Chapter 3 – Gamer, Geek and Consumer Identity

During the ‘death of the gamer’ media event, self-commentaries about the identity of the ‘gamer’ revealed links to the broader ‘geek’ identity and culture. These links were revealed through shared ‘statements’ between these cultures – often relating to the ‘cultural authenticity’ of the ‘gamer’ identity – and this was a source of significant contestation within Gamergate’s circulating discourse. This chapter investigates these contestations by considering how cultural authenticity is used in networked publics to assess ‘gamers’ on the legitimacy of their interest in video games. It argues that these assessments of ‘geek’ and ‘gamer’ authenticities are based on a similar set of cultural values, which exist as ‘statements’ in their respective identity discourses (De Fina, 2006, pp. 263). 

Leigh Alexander’s article and the rest of the commentary about video game culture – in particular the critique of the ‘gamer’ identity, which this thesis has described above as the ‘death of the gamer’ media event – triggered critical self-commentary from ‘gamers’. Much of this self-commentary appeared in the participatory spaces of online comment threads. Through these socially mediated spaces, this self-commentary involved participants protesting against the ‘death’ of their cultural identity by contesting its essential characteristics. Where some commenters grieved over the ‘geeky’ characteristics that they had previously associated with ‘gamers’, others mourned the ‘gamer’ identity’s transformation into a consumer identity, and the associated culture of ‘casual gamers’ that has emerged around this. These grievances were linked to an anxiousness that video game developers would cater predominantly to ‘casual gamers’, rather than continuing to design games for dedicated, ‘hardcore gamers’. 

By analysing the ‘statements’ that underlie ‘gamer’ discourse, this chapter investigates how the ‘gamer’ identity is derived from ‘geek’ culture, and furthermore, how this link has shaped contestations of the ‘gamer’ identity in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event. This link is exemplified by a number of cultural values that are shared between the ‘geek’ and ‘gamer’ identities, including the authenticity involved in being an active enthusiast (or a ‘fan’), the attribution of meaning to their hobbies, and an interest in non-popularised media. This connection is marked in Gamergate’s discourse, where some commenters used these ‘geek’ values to compare the authenticity of ‘real’ gamers to ‘fake’ gamers, and many expressed confusion and contested the ‘gamer’ subject positions that others were articulating. These findings reflect previous research that the ‘gamer’ and ‘geek’ identities are systemically ingrained in the same strand of hegemonic masculinity (this will be further explored in Chapter 4 – Publics, Counterpublics and Hegemonic Masculinity) (Taylor, 2012, pp. 111–112).

3.1    Self-commentary about the ‘gamer’ identity

There were a number of key themes that characterised participants’ self-commentaries about the ‘gamer’ identity in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event. Among these, commenters criticised the commodification of ‘gamer’ practices and the continuum of ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ games that arose through this commodification. Notably, criticisms of ‘casual gamers’ were linked to an anxiousness that video games were being ‘dumbed down’ for these ‘mainstream’ audiences. Commenters also contested multiple definitions of ‘gamer’, which ranged from intrinsic to more diverse characterisations. 

A number of commenters judged gamers in terms of their congruence with an essentialised ‘gamer’ identity. These comments usually pronounced such individualities as “gamers are nerds” (OgreJehosephatt, 2014), “gamers are people who love video games” (sbq1, 2014) and so on. While reflecting on the ways that ‘gamers’ had been portrayed throughout the Gamergate controversy however, some of these comments communicated a sense of disconnect from these characteristics. For example, there was some discussion about how ‘gamers’ had become separated from typically ‘geeky’ qualities in favour of the social activism and misconduct that has come to be associated respectively with Gamergate’s feminist and ‘troll’ publics. In a Polygon thread, user ‘LeafcutterX’ ponders: “Aren’t we supposed to be gamers? Higher cognitive function, increased hand-eye coordination, increased attention targets and span, strategic thought process?” (LeafcutterX, 2014). This fed into other contestations of the ‘hardcore gamer’ as being solely about performative practices such as gameplay. These participants also tended to denounce the way that the ‘death of the gamer’ media event had characterised ‘hardcore gamers’ as being synonymous with misogyny and online harassment. One such instance took place in Dr. NerdLove’s comments: “Why are ‘hardcore gamers’ … being branded as the big bad here? … ‘Hardcore’ is not a statement about social values, but rather about gameplay” (@QuixoticMage, 2014). For this comment, ‘@QuixoticMage’ was reproved with 34 ‘down votes’.

