“At his worst, a bro gamer is a bro who plays nothing but the latest Call of Duty, Halo, or Gears of War; and any sports game on ONLY the Xbox 360 (although playing any of these games or owning an Xbox doesn’t necessarily qualify you as a bro gamer, it sure doesn’t help). Found in their natural habitat of college dorms and fraternities, they are often found drinking cheap-ass beer from red plastic cups with their frat mates and talking about “chicks, man.” Their vocabulary consists of mainly faggot, quickscope, 10th prestige, and my penis is larger than yours. Will claim the vast superiority of terrible AAA titles published by Activision and EA while claiming that superior and less popular titles, indie or otherwise, are “shitty” and have “bad graphics.” – Urbandictionary
It’s no secret that what we look for in a type of media is dependent on how into it we are. If you’re majorly into underground rap or heavy metal then you probably listen out for elements like a rapper’s flow, or for guitar riffs or bass drum rhythms, and you might have a tendency to sneer at anyone making moral judgments about the music based entirely on its emotional or social content (they just don’t get it). Similarly, if you’re an art geek then you probably don’t care if I think Francis Bacon’s pope is scary, or if Van Gogh did some pwetty sunflowers; things like form and composition are often put across as the most important criteria for artiness (i.e. the stuff they teach in art school, usually at the expense of what the painting means).
These are examples of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the “pure gaze”; the way of viewing a form of culture which aficionados see as valid and authoritative. Throughout history, every cultural form has struggled to become a separate thing by developing its own norms about how its products are consumed and produced (Bourdieu, 1984, p4). Painting or music has its own “pure gaze”; a set of rules of judgement which aren’t interested in what a picture or song is referring to in the real world. In videogame culture, gameplay has become a key concept for understanding and evaluating games and for distinguishing them as games and not movies, ballet or architecture (Kirkpatrick, 2012). Gaming’s pure gaze judges games on their interactivity before anything else, because this is what makes them games. This is visible in the way of lot of us talk about the pastime, but also in some academic work on games (see: Ludology). This emphasis on gameplay enables those who identify as real gamers to reject/scorn anyone who (dis)likes games based on other criteria (graphics, character, story, political message etc.) and this is relevant to an ongoing debate about whether or not game criticism should be interested in social issues. But what I want to do here is examine how the gamer gaze relates to the “bro gamer” stereotype in current games journalism. In doing so, I hope to show how the scorn aimed at the bro gamer comes from a similar place as the animosity towards critics of gender and race portrayals in games; a privileging of gameplay over representation.
Imagining the Bro Gamer
In my first conference paper I described the bro gamer as “a stereotypical American frat boy on the fringes of hardcore gamer culture whose predilection for macho content is blamed for preventing innovation and seen as an incursion by geeks”. We can see this stereotype on gamesradar (below) and urbandictionary, as well as in webcomics like VG Cats (above). The VG Cats comic represents the bro gamer as beer drinking, street-slang talking, and visor wearing, with an overbearing enthusiasm for sports games, a dislike of games like Monkey Island (part of videogame geek canon) and that kind of forced homophobia suggestive of repressed manlove. The last panel is particularly interesting because its draws humour from putting Zelda’s iconic triforce in a context where it doesn’t belong ["gamer in-joke: Zelda isn't even a brogame, lolololol"]. In gameinformer’s parody review of “Bioshock Inifite: Bro Edition” the bro gamer is depicted as puerile, sexist, and adverse to any kind of thematic seriousness which might make a game seem too geeky. In an interview with Wired, Bioshock: Infinite‘s director Ken Levine explained the rationale behind the game’s box art which – much to the online gaming community’s disgust – seemed to target a bro demographic by featuring a generic image of a manly man with a gunny gun:
“I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. [...] The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists — that’s for the fans. For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for.”
If Infinite‘s cover art was marketed toward “the people who aren’t informed”, then the online community’s negative reaction to it (as “bland” or “brotastic”) helps to identify what it supposedly means to be a “real” gamer. In Levine’s terms, being informed about games means engaging with the media surrounding them. Mia Consalvo (2007) calls these media “paratexts” . Gaming paratexts are what’s left of games media (both traditional and fan-made) when we subtract the games themselves. Levine’s justification for Infinite’s brotastic art is that it’s aimed at those who don’t have that accumulated experience of games that many of us have from years of nerding out reading magazines, engaging in online forums or watching Let’s Plays. This additional knowledge that goes into identifying as a gamer is what Consalvo calls “gaming capital”. Think of it as geek points.
