge $1.54 for each 18 card sheet, which I thought was pretty reasonable.

Superior POD unboxing

Unboxing my first four decks! My game is based on Final Fantasy (though only for personal use, Square Enix! No commercial interests here!). The game features white, black, and green magic, hence the different color of the decks.

I made a mistake, though, when I ordered my first batch of cards. I designed the fronts and backs of the cards, just like instructed. What I forgot to consider is that the sheet for the backs of the cards is reversed compared to the front of the sheet. The sheets were divided into 3 columns of 6 cards each; what that means is that if the cards in the leftmost column are supposed to have a unique backing, then the design needs to go on the rightmost column. Anyway, look below to see what happened with my first purchase:

Stack of wrong cards

Stack of incorrect cards. Look at the bottom: that green card (which explains the abilities of green mages) is supposed to have a picture of a green mage on the other side. Instead, it has a picture of the white mage. Oops!

The mistake was totally my fault. Fortunately, it only affected a quarter of the cards from my first order. $5 down the drain, not a huge loss. I put in a second order, fixing my mistakes, and the cards arrived in perfect condition: glossy, smooth, unbent, and ready for playing! I now have the 189 cards needed for my play testing to begin!

Shipping concerns

Even though I’m extremely happy with the quality of Superior POD’s products, one thing deserves mentioning: they are really slow in fulfilling orders. My first order took a month to fulfill. The printing itself is supposed to take around 10 business days, not counting the standard shipping after that (about a week). Because they are a small, family-owned business, a little warning came up when I checked out that orders do take a while to process.

For my second order, I waited a month without hearing anything back. I contacted the company directly, explaining that I was hoping to play test the game over Christmas and needed the cards soon. The president of the company emailed me back right away, apologizing for the delay, saying there was no excuse. He printed the cards that night and sent them out the next morning via Priority Mail, and I had them three days later. So at least their customer service is friendly!

Other products worth investigating

Like I said, I only have experience with the playing cards, but I have no doubt their other gaming products are just as good. Here are some other products to check out:

  • Card Decks: In addition to the poker size, they also have other card sizes should you need them, including square, mini, and tarot card sizes.
  • Game Boxes, including the Large size box (8.5″ by 7.25″ by 1″), the Long Deck Box for storing hundreds of cards (several sizes available), and Tuck Boxes for storing smaller amounts of cards (which is what I’ll be looking into!)
  • Game Boards, high quality chipboard (just like traditional board game boards). The boards come in two sizes, 18″ by 18″ or 17″ by 22″. I’ll definitely be getting one of these boards for my game!
  • Rule Books and Rule Sheets
  • Play Money. Does your game use currency? Design your own money and print it on up to 7 different color papers! A bundle of 28 bills is only $0.39!
  • Chipboard Counters, including 1″ square counters, 5/8″ square counters and 2″ hex counters. I’m particularly excited about the hex counters: my brother is developing a game based on a hex grid and ordered wooden hexagons from a guy online, and while the counters are hexagon shaped, they weren’t cut with precision quality, meaning, the hexagons don’t neatly fit together like they should, thus they are useless for gaming. As long as Superior POD can cut their hexagons straight, everything should be good!

If you’re into designing your own tabletop game (and again, know a bit about Photoshop), give Superior POD a shot and let me know what you think! If you’re into gaming like I am, there’s no reason for you not to experiment with creating your own game. Sure, it’s fun to buy games in the store and play somebody else’s games, but Superior POD gives you all the tools you need to create your own game. Believe me, having high-quality professional products to play with is so much better than printing cards or markers on your boring old black and white printer.

Game on,
~Dennis