Certain commenters expressed a detachment from online ‘gamer’ communities due to the consumerist culture that has become embedded in these social networks. In a comment thread under Leigh Alexander’s Gamasutra article, ‘Christian Nutt’ laments over “the old days of the internet” when “games had an online culture. There was a sense we were participating in something that was a new culture, not replacing culture with … marketing and hype” [emphasis in the original] (Christian Nutt, 2014). In terms of the ‘gamer’ as an enduring cultural identity however, some commenters professed that it would persist and continue to be shaped by players’ consumption habits. In the same comment thread, ‘Jorge Prieto Jr.’ implicitly counters ‘Christian’s claim by insisting that “gamer culture” is inherently tied to the consumption of “geeky products”: “The way to participate in gamer culture has always been the same: play video games…” (Jorge Prieto Jr., 2014). His comment receives more recognition than that of ‘Christian’s, 16 ‘likes’ to 7. 

More broadly, some commenters criticised the transformation of the ‘gamer’ label from describing a genuine enthusiast and fan of video game media, to being a marketable, inauthentic consumer identity. Notably, this occurred in Kotaku’s comments section, where a user named ‘Isturma’ gained 193 ‘recommends’ when they called to video game journalists and the industry to “stop lumping us in with the advertising definition” (Isturma, 2014):

A gamer is some pasty faced 12yo [12-year-old] who plays fps [first-person shooter] games on xbox live and has fucked everyones momma. He’s a fat overweight friendless slob that guzzles mountain dew and shoves cheetos down his gulet [sic] as fast as he can. It’s a girl who poses naked (or half naked) with whatever gaming accessories she can use to cover her naughty bits. These things are “gamers” … That isn’t how we identity ourselves, and it isn’t who we are. We won’t die out, but the archaic terminology should. (Isturma, 2014)

Many commenters argued that the tensions in the ‘gamer’ identity stem from the recent growth of the ‘casual gamer’ market, and the sense of diversity this has affected onto video games’ once niche culture. Casual gamers’ preference for relatively straightforward gameplay is perceived as a threat to the type of game design preferred by authentic, ‘hardcore gamers’ (Juul, 2010, pp. 62). This is evident in an exchange between two participants reading Leigh Alexander’s Gamasutra article, ‘Nuno Ferreira’ and ‘Mark Verrey’. ‘Nuno’ stresses that “there is a divide … between gamers and casual people … who are at the root of many problems within the industry” (Nuno Ferreira, 2014). ‘Nuno’ also argues that “we can cater to a new audience without antagonising the old one” by “identifying and catering to each spefic [sic] group” (Nuno Ferreira, 2014). Their comment receives 35 ‘likes’, making it the overall fourth most liked comment under Alexander’s article. ‘Mark Verrey’ also discusses their issue with ‘casual gamers’, but they argue that players who do not define themselves by the games that they play should not be considered “practitioners” of those media, as this only serves to tarnish ‘hardcore’ video games and dilute gaming experiences for the more authentic fans (Mark Verrey, 2014). 

