The Identity Issue: What Does It Mean to Be a Gamer?

Longtime gamers often have some common characteristics. Do they sound familiar to you?

Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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What is your kid’s favorite play activity? If your son or daughter tells you it’s playing video games, you probably won’t be surprised. “Gamer” is an identity adopted by many kids, teens and even adults who are immersed in the lifestyle and culture of video games.

With so many kids identifying as gamers, some questions come to mind: How does the gamer identity develop? What are its implications? And how do gamers connect with other gamers? To answer these questions, I interviewed college students who have identified as gamers since they were young kids. My interviews revealed many different themes in the characteristics and development of gamer identity.

“I grew up as a gamer.”

The influence of family on the gamer identity is a common theme. Many of the gamers I interviewed described how they started gaming at an early age, often playing with family members. It was common to hear from these gamers that they would watch each other play. Older siblings, cousins, sometimes even parents played a role in introducing these gamers to video games and nurturing a love of gaming culture.

“My mom used to read the code to dad and he would program games into the computer for me,” recalled Ryan Smith, who today enjoys creating YouTube content and playing League of Legends. “And some of my earliest and fondest memories are of playing video games with my brother and cousins. I even have vivid memories of gameplay itself.”

“My friends are into gaming.” 

Almost all of these gamers identify their closest friends as gamers. Their friends influence the games they play, the way they think about these games, and even their own gamer identities. “When a friend would get a new game and it was multiplayer, everyone would get it,” Smith recalled. Online gaming creates a different community that allows gamers to connect to others who may not live down the street or go to the same school but who love games, or a certain game, the same way. Social media and online gaming have helped to cultivate gaming culture, which has its own language and traditions.

“I think one crucial thing for people to understand is that gaming is by no means a form of isolation,” Smith said. “It is an opportunity to create your world in any way, and this form of expression helps shape self-identity.”

“I think about games all the time.” 

Gamers don’t just play games, they think about them. A lot. When they’re at school, when they’re lying in bed at night, when they should be concentrating on their homework. Mentally, they work on solutions to problems they encounter in gameplay and use their creative and strategic skills to beat a game while they are engaged in other activities. This thought process seems integral to the gamer identity. Ryan Vigneau, who also enjoys creating YouTube content while supporting Team Instinct in Pokémon GO, theorized: “When you stop playing the game and are still thinking about it strategically … if your mindset is still in the game and you are not … if you walk away and think ‘I could do that next time’ … then you are a gamer.”

It is common for gamers to go beyond just thinking about gameplay to engaging with the characters and storyline; creating fan fiction, fan art and “cosplay” (costumed play) outfits; and attending conventions. Some gamers have the additional hobby of “modding” (modifying by programming) their favorite game.

“What is my identity as a female gamer?”

There is a history of gamers being stereotyped negatively. Female gamers face the additional challenge of criticism from within gaming culture itself. Objectification, dismissal, hostility and even threats of violence impact many girls and women who love to game. Gamers are often viewed as isolated male basement-dwellers, surrounded by junk food and lacking motivation and social skills.

Brittany Rodrigue, who enjoys competitive first-person shooters (especially the Halo series), told me: “Being a female in the gaming community is often the most challenging because we are faced with such harsh stereotypes in a male-dominated territory … I try as much as possible to not let gender influence or limit my possibilities especially with video games because being a gamer is just something I am and love.”

Video games are a part of everyday life

While not all of the gamers I interviewed grew up in a world saturated with technology, for most of today’s kids, video games are a part of everyday life. They don’t just have computers and game consoles, they have smartphones and tablets and even wearables. As video games become more prevalent and the gaming community skews younger, more and more kids are calling themselves gamers. But it may very well be that in the future, the label won’t be necessary at all.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids

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