How My Students Define “Gamer”

One my favorite activities to do with my students has been having them build profiles of people as a class. I ask them to close their eyes and picture a specific kind of person, and then they tell me the attributes they pictured. Because I use video games to teach many of my classes, I almost always have them build a profile of a “gamer.” I’m going into my sixth year of teaching first-year English and I’ve done this with most of my classes. It’s an easy activity and it requires little thought on the part of the student, so I always have great participation. The most interesting part is afterward, when we explore why we came up with this profile. I usually have a handful of video game ads ready to show, which demonstrate how the images we’re exposed to play a huge role in how we develop profiles. Guess who shows up in the vast majority of the ads? The person my students describe. The attributes that virtually every class gives are:

Male
White
Age 14-20
Middle class
Skinny
Nerdy
Blonde or brown hair

After asking them how they came up with the image in their mind, I show them statistics from the Entertainment Software Association that suggest their profile is a bit off, at least in terms of gender and age. A few years ago there were more women playing video games than men, but the most recent ESA report has women at 45%, which is still close enough to half to question why every student in every class has said that they picture a male. The average gamer is also 34 years old, so why do students see teenagers? To answer this (in part, at least), we look at old video game ads. Here are a few:

This usually prompts a great discussion about representation in media and how it dictates behavior and belief, but the reason that I’m writing this blog has little to do with that discussion. I am teaching high school students for the first time ever this summer, and I did this activity with them to talk about audience and purpose. When I asked the sophomores and juniors for their attributes of a “gamer,” their profile lined up very closely with the profile I almost always get from my college students: male, teenager, white, middle class, nerdy, etc. As I was writing my freshmen student’s attributes on the board, I began seeing surprising differences. One class gave an average age of 25-30, the other said 35. Both classes said upper class instead of middle class. I thought that was odd, too. They both said that a gamer would have a nice headset with a microphone and an expensive gamer chair. I knew something was weird at this point. How are these profiles so different from the others? They added that he (still male) would probably have facial hair and a lot of collectible stuff, like action figures and posters. When the second class shared these very specific things as well, I knew something was going on. These students all come from different schools and cities, and have only known each other for two weeks, so it’s not like they’ve subconsciously come to some kind of shared profile for what a gamer is.

You may have already guessed the source of their unique vision: Twitch. When I asked them why they all agreed that this is what a “gamer” was, they said it was what streamers looked like. The ones they watch are male, 25-35 years old, they have expensive headsets and mics, gaming chairs and swag, many of them have facial hair, and they all must be upper class because, as my students explained, they make millions of dollars and have nice stuff. This probably isn’t much of a revelation to some, but this is the first time that I’ve seen a shift in how “gamer” is defined by my students, and I would guess it’s not isolated to these two classes of students from different backgrounds. I can’t speak to Twitch’s longevity, but its current and recent success, paired with Fortnite’s broad appeal, makes me wonder if it is actively changing how a whole generation of people will view gamers. Sure, my students will probably reach a point where they realize that the successful streamers that they pictured are the rare exception and far from the rule (if they don’t already), but I will be interested to see how future classes define “gamer.” Who knows, maybe some of the other things on their lists, like gender and race, will change as well?

7 thoughts on “How My Students Define “Gamer””

  1. It seems like the crux of this change is that one can now be a “professional gamer.” Not only the streaming popularity of Twitch, but also the growing prevalence and industry focus on eSports probably contributes to our impressions. Gender and cultural diversity in eSports has been a pretty active discussion since January of this year, particularly with articles appearing about Korean player discrimination in Japan and the Overwatch League gaining A female player.

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    1. Yeah, the move from “gamer” being a descriptor of a hobbyist to a professional is definitely a big part of it. I’ve seen so many articles/videos where mainstream media outlets express shock at people that “make a living by playing video games,” meaning both streamers and esports players. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that sentiment isn’t partially at the heart of this. That narrative has never existed in such a real way, so being a “gamer” was always attached to things like living in a parent’s basement and not having a job (both thing that showed up on some of my students’ lists), where now there are (seemingly) lots of stories of “regular” people that have achieved real success by playing games.

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  2. This is very interesting! Part of me is concerned that Twitch is so engrained into young people that hobbies are viewed as careers, because let’s be honest – for every streamer earning a living for the area they live in, there are probably tens of thousands who barely see $100/month with all the time they spend on it.

    Personally I think Twitch is distorting the view of gaming for younger folks, seeing a personality like you’d typically see on Twitch and causing them to think “oh, video gaming isn’t a hobby, it’s life! And if I just play video games all day I’ll be rich!” And yeah, that’s concerning to me. Mostly because that’s just not how it works. Luck plays a huge role in turning a casual hobby like streaming into a career.

    > students will probably reach a point where they realize that the successful streamers that they pictured are the rare exception and far from the rule

    One can hope!

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    1. Yes, absolutely. I think a lot of streamers (that I’ve seen) do try to be open about how much work goes into getting and maintaining an active channel, but there are also a lot that make it seem easy. This trend does follow a long line of professions that seem easy ways to get fame and fortune (acting, professional sports, playing music, etc.), so I’m hoping any unrealistic expectations my students might have are not long-lasting. I mean, I don’t want to discourage them, because they can certainly attain some level of success on Twitch if they work hard enough at it (not Ninja-level fame, obviously), but a healthy dose of reality never hurts.

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  3. This is so interesting, I love this experiment! It is also really cool that you teach your students with video games.

    It also sounds like when they are thinking of a gamer, they are thinking of it as a job where you earn money. I consider myself one, but I just play by myself for fun. Gaming for me is a form of comfort and I also love a good story and games let me experience stories.

    Another thing I notice about the term “gamer” is that usually that means that you have a tendency to be really good at games. I would not consider myself to be good at playing games because I always play on easy. But, for me, gaming is more about me having fun so I like it when games go easy on me.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, most of my students admit to playing games, and some of them regularly, but very few of them ever label themselves as a “gamer.” Part of it is some of the connotations you mention, like being good or being competitive. I also think things like Twitch and Gamer Gate have changed what people think of “gamers,” making a lot of people more hesitant to identify as one. I can understand that, I rarely ever call myself a gamer, even though I play a ton of games and they’re a major part of my life. I hate the mentality that some people have, that there is a such thing as a “true gamer.” I used to think that was an outdated concept, but I see plenty of people make a stink about it when people admit to playing games on easy, as you do. It’s ridiculous. I don’t see why there is a standard at all, and I sure as hell don’t think anyone needs to live up to it.

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      1. I do not think there should be a standard either. If you play games and enjoy them, you should be able to call yourself a “gamer.” It should not depend on how many games you have played (or not played) or what difficulty you enjoy playing games on. It is good to know that your students are playing games though, games might help them relax after a stressful day!

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