The bro gamer (if he actually exists) typically plays “hardcore” games – predominantly AAA console titles – but he’s shunned by many hardcore gamers because he has different values. He prefers competitive, social play over story-driven single player epics; Hollywood-style graphical realism over anything cartoony, childish or cutesy; and he only really plays sports, racing and shooting titles. For these reasons, the dominant geek culture in games fandom and journalism mocks the bro gamer for not understanding their preferred ways of evaluating games. Bourdieu’s sociology of taste shows how this iteration of the pure gaze (the gamer gaze?) is nothing new; it’s something which occurs with every new medium.
Making Judgments on Games; a “Correct” Reading, or Geek Snobbery?
Bourdieu argues that geeks (he says intellectuals, but let’s call them geeks) have knowledge which predisposes them to focus on the style or form of something, as opposed to what’s actually being represented. This is usually a product of the geeks’ relative “distance from necessity” and their informally acquired knowledge of the cultural field. Having educated parents with lots of spare time, not having to care for younger siblings etc. are all marks of a privileged upbringing which gives you more time for learning informally. This, according to Bourdieu, is the sort of learning that really sticks and gives middle-class kids an advantage when they come into school, where things like art and literature are deemed super-important.
In contrast, Bourdieu argues that working-class people are less likely to have these sorts of engagement with highbrow culture growing up, so they instead look at what the painting, book or piece of music in front of them is representing or saying about the world and base whether they like it on ethical, emotional judgements (Bourdieu, 1984, p5). The bro is positioned on the edge of hardcore gaming culture, and this is because he’s concerned with whether or not the game’s representations fit his own ideals than any of that abstract, formal stuff like “gameplay” or “game mechanics”. I can judge whether ‘splosions or boobies look cool by referring to other cultural fields outside of gaming, but to judge gameplay I need to know a lot of stuff specifically about games; the sort of stuff you learn by geeking out on magazines and websites, and playing a wider variety of games over the years. Franchises like CoD, GTA, or any of those games containing real cars or sports teams have mainstream appeal because they depict things which exist outside of gamer culture in a (semi) realistic way. This means players can enjoy them without becoming a fully-fledged geek. In contrast, some game types – for example, Real Time Strategy games or Japanese RPGs – rely heavily on audience knowledge of game genre conventions (see Jesper Juul, 2010) contain a lot of abstract rules (such as quantitative stats in RPGs) and often use settings and aesthetics which are deliberately “gamey” (fantastical, cartoonish, pixel-art etc. etc.). Brogames are easy to identify because they tend to refer to symbols of machismo that exist in the real world, employing aesthetics which could easily belong to Hollywood. It’s interesting that the bro gamer is being parodied in indie games with notably lofi aesthetics (see Bromancing Saga 2, or the DudeBro 2 trailer above) which recalls Leigh Alexander’s suggestion that indie games are like grunge music to the mainstream industry’s cockrock.
So the “gamer gaze” has a double effect. On one hand, it tries to legitimate games, to mark them out as a separate cultural form defined by their interactivity. But in doing so, it also generates elitism. The gamer gaze effectively says “look, this is worthwhile culture because we have our formal rules for creating it and for decoding it” but it also enables a privileged group to look down on anyone who likes (or dislikes) games based on lowly elements like story, character etc. Obviously this isn’t universally true; there are plenty of subcultures within gaming where story is a huge element – JRPG otakus, for example -but in that example the games are usually just one facet of a broader interest in Japanese culture including narrative forms like anime.
All cultural forms have their preferred rules of appraisal. These rules take a while to learn, so the privileged often have more opportunity to learn them. The “pure” gamer gaze enables fans to be snobs toward newcomers, or to those who are immersed in gamer culture but who also care about other things separate from games (such as sexism, racism or good storytelling). A gameplay-centric way of evaluating games creates a geeky culture where the hyper-masculine bro is laughed at, but where critics of gender and/or race portrayals are also derided. There’s a massive contradiction there, because the bro gamer’s supposed sexism and homophobia are part of what makes him apparently worthy of scorn. We see this frequently when people trash other people’s tastes; a taste for easily digestible culture gets associated with a general laziness, so that anyone who likes anything popular or lowbrow is seen as immoral:
“The refusal of what is easy in the sense of simple, and therefore shallow, and ‘cheap’, because it easily decoded and culturally ‘undemanding’, naturally leads to the refusal of what is facile in the ethical or aesthetic sense, of anything which offers pleasures that are too immediately accessible and so discredited as ‘childish’ or ‘primitive’…” (Bourdieu, 1984, p488)
For more examples of the gamer gaze in action, feel free to check out some negative user reviews of Gone Home or any title which similarly privileges story over gameplay.
Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
Consalvo, M. (2007) Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames
Juul, J. (2010) A Casual Revolution