Book Review: Video Games as Culture

Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society

Meda-Calvet - CoverCropped

I graduated in Sociology at the University of Barcelona (2005). Later, I got both a Master’s Degree and a PhD Degree in History of Science at the Centre for the History of Science (CEHIC-UAB), also in Barcelona. As a PhD student, I learnt and studied the social and cultural processes related to the beginning and later widespread use of home computers and video games in Spain between the 1980s and early 1990s. Currently, I teach history and industry of video games at the Tecnocampus University (in Mataró, Barcelona).

Video Games as Culture encapsulates in only 194 pages something missing in the field of game studies for too long: the importance of video games as social and cultural objects. While Jennifer deWinter and Carly A. Kocurek mention a lack of game studies attending to game designers (DeWinter, 2015; Kocurek, 2017), it is also remarkable the lack of media attention to local connotations and idiosyncrasies of video games beyond the Anglo-Saxon and Japanese industries (Gazzard, 2013). Breaking with the popular vision of video games as an escapist activity, Daniel Muriel and Garry Crawford define video games as media that “transform our everyday life experiences in ways that multiply, instead of severing, our links to society” (135). According to this statement, interaction between users and video games provide points of encounter with others, rather than individual events: “Video gaming is not just the act of playing a game, but also a source of memories, dreams, conversations, identities, friendships, artwork, storytelling and so much more” (Crawford, 2012: 143). Thus, far from providing only individual and passive involvement, video games facilitate experiences that are “[…] shared, collectively compared, contrasted, and connected with other experiences” (104). This, in turn, brings us closer to issues that goes far beyond pure entertainment, and that would pose new strategies such as the use of video games in spaces and activities in which they had no place.

There has been a strong and perpetual boundary between seriousness and entertainment which began far too long before video games were created. Erkki Huhtamo claims that “the roots of electronic gaming go back to the time of the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Connecting humans and machines was a central cultural, economic, and social issue of the time” (Huhtamo, 2005: 5). From then on, amusement devices had long been perceived as ‘useless’ machines, making the separation between work and play even more intense. However, the identification of productiveness with “seriousness” and playfulness with “wastefulness”, is an ideological discourse that has been circulated to this day. Fortunately, the trend in which video games have been caught for years is changing, and there seems to be no turning back as the medium matures. According to Muriel and Crawford, “distinguishing between aspects of play and work becomes increasingly difficult” (36). Such transformation makes their book even more necessary. If work, education and play will no longer be antagonists, then we are going to need new conceptual and methodological tools that allow us to comprehend whether such changes are limiting or increasing participation and access, among many other important issues.

Both authors argue in the introduction of their book (Chapter 1) that video game culture is actually diverse and complex. Yet the authors manage to clearly convey thorough and rigorous ideas from a very multifaceted approach that involves sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history and game studies, among others. For example, while Chapter 2 portrays the emergency and consolidation of video games as culture, Chapter 3 stresses the individual agency within neoliberalism and participatory culture. Simultaneously, not only do the authors consider video games as experiences (Chapter 4) and ways of overcoming escapism through empathy and identification (Chapter 5), but they also provide interesting progress in the definition of gamer identities (Chapter 6). In my opinion, each one of these chapters could have been developed into a new set of forthcoming books on their own. But I also think that this is precisely what turns Muriel and Crawford’s work into a unique and very useful book for a diverse audience —even for those who do not see video games as a compelling technology.

Like it or not, video games are already part and parcel of our everyday life activities. In this regard, Chapter 2 shows the significant role that they play in the digitalization of societies. Everything is digitally mediated: from law, government, economy, welfare, education and leisure to every aspect of our daily experiences and relationships. We are witnessing and participating in a mediatization of every individual domain (Crogan, 2018) through which video games play a key role. Muriel and Crawford seek to explore the pros and cons of important ludic transformations such as gamification, serious games and augmented reality. Far from adopting the traditional tecno-optimistic and deterministic approach, they delve into the limits and controversies of agency and player interaction. For example, they recall that the very same concept of gamification include two opposed lines of thought: the celebratory approach, which sees gamification as a creative and empowering tool connected with a participatory culture; and the critical approach, which perceives gamification as a perverse way to dominate citizens or workers. Although this is a complex debate to take part in, the authors state that gamification is a generalized practice already, “within businesses, workplaces, and other organizations […] quickly pervading the social fabric of contemporary society” (25). And by quoting Miguel Sicart, it is also suggested that “gamification is just a symptom of a cultural trend: the vindication of play as a legitimate way of living, creating and expressing” (Sicart, 2014: 239).

The authors likewise point out in Chapter 3 that studying video games and their culture constitutes an opportunity to approach questions related to agency, interactivity and player control, among others. Although video games have long been hailed as the most interactive medium, they also have significant restrictions due, for example, to hardware limitations, production costs, and prohibitions to manipulate or modify them freely. In the end, such limitations just remind us that the experience of being in control while playing is, at least, problematic. In some ways, it is as if the authors were inviting us to critically review again some issues such as fandom and participatory culture that have been circulating for years. And even though most of their efforts have been put into overcoming the passive agency that users and fans were given for so long, we should now rethink how these contributions will fit in a global industry highly concentrated and increasingly dependent on planned obsolescence and crunch time periods (Nichols, 2014).

