It's that time of the year again. Winter has arrived, and with it has come all the trappings of the holidays: snow flakes, hot chocolate and department store Santas. What's the main thing on everyone's mind? No, it's not peace on earth and good will toward men. It's shopping. Because the holidays, we all know, are a time to buy.
The gaming community is no exception. Gamers like presents, too. Sure, the most obvious gift for the videogame lover in your life is, well, a videogame, but the options hardly stop there. After all, why settle for a mere game when there's a whole other world of possibilities out there, the world of game merchandise.
Call it what you will: swag, merch, it's all the same. Either it gets your little gamer heart racing like a school girl's, or it just unnecessary frivolousness. Whichever side of the swag fence you're on, it's hard to deny that videogame merchandise has a considerable social and economic presence in the American gaming community - even if, as an industry, it goes more or less ignored. True, merchandise doesn't have any impact on the actual experience of gaming, but it has become an important element of videogame culture nonetheless.
Just look at the variety of merch available online: Soul Calibur 3 action figures, N64 controller key chains and plush Nintendogs with super-deformed heads. And I haven't yet mentioned Dreamcast tissue holders, Famicom-shaped cushions and, last but not least, a Dead or Alive pillow, complete with Kasumi's stuffed, protruding breasts.
Who's really buying this stuff? It's hard to tell. Of the 15 gamers I talked to on the subject, most seemed interested in more traditional merchandise, like t-shirts, soundtracks and figures. Even those who said they weren't really interested in merchandise tended to have purchased at least something that qualified, though often these were items that tied into their specific, personal interests, such as art books or concert tickets. But when asked about the coolest merch they'd ever bought, it was clear that uniqueness played a big part in determining cool. Answers ranged from game music piano scores to a Metroid Prime studded-leather wrist cuff.
Even if your average, everyday gamers aren't buying merchandise with the same dedicated vivacity with which they purchase games themselves, they're still interested, fascinated even, by swag - so much so that's its mere existence has become news. Sexy statues, adorable dolls, talking, robotic pokemon - gamers might not own them, but they still want to know what's out there. There's a certain excitement that surrounds game merchandise. Just think of all the ecstatic swag pics that circulate around the internet each year after E3. But what are people so excited about?
For a lot of gamers, merchandise isn't just about merchandise; it's about fandom. You can buy games, you can play games, you can beat games, but what then? "Collecting something obsessively is what makes someone an otaku," says Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku. "If you're into gaming, owning gaming merchandise is simply an extension of that." Merch identifies you as a fanboy (or girl) even after you've put down the controller.
Though the gamers I spoke to were careful to point out the line between a fanboy and a hardcore gamer (who might not care as much about swag as his fanboy counterpart), many expressed a belief that gaming merchandise supports not only individual fandom, but a general sense of gaming community. "Manpurse," a female gamer, wrote, "I love being able to show my love for a game - or its characters - with swag. By having swag, I not only fulfill my need for stuff, but I also can proclaim my love for certain games to the world at large (and hopefully attract the eyes of fellow fan)."