What Does it Mean to be a Gamer?
An Unanswerable Question
What does it mean to be a gamer? I find this question leads to an uncountable amount of new questions. As a baby step toward an answer, we can first conclude that humans game. This implies that regardless of times or culture, all humans have been gamers. Regardless of console, computer, or the cranium itself—the human is wired to be a gamer.
But, humans did not suddenly sprout into existence with the innate want and ability to play. No, if we carry this question logically—we cannot say only humans game. Chimpanzees are known to play, to laugh, and to solve abstract puzzles while they forage. Primates then, are also gamers in a sense. Yet, even here, our argument cannot stop at primates. To conclude, primates play is a more premature ending than a teenage prom night.
Yet, now, Pandora’s box is opened. It becomes difficult to draw the line of common sense. Increasingly, it is hard to distinguish between an animal solving a puzzle in its environment—and a community of online gamers. Surely, the medium of play is different. One medium is a jungle, or an ocean; the other is a virtual ecosystem. However, what fundamentally separates the two acts besides content and medium?
Bubbles and the Bottlenose
To begin to answer such an imposing question, let us take a look at some examples of play in nature. The first example of natural gamers comes from the smartest non-primate mammal: the dolphin. Consider the Bottlenose dolphin: these animals have been observed to blow bubbles for entertainment, sometimes occupying them for hours.
The Bottlenose’s cousin—the Orca—also plays. Orca ride the wakes created by speedboats and sing. It is not all fun and games, though. Every year, Orca congregate at a specific beach. In a way, it is a gaming convention for this pod. The beach in question is a breeding ground for seals, and pups are reared there in masses. The adults know the terror of going close to the shore. The pups soon learn. As the young approach the water and play in the shallows, Orca launch themselves forward onto the beach. The killer whale then grabs a pup, and brings it to the rest of the pod.
What follows is a ritualistic and highly sadistic form of entertainment. The Orcas do not eat the pup, not for many hours. They eat their morsel not. But, instead toss the seal into the air, drag it underwater. This becomes an evolutionary mandate for entertainment.
This seal sadism leads one to further question: Is Orca torture a form of gaming? If one enjoys an activity, which has clear rules and objectives—one is playing a game. Thus, it should follow that the dragging of a pup, playing with its fear and pain—is a game. If this criteria disturbs you, dear reader—never play Grand Theft Auto again. Though the medium of play differs from coastline to console—shooting an ignorant prostitute and going on a rampage seems wildly similar.
What Classifies Gaming?
I admit, however, it is incredibly hard to distinguish what is play or not within our own species. To say with absolute certainty that the Orca are playing is to be a liar. The Orca may find the entire affair rather gruesome, and instead think of the act as mere evolutionary ritual. The sacrificial seal pup may play a part in the whale’s religion. What drives the Killer Whale’s cruel act is uncertain at present.
Indeed, certain acts and professions of our own species have rarely been thought of as gaming. The farmer toiling over quickly fallowing fields, watering against drought—who would have thought their back-breaking labor could be playful? And yet, farming simulators are rampant across Steam, Facebook, and various gaming sites. The mundane and repetitious life of a train-conductor has also been made into a game. Further examples of this elaboration on gaming are titles such as ‘PC-building simulator,’ and ‘American Truck Simulator.’ I myself, eagerly await the newest addition of the series, ‘Simulator Simulator.’
Laborious professions now constitute play, under a certain medium. In this case, computer gaming. This is interesting, however, because it seems to justify that any sort of act can be gaming—and thus we as actors are always gamers. Perhaps, it is the rewards, or the environment—that makes these types of simulator games fun. Whereas in real life they are mere jobs, made to make a living; in gaming, they take on new light.
In games -like World of Warcraft- we find often monotonous tasks gratifying if we are rewarded with items or achievements. If a sword has good stats, we are elated. A tireless grind of killing dragons in the Wetlands becomes a source of nostalgia when we finally have a red, flying companion at our side.
These rewards are key into understanding what it means to be a gamer.
This is because gaming and the environment are forever linked. We may game to fulfill internal needs such as relaxation, or to learn—or to be social. But always we game for rewards. The gamer is a loot seeker. Thus, while the definition of a gamer is elusive, we can be certain any gamer is seeking reward. Whether the Orca and the GTA menace derive enjoyment from torture is not the question; they both seek reward. Whether the dolphin is blowing bubbles to learn of its environment, to merely enjoy itself, or both is irrelevant. The dolphin seeks reward.
Gaming as an adaptation
Gaming is to evolution, like quest text is to an objective. Children are encouraged to play not only because they enjoy it and we love our children, but because it helps them grow. In the same way, organisms can profit from playing with their environment in many ways. The chimpanzee a great percentage of its time at play; it is no wonder a stick soon becomes a tool for digging for termites. The benefits of being a gamer have real advantages in a competitive world. I mentioned Orcas ride the wakes created by boaters. They do this in part, because it mimics hunting formations when the pod takes on larger whales. Their play strengthens their work.
I too, find play strengthens my work. Play rejuvenates my often over-active mind by stimulating it into a calmer, sedated state. By playing games, my mind is allowed to wander. And, in turn, I often have quite unexpected yet much needed epiphanies about my own life when I game. I am sure my experience is not universal, but I am sure games offer mental benefits to humans. I am sure we humans are not alone as gamers. To be a gamer is to capitalize on the benefits of play, and very real benefits in the environment.
I have often heard that World of Warcraft was there for people when they were at their lowest points. By playing, these people found remedies for their insecurities, friends for their affections, and goals for their otherwise idle minds. Like all actions of an organism, what seems at first a quirky action or an odd mannerism, can be explained by a need of the organism. Video gaming may seem odd to the older generation. Some elders think the younger generation play far too much on their devices.
I am not as sure. Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage. I think all the world’s a game.
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!