The “Gamer” Label

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What exactly is a “gamer”? Is it even a useful label?

The topic has been doing the rounds on the MMO blogosphere lately, and the very fact that so many people have felt compelled to comment tells us that people have strong feelings about labels, one way and another. (Either that, or they are just glad to have a topic to seize on for Blaugust!)

I don’t think it’s entirely a storm in a social media teacup, it’s something that is on people’s minds without the promptings of Twitter or questionnaires. For example…

Whether or not I would call myself a “Gamer” (let alone a “Real Gamer”) is something I do think about now and again. It’s not a label I usually apply to myself, even though I’ve played video games for thirty-five years almost without a break.

Bhagpuss

Are Labels Useful?

One school of thought is that labels like “gamer” are arbitrary and of little use.

Another topic going around has been an attempt to define what a “gamer” or a “real gamer” is. While I am not as dismissive as some, it does seem to be a futile effort to expand or contract a label to fit an imperfect and varying set of assumptions. I play video games. Isn’t that enough?

Wilhelm

Personally I think labels can be fairly useful, depending on what use you intend to put them to. Dividing the world into categories is a basic part of everyday thinking, even when most such categories are fairly fuzzy and vague. What exactly constitutes a “geek” or a “gamer” or “fantasy” is necessarily loosely defined. All the same, labels like that are important for thinking and communicating. For example we can make pretty meaningful statements that would otherwise be difficult to put in words, like:

  • Game of Thrones is fantasy that is enjoyed by more than just the usual geeks.
  • Raspberry Pi was meant to be for kids, but most of them are bought by adult geeks.
  • I play LOTRO, but I’m not much of a gamer otherwise

While labels make people bristle sometimes, it’s hard to think, talk and function without using them.

The Trouble with Labels

As essential as labels are, they can also be problematic. From what I can see, there are several major ways in which they cause problems.

Simplistic Understanding of Categories

Understanding the world through simple categories is where we all have to start. Whether it’s as children learning about life newly, or adults coming as newbies to some field of knowledge, the full complexity of any field is not something we can handle to begin with. And if we don’t need to progress beyond the beginner level, it may be that simplified understanding is all we’ll ever need or ever have.

Some of the over-simplistic thinking that we’re liable to:

  • Imagining there is a hard-and-fast cut off point, and the label neatly divides the world into two groups. You’re either a gamer, or you’re not.
  • Underestimating the diversity of the group. We have a picture of what a “gamer” is, and don’t realize that even if that picture might fit a sizable chunk of people who play games, there might be even more that don’t fit that picture.

Stereotypes – Good, Bad and Ugly

Gollum mural

Is there such a thing as a good stereotype? I’d suggest there kind of is, though perhaps it would be best to not use the word “stereotype” for it!

Dividing the world up into categories and having a picture of a representative member of the category that is used for thinking about the whole group is one of the basic ways the mind works. If for some reason you need to think about students, families, seniors or pets, your starting point at least will be some picture of a typical student, family, senior or pet. You might know perfectly well that there are all shapes and sizes of families, that some seniors run marathons, and some people have pet tigers, but for most everyday thinking and talking, it’s reasonable to go with the simplified stereotyped picture. If someone asks if a hotel is suitable for seniors it would be odd if you replied: “Absolutely, the rock climbing around there is great!” If they asked “Do they allow pets?”, it would be bizarre to reply: “Only dogs and cats, no chimps or tigers.”

A good stereotype is one that is fairly accurate and fairly representative of the group as a whole. It’s a simplification, but a useful one when you need to think or talk about the group and don’t have lots of time and energy to spend on sophisticated analysis.

A bad stereotype could be one that is inaccurate. For example if we imagine that the average age of MMO players is 17 when in fact it is 30, our stereotype is grossly misleading, and our thinking based on it will be deeply flawed.

More subtly, a bad stereotype could be one that is insufficiently representative. If the average age of MMO players is 30, but the age spread of players is so large that we’re nearly as likely to come across a 15 year old or a 65 year old as a 30 year old, our mental picture of the 30 year old player could still be seriously unhelpful.

In practice a lot of us have bad stereotypes in these senses in a lot of areas of our lives. This is for the simple reason that we tend to only come across skewed, highly unrepresentative cross-sections of the groups we talk about, and never know what the group as a whole looks like. That goes even when we are actually members of those groups ourselves – for example the people we hang out with in MMOs can be totally unrepresentative of MMO players as whole. Maybe we started playing with a bunch of our school or college friends, and as they’re all of the same age group, we imagine that age is the typical age of players. Or maybe we always gravitate to guilds with more mature players, and imagine that is the typical age. Or perversely maybe we imagine the players we know personally are unusual, but they are actually pretty typical of the player base.

