Who benefits from the idea of gamers?
Posted on 5th Sep 2014 at 10:39 by Rick Lane with 24 comments
Most recently, the debate has turned toward concept of the gamer, with critics like Leigh Alexander explaining why the traditional image of the gamer - namely young, white men - has not been universally applicable for some time. Instead they are now merely one section of a much broader audience, many of whom do not identify as gamers at all, either because gaming is only a part of their lifestyle, or because that traditional image does not apply to them. The gamers, meanwhile, are worried that this growth in gaming appeal means a shrinkage of games that will appeal specifically to them.
I'm not writing this to debate the ins and outs of these particular arguments, although personally I feel that many of the anxieties that have got gamers so worked up are needless, that the "more for others means less for them" fear is not remotely approaching a reality. The personal attacks, meanwhile, are unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable. No caveats. No clauses. End of discussion. But there is one aspect of this I'd like to explore in more detail, and it is this - who benefits from the idea of "gamers" as a class of individual?
I've always felt that labels are for clothes, not people. But there's no question that a lot of folk feel differently about themselves, that belonging to a particular class, religion, nation, group, club, or whatever is an important component of their personal identity. I'm a Socialist. I'm a Christian. I'm a Scotsman. I'm a dancer. I'm a foodie. I'm a film-buff. I'm a bookworm. I'm a gamer. Being part of a culture of like-minded individuals is reassuring. It negates a lot of social awkwardness because there's an immediate bond of understanding established between you. "I'm a gamer." "Hey, I'm a gamer too! Let's talk about games!" And the conversation goes from there. There's also the flipside of that, where, if someone comes along to challenge that culture, whether justified or unjustified, there's a group of people alongside you ready to defend it.
It's a form of tribalism, I suppose, and that has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is security and a feeling of control. The disadvantage is that is often exclusionary toward people who don't speak the same dialect, or wear the right warpaint, even when they might be interested in joining in. This can be damaging to the tribe itself, as they might exclude someone who has invented a new fire-lighting technique because they looked different or sounded different. Perhaps they were too short, too meek, an elderly person, a woman. And you might say "Well, we like our old fire-lighting technique!" but that needn't be replaced by the new one, it's simply an alternative, a complement to the knowledge and skills the tribe already has.
Then again, that's what control is, in the end. It's the ability to allow certain individuals access to something, and deny that access to others, or allow people access to some things but not others. And I think that an awful lot of what we've seen over the last few weeks, boils down to an issue of control.
This is particularly the case with the whole "journalistic ethics" conspiracy theory, the idea that there's some kind of secret cabal between games journalists, a journalism Illuminati, where critics dressed in scarlet robes and pointed hoods collude with PRs and publishers, and vast sums of money are exchanged alongside gnomic handshakes in order to fix the entire system of reviewing and scoring games. The truth is of course the complete opposite. Most games journalists can barely control the immediate environment around them. Rent, electricity bills, food, these are aspirational items for a worrying number of games critics. Acquire all three and you should unlock an achievement. World domination is something we'll revisit in another century or two.
The reason for this lashing out toward games writers and those industry figures painted as "social-justice-warriors", is all down to a feeling of loss of control. Games have flourished and diversified enormously in the last few years, opening up to a host of new voices, many of whom do not necessarily identify as gamers per-se, but are instead interested in games as a way of exploring new themes and topics. This in turn has excited many critics who have spent years witnessing the same ideas recycled over and over - a whirlwind blur of guns, swords, and cars. Amongst some gamers, this has given the impression of an industry under assault, in which the cultural controller has been yanked out of their hands. Consequently, they must defend their place in gaming with a righteous zeal.
Of course, the kicker is they were never in control in the first place.
All the time this debacle has been ongoing, as the "tru4lyf" gamers pelt writers and developers with insults and threats, demanding they reveal the truth of their conspiratorial facade, sat silently in the background are the people who really are in control. The publishers, the marketers, the manufacturers. These are the real gatekeepers, guarding all the doors and holding all the keys. This isn't some grand conspiracy either, I should clarify. It's just the way things are. They build the hardware and make the software, and they can allow and deny access to it at will. Journalists can and will reveal when a publisher acts unscrupulously or unethically, and gamers can rant and rave as much as they like, but neither group can force the hands of the businessmen.
It's also these people who truly benefit from the idea of the gamer. A few of them, anyway, those with the largest marketing budgets and the narrowest view of what a gamer is. Those who market their products with slogans like "by gamers, for gamers" as if they're Gamebraham Lincoln, before showcasing the most depressingly limited reel of games. Drive the car, shoot the gun, kill the man. For years upon years they have peddled the message that this is what gamers are, this is what gamers should be. Concepts such as "console wars" further fuelled tribalism amongst that core audience, the idea of an "us" and a "them", and an undying allegiance to a particular brand.
Nothing is more beneficial to the marketing department of a major publisher or manufacturer than being able to guarantee that a group of individuals will purchase their games. The larger and more powerful a company becomes, the more risk-averse it becomes as the need to please its shareholders increases. Appealing to a market morphs into an attempt to control that market, to put it in a box on a shelf so that it is always there, always ready with its wallet in-hand. To these corporations, such guarantees become more valuable than breadth. The near-certainty that these specific people will buy their games becomes of greater worth than the potential for many different kinds of people purchasing their games.
So they focus all their energies on this small group, their "hardcore" audience, constantly catering to their every whim and desire before charging them £49.99 a pop for the privilege. The conflict arises when these gamers go online, and see that this isn't what the critics are talking about all the time and forever, that this isn't what the games are like all the time and forever, like the expensive TV spots show and the people stood on stage at E3 discuss. They get confused, they get scared, and then they get angry.
This is the ultimate victory for a company's marketing. To take a word that means "person who plays and enjoys games" and rework it to mean "person who only plays our games, and strikes down with great vengeance and furious anger anything that is not our games." And that is, sadly, what the word gamer has come to mean. It isn't the same as "film-buff" or "bookworm", which refer to someone who immerses themselves in a medium unconditionally, who possesses specialist knowledge of a topic through experience which is both broad and deep. Put it this way, you don't see bookworms sending death-threats to feminist authors. Or film-buffs accusing Mark Kermode of corruption because he wrote a positive review of a film he enjoyed.
There's a chance that you're sat here reading this, quietly thinking "Well, Rick, I think of myself as a gamer, but I'M not like that at all!" That's great! Voice your unconditional love of games, the pride your take in enjoying every facet of this industry. It's a sad fact that the nastiest, most narrow-minded people in our culture also tend to be the loudest. The idea of being a gamer should benefit everyone who likes games, not simply those who make the most money, or are filled with the most hatred.