What is a ‘serious gamer’, anyway?

These days, with the Wii, Facebook games and Angry Birds on every phone in this sector of the galaxy, almost anyone can be considered a ‘gamer’. My grandmother is an avid online Scrabble and Mahjong player, for instance, and as my grandparents both enjoy bowling, I keep dropping subtle hints that if they were to purchase a Wii, they would be the envy of all the old folks on the block. It’d be like they were kids again. (In addition, it would provide a game for my grandmother to play that would get her up and moving again, since she always complains about her old age weight gain, but isn’t exactly in the sort of shape one should be in to start taking a spinning class, or train for a triathlon to lose weight.)

My stepdad used to play Starcraft on his N64 and all manner of wrestling games on his Xbox, but now dedicates most of his free time to playing various Facebook games, like Cityville and the like. He builds some pretty impressive-looking cities, and one has to just stare and wonder about how many hours went into it.

And then there’s me. My game shelf consists of a collection of JRPGs and I’ve logged several hundred hours on my PS3. I think I’m qualified to fly one commercially now.

I, as a console gamer, would not consider my family to be ‘serious gamers’ in any sense of the word. After all, it’s something they just do in their free time, and they tend to play asynchronous games–grandma usually has to wait a while for her Scrabble partners to make their moves…so she plays Mahjong in the interim. My stepdad sits down to play Facebook games for a few solid hours, yes, but that’s because he gets caught up in Guild Chat, and pauses every now and then for smoke breaks, reading breaks, bathroom breaks, letting the dogs out breaks…and by then, whatever building he was upgrading should be ready to churn out strawberries like a champ. My mom doesn’t even play games, despite my less-than-gentle urging that she at least play Portal, since it takes about as long as a decent movie to finish.

But of course, neither professional gamers (i.e. pro Halo players) nor PC gamers would consider me to be ‘serious’–after all, I only play single-player games on a console. I haven’t spent thousands of dollars building my own gaming rig from the ground up, overclocking my processors and building liquid cooling systems to keep my system from melting while I play Crysis. They do it for money/glory/Sparta, and I do it for the same reason my less serious gaming family does it: for fun.

Or do I?

I consider myself a serious gamer, but not in the same way that a Korean playing Starcraft in a tournament is a ‘serious gamer’. They are a professional, after all, pitting their skills against other professionals. They’re serious in the same way that a professional painter is a ‘serious artist’–they do what they do because it puts dinner on the table.

I play games in the same way an English major reads books, or the way a film critic watches movies–even when they’re not being paid or graded on their assessment of this work, they still look at books and movies in a certain way. This is partially because I consider games to be works of art, and so I see no reason NOT to analyze them the same way I would analyze a good book or painting.

The games on my shelves all come to me recommended, either by magazine reviews, internet buzz, or friends whose judgement I trust in these matters (i.e. not many of my male friends). In fact, only one game in my collection was purchased solely based on a magazine article published before the game even came out in Japan, and that’s White Knight Chronicles. (Still on my list of ‘games I need to actually start getting their moneys worth out of’.) I’ve played most of them to completion, and those I haven’t, I played a significant portion of before getting distracted by the newest shiny. All of these games have at least one unique thing to offer, and the best of the bunch have many unique things to offer.

I could talk for hours about the philosophical implications and symbology of Final Fantasy VII. I could do the same with Kingdom Hearts. I play games for their historical value. I’m working my way through FFVI out of a loyalty to the series, and in order to compare and contrast it with the other entries in the series. One of the few game series I’m willing to buy at release is Assassin’s Creed, because I KNOW it will be worth my $60 on its artistic merits alone (as well as the fact that I’ll get to kill people up close and personal for about 30 or 40 hours while jumping off of very tall and very realistic buildings). I approach games very much like one might approach a piece of literature–I’m looking at not only the story, but the symbols contained within, the references to other works, the historical context of the piece, etc. In longer series, like Kingdom Hearts, I could happily while away the hours making flowcharts and character analyses detailing the progression of the series over various titles, and I often do with various series that I enjoy.

This makes me a particularly tough customer when it comes to fan-produced works. For instance, I can barely stomach a lot of fan-fiction, because it tends to be written by people who care nothing for the original story and character relations–which is fine, if you are any good at coming up with original scenarios. If you can write a compelling story where the characters of Kingdom Hearts step into the oversized shoes of the Knights of the Round Table, and Lancelot!Riku runs off with Guinevere!Kairi, then I’ll be happy to read it. But if your story is just ‘I don’t like Sora, so I’m going to make Kairi fall in love with Riku instead’, or ‘I don’t like Kairi, so I’m going to kill her off and neither Sora nor Riku cares–especially when I introduce myself as a Mary-Sue character’, then we are going to have a problem. It takes a firm understanding of the rules before you can bend and break them properly–which is why most fan-fiction falls flat on its fan-face. (Even though I am currently co-authoring an AU Kingdom Hearts tale myself, I steer clear of a lot of AU fan-fic, because if most fan-fic authors can’t grasp the full rules of the original source material, how can I expect them to construct their own world and rules?)

After all, games are more than mindless entertainment. They do, in fact, contain stories and characters, and they deserve respect for that.

I guess in closing, when I say I’m a ‘serious gamer’, I mean it in the same way that a reviewer is a ‘serious reader’ of books, or a ‘serious viewer’ of films. Perhaps in that case, I should be fully termed a ‘serious player of games’…but that’s overly clunky. And ‘I take games seriously’ also doesn’t seem to communicate how I experience the medium. ‘I play games in a serious manner’ makes me sound like I never have fun. And although I analyze games, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t actually make me a ‘game analyst’ (as that term implies game industry analysis). My closest analogue in the realm of ‘real art’ would be art/book/film critics or connoisseurs, I suppose.

Maybe that will be my new descriptor. ‘Video game connoisseur’. At least that way, people probably won’t be as quick to assume that I spend all hours of the day playing Starcraft in Korea.

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