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The Changing Definition of 'Gamer'

by Matt Helgeson on Feb 20, 2014 at 10:23 AM

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Every Tuesday, I co-host Video Games Weekly, a radio show on the local sports talk station (KFAN 100.3) in the Twin Cities. During our last show, we got a call from a young listener which got me thinking about how the term "gamer" now means something very different than it did when I grew up.

After going through the week's big releases and news items, we generally take listener calls and questions in the second half of the show. This past Tuesday, we got a call from a nine-year-old girl (the producer obviously thought it would be cute). I'll omit her name, but she had a question that I couldn't answer: "Who invented Campus Life?"

I had no idea what she was talking about, so I quickly googled on the studio computer and found the game on its Google Play store page. Basically, it looks like a point-and-click sorority simulator, and not exactly the most inspired example of game design. We asked her why she liked it and she said, "Well, you can go to parties and have boyfriends and push a bunch of buttons and stuff." (keep in mind, she's nine years old).

After the show, I thought about her call and how I've observed my nieces and nephews playing on their iPads or PC during family get-togethers. As far as I can tell, there's a secret economy of simple, free-to-play games and apps like Campus Life that are pretty much unknown to anyone over 14 or 15. My niece always seems to be playing one. My nephews have a PlayStation 3 (since their recent entry into youth hockey, used mostly for NHL 14) and Minecraft.

It started me thinking about the definition of the term "gamer." If you're reading this, it's likely that you consider yourself one, as do I. But it occurs to me that, as this industry continues to grow and change, so should our definition of gamer. While part of me was a bit depressed by the fact that so many kids are growing up playing games as -- to my mind -- crass and shallow as Campus Life, the more mature half recognized that this feeling was more due to my own snobbery and resistance to change.

Who am I to say that her experience with Campus Life is any less valid that my formative experience with Kung Fu for the NES (which, frankly, would probably seem laughably primitive to kids today)?. It's not as if Kung Fu is some sort of deathless classic. If she's having fun going to virtual sorority parties on an iPad, is that somehow inherently less worthwhile to her than playing Skyrim? While many "hardcore gamers" turn up their nose at social gaming, is playing Candy Crush Saga on Facebook really that different than playing Tetris on the original Game Boy?

The fact is that, for many kids in elementary school, their first and primary experience with gaming is going to be on their parent's tablet or phone. This generation might embrace consoles or PC gaming, but their primary gaming device is likely going to be a touchscreen device of some sort. Some may move onto more "sophisticated" games and some won't. In either case it's likely that the gaming icons like Mario and Link that many of us hold dear won't mean any more to them than Pong means to me.

I thought further back, to an interview I conducted with Howard Scott Warshaw years ago. Warshaw was one of the most gifted game designers at Atari in the heyday of the 2600, and is famous for creating the classic Yar's Revenge. He was also unfortunate enough to have drawn the assignment of creating the infamous E.T. Atari game in a matter of weeks.

When speaking with Warshaw about the game industry and how it had progressed over the years, I asked him what he thought of the current crop of more graphically intensive and sophisticated games. To my surprise, he bristled at the suggestion that they represented progress at all. In his estimation, any game that wasted time on fluff like storytelling and fancy graphics was gimmickry -- distractions like narrative had no place in a medium that Warshaw felt should be devoted to pure gameplay. In his mind, the single-screen, simple arcade games of the late '70s and early '80s most purely represented that ideal. Cutscenes, dialogue, complicated progression systems, and convoluted control schemes just served to dilute the pure gaming experience.

While I don't agree, his conviction was apparent. That was his definition of what "real gaming" was; I had my own. Ironically, many of the popular iOS and Android games of today -- decried by "real gamers" as shallow -- have a lot in common with the ancient arcade units that Warshaw loved. They are designed to be instantly accessible, hard to master, and, in the case of many free-to-play games, entice the player to part with as much of their money as possible. In some ways, it feels like we're coming full circle.

The point is there is no one definition of "gamer" and there's no one type of gaming that's better than another. In a world where almost everyone plays games, maybe it's time to retire the term altogether.