For as long as I can remember I've been a "gamer." I mean this in every semantic parsing you can apply. My first memory is that of standing in the stream behind my kindergarten, tadpoles swimming between my legs. I was constructing a maze in the mud, trying to corral enough water so that I could get two tadpoles to race. Five years old, killing tadpoles, making mazes, and mentally wagering on races. In short, a gamer.
But back then nobody called me that, and not just because I was five. No, my labeling had to progress through the well-documented historical chain of name calling: newt, dork, nerd, geek. Only then could I finally take the mantle of "gamer." But it's still not enough. I need more.
It was only recently -- the last 10 years or so -- that "gamer" became a unique marketable entity. A subculture has emerged that miraculously encompasses P-diddy sitting on a tour bus playing GTA, smelly frat-boys playing Madden, my daughter playing Katamari, and our Sunday night Half Life 2 Deathmatch clan. At first I thought that perhaps I could find a seminal game, a moment in time where the world went "aha" and decided we all shared enough in common to deserve our new label. But as much as I love a trip down memory lane, I'm forced to admit that there wasn't a catalytic moment. Instead, there was a financial tipping point. Somewhere in the long journey from Gary Gygax's basement to the Wii in my living room -- probably in the PS2/GameBoy era -- there became so much money in the subculture of gamers that it made sense for statisticians and advertising agencies to think of us as all belonging to a single morphology.
During this brief period in history, spanning an arbitrary date range I will delineate as December 13, 1996 through January 14th 2005 at about tea-time, this label did not do us -- remember us, the gamers? -- all that much good. As gamers, we were already ahead of the information curve, and Madison Avenue was slow to keep up. Marketing campaigns we're simply big: big boobs, big guns, big promises. But then the unthinkable happened -- we kept getting bigger. Gamer has become too small a label to be of any use for marketers. It's no longer cost effective to say your going to market something "to gamers."
And so we get fractionation. Are you hardcore or casual? That these are the first two categories is expected, as any marketing intern can immediately understand the financial distinction. It's MBA 101 retail marketing; for every product you have a mass market, and an early adopter/influencer market. You wanna sell Crocs to soccer moms? You better get the kayaking instructors on board first. You wanna sell tired fathers on hot new snowboard gear for their kids? Well the flying tomato himself better be sportin'.
And ever so slowly, the marketeers realize that even inside these two big buckets, we're not all the same. Most mainstream media outlets, from the Wall St. Journal to Blender, now carry some gaming content. And gaming content can mean anything from "Best family board games for Christmas" to "Goriest Game Moments of 2007 -- the Bucket o' Brains Edition." Because of this, the important people -- the people charged with allocating marketing dollars -- have to get smart in order to justify their salaries. They need to define exactly what a given game is, and who it's for. No longer is a game just a game. It's a kids game. It's a casual puzzle game. It's a hardcore shooter. It's a stats-and-dialog-tree RPG.
As gamers -- all of us under the big tent -- we should embrace this. We should demand it. The continued atomization of our subculture is a sign that we have arrived, and that more of us arrive every day onto an Ellis Island of geekdom. When games can afford to specify what they are so explicitly that a mere glance at the box tells you everything you need to know, that's when you will know that we have won the battle, and that the marketing interns will forevermore be our coffee-toting indentured servants.
We all hate bad marketing. Bad marketing is being sold a toothbrush while you're trying to buy condoms. But good marketing is a gift. Good marketing is Amazon popping up an "other people who bought this ..." recommendation for a book you have never heard of, is completely compelling, and which upon reading is the best damned book you've ever read. Good marketing is when you get an e-mail offering you exactly what want, when you want it, and at a discount. Good marketing saves you time, energy, money, brain cells, and gets you things you never knew you wanted.
When it comes to being consumers of something as mercurial as games (as opposed to, say, toilet paper) we should embrace our labels. Me, I want a universal gamertag/Nielsen system. I want the world to know that my average play-time on a branded professional sports title is 74 minutes, but that I still fire up Tony Hawk once a week. I want some dweebish statistician named Alvin sitting in his faded-brown cubicle in a derelict office park in Northwest Chicago to know with absolute certainty that I have an 87% chance of becoming a recurring player in Lord of the Rings Online.
Because when the label works -- when Alvin really, really knows -- that's when I'll get that game faster, cheaper, and will enjoy it more than if I have to figure it out on my own.
My name is Julian. I'm gamer 25-7-bravo-stroke-alpha. Let me know when you've got something for me.
And of course, in the meantime, don't bother me about the toothbrush. I'm all set.