A similar dialogue takes place in BuzzFeed News’ comments. When user ‘Gareth Clarke’ proclaims that the ‘gamer’ label is “turning into a much wider spectrum to include such groups as casual mobile players, indie gamers and even kids who spend way too much time playing Minecraft every day” (Gareth Clarke, 2014), ‘Jen Wigton’ contests that “I don’t care how much time you spend on Candy Crush, you are not a true gamer. You are one who enjoys games” (Jen Wigton, 2014). This self-commentary about authenticity and the ‘gamer’ identity also transpires in a Kotaku comment thread, where ‘Danjal87’ receive 18 ‘recommends’ for describing the ‘gamer’ label’s growing applicability to various heterogeneous audiences: “The group that is being referred to as ‘gamers’ has become so widespread that a single description no longer works” (Danjal87, 2014). In a later comment, ‘Danjal87’ specifies the need to differentiate between these different types of ‘gamers’:

… to be able to distinguish between someone who occasionally touches a game and someone who is an avid fan of a specific series aswell [sic] as someone who is a tried and true hardcore gamer that literally plays anything from racing games to shooters to strategy games can be very relevant. Sure, “technically” they are all gamer – but to call them by just that would achieve nothing. (Danjal87, 2015)

There was also some discussion that by ‘dumbing down’ games to accommodate for the gameplay styles of laidback, ‘casual’ players, ‘hardcore gamers’ were being evicted from the spaces that exist to foster their self-development. Discussing this issue, ‘Danny P’ comments to The New York Times and attains 5 ‘recommends’ (the highest for that article):

These young men are noted to be angry, sexist, bitter, etc. But another way to describe them is disaffected, marginalized young men with a lack of opportunities or places to experience self-development. The high difficulty of hardcore games created a space to feel that sense of accomplishment from practice, strategizing, and personal development. (Danny P, 2014)

3.2    Rise of the geeks

The distinction between ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ gamers is complicated by the historical conditions that constitute the ‘gamer’ identity. Specifically, these conditions refer to the ‘gamer’ identity’s origins as a subcultural ‘geek’ identity (Vanderhoef, 2013). Although the meaning of the term ‘geek’ is highly contested, the spectrum of literature on this topic provides a clear framework in which to situate the ‘gamer’ identity as a derivative of ‘geek’ culture. This is because ‘geek’ culture is a broad cultural umbrella for an array of subcultures, including computer geeks, fan cultures and ‘gamers’, among others (Tocci, 2009, pp. 7). Ultimately, the implication of this relationship between ‘geek’ and ‘gamer’ cultures is that articulations of the ‘gamer’ identity in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event can be understood by archaeologically tracing these two cultural formations.

The term ‘geek’ has had various meanings throughout its history, but it has almost always functioned pejoratively. It was not until the 1950s when ‘geek’ began to draw on its more familiar meaning, however: that of the highly studious and socially incompetent outcast, comparable to the analogous ‘nerd’, ‘dweeb’, ‘square’, ‘wimp’, ‘sissy’, or ‘bookworm’ (Gabriel, 2015, pp. 10; Tocci, 2009, pp. 18–19). The earliest recorded use of the word ‘geek’ was during 16th century Britain, albeit as its older variant ‘geck’, which denoted a simpleton, or one who has been deceived (Wilton, 2008). Poet Alexander Barclay uttered this insult in his work titled Certayne Eglogues (1515): “He is a foole, a sotte, and a geke also”. Later, William Shakespeare wrote the word ‘geck’ into Twelfth Night (1601), and ‘geeke’ – believed to be a mistranslation of ‘geck’ – into Cymbeline (1616). In 1876, ‘geek’ appeared in F. K. Robinson’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby as describing, “a fool; a person uncultivated; a dupe.” 