The concept of “ugly” stereotypes meanwhile lead us on to the topic of the social dynamics of labels.

Labels and Social Dynamics

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Apparently, there was much discussion yesterday on Twitter about trying to define the term “Gamer” and specifically, who gets to claim the term.

Rowan

It seems that someone was spouting off in their lack of knowledge that tablet and mobile gamers were in some way lesser gamers than the those on the console or PC. This once again gets back to the definition of what exactly a gamer is. Over on the Moderate Peril blog he questioned exactly why we need a label at all. In other hobbies, you don’t see the attempt to exclude people the way that we do within gaming.

Belghast

As human beings we are social animals, with many drives and concerns that take precedence over thinking clearly or understanding the world accurately. In particular we are often preoccupied with matters of belonging, identity and status. Things like…

  • Am I really a part of this group?
  • Am I accepted by the others in the group?
  • What is my place in the pecking order?
  • What is the status of my group in society?
  • Does being considered part of this group mean kudos or derision for me?
  • Is my group better than group X?
  • How can I present myself so as to look good to the people around me?

I think Belghast was wrong in the quote above that: “In other hobbies, you don’t see the attempt to exclude people the way that we do within gaming”. On the contrary, with most kinds of activity that people engage in from watching sports to drinking wine there are all kind of snobberies, reverse snobberies, social hierarchies and ways in which people use labels to look down on others, or to give themselves a sense of superiority. In pretty much any hobby or activity you’ll find groups of people that match descriptions like:

  • Hard-core and proud of it
  • Casual and apologetic about it
  • Casual and feels superior to those they see as “taking it all too seriously”
  • Casual but tries to give the impression of being pretty hard-core
  • Hard-core but tries to give the impression of being pretty casual
  • Insecure about whether they deserve the label
  • Reluctant to accept the label because of negative associations
  • Eager to claim the label because of positive associations
  • Highly engaged and looking down on the less committed
  • Highly engaged but maintaining everyone is equal regardless

This kind of adding on layers of judgments goes with just about any factual label that can be applied to a human being. Any fact about you, someone somewhere will judge you based on it. And some will judge you negatively for the very things that others judge you positively for.

A Useful “Gamer” Label?

A couple of properties are probably important for a label to be useful.

  • Differentiation… the label identifies a somewhat distinctive group. There is not much point in having a label of “movie watcher” in a society where the vast majority of people watch movies to some degree. But a label like “movie buff” has a place.
  • Broad Agreement… while we’re all free to define terms however we want, for the purpose of holding sensible conversations and communicating our ideas, we need to have reasonably broad agreement about what the label means. It doesn’t have to be universal agreement, as long as most of the time most of us have roughly the same idea of what a movie buff or a gamer might be.

Defining anyone that’s ever played Angry Birds as a gamer is therefore not going to be useful. That’s not a judgment on Angry Birds or the people who play it, just a recognition that since nearly everyone has played games of that sort, it is not particularly useful to focus on those people as a distinct group. It also seems likely to be a recipe for confusion if we decided to call them gamers, because there are plenty of people that won’t be thinking of the term in that way, and we’ll be talking at cross purposes all the time.

I’m inclined to use “gamer” as a term similar to “movie buff”. That would be someone who is especially interested in games, and for whom they are a particularly important part of their life. That could be someone who plays a good deal, or someone who follows the scene with interest. They could be into PC, console or mobile games, but they do have to be “into them”.

So… am I a gamer then?

It seems blindingly obvious that I am a gamer, but I do cringe somewhat at the label.

While I’m undoubtedly more casual than many gamers, I do have a number of MMOs installed, a Steam account, a bunch of PC games etc. I follow game blogs, listen to game podcasts, and even have a game blog of my own, albeit that I don’t post here all that frequently. Any jury would find me guilty as charged.

If I resist the label, it’s only for reasons of the social dynamics and stereotypes alluded to before. There is still some stigma associated with being a gamer, at least in some circles. And there are probably few if any circles in which being a gamer is going to positively arouse anyone’s admiration and respect.

Being a gamer is an aspect of me, but not one that I would want to be principally defined by in anyone’s mind.

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The Age of Backlogs

Plex Deck Snap 2

Are we living in the Age of Backlogs? Or is it just me?

The thought is prompted by the latest round of tempting Steam sales. It’s hard to resist buying more stuff, yet most of the stuff I found so irresistible in previous sales has remained unplayed, either entirely or in large part. And not because it’s not good or I wouldn’t like to get into it, but because of the vast mismatch between the amount of media readily available to us these days and the amount of time available to partake of it.

