Since an overwhelming majority of Australians play games, why is ‘gamer’ still an insult?

- May 30, 2024 4 MIN READ
Proof that DALL-E is well-trained to stereotype. Punch ‘gamer’ into ChatGPT’s image generator, and this is the result. Source: DALL-E
The odds should have been on my side when I went speed dating a few weeks back.

I’m not coy about mentioning the fact that I’m a fan of video games. Armed with the latest data — and despite what I’ve been told by friends in the past — that shouldn’t be that risky topic.

According to the latest IGEA (Interactive Games and Entertainment Association) study into gamers in Australia — released in August 2023— 81% of all Australians play video games. It went on to add that almost half (48%) of women are gamers, up 2% in a year. More recent global data from NewZoo supports this.

But despite this, out of the near 30 dates I did over a two and a half hour period, only one woman in the room expressed any interest in gaming. And even then, that came with the caveat: “Yeah, I game sometimes on my phone, but I wouldn’t call myself a gamer.”

In the blur of faces, occupations and mutual interests that come as part of any speed dating night, I had forgotten about this up until I read an earlier edition of Game File. It was covering the US equivalent of IGEA’s dataset, the ESA’s Essential Facts, say that the majority of US adults game, they largely don’t like to be referred to as ‘gamers’. My assumption is there’s still a stigma tied to the word.

Where there’s no comparable data here in Australia, this anecdotally rings true of this country too.

I’d pin it down to three key points:

Gaming companies still market primarily to gamers, appealing to the stereotype: The gaming industry largely does itself no favours with perpetuating stereotypes. Everything from merchandise, accessories and character designs in many major titles are geared towards the idea that most gamers are solitary men in their teens or early 20s. While the sector has come a long way in terms of representation, but it’s yet to filter into the way it’s presented itself to broader society, or even those who are avid gamers. It will be interesting to see if this broadly changes, given concerns within the industry that certain elements of it — such as the global console market — have hit a saturation point.

Gaming doesn’t have mainstream media appeal in Australia: Not only has the number of journalists covering gaming in Australia trended backwards, but articles regarding it in the mainstream media have too. In this regard, it’s arguable that culture coverage in major news outlets has not kept up with changes in culture. While it is inherently fraught comparing datasets: Statista says only 59% of the Australian population went to the cinema at least once in 2023, but IGEA’s data says over 81% of Australians played at least one game over the same period. New movie release coverage takes up a significant portion of culture coverage compared to new video games in mainstream press.

There’s still a toxic internet culture around gamers: As with just about everything else, the echo chambers of the internet (such as Reddit and Discord) have done little to breed solidarity among those who game. As video games industry aims to become more progressive on all fronts, tackling broader themes and issues through the medium, it’s led to gross and often uninformed debates. And even counter-debates claiming the gaming industry shouldn’t dip into such matters. The go-to here is GamerGate, a systematic hate-fuelled campaign against women within the video game industry. But there’s new examples each month. The result of all of this: It’s put most who game on the back foot when talking about their hobby as it comes with baggage.

There are efforts being made to change this.

IGEA’s annual survey is a good example, as they’re attempting to put figures to the trend to attempt to dispel myths around gaming in Australia. “The ‘gamer’ stereotype which is often portrayed, is not the true face of someone who enjoys and plays games,” Ron Curry, CEO, Interactive Games and Entertainment Association says.

“On average, they’re 35 years old, nearly as likely to be female as male, have families, and enjoy playing games with their children. It would seem they play games of all types, on all types of devices because of the enjoyment, fun and connection that games bring to their lives,” he adds.

Separately, Nintendo has pushing marketing campaigns aimed not only promoting its games, but also broader societal engagement with gaming. No doubt this is in an effort broaden its market, with promoting more mainstream optics around gaming is a happy byproduct.

I want to say that movement on changing perceptions around gamers is just a matter of time. But in researching this piece, I found articles that dated back to as early as 2011 — the same issue, the same arguments, locked in time.

Some even say that the word ‘gamer’ doesn’t mean anything anymore as gaming as a hobby is so fragmented. Even when I encounter someone who games regularly, the follow-up question is usually: “What kind of games do you play?”. There’s a big difference between someone who mainlines Candy Crush as opposed to a semi-pro Defense of The Ancients 2 (DotA 2) player.

I just shudder to think the answer is “generational change”. If I do somehow find myself speed dating in my 50s, it would be nice to feel any pressure to talk around my passions.

What I’m playing: Paper Mario: The One-Thousand Year Door

Bringing back a lot of fond memories. Source: Nintendo

There’s always the risk when a game is remade that it loses the magic of the original. Such is often the case with remakes of classic movies. But as someone who has played through this Paper Mario half a dozen times, I can safely say this is its most definitive edition.

I’m having a blast rediscovering what was a cracker game from the 2004 era of Nintendo — when the company was arguably on a roll. The core game very much is the same. But it’s been enhanced with a brand new musical score, revamped graphics, and a light sprinkle of quality of life features, to bring it up to modern standards.

Paper Mario plays like any other role-playing game (RPG). It’s strategy-centric combat, with a strong story and sharp snappy writing. The sheer amount of dialogue in this game means you’ll be doing a lot of reading to keep up with the plot. But it’s a mercy that this game didn’t include voice acting — it would have ruined its vibe.

This was arguably the last good Paper Mario, before Nintendo decided to put the franchise in the blender and turn future releases into weird RPG, platformer hybrids, aimed at winning a broader audience. They didn’t. The hope here is that this will predicate more Paper Mario pure RPGs, as again, like good films, they have a cult following for a reason.

Worth trying if you like: The Final Fantasy series, Super Mario RPG, Baldur’s Gate 3.

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Harrison Polites writes the Infinite Lives newsletter. Follow him here.