In the context of the current understanding of ‘geek’ as a broader cultural category, Tocci (2009, pp. 72) argues that the term ‘geek’ represents a collective identity stemming from specific historical, cultural, economic and technological conditions. These structures stem from the emergence of teenage markets and consumer cultures following the end of the Second World War, and are tied to the fan conventions that arose out of science-fiction and comic book enthusiasts during the 1950s. This culture expanded in the 1960s when early fandoms developed around television programmes such as Doctor Who and Star Trek (Tulloch & Jenkins, 1995), budding comic book series from The Amazing Spider-Man, to The Incredible Hulk and Avengers (Wright, 2001), and popular science-fiction films like Planet of the ApesNight of the Living Dead and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Sobchack, 1987). Such media content influenced an emerging generation of fan cultures, many of which were characterised by their capacity to engage critically and interpretatively with their respective texts, to differentiate themselves as a collective of active consumers, and to establish an alternative social community or ‘safe space’ to facilitate fan creation and discussion (Jenkins, 1992, pp. 284–289). Given that fan culture is inherently a by-product of consumerism however, it is worth noting that ‘geeks’ and its variant terms are not only labels designed to organise fans into publics, but also to allow businesses to target these niche demographics with greater precision (Zwick & Dholakia, 2004, pp. 31).

In the 1980s, the word ‘geek’ came to share an association with tech enthusiasts, particularly those with high IT skills. This particular type of geek has since branched into its own stereotype: the “free-thinking, marketable genius”, or computer geek (Tocci, 2009, pp. 36). The emergence of the 1980s ‘geek’ stereotype and its increasing popularity throughout the last two decades reflects the growth of information technologies and software development as dominant industry sectors (Woo, 2012, pp. 27). During this time, tech subculture also distinguished itself through the industry of journalism that emerged to accommodate it; notably, Wired magazine ran its first issue in 1993, peddling itself as “the Rolling Stone of technology” (Cobb, 1992, pp. 29). Rather than serving as a practice in community building however, tech periodicals such as these function as ‘lifestyle guidance’ for computer geeks (Tocci, 2009, pp. 342).

To summarise, definitions of geek culture have varied over time between those concerning fans of alternative media, and others regarding tech enthusiasts (Tocci, 2009, pp. 17). Historically, these two cultural structures have shared in common the subservience to other dominant cultural formations. An individual may have self-identified or been marked a geek as a reflection of their hobbies or their interests in non-popularised media, including science-fiction and fantasy novels and films, comic books, alternative music, pen-and-paper and tabletop role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer), collectible figurines, as well as computers, gadgets and video games. 

3.3    Performances of ‘geekiness’ and identity

‘Geek’ is no longer a structural position of niche media, but an identity category (Tocci, 2009, pp. 68). This means that ‘geek’ has shifted beyond its origins of being associated with studiousness, social awkwardness, ‘fans’ and tech enthusiasts, and it has become a broader cultural category of ‘geekiness’. This is attributed in part to the rise of social networking platforms, as well as a transformation in the character of media advertising. With the emergence of user-tracked data and ubiquitous computing, advertisers are now capable of targeting every particular niche interest as a discernable market (De Vries, 2010, pp. 78). This means that within algorithmic media platforms such as Facebook, content is curated as a map of a user’s territory of interests – a concept referred to as ‘idiomedia’ (Barnet, 2009, pp. 94). In this online context, mediated ‘geekiness’ becomes an activity, or rather, an outward performance of one’s identity (Tocci, 2009, pp. 68). 

The performative model of geek culture can be understood by following its transformation since the late 1980s. On this topic, Mizer (2013, pp. 1) affirms the notion that geekiness evolved with its shift into the information age. Because the Internet has strengthened the rate at which media content can be circulated and accessed, traditionally ‘geeky’ or alternative media has become easily discoverable and normalised with ‘mainstream’ consumption habits as a result. Beyond this, the capacity for online social networks to attract a large number of geeks with similar cultural interests has effectively expanded the sense of a ‘geek’ community, which for older generations was only attainable (to a much lesser degree) through fan conventions, or through high school cliques and clubs (Tocci, 2009, pp. 144). As a consequence of transferring the ‘geek’ label into ‘mainstream’ culture, Gabriel (2015, pp. 10) understands that the term has become less derogatory, and that it now functions as a positive identifier for the performance of ‘intelligence’ and ‘individuality’.