I’m not talking only about games here, because one of the chief reasons that games have gone unplayed is that I’ve been spending a good deal of my R&R time on catching up with TV boxsets and reading books. And I have large backlogs of those too.

Captain’s Backlog, Stardate 2014.0627

Games Backlog

Games that I’ve played a fair amount, but not as much as I would have liked lately:

  • LOTRO
  • Chess

Games that I’ve played some, and would like to play a lot more if time permitted include:

  • The Secret World
  • Skyrim
  • Civilization V
  • Hero Academy
  • Star Trek Online

Games that I haven’t tried yet which sound tempting if time allowed include:

  • Neverwinter
  • Guild Wars 2
  • Hearthstone

I can’t bring myself to go look at the games that I’ve actually bought via sales and Humble Bundles and have not played at all or possibly even downloaded yet. There are a fair few of those too.

And nor will I mention the umpteen games I’ve dabbled in that are lower down the priority list than the ones above. SWTOR, Rift and such would be on there.

Shows Backlog

Is it part of the backlog if you’ve started watching it? Or if it’s a rewatch in the first place? Or if it is airing now and you are more or less up to date with it? I’ll leave such question to the lawyers and philosophers, and just look at what is stacked up waiting to be watched…

  • Star Trek – The Next Generation – I started a rewatch of the series, but am not actively watching it at the moment, because if I did. where would I fit everything else in?

  • Star Trek – Deep Space Nine – I’m currently watching it. This was partly a rewatch as I’ve seen some of it before, but it looks like while I saw most of Season 1 before, I may not have ever seen much of Season 2 or later seasons. DS9 is something I’ve been wanting to catch up with for a long time, so it’s at the top of the backlog queue right now.

  • Elementary – I am still half way or so through Season 1. Liking it a lot, and would want to see all of it, time allowing.

  • Game of Thrones – I’ve watched a few episodes of Season 1, but I’m reading the books now. Probably won’t watch any more til I’m caught up with all the books, and then I’ll come back.

  • True Detective – Not started watching it yet.

  • The Wire – There’s a rewatch going on in a community I’m part of, and I’d like join in, but I don’t think I can fit it in. (Have seen it all before).

  • Fargo – I think I’m only one episode behind! Yay!

  • The Good Wife – I am somewhere in the current season. I may even be up to date now? Confused, but not too far behind!

  • The Bridge – Seen one episode, plan to watch it all at some point.

Books Backlog

The very concept of a books backlog may be verging on the ridiculous in my case. If I were to count the amount of unread books that I have at hand, both physical and in ebook form, and consider the rate at which I have actually been getting through them, it’s quite possible I already have enough to keep me going for the rest of my lifetime.

So whatever I mention here is the tip of the icebeg really. Mainly books that I have acquired fairly recently, or titles or series that I have started in the not too distant past and not yet finished. Or in other words, mainly things that are actually loaded on my Kindle and Kindle apps.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones. I’m in the third book, A Storm of Swords. Unless the standard drops off I will likely read all of them over the summer.
  • King’s Gambit – Hard to describe… it’s part autobiography, part an investigation into the culture and psychology of chess. Asks questions pertinent to all games and sports about whether the thing brings out the worst in people that play it.

  • The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 – a selection of short stories by various authors. Frankly it is a stretch to categorize most of them as mysteries per se, but good short crime fiction, often by well known authors. I read the odd story now and then.

  • Samurai – A History – A history of Japan, esp the Samurai, most of all their encounter with the modern world and ultimate demise. The era portrayed (not with too much of an eye to accuracy) in the movie The Last Samurai. Fascinating for fantasy readers because of its exploration of feudal societies, warrior codes and the like. I am slowly working through this. It is readable and enjoyable, but “put-down-able”, so gets displaced in the queue by the likes of Game of Thrones.

  • The Last Ringbearer – This is a highly-rated fanfic novel that tells the story of The Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Mordor. The idea being LOTR was one-sided propaganda or the victor’s mythology, and this is the other side’s story. Yet to start it.

  • Aid on the Edge of Chaos – Should be fascinating as it’s about the intersection of some things that I’m very interested in. Not started it yet. It’s the kind of book I feel needs attention and thought, so I wanted to read it when I have the energy to really concentrate, but that feeling has delayed me even starting.

  • Quantum – Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality – Maybe this should be demoted from “the backlog” to the category of “books I probably won’t get around to really”. It is a topic of interest to me, and was a very cheap offer on Amazon one day. But I’ve read somewhat similar books before, watched TV shows on such matters etc, so what I’ve read so far in this one has seemed like going over stuff I already heard about.

