Gamer Like Me

Am I a gamer? I review video games for various sources, including a major metropolitan newspaper. In May, I made the rounds of E3 for ten hours a day. I have a carefully selected games library, and my adoration of GTA dates back to the London expansion pack, when I used a double-decker bus to evil ends. I grew up in the arcades, standing on tiptoes to feed quarters into the slots. I give game recommendations to friends and acquaintances as if I were reading their tea leaves.

But, in the opinion of some, I am not a gamer.

The common archetype of gamer is specific. He likes FPS – a lot. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of every game that was released on the Dreamcast. He customized his own PC, and will argue the benefits of various video cards until the end of days. (He still thinks buying an Alienware system is a cop-out. Real gamers start from scratch.) He would be highly insulted if I ever called myself a gamer in front of him.

Lately, I’ve been wondering who came up with this idea of the “gamer” and its parameters. Do gamers play World of Warcraft, while non-gamers are on EverQuest II? Are you a gamer if you take a week off to watch DVDs, rather than play Half-Life 2 when it’s released? Do you have to hit 60 hours a week to qualify, or is 20 enough? Do you have to be playing many games at the same time, or if you’ve only ever played City of Heroes, does that count?

Maybe gamers are the ones lined up at midnight for the big release of Halo 2 – or maybe Halo 2 is not really a gamer’s game, just a game for people who think they’re gamers. It seems like having other interests – such as mine, things like travel – rule you out from the gamer label forever, because you’ll always be PKed by someone better.

To me, being a gamer implies that you play pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. You may stand in line for the opening day of Spider-Man 3, but that’s an acceptable anomaly. If you’re a gamer, you’re not sitting down for a few hours a night to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and postmodern musings on the Basque region. You’re playing games – a whole lot of them – and you’re much, much better at them than I.

To be a gamer is also to spend a lot of money on the act of gaming – getting new games at $50 a pop, having multiple consoles set up in your living room, upgrading your PC system because the new game you want to play demands it. Enthusiastic kids I know – all raised on the PS1, and pretty much game players for life – wouldn’t qualify as “gamers” in this scenario, because they don’t have the money to spend.

Maybe the whole concept of a “gamer” is outdated, a remnant from five years ago. It seems like a concept from the era when PC titles were the only game in town. Once the console – with its wonderfully pre-configured set-up – entered the picture, the masses flocked to it. PC players played consoles, too, but stayed involved in PCs, retreating into a world of ever more complicated gaming, where learning the basics of an RPG or a flight simulator could reasonably take 24 hours non-stop.

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Like the person who knows all the Microsoft Windows shortcuts, these players take pride in their obscure knowledge, wearing it as a badge of honor. “Yes,” they say, “of course it takes fifty commands to get a character out of the village and into the fields, where you can then begin mining.”

PC games have become a bifurcated world of complex, difficult-to-learn gamer games, and “dad games” like golf and solitaire. In a way, PC games are a microcosm of the idea of the gamer versus non-gamer, since the division is so clear.

But is the kid who only plays GTA after school – and loves it – any less of a gamer? What about if he has the full lineup of all the major consoles? What about if he can only afford the games in the $20 bin, but he plays each all the way through? Does the amount of money you spend make you a gamer, and the lack of it, disqualify you? What about the girl – and yes, it’s often a girl – who has devoted 150 hours to cultivating her crops and neighbors in Animal Crossing?

According to the conventional wisdom, the answer is no, none of these people are gamers.

It’s time to come up with a new label, or recognize that the old one must expand its domain, as gaming has expanded its own. It shouldn’t expand to the point of becoming meaningless, but it would be good to encompass all of us who enjoy the challenge of games, and spend our time and our energy on playing and thinking about games. I’m not talking about the person who picks up a PS2 to get some aerobic exercise with Dance Dance Revolution, and then tries another game here or there. I’m describing the kinds of enthusiasts who can talk about Beyond Good and Evil with as much passion as a film-school grad discussing Truffaut.

Plenty of people put in the hours and have the zeal, and I have no interest in taking the label of gamer away from them. We might just decide to agree to disagree, since as long as qualifying to be a gamer means I can’t pull out the DVDs for a weekend – leaving my games on the shelf – I’m fine to stay out of the club. But in a way, it’s too bad, because if I was a gamer, included in the group of worthy gamer companions, we might have a good time playing together.

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