What is a gamer anyway?

How do ethnographers define what a gamer is or does. As I’m currently exploring ethnographic methodology as a basis for an explorative study of Australian gamers, I want to take stock of the ambiguity that plagues the term ‘gamer’. Turning to one of the more prominent digital games ethnographers, T.L Taylor and her book Play Between Worlds (2006), we don’t actually find a concrete definition of gamers, what we do find is a thoroughly interesting account of the differences between what Taylor calls ‘power gamers’ (also known as hardcore gamers) and ‘casual gamers’: that these appear to be subcategories of an overall ‘gamer’ identity is useful, but is it possible to extract some of observations of these types of gamer identities to suggest a continuity of experience of all ‘gamers’ as an identity formation?

The casual gamer is often seen as someone “with a life” who invest only moderate amounts of time in a game, while the power gamer appears as an isolated and socially inept play with little “real life” to ground him (Taylor, 2006; 70).

Taylor begins to move beyond the stereotypes of these “two styles of play” and what emerges is nuanced approach the relationship between who or what gamers are and how they play. Taylor also identifies a third gamer identity, that of the role-player (the concept of role-playing in digital games is a topic I am saving for a future post)  as it is constructed against the activities of power gamers as two types of mutually exclusionary identities.

One of the characteristic of power gamers, according to Taylor, is the “fundamental adherence to a cause-and-effect model of game involvement” that means power-gamers approach games as problems to be solved in the most efficient manner that extends “to all aspects of play” (p.72), in ways that can seem bizarre, obsessive and too much like hard work to the casual gamer. Where success and failure relates more to the casual gamers’ sense of fun and entertainment, all actions within the game are subject to a much higher degree of scrutiny by the power gamer as means of fully understanding the game system and harmonising the efficiency of play styles and time expended.

Power gamers, according to Taylor (p.77), “seem particularly adept at creating knowledge that is transferable between games (and conversely, realise the limits of such an endeavor based on how unique the games are)”. I would argue, however, that the transfer of gamic knowledge and experience is a trait common to all gamers, it is how we learn afterall, but I would also agree with Taylor that power gamers do seem able to grasp games mechanics, craft successful strategies and push the boundaries of games systems particularly well and this is magnified in MMOs becuase of their high degree of sociality.

Whether power-gamers communicate this knowledge, and participate more in collective knowledge portals, such as Allakhazam and WikiaGames, than casual gamers is unclear, but as a gamer on the spectrum between ‘casual’ and ‘power’, I rely on the both types as they contribute to what Pierre Levy calls knowledge communities (cited in Jenkins, 2006, p26). It may be that power-gamers are often the source of the information I’m after, while it may be that both power and casual gamers provide feedback as to the continuity (post patches and other game changes) and accuracy of the information through in-game verification.

In terms of Jenkin’s understanding of Levi (2006, p28) without the close inspection of the information by casual and power gamers alike, the entire gamer community might be the subjected of misinformation and misconeption. I would argue, and will certainly pursue in the interviews I hope to conduct with gamers over the next few months, is that casual gamers are just, if not more likely (as they don’t have access to the power gamer’s social network)  to rely on the message boards, wikis and other online databases, and therefore equally likely to be part of the networked “meta-community” for the game (Taylor, 2005, p.84).

Another trait common to power-gamers and casual-gamers playing MMOs is neither are likely to be purely ‘solo’ players. This is in part due to the way MMOs deliberately enforce methods of short and medium term group formation and increasingly reward longer term gameplay through Guilds and other social networks. Power gamers however tend to prioritise their relationships with other power gamers (Taylor, 2006, p85), where as casual gamers as less likely to sacrifice offline relationship and other online networks to the demand of the game. Successful long term social networks and ‘high-end’ guilds are the social spheres that power gamers rely on to “provide a consistent and reliable source of not only game knowledge, but labour (in the form of help from guildmates)”. Casual gamers are much more likely to participate in guilds in order to socialise, chatting and find companions to play with on a much more ad hoc basis.

To distill some common feature then: all MMO ‘gamers’ are required to make some investment of time, energy and labor in the games they play and with the social network of people they play with, but with a vast difference in the degree of priority and commitment between casual and power gamers. All gamers are likely to be involved in the production, distribution and evaluation of gamic knowledge and all gamers bring with them previous experiences of games. There is more to be explored on this topic but I’ve probably vastly over simplified Taylor’s approach enough for one post and where her emphasis is on points of difference, I’m attempting to map and understand those intersections of commonality and I am really looking forward to start talking to gamers more formally about these ideas.

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