Season's Gaming

Season's Gaming
Video Game Merchandise

Bonnie Ruberg | 20 Dec 2005 11:01
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Of course, not everyone looks at merchandise in the same way. When asked what they thought when they saw strangers wearing game-related merch, gamers' responses were mixed. Some said they were eager to strike up conversations. Others admitted they were suspicious, and assumed initially that these strangers were only "posing." Certainly, with the introduction of video game merchandise to more mainstream commercial venues like Target and Hot Topic, the threat of pretend fans has confused the image of the true fanboy. Who's who anymore? Anyone can buy a game shirt.

As online games radio show host Vince Scalabrino points out, "There is definitely a direct correlation between the amount of swag one has and the amount of games said person plays. But just because a person has swag, doesn't mean they are a hardcore gamer. And yes, fanboys deceptively wear swag, too. Which makes it all that much more difficult for us real gamers who are just trying to be real."

It's especially hard to talk about a sense of community inspired by merch if your merch never leaves the house. Unlike more public items of swag, like T-shirts and stickers, a good percentage of videogame merchandise is intended only for private viewing. When buying merchandise, says Ashcraft, "I think about things like how the goods will look on my shelf." True, such items aren't totally hidden from the light of day. Overall, though, they move swag consumers further from concerns of fanboy representation and community, and closer to the realm of collecting.

But why do we collect? Is it just to show our pride, or does it also allow us to display our individualism? As Ashcraft mentions, there's "something surprisingly comforting about it. Say you have a Nintendogs mini garden. Now, it if were a regular garden, would it still give me some sort of happy feeling? No. I don't even like gardening. But, it's a Nintendogs garden. That makes it suddenly cool."

It seems the largest appeal of videogame merchandise is its ability to extend the gaming experience. Even simply aesthetic, non-useful items acquire a use: They let us continue the enjoyment of playing into non-playing. A poster, a stuffed animal, a keychain: These can make us smile no matter what we're doing. They allow us to take control of our gaming and our gamer-hood by physically manifesting our appreciation.

As always, some gamers would beg to differ. They do not see merch as conducive to their serious gaming identities. Says gamer Ola Mork, "I think playing games is being hardcore. Everything else is fluff ... It's not the clothes, it's not the stuff. It's living and breathing the games." Other non-collectors label videogame merchandise as childish - a common American conception of the colorful toys, dolls and figures that often make up swag piles. Gamer Patrick Dugan asserts, "When I was 14 I got some Resident Evil figures of monsters that were cool. Now I'm 20, so I'd rather spend my money on music, beer, DVD's and games. If I'm going to be a geek I want to be a geek who invests in information, not dollies."

You might think that, like other supposedly childish elements of videogame culture, gaming merch would be more often associated with women gamers than men. Yet, that isn't so. Why? Of course, some of it can be explained with the old stereotypes. For example, if collecting is linked to hardcore fandom, then it can't be a female thing, because women (so the thinking goes) are not hardcore fans. Plus merchandise that sells through sex appeal is much less likely to be aimed at female gamers. And that may just be one of the major draws of gaming merch. As mentioned above, it helps extend the game experience past gameplay itself; in this case, it extends the game experience into sexual fantasy.

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