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Where does the word 'gamer' come from and does it have a future?

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Where does the word "gamer" come from? And does it have a future in a culture where video games are a part of mainstream entertainment, consumed by all, rather than by a specific demographic subculture?

There's a great editorial here, written by games historian Jon Peterson, about the origins of the word, in early 20th century military-based board games. Peterson is the author of Playing at the World, a highly respected history of role-playing games.

A game for boys ... and for the more intelligent sort of girls

Peterson makes the convincing argument that "gamer" has always carried heavily male connotations and was seen, for a long time, as a word that generally meant a man. He's not merely talking about the arrival of Space Invaders and the Atari 2600. He's talking about the Victorian era.

He points to War Games, a military strategy amusement devised by H.G. Wells and pitched as "a game for boys ... and for the more intelligent sort of girls who like boys' games and books."

Editorials in specialist publications aimed at military board game strategists in the 1960s make reference to women having roles such as greeting gamers at the front door and serving up tea. Published subscriber lists of such magazines during that time are overwhelmingly of men's names.

That said, there's a nice illustration in the story (above) from a naval board game enthusiast in the 1940s, showing how women enjoyed playing games.

"Words that we use to define communities necessarily include some people and exclude others," said Peterson in an email interview with Polygon. "It so happens that the small community that self-identified as gamers in the 1960s was overwhelmingly male and governed by male cultural behaviors of the time.

"I don't think the word was originally intended to exclude women, but female participation was surprising: thus we see lots of qualifiers like 'women gamers' or 'lady gamers' by the mid-1970s when the community began to diversify. So I wouldn't lay much of blame on the term 'gamer' itself, though in the adversarial and often confrontational culture surrounding early gamers we do see foreshadowing of some of the darker elements of Internet gaming."

When Gary Gygax launched Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, it attracted negative comments about the lack of roles for women. Gygax, somewhat bemused, said he would increase women roles when women started to play his game. As the D&D craze swept through America in the late 1970s, research in the article states that one in 10 players was a woman.

There are men who do not enjoy the notion of being defeated by women

From time-to-time, experts in 1970s wargaming were asked about why so few women played. Looking at their replies now, the general view seems to have been that it was an offshoot of military interests which were then viewed in absolutely male terms. Linda Mosca, a game designer, made this point at the time, also adding that men did not much fancy the prospect of being beaten by a woman, and so invitations to women to play were less likely. Gaming, at the time, was seen as a competitive pastime. This was an era when highly competitive women, in fields like tennis, were often portrayed in the media in a negative light.

The Future of Gamer

By the time computers and arcades co-opted the term "gamer," it was already deeply embedded as an offshoot of maleness, like "soldier" which would have been understood only in the context of a man. Formerly male-dominated professions have changed their meaning. But "gamer" as a badge of male identity, rather than a description of someone who enjoys a particular pastime, seems unwilling to move on.

Writing on Gamasutra last year, Brandon Sheffield said that the word does not have the same neutrality as "movie-goer" or "reader" in cinema and literature, because of its historic connections with lone boys in basements, an image the news business peddled for years. The word has also been driven into disrepute by marketers keen to segregate demographics for their own ends.

A section of "gamer culture" has sought to take ownership of the word as an identity of belonging, which has made the tag seem all the more exclusionary, particularly to those on the outside.

And so we are left with the problem of "gamer" holding two meanings; one cultural and one descriptive. Ultimately, those meanings cannot long survive side-by-side.

Back in the 1970s, the maleness of "gamer" not only made the jump from board games to electronic games, it embedded itself more firmly within the identity of being a gamer. "There was obvious cultural continuity between the wargame and role-playing game industry and the early computer game industry," said Peterson. "We see that in the designers, in the publishers, in the titles and in the fans. That helped the word 'gamer' broaden to include electronic game fans.

"But early personal computers also drew fans from outside of that analog games community, from people involved in things like hobby radio, arcades, model trains, or science fiction, which were often statistically a further source of gender imbalance. So multiple factors contributed to an initial lack of diversity."

Words alter their meaning all the time. So can gamer be rescued from beneath the baggage, or is it doomed?

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"Given events to date, I do still believe the word can be rescued, though I can imagine the situation deteriorating to a point where it's no longer viable," said Peterson. "Understanding the history of the term helps us to decide what 'gamer' really means and whether or not it implies something inherently problematic.

"Having some word like 'gamer' is so integral to our lives today that we couldn't do without it. We could fall back on the older word 'gamester,' but it seems so cumbersome and old-fashioned. And people would read 'hipster' into it, which isn't what it meant at all."

That is the problem, isn't it? We still require a formulation that signals "a liking for games," without also suggesting negative exclusionary notions or  "a liking for games and nothing else." Such things are not decided by committee, and certainly not by editorial-writers.

"Gamer," as a word cannot mean something that everyone participates in, like "reader" at the same time as meaning an entertainment hobbyist male-dominated culture. If the latter usage continues unchanged, a widely accepted and more satisfyingly descriptive alternative is likely to arise sooner rather than later.