In proportion to contemporary geek culture’s ease of access and the expansion of its community, the rate at which individuals may come to identify as a ‘geek’ has accelerated. Some critics argue that this has resulted in the formation of a ‘geek’ hierarchy, or rather, a spectrum of category distinctions among geeks: between the ‘real’ geek (sometimes referred to as a ‘fanboy’ or ‘fangirl’) and the inferior, mainstream or ‘fake’ geek (Busse, 2006; Oswalt, 2010). This harkens to older research discussing comic book fans as invading and diluting science-fiction culture (of which they derived from) by outnumbering science-fiction fans at conventions (Brown, 1994, pp. 92). 

In the socially mediated spaces of ‘geek’ culture, category distinctions between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ geeks become markers for cultural taste and authenticity. Although the precise qualifications of ‘good taste’ and ‘poor taste’ are subjective, such descriptors impact ‘geek’ discourse by regulating which media content is considered authentic or inauthentic to the ‘core’ geek canon (Jenkins, 1992, pp. 16). As the results above have identified, these category distinctions are prevalent in ‘gamer’ culture as well. This is evidenced by ‘Isturma’s (2014) comparisons between the authentic ‘gamer’ and the ‘gamer’ as a consumer identity, and ‘Nuno Ferreira’s (2014) differentiation between ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual gamers’. This is backed by claims that in the ‘gamer’ community, ‘casual’ or ‘mainstream’ games are discursive representations of passive consumption, whereas ‘hardcore’ games are linked to authenticity (Vanderhoef, 2013).

Accounting for the performative model of ‘geekiness’, Mizer (2013, pp. 6) redefines ‘geek’ culture as a collection of individuals who share an enthusiasm for the “creative consumption” of their cultural interests. By this, Mizer argues that ‘geek’ culture has come to be recognised by the manner in which media is consumed and then performed as an expression of one’s identity, rather than simply the interest in a particular text or type of media. In fact, consumption within ‘geek’ culture is now similar in practice to (or perhaps homogeneous with) that of ‘fandoms’: it involves establishing a critical, interpretive and emotional investment with texts (regardless of their classification as ‘geeky’) through repeated viewings, such that fans may later bond over the text by practicing speculative discussion and cultural production (Jenkins, 1992, pp. 277–279). 

Manifestations of this reformed ‘geek’ culture are observable through a number of forms of performative or creative consumption, including cosplaying, fan art, fan fiction, fan wikis, fan blogs, role-playing, machinima and so on. This relationship between performance and identity is also referenced in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event – specifically when commenter ‘Danny P’ (2014) gives weight to gamers’ ‘safe spaces’ as sites for fostering self-development. The importance of these ‘safe spaces’ is supported by Wise (2000, pp. 295), who argues that cultural identities form alongside and as a part of the ‘personal territories’ that we also produce. His example is the territory of the home, which is created with the identity of the homemaker as they arrange their space through the placement of photographs, mementos, furniture and so on. By the same rationale, ‘gamer’ culture is territorialised by interacting with others in a socially mediated space (Wise, 2000, pp. 303). This framework depicts ‘geeks’ and ‘gamers’ not as passive consumers, but as active meaning makers (Hills, 2002, pp. 19). 

Some scholars have labelled this phenomenon as the ‘revenge of geek culture’ – so named because ‘mainstream’ participants are being ‘converted’ into the culture that they had once dominated (Woo, 2012, pp. 32–34). The impact of this convergence culture is evident through a number of avenues, such as the surging popularity of superhero, science-fiction and fantasy films, the iconographic status of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings symbology, and indeed, the widespread acceptance of video games. According to Mizer (2013, pp. 17), the overall effect of this is that mainstream culture and geek culture have amalgamated, such that the latter can no longer persist as a counterculture – rather, cultural consumption is now defined as a ‘monoculture’.