That will do for now, there are plenty more I could mention.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

In the last few years as we’ve entered the era of iPads, Kindles, Netflix, Chromecast, Steam sales, Humble Bundles etc, we have gotten easy access to vast libraries of games and media. On the one hand it’s wonderful to have it all, on the other it puts quite a strain on our time, our wallets and our self-discipline.

Maybe other people are further down the line in learning how to live in this new world. Personally I’m just now recognizing that there is something here that might need to be figured out.

I might need different habits and different ways of thinking about things than I had just a few years ago, when the amount of great and tempting stuff that crossed my path could easily be fitted into my life, with plenty of room to spare.

Survey: How old is your game PC?

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I’d assumed that among people who blog about games I’d be one of those with the lowest spec PC. So I was surprised when I saw that some people who play a lot more than me and are a lot more knowledgeable than I am about games and gaming tech said things like these on Twitter:

I think this is an interesting thing to investigate for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s always a comfort to know that you’re not alone in your situation. Secondly I suspect that game companies and developers would be very surprised that people like us who play a fair amount of games, and even have game blogs and participate in game communities have quite such old and low spec PCs.

Maybe we can do a little to correct that impression, and perhaps get them to think about serving this part of the market better. Because as business people they will know that we are potentially rather good customers, and they’ll miss out on sales if they don’t properly cater for our needs.

So with that in mind, I thought a simple survey would be enlightening.

With both these polls, feel free to give more info or explanations in comments.

Since I don’t have a huge following for this blog, I’d appreciate it if you would also share this survey more widely so we can hear from more people.

The survey is obviously not going to be “scientific” in any sense, but it should be interesting, and maybe it can be useful in triggering a needed debate that can come to the attention of game companies.

The Morning After the Sale Before

Steam Games List

In my last post I thought aloud about what I was looking out for in the sales. Well, now I’m done with my sales shopping, and to tell the truth I have mixed feelings about it. Hence the title of this post: “The morning after…”.

What I Bought

  • Skyrim
  • Papers Please
  • Hero Academy (Gold Pack)
  • The Secret World (Massive Edition)

What I Didn’t Buy

One thing above all is significant to me: I didn’t buy any LOTRO stuff at all. True there isn’t that much left that I don’t already have and still want. Mainly there’s just Helm’s Deep, which was not on sale. All the same, it feels strange considering LOTRO has been my main game for a couple of years.

I also didn’t buy a whole bunch of other things that were tempting, but those don’t much contribute to my mixed feelings today.

That Morning After Feeling

Here’s the jumble of thoughts and feelings that make up that bittersweet morning after sensation…

Overall, despite restraining impulse buying and taking the time to wait a bit and think first, I spent more than the budget I had set myself beforehand.

I’ve been intrigued about The Secret World for a long time, so I’m pleased I finally got it, and pleased with myself that I waited and got a pretty sweet deal on it. Yet it’s a new game, and who knows how much I will play it in the end? Splashing out for the Massive Edition may prove a great bargain, or a total waste of money.

Now I have a bunch of new games (from the sales and the recent Humble Bundle) which are calling to me to come and play them. Yet they all have their learning curves, and I am aware how I am fumbling around trying to make sense of the basics in them. In Skyrim, my LOTRO muscle-memory takes over and I end up lashing out with a sword when I meant to open a chest. All the games might be very good, but it takes time to get to grips with the most basic stuff, never mind mastering them and enjoying them to the full.

So it may be that I have bought yet more stuff that I will not in fact get around to playing. In other words, I wasted yet more money. (“Eyes bigger than your stomach” is one of the big issues in our times no? Well certainly for me.)

And even if I do end up playing these games a fair bit, inevitably that means I will be playing less LOTRO. Game time is finite, they’re not planning on adding any more hours to the week I don’t think. The idea of less LOTRO time does make me sad. But I can see myself playing a lot of TSW, which is why I went for the Massive Edition.

All of this means maybe my relationship with LOTRO is about to change, at least for some while. I’ll perhaps be seeing less of my characters that are like old friends, and less of the people there that actually are friends, old and new. And less of my beloved Middle Earth. It feels a bit like LOTRO is sailing into the West.

If there had been some kind of sale on Helm’s Deep, or come to that, if it had been priced more reasonably in the first place, things would probably have been different.

So it’s like the morning after the night before. Not quite sure what you’ve gone and done, and where it will all take you. Wondering if you did the right thing, but excited too.