My dissertation examines the changing discourse over home video game usage and ownership during the first twenty-odd years of the industry. What it means to be a video game user (for whom are video games designed and for what purposes can video games be applied) is a complex and highly contested issue. The discourse is negotiated among a wide variety of actors, including game companies, players, and myriad actors who have never held a controller nor programmed a line of code.
An important issue that arises regarding this discourse over the meaning of video games is that of legitimacy. Who qualifies as a real gamer and who are “fake” gamers? Who gets to set the definition, and by what criterion should we measure whether or not someone actually is a “gamer”? Is there a scale by which we can determine an individual or group’s “gaminess?”
The basic answer is there is no “real” gamer. “Gamer” is a construct that changes shape depending on who is making the argument at the time. The term has no power save that which we give it, and the image of the ideal video game player is different for everyone. Moreover, it is an idea that is constantly being redefined over time.
However amorphous, legitimacy as an idea is an important point of discussion, and I feel we need be to better prepared to discuss legitimacy and illegitimacy among the game community as the medium moves forward, because it is constantly coming up time and again. (A related issue is the question what qualifies as a “real” game, which permeates debates over so-called “hardcore” and “casual,” and will be especially significant as app-based games continue to become more pervasive.)
As a subject of critical discussion, legitimacy can reveal a great deal about the changing discourse over the meaning of video games, both among the people who play them and the greater culture at large. Acknowledging that we all have different personal perceptions of what it means to be a video game player (and who we think are not real gamers) can help us better understand what we ourselves think are the important characteristics of this medium. In turn, acknowledging that everyone’s perception of video game users is different will hopefully help us to understand the complexity of what it means to be a consumer of video games and critically examine our own preconceived notions. This can then give us a means to measure how the medium has changed (and continues to change) over time and our relationship to it.
However, when used as a rhetorical device, legitimacy has the potential to cause great harm. It can be used as a justification for some unsavory practices and beliefs that still have an entrenched presence in video games (i.e. sexism, racism, rape culture), allowing apologists and advocates to fall back on the argument that it’s all “part of the culture” and critics are just out to “ruin everyone’s fun.” Legitimacy offers a means of automatically discrediting people who do not fit into the prescribed model, placing them on the outskirts of game culture (You’re not a “real” gamer, what right do you have to complain?). This can also be accompanied by a need to protect that model of the subculture against perceived attacks against the alleged status quo from an imagined outside invader (the most sobering example of this is the vile backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” Kickstarter project).
These practices are especially apparent in debates over the role of women in video games. As evidenced in the deluge of posts on Twitter using the #1ReasonWhy hashtag, women in video games are often left feeling on the outside looking in within their own industry (see also: here). Women are forced to constantly justify their presence in an environment where the “real” gamer is constructed as the white heterosexual male. The examples are too numerous to comprehensively list here; however, recent controversies surrounding Aisha Tyler’s emceeing of Ubisoft’s E3 panel (see: here and here), former Destructoid writer Ryan Perez’s sexist comments about actor and game critic Felicia Day (see: here and here), and the aforementioned firestorm surrounding Sarkeesian are just several episodes that demonstrate the contested role of women as legitimate gamers. This issue of who is a real fan and who isn’t has also emerged in geek culture in general, as demonstrated by the controversy surrounding comic book artist Tom Harris’ recent comments that female cosplayers at conventions were pretending to be geeks in an effort to ensnare hapless (male) nerds (see also: here).
When someone invokes the “real” gamer argument, demarcating the alleged boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate gamers, we should be prepared to critically examine its usage. Ask yourself who is making the judgment, who is deciding this person is not a real gamer, and by what criterion that person measures “true” gamers. Only by stepping back to examine the issue can we hope to better understand it.