Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I'm Sick of Gamers Being Labeled

Really, I am. It's quite tiring to hear gamers categorized as "hardcore" or "casual," and it's positively cringe-worthy to divide them by gender. It's bad enough that we have so slice up the male population into sub-categories, but now we have to place distinctions based on sex? Come on now.

It's been said that gamers are their own worst enemy when it comes to the public's perception of their hobby (passion?), and I tend to agree. The image of a nerdy, basement-dwelling fat guy who cares more about World of Warcraft than getting a job or laid seems to be firmly etched in the consciousness of those who know nothing about gaming. Many people still think that being a gamer means you're lazy and socially inept. As someone who juggles a wife and two kids, a profession, a writing career, and still finds the time to bring my Xbox 360 gamerscore to 45k, I think I can attest to just how full of shit this stereotype really is.

Then someone goes and writes an article about "how to get a gamer girlfriend" and fucks it all up.

Specifically, the article's title is "Kombo's Guide to Picking Up Gamer Chicks: Part One." Part one? You mean the process is complex enough to warrant turning the article into a serial? Geez, no wonder so many "guy gamers" are single.

Don't get me wrong, as my beef isn't with the author herself. Candice seemed like a nice person the few times we spoke over AIM, and I'm sure she's a splendid gal with a healthy outlook on life. No, my problem is with the way her article perpetuates one of the very stereotypes gamers profess to hating. For all of our ranting and raving, we always seem to shoot ourselves in the foot on this issue. It's almost as if we want the distinctions to be made, when there's no reason to. What constitutes a girl gamer? My wife likes Animal Crossing and Super Mario Bros. 3. Does that mean she qualifies? I sincerely doubt any of the suggestions from the article would have worked on her, and I'd probably still be single if I had ever attempted to show her how in awe I was at her Tetris skills compared to my past girlfriends.

This is just the latest example of how we carve ourselves up into little pieces, spending as much time on complaining about how many pieces there are as we do on the actual carving. Over the years, the gaming industry has arbitrarily attached labels to gamers, creating market segments that look lovely on a pie chart but mean little in reality. Are you "hardcore" or "casual?" Do you consider yourself a professional gamer or are you strictly an amateur? Can you list the differences between "guy" and "girl" gamers? There are so many terms for people who like video games (read: gamers), and I sometimes think that the backroom of my local GameStop or Toys 'R Us has game executives watching me through a one-way mirror, analyzing my purchases and classifying me accordingly. It's sickening.

Looking around the Internet, it's quite easy to google the term "casual gamer" (yes, google with a small /g/, as in a verb. Look it up; it's correct) and come up with all sorts of news articles with horrific titles. Christ, even Wikipedia has detailed articles differentiating what "casual" and "hardcore" gamers are. Not enough? How about checking out Casual Gamer, the website that, by its own description, was "created by a group a Casual Games enthusiasts." Thank you for that profound and informative explanation of your motives. I would never have figured it out otherwise.

Companies are jumping on the label bandwagon, with both Microsoft and Ubisoft even creating whole divisions directed at the "casual" gamer. A smart business move, considering that this new sector of the industry is worth a proported $2.25 billion each year. So big has it become, that there's even a Casual Gamer Association out there now! The issue that needs addressing here is how this affects the people who actually buy and play the games. Do the people buying Wiis and playing games for the first time consider themselves casual gamers?

The problem with labels becomes most painfully apparent when not even the biggest of gaming companies itself can decide whether or not they exist. Take Nintendo Europe's own managing director of marketing, Laurence Fischer, for example. In a prime example of brilliant marketing skill, Mr. Fischer told casualgamingbiz last May that he disliked the term "casual gamer." He said "“I don’t like the word casual. There’s a lot of meaning and interpretation of the word. For me you’re either a gamer or a non-gamer."

Sounds reasonable enough, right? Of course, being a marketing guru, it was only a matter of time before an outbreak of Foot-in-Mouth Disease set in. Addressing concerns about the Wii's limited storage space to Edge magazine, Fischer continued his blitzkrieg of brilliance and casually (see what I did there?) stated that only "geeks and otaku" would feel the need for a Wii hard drive. I guess we should have seen it coming though, as in that same May casualgamingbiz article, Fischer also explained away Animal Crossing's audience by saying "“It was really an otaku game – it had a small community of people playing a lot.” So much for consistency.

This is compounded by the tireless work of gaming journalists who latch onto these labels far too easily. Perhaps they feel that it makes them sound smarter or more in touch with their audience, but all it does is give serious journalists more ammunition for their argument about how gaming journalism isn't really journalism at all. You don't hear any other area of the business slicing its audience into separate categories based on how much news they listen to or how often they get involved with the subject matter. The closest I can think of is sports, and even then there isn't a clear breaking down of the audience by the press. I've yet to hear ESPN or Sports Illustrated refer to "fair weather" fans on a regular basis, even though the concept clearly exists around the water cooler. On the news and in sports periodicals, the kid playing baseball in the park by his house isn't "casual" compared to "hardcore" MLB players, and no one goes out of their way to make the contrasts between NBA and WNBA players apparent. Are their differences? Of course there are. That doesn't mean we have to constantly point them out. Some things forgo mentioning for fear of belaboring the obvious.

Perhaps if game companies, and more importantly, gaming journalists, took their audience more seriously, the need to use labels would disappear. Yes, people put things into categories on a regular basis, but that's just because this is the primary way in which human beings interact with their environment. Hell, I bet you placed this very article into a category as soon as you began to read it. We all do it, sure, but that doesn't mean we have to splash those categories all over the place for everyone to see them. If game publishers want to use their labels in the board room to discuss sales, then fine, just keep it out of the general vernacular. I'm tired of being classified under several sub-categories of gaming. It's dumb, divisive, and it only serves to keep gaming as the black sheep of hobbies despite its immense size and money-making prowess.

But as I said at the beginning, it would be unfair to place the blame solely on the corporations and the press. Gamers themselves are as guilty in this regard, and one need only listen to the vitriol spouted across the Internet about the Wii and how Nintendo has turned its back on "real" gamers. There are those who take pride in being labeled a "hardcore gamer" - I even wrote for a magazine named exactly that - but there's more than one definition of the term! The Wikipedia entry I linked to lists no fewer than five separate criteria for defining what a "hardcore" gamer is, and trying to understand it is more trouble than it's worth. Judging from the convoluted rationalization it offers, it might just be better to just stick with what Fischer initially said about it all: you're either a gamer or you're not.

My name is Ken Horowitz, and I am a gamer. And that's all.


Anonymous said...

I hate how some people (like my mother) believe that gaming is for kids and adults that play are just immature human beings that need to grow up. What? There's no need to be a kid to truly enjoy a video game. They're made by adults, why can't adults play them. It's a stupid idea. IMHO. They need to get with the times. But I HAVe noticed that things have changed. I remember as a kid I hated staying in the house. I wanted to go out and play all day, all night. We'd come back in sweaty. Now, I go bto wok come home and play. Kids go to school and kook themselves up playing afterwards. What happened to us. Yikes!
Oh hey, on another note, did you hear about the Jack In The Box promo going on today? Because of high gas prices, the fast food chain is giving out TWO FREE TACOS. They're calling it TWO FREE TACOS DAY.

A gas receipt is all you need to claim the tacos.

Here's a link:

Ken Horowitz said...

Free tacos? AWESOME. I only wish we had Jack-In-The-Box here. :(

But yeah, the labeling is really lame, especially considering that most other past times don't do it. Why do we have to assign categories for no reason?