What makes a gamer?

In my Soapbox article (oh, and hi, Slashdot), I touched on the new fly in my bonnet. If women are already a significant fraction of gamers, why do we feel the girl-gamer is such an odd duck? Or to put it another way: What makes a gamer? What does the label 'gamer' actually mean -- if anything?

The obvious definition would be that a gamer is... someone who plays games. More specifically, someone who plays video or computer games. When you look at it a little harder, though, this definition falls down. It's not that it's objectively wrong, it's just not what we MEAN by it. There are plenty of mid-50s women playing mah-jonng and bingo online; but I daresay nobody's calling them gamers. Does it have to do with time commitment, then? Likewise, there may be a significant population of men and women playing online poker for thirty and forty hours a week, but I don't think anyone's calling them gamers, either. So what gives?

The clue to my thinking is in that nagging little fact: only 19% of the players of action games are women. That seems about right for the population that I'd call gamers. When I talk about gamers, I find I'm referring to a specific subset of all gaming culture; a certain overlap of cultural referents and history. These are people who, even if they don't read Penny Arcade, at least get all of the jokes. It's not to do with type of game, specifically, or of time commitments, so much as people who share a certain self-identification as gamers. Gamers are dabblers: they don't play just one or two games, they play a cross-section. (Or I suppose I should be saying 'we.')

I keep trying to think of another group that has similar distinction, but I'm at a bit of a loss; anyone have an example? Would we not call all people who play golf golfers? Wouldn't we call all people who garden gardeners? What makes gaming different?

...again, sorry about any lingering incoherence. It's not the Nyquil this time, it's the hydrocodone...


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