GWJ staff regularly receive questions that presuppose that there is a correct way to play games, some prescribed method of gamerhood. Given the various pressures of time, energy and finance — not to mention social pressures from those who cast games in a negative light — it's only natural that we, as adult gamers, sometimes fret about whether we are navigating those pressures as effectively or appropriately as we might.
We at GWJ have, over time, become comfortable with a few standard responses: If you're not having fun, stop playing. If you're not really interested in playing games right now, then don't. It's important to have ways to relax and unwind, within the limitations of our responsibilities elsewhere; within that context, being a gamer is nothing to be ashamed of.
But what exactly is a "gamer"?
In academic papers it's expected that the paper, somewhere in the early parts, will lay out definitions for terms that will be used in the paper. Part of this "definition of terms" section is just to make sure that readers understand what the paper is talking about, rather than misunderstanding based on a different definition of a term. But there are also fully semantic arguments, in which one definition is pushed as a superior definition—but it's important to remember that these arguments stand or fall based on what the term and its definition are for, whether that intention is valuable, and how well they accomplish that intention.
There's a lot going on in a word like "gamer." As with "writer," it doesn't just mean a person who can or has played a game. There's something more to it — a way that others view someone with the label of "writer" or "gamer." There's a social element around how we interpret and act out these terms. But at the core, a writer still has to write — or at least be trying to — and a gamer's got to game.
Now that I've so nicely boiled that down to a base element, I suppose I could dust off my hands and hit "submit" on this article.
Or I could admit that I'm just defining one term with another.
So what does it mean to game? In a sense, it means to play, but trying to parse out the varying meanings of "play" is the sort of thing people can build a PhD dissertation about, so let's stick with gaming.
Gaming is about engaging with games. To set up a simple analogy, gaming is to games as reading is to text. But both gaming and reading are skills with varying depths of involvement and breadth of ability. These skills generally necessitate a certain level of physical ability as well as a learned understanding and set of expectations, as Momgamer recently discussed.
Reading is a literary skill, generally the twin of writing. Reading can be broken down into reading for basic comprehension and reading for critical analysis. Generally speaking, folks learn to write after they learn to read, and usually they sharpen their ability to write as they learn to read for deeper appreciation and understanding — thus the time-honored ritual of the book report, in which the writer thinks and writes about the thing they read. Famous writing programs have had writers re-type novels in order to encourage writers to engage with the writing from a different angle than they'd get from merely reading through.
Similar sets of skills show up when academic folks discuss "literacy" in realms outside of interpreting and creating printed words. This sort of reading/writing setup shows up in a lot of places — food, for example. We learn to consume food, we can learn to talk knowledgeably about food's tastes and nutrition, and we can learn to grow and prepare food. We could stop at just knowing how to get and consume food, but many find their lives are richer for taking things further than that.
There are also, for more directly pertinent example, "reading" skills in being able to play games and to engage with games critically. There's a "writing" skill of being able to create games. And, like with food or books, we can choose the levels at which we engage games. Gaming can be approached like junk food or as a part of a healthy adult's intellectual diet — with games that help you grow and the occasional bits of gaming roughage that may be harder to digest. Gaming is something that we can learn to do more efficiently, more thoughtfully, more cheaply, more creatively and more elaborately.
As we progress individually in any given literacy, we pick up shorthand: plot structure, base recipes, standard chords and rhythms. We are able to talk to each other in terms of what the "hero" or "protagonist" did in the "climax," and be understood in a way that wasn't possible when we were younger. We do this as gamers as well, learning to talk about "first-person shooters" and "free to play" "MMOs." This is all meaningless jargon to the uninitiated, but it saves us time and rehashing and lets us focus on what's interesting and different about the particular FPS at hand, rather than spelling out to ourselves and others that it's a game in which you interact with the world through a perspective that's locked in place down the barrel of a gun. Instead, we can skip that explanation and get right to thinking about what makes two FPS titles different, or what makes us prefer one over the other.
These literacies all come with a bit of learning to judge where others are in their literacy. You might start to talk to someone about cooking in fairly simple terms, but then realize that they know what a crème anglaise is, and adjust your conversation to match.
It's important to me that I acknowledge that going deep on a game is a valid approach to gaming. Returning to the parallel with reading, if one wanted to seriously extend one's cachet as a reader, they'd want some breadth and context to their reading. They could make efforts to move into different genres, into nonfiction and drama and poetry, but the traditional heights of literacy are in reading a book in such depth that the reader comes up with a PhD dissertation about a book — ultimately taking one book as a launching point to generate hundreds of new pages of thoughts about the book.
There are other options for those who dedicate themselves to their literacy, however. Mike Duncan has brought deeper appreciations and understanding of history to large numbers of people via podcast and now YouTube. A former colleague of mine, who has a PhD in literature and an MFA (masters of fine arts) in writing, recently composed an entire book of poetry by taking someone else's writing and chiseling poetry out of prose like a statue from a block of stone. There are a whole lot of ways to engage in literacy, and they're all valid.
This is why I'm glad to see the new EU4 video series that Sean "Elysium" Sands started. He recognized his obsession and used that recognition as a point to pivot from his current mode of engagement with the game. He latched onto the way that Paradox games evoke and redraw history, and used that to make a series of videos both discussing the mechanics of Europa Universalis 4 and the history that the game rewrites.
Since I brought up different literary forms, it's worth mentioning that games can take different forms as well. The reason I'm so often irked by "gaming" used as a euphemism for the gambling industry is partly because poker is absolutely a legitimate game, but partly because the euphemism doesn't allow for the notion of people playing League Of Legends, Settlers Of Catan or Magic: The Gathering in that riverboat casino outside of town.
But I need to stop myself here before I spend too much time talking about what a "game" is or might be. There has been a lot of good discussion on that already (to link but a few pieces). Allen "Pyroman" Cook shared some thoughts on a recent conference call about what makes a "game," in light of the mundane-activity games he's been so interested in lately. I'm sure that, as more games push the bounds of expectations for the form, we'll continue to see even more good thoughts on the subject.
But as a literacy, what it means to be a "gamer" can ultimately be as wide a definition as what it means to be a "reader." You might be a gamer in a casual way, or in a way that creates games. You can game broadly, or deeply. You can game in secret, or you can game publicly. You can even pull the old readers' trick of filling an impressive bookcase with games that you really have no intention of finishing, but that you'd like people to associate with you.
Gaming is, ultimately, a literacy. It's something we learn to read, analyze, and maybe even write. We can choose to invest and improve in our games literacy (or "Ludoliteracy"), or to find comfort with our level of engagement. Not everyone needs to be a professor of literature; it's perfectly acceptable to be comfortable reading pulp fiction. It's OK to find contentment with a small vegetable garden rather than chasing the title of Iron Chef.
So game on! Game at your own level, feel free to grow in your gaming as you see fit, and next time someone accuses you of not being a gamer, feel free to send them here.