To gain a better appreciation of the complexities of this medium, Chapter 4 draws on the intricacies of video games definitions. Assuming that to play a video game is to have particular experiences, Muriel and Crawford also agree that these are in fact mediated experiences and not the experiences themselves. In this sense, programmers and developers “are gatherers of experiences, using them as raw material for their own designed gaming experiences” (88). Despite this, they do not deny the active agency of players. Players instead must actively participate in the mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics that make them work: “Players are, indeed, enactors of the gaming experience; that is to say, it is the gamers who act out, and bring into being, the gaming experience” (91). Furthermore, video games are presented as embodied experiences that break up the traditional dichotomy between mind and body (or representation and objects in digital games). It also obliges us to “re-think our relationship with the environment and places the body in a central position to revisit the divide between the corporeal and the cognitive” (95). Finally, we should not forget that individual experiences are usually collectively shared, compared and contrasted with others. Hence, digital entertainment sets up more points of encounter than individual isolation.

In the meantime, Chapter 5 allows us to see that video games also encourage shared emotions such as empathy. This, in turn, leads us to question the intricacies of a well-known concept within the field of game studies: Huizinga’s “magic circle” (Huizinga, 1949). Even though video games initially seem to enhance the magic circle by making the player a participant in its own virtual realm, the truth is that such involvement is never detached from the spaces and experiences in which the very act of play takes place: “Not only are video games self-contained universes designed to escape to, but they are also a medium to connect with different aspects of reality” (11). Instead of building a wall between the virtual and the real spheres, we are encouraged to identify the elements that actually make them more visible. In other words: video games allow us to connect with different aspects of reality more than keeping us away from them. Just like in science fiction movies and TV shows, video games are not normally made to display solely what is and what is not real. Above all, they usually encourage audiences to collectively participate and think over sensitive topics and ethical issues that are potentially controversial in our daily life.

Finally, Chapter 6 introduces us to the difficult task of finding shared identities among video gamers. In this sense, the authors seek to define conceptual identities of video game players and their communities, depending on their relationship or linkage to this medium. Accordingly, they propose a spectrum of different non-excluding categories: ‘hardcore-subcultural gamer’, ‘casual gamer’, ‘gamer as a foodie-connoisseur’ and ‘cultural-intellectual’. While the ‘hardcore-subcultural gamer’ is often associated with the player dedicated almost exclusively to the practice of playing games, the ‘casual gamers’ would have a lesser degree of involvement and use video games as one recreational activity among many others. Likewise, the category of ‘gamer as a foodie-connoisseur’ may be useful for identifying hobbyists and aficionados interested in the artistic, cultural, technical and economic dimensions of video games. This, in turn, leads us to the ‘cultural-intellectual’ category which takes a certain distance from video games while maintaining a more intellectual relationship with them. Along with these, Muriel and Crawford propose two additional categories: ‘everyone is a gamer’, which offers a more open albeit vague definition of gamers. And a ‘post identity hypothesis’ facing the current lack of strong communities and enduring relationships (Sennett, 1998; Bauman, 2013).

Gamer identities and the communities around video games have become for the authors one of the first empirical examples in anticipating a post-identity nature of the social settings that are emerging in contemporary societies. This does not mean that the gamer category is going to disappear, but it will surely be emptied of identity content. However, based on this argument, we could ask the authors a new set of questions. For example: why then should it be important to define categories of identity in gamers? And if it still is: what specific identity issues—even if they are fragmented—will continue to define the collective of gamers? Thus, much work remains to be done in this field, notably in relation to identity formation. If, as Muriel and Crawford claim, player identities are “contextual and mutational” (p.170), it is even more necessary to explain the social and cultural importance of video games and their users in contemporary societies.

Video Games As Culture: Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society is a book for everyone: players (or gamers) and non-players, parents, scholars, teachers, students, etc. I would especially recommend this book to all those people who, to this day, still think that video games are just an entertainment technology. By reading it, they would find out that video games are actually a massively spread medium that allows us to contemplate and reflect upon important issues that are part of our social and cultural lives such as identity formation, technological interactivity, social power and control, gamification in everyday spaces, and digitalization in societies, to name just a few. Finally, I want to emphasize that this is not a book in which the reader will find untouchable truths: rather, it is a tool that explains, in a very clear and understandable way, some of the debates and discussions that are still open around video games and their communities. Hence, I would not dare to say that this is going to be a definitive or complete book, but the beginning of future works and new publications that will take as their starting point some of the questions that Muriel and Crawford have synthesized and summarized so well in it.

 

References

Bauman, Z. (2013). Liquid modernity. John Wiley & Sons.

Crawford, G. (2012). Video Gamers. London: Routledge.

Crogan, P. (2018). ‘Indie Dreams: Video Games, Creative Economy, and the Hyperindustrial Epoch’. Games and Culture, 13 (7), 671-689.

DeWinter, J. (2015), Shigeru Miyamoto: Super Mario Bros. Donkey Kong. The Legend of Zelda. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Gazzard, A. (2013). ‘The Platform and the Player: exploring the (hi) stories of Elite’. Game Studies, 13(2). Last accessed (10/26/2019).

Huhtamo, E. (2005). ‘Slots of fun, slots of trouble. Toward an Archaeology of Electronic Gaming’ in Joost Raessens & Jeffrey Goldstein (eds.). Handbook of Computer Game Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1-25.

Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo Ludens. A study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Taylor&Francis.

Kocurek, C. A. (2017). Brenda Laurel: Pioneering Games for Girls. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Nichols, R. (2014). The Video Game Business. London: British Film Institute.

Sennett, R. (1998). The corrosion of character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism. WW Norton & Company.

Sicart, M. (2014). ‘Playing the good life’ in Walz, Steffen P. and Deterding, Sebastian (eds.). The Gameful World. Approaches, Issues, Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 225-244.