3.4    The ‘gamer’ as a cultural identity

Coinciding with the rise of the ‘computer geek’, video games became popularised from the late 1970s through to the mid-1980s with arcade games such as PongSpace InvadersPac-Man and Donkey Kong, as well as alongside early home video game consoles like the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System. During this time, the ‘gamer’ identity materialised in relation with and simultaneously as an array of participants, technological devices and discourses developed into ‘video game culture’. This means that the ‘gamer’ identity is an outgrowth of the video game assemblage (Dill & Thill, 2007, pp. 861).

Drawing on the work of Elaine Lally, this analysis infers that the ‘gamer’ identity developed through geek culture’s interactions with video games. This means that the ‘gamer’ identity is a ‘cultural innovation’ upon an established technology. Lally (2003, pp. 162) explains ‘cultural innovation’ by counter-arguing technological determinism: rather than understanding technologies as having been manufactured only to exercise set uses and functions, technologies also possess cultural agencies, which are constellated within their complex assemblages. In other words, video games have the capacity to develop cultural and social dimensions that video game designers had otherwise not intended. For example, ‘speedrunners’ arose through the abuse of glitches in order to beat video games as quickly as possible (esomi, 2004); another example are the factions that become renowned within massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and League of Legends.

Identities are a part of complex assemblages that Puar (2012, pp. 58) argues are “events, actions and encounters between bodies.” There are a number of ways to define an ‘assemblage’; one is a constellation of relations between heterogeneous elements, which are mapped into the spatiotemporal context of a technology (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 3–4; Slack & Wise, 2005, p. 129; Marcus & Saka, 2006, p. 102). This definition fits the video game assemblage, of which the ‘gamer’ identity is affected by the reciprocal determinism of this assemblage. This means that the cultural meanings associated with those who plays video games have been determined by and continue to influence the practices linked with those collectives, as well as with video games themselves. The video game assemblage is encompassed by: 

  1. The subject positions of participants (consumers and their communities, developers, publishers, journalists, retailers, advertisers, e-sports competitors, spectators, referees, etc.);
  2. The technologies that enable video games (home consoles, mobile devices, development tools, computer hardware and software, operating systems, telecommunications, etc.);
  3. Discourses and semiotic texts, more broadly including interactive texts such as video game media. 

Ultimately, these affordances accumulate to influence and become influenced by the performances of cultural identities in networked publics (Bødker & Browning, 2013, p. 130). It is through these performances that cultural identity is articulated into discourse. This means that the emergence of the ‘gamer’ identity is similar to other ‘geeky’ cultural personas – such as the ‘comic book geek’ that arose in response to growing fan communities around comic books, or the ‘overclocker’ who attempts to push desktop computers to the absolute limits of their hardware (Lally, 2003, pp. 164). In the ‘death of the gamer’ media event, commenters articulated the ‘gamer’ identity through performative geekiness, and in particular, by contesting cultural values that they subjectify with this sense of gamer-geekiness. 

This chapter has traced the transformation of the ‘gamer’ identity during the ‘death of the gamer’ media event. It has found that the ‘gamer’ identity derived from a subcultural ‘geek’ identity. Through discourse analysis, this chapter revealed mutual characteristics between these two cultural identities. Like the ‘geek’, the ‘gamer’ is an active, meaning-making hobbyist born through specific historical, cultural, economic and technological conditions. ‘Gamers’ have a tendency to territorialise ‘safe spaces’ in which to practice their creative consumption habits, which foster identity formation. During the ‘death of the gamer’ media event, some ‘hardcore gamers’ articulated their disaffection with the ‘gamer’ identity as pertaining to its increasingly consumerist qualities, including the emergence of inauthentic ‘casual gamers’ and ‘fake’ gamers. This is a part of a larger phenomenon centred on the normalisation of video games (and geek culture generally) into ‘mainstream’ media culture, which has led to a diversification of these previously niche demographics.