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).”

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.

In other ways, though, the cultural phenomenon of videogame merchandise defies gender expectations. It offers a platform, however seemingly trivial, for women to stand on equal footing with men in the eyes of the industry. After all, purchasing power is purchasing power, regardless of the gender of the consumer behind it. Fittingly, interviewed women and men seemed interested in essentially the same products. And though it’s clear that the companies who make swag are a little slow on the uptake, a girl can finally get a decent, fitted video game shirt in this town.

Moreover though, game merchandise brings into question expectations for male gamers. Cuteness, no longer abhorrent and “girly,” but aesthetically pleasing, becomes an important, male consideration. And men have entered whole-heartedly into what, in larger society, we consider to be an almost wholly feminine realm: shopping.

Because, in the end, that’s what we swag-lovers are: shoppers. Whether we do it online or in real life, we’re members of an economy before we’re members of a culture. Even when dealing with non-purchasable merchandise (Take, for example, gamer Scott Jon Siegel who has “a Star Fox 64 box sitting in [his] basement that’s roughly the size of a toddler,” which he took from a local Electronics Boutique.), we are consumers.

Often we’re so caught up in gaming that we forget to think of ourselves this way – perhaps because, strangely enough, the things we consume are not consumable, like figures that sit on a shelf and cannot be used up. This is perhaps even more a reason that we are not defined as gamers just by the games we play, but by the things we buy, by the merchandise we keep.

Bonnie Ruberg is a video game journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, and Slashdot Games.

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