As a gamer, who am I?

I know that many people dislike labels. For them, it is a way for others to be exclusive; it’s a way to demarcate zones. We’re over here. You are over there.  It becomes a binary choice. You are either in a group or you are out. Often, you are either with us or against us. I understand why people dislike labels, I really do.

But we use labels to communicate ideas to each other. ‘I agree with these values. I like these people,’ we say when we use certain labels. We use words like “liberal”, “gay”, “conservative” or “straight” to mark where we fall on a spectrum. We pill them up like layers of clothing to dress ourselves for the public. ‘I wear these colors for this group and these,’ we might point out to someone else, ‘for the group I only sometimes like.’

In cultural terms, these labels, especially in the commercial sense, are called brands. They are the symbols, ideas and even the milieu that surrounds a product. They are what you think of when you look at a product, their company or even the individuals that created it. They serve as visual short-hand for something else: they are often symbols for other symbols and other ideas. In all cases, brands are created, molded and even shaped by the people who associate themselves with them. While a designer may create a logo from an idea of what the business might want to project into the market, it is the users of that project or service that define it.

From that basis, then, you might wonder what I thought of Lauren’s post titled “Xbox Brand Turns 10

I don’t think she meant to make a comment on what the brand of the Xbox 360 might be. I don’t think that was her intention at all. Yet, she did. She told us a simple story about why the Xbox makes her happy and, in the process, explained why, for her, it is a great product.

You can gleam her excitement from first sentences of “I quickly got addicted and took over the console. Playing online with a console was a thrilling experience and the collector in me was revelling in unlocking achievements for my accomplishments” and then “we watched me run around the first level of Gears of War with a giant grin on my face” and ” it was the first time I had heard some of my online friends speak for the first time.” She obviously liked, and probably still does like, what the Xbox 360 allows her to do.

Yet, I disagree with her though. While I do think that she gets great pleasure out of connecting with her friends and playing games, I usually don’t with the Xbox 360. I often find the achievement system equally seductive and harmful — I often want to increase my gamer score, yet know that doing so proves nothing. I have very rarely had a positive experience gaming online — I am on a different schedule than my friends and, when we have finally had time to play together, the session is often marred with technical problems such as microphone or latency issues. Then there are the people online who, as Lauren points out “I would get nasty or dirty messages from random people I didn’t know”, are not always the nicest or as helpful as they could be.

I don’t associate with the Xbox 360 brand. For me, it means problems that, while not always its fault, I still link with the product.

The PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii hold very little sway on me. I don’t own either and, although I have had some good times at friends’ houses in the past playing games, I don’t have enough positive or negative experiences to color myself either way. I think they both have games I would like to one day play. I think they both have interesting and exclusive ideas connected to each of them. I would not mind owning either, should I eventually get the chance. But I don’t wear their ‘colors’ or march to their defense.

Then there is the computer. As I recently admitted in a comment, I don’t play games on computers much either. A few years ago, I lost all of my computers at the same time (along with several other important things) and, since then, I’ve become fairly platform agnostic. Most of the programs I use run under the Windows operating system, so I use that on my desktop computer. Yet, as a programmer, I prefer the freedom that open source gives and so run my own hacked together version of Cygwin to combine scripting and other tools I need with Windows on my netbook. My personal home server runs Ubuntu. And as for Macs, well, I can’t afford them — it’s a moot point.

If I were to dress myself as the gamer I am, who would I be? What brands do I associate with? Am a console gamer (probably) or a PC gamer (not really)?

Of course, at the end of the day, it probably doesn’t matter in the least. According to various news sites, the next cycle of gaming systems should be out or about to come out in another six months or so. We will probably, as these site say, have the new systems by the end of the 2012. By that point, the cultures and people using the current gaming systems will have moved on to the next shiny on the shelf. Sure, yes, there will be some outliers for a couple years — I come across games still being released for the Dreamcast once a year or so — but they too will fade. The companies and their brands will change again.

Still, I cannot help but to wonder about my own labels. Who do I say I am? If my identity is tied to how I present myself, shouldn’t it matter what labels — what ‘clothing’ — I wear out in the (virtual) public? If I am an ambassador, as I often feel I might be, to those in academic circles, how should I present myself? Should I be closer to the mainstream (e.g. preferring eye candy to substance) or closer to the indie scene (I do work on my own games after all)? Am I somewhere between those and, if so, what is the label for that?

As a gamer, who am I? As a gamer, who are you?