The Cultural Study of Games: More Than Just Games


We face a battle with games - to prove that they are worthy of serious critical analysis, and not a 'lower' art form. The field of cultural studies has spent three decades doing this, and we can use some of their most central theoretical tools. I will use these concepts to suggest that games, as part of popular culture, can play an intrinsic part in shaping our outlook, our role and our lives.

This cultural impact often faces indignation because we combine terms like 'play' and 'game', associated with children, with words like addiction, and try to explain how we might make more sensible use of such connotation as part of the semiotic language of games. This lecture attempts to map out how we can understand more about what games mean - and apply this to our design. This should be useful in further determining our distinction between gameplay and what has been termed the media content of games, and allowing us to mature the cultural content of games.


Today I'm preaching to the converted. Usually for an academic, audiences are involved in e-learning, educational policy or intellectual study, and it's my job to convince them that video games offer a wealth of potential in terms of education, or media study, and I'm often ranting about how important gameplay is compared to graphics and sound. You, however, don't need to be told this. Essentially my task today is reversed - instead of explaining gameplay to academics; I'm showing theory to gameplay experts. Naturally, I'm a little nervous.

ICDC is a partnership between Liverpool John Moores University and Mersey Television. As such, it is 'half academic, half commercial'. The flavour of this lecture will be this 50/50 approach. So we won't be drearily exploring the intricacies and contradictions of philosophy and ideology, we wont waste our time with ivory tower hot air. So much of the emergent academic theory surrounding games is of little practical use to designers, hopefully that will be avoided. Theory is a toolbox; game designers should perhaps view it as a pile of 'tools' that they can pick and choose from at will. By using existing media and cultural theory as tools, we can broaden the appeal of our art, deflect criticism and indignation, and perhaps even discover radical new approaches to design.

 Cultural Studies and Videogames

The history of the interdisciplinary subject of cultural studies was, particularly through it's earliest years, a battle for legitimacy in terms of what was 'worthy' of study. It has fought a long battle for the study of 'everyday' popular culture - that it is as equally worthy of understanding as 'high art' or classical culture. Indeed, it is vital to study it - if it is popular, it is almost certainly going to reveal something about contemporary audiences and attitudes that was previously hidden. At it's heart was an argument surrounding what was meant by culture. The term 'culture' was often originally thought of as 'the best that is thought and said' - the idea of someone being 'cultured'. This of course would imply that one should really spend one's time studying the 'classics', our 'high culture', and that 'low', 'debased', i.e. popular culture, was not worth the time or effort. Only over time was the definition of culture extended to essentially 'everything that is thought and said' - allowing academics to study 'everyday culture' in order to explore the relations existing behind the taken-for-granted aspects of our lives.

But in many ways the debate still rages - we now have the concept of 'dumbing down' - our news reporters might prioritise a Spice Girl out shopping over, say, slave labour in Burma. Paradoxically it is also argued that in fact 'the masses' are 'wising up' - queues for the Monet exhibition, opera attendance's and visits to the Tate Modern are massive. Even within popular culture there is a high/low debate - someone will call Whitney Houston 'shallow' whilst Stevie Wonder might be 'true soul' - yet of course both might be called 'low' culture in relation to Handel or Beethoven. In distinct ways then, the high/low debate continues.

And if there is one cultural form that is subjected to this debate, it is the often-despised phenomenon of videogames. Almost since their inception, videogames have been met with rampant prejudice, legislation and stigma. Indeed, they are often 'beneath popular culture'. This is usually related to violence, children and education, or diminished social skills. For example, in 1991 Eugene Provenzo claimed, "Games are pointless to most educational, social and cultural needs" (Provenzo, 1991, p.34). Highlighting - as we will - the relationship between games and defence industries, he also says "The use of video games to recruit people into the military in our own nation is already under way"(Provenzo, 1991, p. 132). "What are we teaching our children?" he demands to know (Provenzo, 1991, p. 124, his emphasis). And of course in 1982 the US Surgeon General famously stated - without any evidence, that children are so desensitised that:
"When they see another child being molested by a third child, they just sit back" (Herz, 1997, p.184)

David Sheff sums up these attitudes when, describing Nintendo, he says:
"[M]any people see the company as an evil force because it deals in videogames, hypnotisers of youth.... as if America's kids had joined a cult" (Sheff, 1993,Pp. 204-205).

