A recently released Pew study finds that while half of American adults play video games, only 10% consider themselves gamers. Moreover, the data demonstrate that men call themselves gamers at nearly twice the rate as women. As someone who has written quite a bit about gamer identity, neither of these facts are particularly surprising. In a study I conducted in 2009, findings from which are published here and here, in addition to my broader project about their thoughts about identification and representation in games I asked my interviewees whether or not they identified as a gamer. All of them played games, but only about half identified as gamers and like the more recent research gender was the only stand out factor in delineating who did and didn’t identify as a gamer. That’s not to say all women didn’t identify as gamers and all men did, but it was noticeable that more men I interviewed adopted that label than did women. A more recent survey of children by Rosalind Wiseman and Ashely Burch found a similar trend.
Interestingly, though, the women I spoke to never said gender was a reason they didn’t identify as gamers (at least not directly). They gave the same reasons that men I spoke to gave for saying they weren’t gamers: they didn’t play enough or didn’t play the “right” kinds of games; they weren’t up on the latest gaming news; they weren’t as invested in gaming as other gamers they knew; they didn’t have a broad enough knowledge of games (they played what they liked and that was it); or they didn’t feel like they wanted to associate themselves with any negative stereotypes they had (or their friends had) about gamers. Gaming was something they did, it wasn’t who they were. Being a gamer for people I’ve interviewed in this and other projects was an investment in a fandom that was separate from the more casual relationship they personally had to games. Being a gamer is more like being a film buff or music geek than it is a movie goer or music listener.
And in other projects where I have asked people that question, I’ve gotten similar feedback. In a four year quantitative project, unrelated to my other work, colleagues and I asked college students this question as well. And again, even though most of them played games, liked games even, only a small percentage (around 20%) identified as gamers. And in open-ended responses to why they did or didn’t identify as gamers they gave similar responses to those I outline above. We haven’t looked at that data in depth to see if the is a gendered dimension to who does and doesn’t identify as a gamer, but given the other existing research it is likely. Other scholars have similarly found that people’s willingness to identify as a gamer is tied to the social implications choosing that label, their own consumption behaviors, and their knowledge of stereotypes about gamers (see this piece by Frederik De Grove, Cedric Courtois, and Jan Van Looy or this one by Kelly Bergstrom, Stephanie Fisher, and Jennifer Jenson).
For those reasons, when it comes to the other statistics, it’s not that surprising self-identified gamers tend to think more positively about games and react poorly to negative critiques of them. For many, they’ve spent a good portion of their lives defending games from parents, teachers, politicians, friends, and spouses who think they are a waste of time. In contrast people who don’t play games have only heard the bad things about games emphasized in popular media and discourse; without any firsthand experience there is nothing to disconfirming those representations. As I’ve explored elsewhere, in what is now a fairly old study but I suspect the findings wouldn’t change much if conducted now, gamer culture is constructed in very particular ways by mainstream media, games journalism, and game scholarship. In all cases what “counts” as part of gamer culture ends up being re-enshrined even as it is constantly disavowed. Anyone can be a gamer, yet being a gamer still often requires playing specific kinds of games or investing in game culture in particular ways.
What do we do with this then? Some people suggest that we need everyone who plays games to identify as a gamer. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I do think it is important that anyone who does feel an investment in that label to feel the right to adopt it (and for a lovely take on this perspective see Kishonna Gray’s piece here). But I also think that it is just as important and politically necessary to suggest that you don’t have to be a gamer to care about games. You don’t have to be a gamer for game scholarship or the game industry to take your perspective into account. Who wants to see nothing but movies created for film buffs or listen to music made only for music geeks (ok, maybe some of you… but really)? I’m certainly not calling for the “dumbing down” of games by appealing to a non-niche, mass market audience. Rather, I think we could see much better games if people felt like this was not a medium that caters only to super fans. They’d come to expect more of games if they felt like their thoughts on the matter “counted.” More than that, as I argue in my book, if we want to increase the diversity of game content we simply can’t hold on to market logic that says representation follows from being a viable market. Gamer means something now, it’s an identity that signifies more than just someone who plays games (but doesn’t for the record and despite a great deal of popular media representation, and misreadings of my own work, mean heterosexual white cisgendered men). Games though, are an expansive field that anyone can play in.