On the meaning of a name: Higher Level Gamer

Next week is the first anniversary for Higher Level Gamer, and next week we’ll have a post about what we learned in the past year while blogging here. But, since almost a year has gone by, I figure it’s time to explain the name, Higher Level Gamer.

Cameron Kunzelman, who blogs at the aptly named This Cage is Worms, let me know that “the name really, really turns [him] off” because it sets him up “in the frame of smugness that is so, so common in games blogging.”

I get that. I really do. I knew it’d be a problem with the name as soon as I had it on the site. Sorry. And, I didn’t mean it that way.

About this time a year ago, we were sure that we wanted a blog where we could learn what it means to blog through practice and where we could publish timely stuff that didn’t wind up on Powerpoint presentations in stuffy hotel ballrooms. And, we were sure that we needed a catchy blog name.

All the good names are taken! Not really, though, but there are a lot of really good names already out there: Medium Difficulty. Critical Damage. First Person Scholar. Memory Insufficient. Critical Distance. There are a bunch of sites out there with great names—names like these that make you want to grin, nudge someone with your elbow, and say, “Get it?”

Higher Level:

The “higher level” part of the name really has two namesakes. First, it was meant to be a riff on the Chronicle of Higher Education but not out of a sense of pride or smugness about being an academic. I have as much of a cultural cringe for academia as I do for gaming (it looks like my link for Rab Florence’s post about the gaming cringe has broken). I’ve forgotten what was going on last October, but there was some article in the Chronicle that we were talking about. Whatever it was, it had us mentioning the Chronicle more than we usually do, which at the time meant the Chronicle seemed like a more well-known and widely read publication than it actually is.

And, if you’re a historian or a literature scholar, I’d hope you’d hear the oblique hint of “higher criticism” in the name. But, knowing the historical terms for literary/historical criticism is so deeply jargony that even I feel bad about it.

Second, I was reading K. E. Wilkerson’s (1970) article, “On Evaluating Theories of Rhetoric” (Philosophy & Rhetoric). I highly recommend it as an early (read: faulty) article on theoretical work in rhetoric if you’re a rhetorician who really likes theory and/or history. Otherwise, don’t read it; it’s boring and old.

Wilkerson’s article seems like a good corollary from rhetoric for the position that video games criticism/scholarship/thinkpiecing/what-have-you is in today. Wilkerson (1970) opened the essay with a simple but profound statement:

Disaffection with traditional rhetorical theory recently has been turned to the construction of new theories. But the survival power of the old is formidable; students of rhetoric are restrained by its very longevity as they search for its successor. The dominance of tradition in rhetorical studies has resulted in few occasions for considering new directions. Now that at least partial alternatives to traditional theory are at hand the student must evaluate them; an unfamiliar undertaking. (p. 82)

I think this statement works just as well for video games, if you replace rhetoric with video games studies (and I always mean “video games studies” as an inclusive idea of who/what is involved, not just stodgy academic disciplinarity). Traditional video games studies exists, unfortunately. Yet, its existence has spurred the development of new theories and new scholars in video games studies.

The new scholars, what Kunzelman called the third generation, are doing really exciting work in video games studies, and a lot (most?) of that work is pushing against the traditional scholars, the Bogosts, Murrays, Juuls, and Huizingas. But, it’s also pushing against ideas of “old media.” Everyone in video games studies, traditional and new, is constrained by formidable ideas of “old media”—by “old media” I mean both the earlier cultural/technological means of relaying information and the established disciplinary fields prior to video games: English literature, television, computer science, print media, sociology, language, etc.

It’s hard to break away from these prior conceptions. I’m failing at it here: Did you see how this is all coming from a rhetoric article from 1970 without substantial changes to it? Alternatives, however, abound.

But, buried in Wilkerson’s article is a footnote that really cinched the “higher level” name for me. In what may be now an overly simplistic discussion on communication models, Wilkerson (1970) said in a footnote that “one can imagine a theory of rhetoric within a hierarchy which would include, at a higher level, a general theory of communication and, at a lower one, a theory of grammar” (p. 95). If a similar statement were made of video games studies, I imagine the work that appeared and appears on Higher Level Gamer would be of the kind that belongs to that “higher level” of the hierarchy of theories.

It was convenient, then, that video games have levels. Get it?


There are a lot of people that don’t get it—it being feminism, or even just being something other than a terrible human being. And, some portion of them have used and abused the word “gamer” to the point that I’m embarrassed it’s in this site’s name. There are so many great things to cite and link to about this that I’ve stopped keeping track of them. If you need a source (seriously, I have trouble imagining a reader of Higher Level Gamer who does), go to Critical Distance, search for “gamer,” and despair.

I put it in the name out of a naïve, nominalist idea of “gamer”: A person who plays video games is a gamer. Yup, it was dumb.

I, personally, side with the camp that believe “gamer” doesn’t have to carry all of the misogynistic bigoted terror that it has: Ye olde “gamer” reclamation movement. Though, I certainly wouldn’t make a strong argument for reclaiming it, and it’s definitely not a position on “gamer” that all the authors on Higher Level Gamer share with me.

Suffice it to say that all of the authors at Higher Level Gamer are people who play games.

About Gaines Hubbell

Gaines Hubbell is an assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. His dissertation tracks the history of topoi and loci of invention in twentieth-century rhetorical theory, pedagogy, and criticism. His research focuses on the historical and contemporary development of rhetorical theory and its adaptation for newer media environments.
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