I remember the moment I realized that I was no longer a gamer quite clearly. I was standing in line in one of those gigantic shiny plastic disc emporiums (the ones that used to sell music before we all started getting it for free online), and there was a kid standing in front of me. He was no older than about 13 and he had a load of different cables in his hands.
“Exactly which cables do you need to use 1080p?” he asked the fashionably haired shopkeep. “Neither VGA nor composite seem to work, and if neither of them support it, then why does an non-Elite 360 give you the option to output at 1080p?”
A composite of what?
A barrage of acronyms and technical specifications were then exchanged between the pocket genius and the decidedly emo shop assistant, and I felt like I was in a Tom Clancy novel. All that was missing was C4, MP-5s, WMD, a DMZ and a little A2M.
My TV doesn’t even have an aerial!
I slowly felt the ground open up before me, leaving me with my copy of Phoenix Wright on one side and this kid with his casual and frightening audio-visual expertise on the other. I had felt this feeling before.
The first time it was I who was 13. I was at what used to be called a “copy party,” where a load of kids with Amigas would rent a hall and just spend the day swapping pirated games and spreading their demos, which were essentially pieces of uninspiring animation frequently accompanied by a warbling midi version of the Lambada while some garish text scrolled along the bottom of the page in the kind of pidgin English that could only arise from a multinational community made up mostly of semiliterate kids. It wasn’t Chaucer, but it wasn’t that far off; “Gigafux to Quartex” was one particularly memorable witticism.
I was at this party with a bunch of kids of similar age to me, but while they were artists, musicians and coders, I was the “trader.” In the grand artistic scheme of things, I was the equivalent of a fluffer in a porn film or possibly, on a good day, the guy that takes Ashton Kutcher’s dog to the beauty salon. But I had access to the games, and that’s what was important, right? Wrong.
The person who rid me of this foolish notion was maybe 16, and as a result exuded the kind of sophistication and authority that can only fail to impress someone who isn’t a 13-year-old gamer. When asked whether he had any games, this font of wisdom in what may well have been gray track bottoms raised his eyes to the heavens and responded, “Games? Nobody trades games … that’s lame.” I suspected he was not alone in thinking this, as the ugly 3.5″ diskettes I used to receive in the mail had started to contain fewer games and more demos. Clearly the scene had moved on, fashions had switched and I was adrift.
The point I think both of these anecdotes illustrate is that it’s possible to be interested in gaming, and even to game a lot without being a “gamer.”
“Gamer” is what sociologists and marketing experts refer to as a lifestyle. In this respect, it’s similar to being a soccer mom or a goth or a sports fan. Alvin Toffler, the man who coined the phrase “lifestyle,” believed that as post-industrial society became richer and more complex, it would begin to fragment. This fragmentation is due to the fact that our culture and economy is now too complex for anyone to understand all of it. There are too many humans with too many differences between them for all of us to fit into one gigantic ’50s-style monoculture. Instead, humans have started to create subcultures. Thanks to the internet, you can now hang out online “socializing” with people you’ve never met and who don’t even live on the same continent as you but probably have more in common with you than the guy living next door. BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow even wrote a book about the phenomenon called Eastern Standard Tribe, though I’d suggest that if you’ve reached the point where you’re changing your sleep patterns to coincide with the peak activity hours of a chat room, the only subculture you’re a member of is the mentally ill.
Having a lifestyle also makes it easier for people to market stuff to you. They can seek out subcultures and find the values that bind them together and tailor their advertising to fit the values of any lifestyle demographic. In fact, such advertising usually takes the form that you can express your identity and your membership of a certain subculture by buying certain products. For example, if you’re a serious gamer, can you really live without a keyboard designed with first-person shooters in mind? Is your mouse mat really smooth enough? Do you have a bespoke case mod? Are you hardcore, or are you some kind of Wii-fondling casual gamer?
One of the most interesting instances of this phenomenon was the recent high-profile sacking of GameSpot’s Jeff Gerstmann. A lot of digital ink has been spilled over this issue so I’ll mention it only in passing but one factoid that the matter did bring to our attentions was a press release that revealed a change of staff at CNET, Gamespot’s parent company:
“Stephen Colvin, former President and CEO of Dennis Publishing, the publisher of Maxim, Blender, Stuff, and The Week magazines, is joining the company as executive vice president. Colvin will be dedicated to overseeing the company’s entertainment and lifestyle brands”
This means that the guy overseeing GameSpot is not a gaming industry insider, or a hardened, cigar-chomping, whisky-swilling game hack (possibly nicknamed “Scoop”), who jumped the fence from editorial to management but rather an expert in lifestyle magazines, one of the creators of Maxim.
If you pick up your average lifestyle magazine you’ll note that nobody is hauling Karl Lagerfeld over hot coals because his latest line of pantsuits shipped late. Nobody is saying that L’Oreal’s new face cream “sucks rhino balls.” Instead you have content that is all about getting people in the targeted lifestyle excited about upcoming products they might want to buy. Given this approach to journalism, is it any wonder that people expressed concern over Gerstmann’s “tone”?
Being a gamer is not only about loving games. Instead it’s about living a lifestyle. Being the kind of guy who owns a 72-inch HD plasma screen, a specialized keyboard and an armchair that rumbles discretely when you chuck a grenade at someone as though you’ve dropped a vibrator down the side. Of course you want all of these things; you’re a hardcore gamer, and how else can you proclaim your identity than by making the right purchases? Like Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, you, too, can be complete if you can just track down that limited edition faceplate for your Elite Xbox 360.
When gamers first appeared, they were mocked and bullied for their interests. They were nerds and geeks back before those terms had been reclaimed as badges of honor. Gamers were the guys who spent their summers locked in their bedrooms trying to finish Mario 3 while their friends were out having disappointing sexual adventures with cheerleaders. Now gamers are the guys who need to have a TV capable of 1080p resolution because they need to see every detail of a character’s pained expression when they shoot him in the face with a shotgun. Far be it from me to suggest that we were all better off when we were sexually stunted teenagers who could finish Golden Axe with only one quarter, but I’m not sure I remember signing up for gigantic TVs and vibrating armchairs when my father bought me a ColecoVision at the age of 7. Being a gamer might well have consumed my teenage years (and let’s face it, there’s only a short window during which you can legally accrue sexual experiences that began with “and then she took out her retainer”) but that was a decision I made for myself and not because some marketing guru with expertise in “lifestyle brands” suggested it.
So if you don’t mind I’ll stay happily on my side of the fence and remain an outsider who plays games. Mr. Maxim can keep his gamer lifestyle to himself.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.