Today, IGN covered an interesting subject in their Game Scoop! segment: How do we define "Gamers?" following reactions to a statement made by Mark Rubin--executive producer of Infinity Ward--to OXM saying many of Call of Duty's players "aren't hardcore gamers, or even gamers, but they play Call of Duty every night."
The IGN panel made some great points including the venom of the polarized fanbases of various genres, the traditional meaning of gamer, and the meaning of the term as games become a more common activity. However, I have what might (perhaps) be a more useful definition, particularly for designers.
Gaming as medium has come a long way. Surrounding it is a unique culture (not always a positive one), and it's something easy to take for granted as a designer. We have our own language--our own metaphors, symbolism, in-jokes, and tropes. We have many, many shared experiences. I'd argue that most people who identify as gamers engage in that shared culture in some way--regardless of what way that is. So, of course, playing games (even playing a lot of games) doesn't necessarily make you a gamer. Aside from many of the negative connotations of gamer that still exist and prevent people from identifying as such, there's a critical element missing: being passionate about games in general. Playing one game and declaring yourself a gamer would be like reading a single novel and calling yourself a reader or watching a single game and calling yourself a team fan. It's really just posing. I'm not disparaging that, and actually I think it's a good thing. It's the first step into a unique culture. Of course, the exact point where you have enough experience to reasonably say you're gamer is subjective--it can be any point along the spectrum of that 1st game to the 10000th--personally I'd be fine with someone with experience in as few as three genres saying that they're a gamer
There are certainly a lot of gamers who play Call of Duty (and to clarify as I've seen some misinterpretation, Rubin's statement was that they have "an enormous amount of players..[who] aren't hardcore gamers, or even gamers." Not "all of our players aren't gamers," "most of our players aren't hardcore," or whatever else).
Personally, I stopped playing the franchise around 3 years ago--don't get me wrong, I'm not a hater. On the contrary, I'm impressed with the continued quality of the games, and I found the narratives compelling. (I'm not familiar with the newer installments, but I'd expect the quality has only increased.) No, I quit because, like many others, I was tired of the gameplay. I think I easily put 5000 hours into multiplayer shooters (closer to 10000 if we go back and count Goldeneye and Perfect Dark), and, well, I'd had enough. From asking around, getting tired of the gameplay is pretty typical among self-identified gamers, but not so much in casual players. I think that's because of another defining attribute of gamers: proficiency at playing games in general. Now, I don't mean mastery--you don't have to be topping leaderboards or anything. What I mean is that you have enough knowledge and experience with games to pick up mechanics in a reasonable time frame. Proficiency is really just the side effect of experience--you've got to learn the language before you can really be a part of the culture, and you have to at learn the basic vocabulary before you can learn the language.
Many have suggested, that "casual" players want to play something with very little time commitment even though they play for long periods of time, and want to play games with simple mechanics. While these statements are both true, they're often interpreted to mean that casual players are only interested in simple mobile games--in fact, the blanket term "casual game" is applied in that fashion. As Call of Duty illustrates, that's clearly not the case. Casual gamers will be just as much fans of AAA games as Angry Birds, given enough engagement in the game.
In fact, that's exactly how gamers started in games--failing repeatedly playing a popular AAA game of the time, learning to navigate pits and stomp goombas, building our proficiency with the controller and genre until we moved on to other things. Maybe we found things we liked better and abandoned what we started with altogether. Certainly, a lot of players brought into games by the Wii, Call of Duty, GTA, and the mobile market will go on to look for more game experiences (in fact, I'd say a huge amount of the Wii audience is what now makes up the mobile audience). Will they identify as gamers? Eventually, if they're really interested in games and passionate about them, I think they will. Will they keep buying Call of Duty every year? Maybe not. I think it depends on how much the developers are allowed to innovate (and also how well publicized those innovations are). Do they need to? Not really.
The opposite is also true--hardcore gamers will, and often do, play casual games. Plants vs Zombies, Ninjatown, and Kingdom Rush are all games I'd consider casual. The mechanics are clear, easy to understand, and fun. The games can be played in reltively short chunks and put down without too much issue. I played the hell out of those games. I remember Kingdom Rush in particular had a great way of keeping casual players happy with relatively simple base levels, and still keeping my interest with challenges and balanced rewards. When I say I have a problem with developers designing for casual players, that's the antithesis--designing for both! If casual players play AAA and gamers play casual games, then we have to design for both or risk alienating a group that might have otherwise been interested in our game. I've got more to say about the design implications, but this entry's already getting bloated, so I'll try to wrap it up.
All gamers play games--but not all players are gamers. Being a gamer means being passionate about video games and proficient in playing them, or rather, having enough experience with the medium. It's probably most similar to the way we identify each other professionally--at least here in the U.S., where profession is often the single most significant personal identifier. To indentify yourself as your profession, you generally have to be interested in what you're doing and feel capable of doing it (which usually means being experienced). To be identified as your profession, you have to appear passionate about what you're doing, and appear good at it. I like to sketch, but I'm not an artist. I like music and I even play a couple of instruments--but I'm not a musician. I like building things out of wood, but I'm not a carpenter. I am, however, a programmer--and even moreso, I am a gamer!