Gamer Identity

Recently in a course I’m assisting, I asked the students to go around the room and choose which one of Richard Bartle’s (1996) player types they identify most strongly with. Bartle’s types include the achiever, the explorer, the killer, and the socializer. The article focuses particularly on Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs), but the player types are easily applicable to almost any variety of game.

Achievers are the type of people to go through a game with the goal of completing everything the game has to offer. If there is an award to be won, the achiever is going after it. Explorers are 371x168xI-Love-Gaming-300x136.jpg.pagespeed.ic.vxSMo2OKe0less inclined to competitiveness and instead spend their time finding the outer edges of the game. Easter eggs and secrets are paydirt for explorers. Killers are pretty much exactly what they sound like. Related quite closely to griefers, they spend their time hunting down other players, preying on the ‘weaker’ types. Finally, the socializers are those players who spend their time chatting with or helping others. They may be a knowledgebase for the other players or they may simply enjoy spending time with others instead of seeking their own rewards.

As the exercise unfolded, the entire class identified most strongly with the achiever role with a few leaning towards the explorer role. Not a single student identified themselves as a killer or a socializer. After some more questioning a few students admitted to inhabiting either of those roles when the mood suited them, but still, none strayed from the path of the achiever for very long. Whether the result of the exercise was a byproduct of having a class full of MIT students or if most people just identify more with the achiever role is impossible for me to tell. The fascinating part, though, is that I knew several of the students don’t typically play video games, yet they all were able to identify their player type quickly and easily. I was intrigued and decided to keep digging. “By a show of hands, how many of you play video games?” All but a few hands went up. “Ok, how many of you consider yourselves to be gamers?” Only a small handful of students kept their hands in the air. Interesting.

So what then does gamer mean? It clearly isn’t just ‘one who plays games’. It is much more complicated than that. It comes with a whole set of characteristics that aren’t easy to pinpoint. It’s the classic  ‘know it when you see it’ identification. With issues like #gamergate and other re-defining moments in the video game industry, it is time we look at the term gamer and either discard it or reshape it.

I’ve long held the opinion that anyone who plays a game is a gamer. It’s been a matter of inclusion for me. I want the term gamer to be less strange. If more people identify as gamers, it somehow validates my own longtime gamer identification. After speaking with this class though, I had to change how I define gamer. Take a moment to think of what gamer means to you.


So, is gamer a negative term? More than likely, you’ve conjured up a very particular image in your head. What are some of the characteristics there? We can toss out the negative stereotypes right away: antisocial, dependent, detached, lazy, and perhaps even misogynistic. Those are some of the words that I associate with gamer, yet as a gamer I would argue that I’m nothing like that. I would also say that the vast majority of people I play games with are nothing like that. In fact, most of the players I know are inventive problem solvers who care a lot about other people. As far as I’ve noticed, that archetypical image is very rare yet the word gamer still holds that stigma. If we toss out all of those negative stereotypes though, would more people self-identify as gamers? I doubt it.

Even with the realization that the stereotypes are pretty far off base (as stereotypes tend to be) there is still a deep seated negative association with the term gamer. I’d argue that this negativity comes from the medium itself. The industry has been associated with misogyny for quite a long time at this point. #gamergate churned up a huge amount of animosity around gender in the video games industry. The industry definitely does not have the best track record when it comes to the representation of anything outside the realm of white, male hegemony. It’s very slowly getting better, but #gamergate definitely shows the impetus for more change. For a long time, the argument has been that games are ‘for boys by boys.’ It’s long past time to throw this argument out. Almost everybody plays games so it’s time that everyone have a chance to both make and be seen in games. Some people discard the fact that most people (men, women, and other) play games as irrelevant by saying something along the lines of, “yea everybody plays games, but they aren’t real gamers.” What’s a real gamer though?


That statement typically sets the stage for the creation of a dichotomy between ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ games, as if somehow one game is more canonical in the gaming world. Nothing irks me quite as much as this separation, especially considering it’s almost impossible to actually distinguish ‘harcore’ and ‘casual’ games when you actually sit down and try. Hopefully people are spending their free time doing whatever they want to do. To argue that anyone can spend time playing games ‘harder’ than someone else is just ludicrous. Is someone participating in a four hour raid in World of Warcraft somehow more legitimate than someone spending their four hour plane ride crushing some candy? No. I also wouldn’t argue that both of these people are gamers though.


One student in class posited that a gamer is anyone who prioritizes games. I find this definition to be perfect. We often use this same logic when referring to other pastimes: movie buff, quilter, bird watcher, sports fan. While it might not be fair to apply these labels to people without their consent, they definitely do not come with the same negativity.

Even without all the negative associations with the term gamer though, many people probably would not want to admit that they prioritize games over other aspects of life. Video games have existed for decades, they’re the largest entertainment industry in the world, and many people now make their living playing games, yet somehow we still have not legitimized games as a pastime. They’re so fundamentally similar to sports to have evoked the term e-sports, but most parents would happy to let their child participate in a soccer or volleyball tournament for an entire weekend but would get upset to think their child might spend that same amount of time playing video games. It’s not my place to argue for or against the legitimacy of sports playing (physical fitness and socializing being just two of many examples in support of sports), but I would argue that as a pastime, video games are incredibly similar. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we start to see video games alongside sports as legitimate pastimes. Until then, the term gamer will continue to be a problematic identity.

It might instead be better to get rid of the term gamer altogether. It’s long history may be too hard to wipe away. As more people continue to play games, perhaps other (less problematic) terms will emerge. The industry continues to grow every year without signs of stopping, so as I mentioned earlier, it might just be a matter of time before the legitimacy of gaming wipes away the stigma of the term gamer.



Bartle, Richard (1996) Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades. Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD Research. Vol. 1 (1), June 1996.

Images : : :

Jesse Sell grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he spent most of his time playing volleyball and video games. He received a B.S. in Cultural Anthropology and Classical Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Jesse spent his college summers working aboard cruise ships in the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest. Both his education and employment allowed him to meet and work with people from around the world. Through these connections, Jesse began to notice the universal and connecting nature of gaming. At CMS, Jesse is a member of the Education Arcade. His research interests include the power of play as a tool, livestreaming, and the future of professional gaming.

Posted in Thoughts Tagged with: , , ,