As MMO players, of course, we know that there are a whole lot of differing communities at work, ones that become more divided as you look more closely. If you don't play Star Wars: The Old Republic, for instance, you might see a single community. But if you do play, you know that the game has its own communities: the hardcore endgame community, the roleplaying community, the PvP community. And if you look closer, you realize that even that isn't all the information; there are parts of the roleplaying community that prefer PvP or PvE endgame content, parts that really just like building up Legacy families, parts that are into light roleplaying...
Sure, these people are all linked together by one shared point of reference. But MMOs in particular are games that really drive home how two people can have two entirely different experiences with a game. You can play Star Wars: The Old Republic in a way that almost entirely diverges from my own game experiences, and as a result, we'd have only the broadest points of reference in common.
Go out another level and the differences become even sharper. You can say that there's a sandbox MMO community, but what does that mean? There are people who like sandbox crafting and non-combat gameplay. Other people just like open, non-consensual PvP. Some players don't like either but do want a non-static world. Still others don't like any of the above but do enjoy some other aspect of the game. The list goes on; the one uniform factor is that when you really look at any of these groups, it isn't part of a shared community. There's no unified voice; there are a lot of little voices that agree on a small number of points, generally on what those voices don't like.
And we're talking about a subset of the overall group of gamers... if you can even call someone a gamer any longer.
See, as I said in the beginning, back in the day, having a game console was rare. They were expensive and did nothing but play expensive games, and early games didn't exactly go out of their way to make you feel welcome as a player. They usually offered an experience more akin to getting thrown into the deep end of a pool with weights around your ankles. You didn't buy a game console unless you or someone in your household would sit down, learn the arcane logic of these games, and have fun.
Now, games are more accessible. I don't agree that they're easier, but they're definitely more readily set up so that you can sit down and play without dying a few dozen times right after you press "Start." As a result, game consoles have become ubiquitous features of a home. Most people in their mid-30s have a console of some sort. There are games designed to appeal to people and audiences who might have zero interest in the usual fare for video games.
Are these people gamers? At what point do you start or stop being a gamer? Do you have to hit a certain number of hours played in a week? Or do you just have to enjoy games and identify as a gamer? How do you draw the line?
Consider the terms hardcore and casual: When you reduce a term to each individual's personal interpretation, it ceases to have any objective meaning. There's someone who's going to fail your criteria of "gamer" but who still self-identifies as such. So there isn't even a way to point to who is and isn't a part of the community.
It gets even fuzzier when it comes to MMOs. My mother once mailed me asking whether one of the games she was playing on Facebook (Dragon Age Legends, for the record) counted as an MMO. I told her that it didn't, but I can understand the confusion because to someone who doesn't play MMOs regularly, the game hits all of the obvious notes. It's online, it's persistent, and she's interacting with other players. I can explain to her the many ways that it's not the same, but the reasons all require a bunch of further explanation.
A lot of people aren't interested in all of that. They're not interested in being part of a community or understanding class balance or any of that. They're interested in playing a game and having fun. And they're as much a part of the gamer community as anyone else if you just accept the fact that it's impossible to nail down the criteria for the gamer community beyond "likes games."
This isn't a bad thing, really. It means that games have grown past their awkward adolescence, that we've gone from a handful of games that only hyper-dedicated people could play to games that can be enjoyed by all sorts of people. It means that we no longer exist as one monolithic community of gamers, that we can pick and choose which experiences actually seem rewarding.
But it also means that there is no gamer community. We aren't all one unified group any more than people with hazel eyes form a group with uniform wants. There are a lot of different goals, different wishes, and different games that matter to us, and it's time to stop pretending that we're a single voice when that's just not the case.
And if marketing folks could also use this as a sign to stop marketing things as "for gamers," that would be awesome, too. I hold no hope of that happening, but still.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!