We might call these responses emotional, conspiratorial discourses, lacking in sober objectivity. A cultural study insists, as we shall see, that conspiracy theory is to be constantly avoided, and particularly when one is discussing global power and the hidden agendas that do exist. Nonetheless, this language of unfounded panic has undoubtedly led to age classification, restriction and censorship.

One of the key problems is essentially one of language, or idiom. Cultural studies makes use of the concept of semiotics - the study of signs and their meanings - to say that one of our most potent forms of communication - language - can be regarded as a sign system - and one which is inextricably linked to power, restriction and ideology.

We don't have time or space to look in great detail at semiotics, but an overview might be useful. In terms of game design - a strongly iconic medium, a deeper understanding of signs - and the levels of signification - might be interesting.

In 1916 the Austrian linguist Ferdinand de Saussure ran a Course in General Linguistics, where he devised the key components of any sign - a word or image. Like two sides of a coin, he proposed that each sign must comprise a signifier (what the sign 'is') and a signified (the mental image that we all accept to be the given meaning), or to quote Daniel Chandler, the signifier is the form which the sign takes; and the 'signified' is the concept it represents. He stressed that the relationship between these two elements is arbitrary. That is, there is absolutely no pregiven reason why, say, the signifier 'dog' should allow us to conjure up an image of a four-legged, panting and rather smelly creature. A society grows to accept that this word will do. And if we all accepted it, then we might instead use the word 'growler', or for that matter, 'cilrdghpoierhgdfn'. Indeed, society does accept new signifiers, and new signifieds. Fifty years ago you might spot someone looking particularly carefree and say 'he looks gay'. It might mean something else now.

This is clearly an important element - the moment one begins to consider what is 'culturally accepted', one is immediately encountering ideology - and so we can argue that language, and 'accepted signs', become a central way in which certain ideas are accepted as 'normal' at the expense of others.

Roland Barthes, in his 1957 book Mythologies, argues exactly this - that no language use can be separated from structures of ideology and power. Barthes recognised that the signified can operate on two levels of signification- the primary level, that is, the most commonly accepted signified (four legs, barks, smells); and a secondary level of signification - the 'other' signifieds that we come to culturally accept (so with 'dog' this might be 'scoundrel' or 'ugly woman'). The descriptions he used are now common - denotation and connotation.

Barthes has a chapter in 'Mythologies' of interest to us - 'Toys', in which he analyses the denotation and connotation of children's playthings. He was one of the first theorists to recognise that these toys are pre-conditioning children to the gender roles that they will be expected to assume. He says that "All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world"(Barthes, 1972, p.53), and that for instance, a girls doll is "meant to...'condition' her to her future role as mother" (Barthes, 1972, p.53). If we apply this to videogames, we can immediately see that semiotics, especially as applied to ideology, might shed more light on the role that games play in our globalised society. If we are guilty of making too many games for boys, then we might too argue that we are guilty of perpetuating what is expected from boys.

Semiotics can clearly help explain some of the indignation about games. The primary signifier of the signs 'Toy' or 'Game' might be 'object / method of play' - but the secondary level might also include images and concepts such as 'childhood', 'innocence', 'trivia', 'pleasure' and even 'waste of time'. Add these connotations to the secondary signifiers of the word 'addiction', combine them with the semiotic imagery of gratuitous violence, and someone - in a position of legislative power - is going to get upset. Unfortunately, the semiotic language of videogames has not provided an adequate alternative, nor has it tried to wrestle these terms from their connotations. Many developers would argue that alternative terms like 'leisure software' or 'interactive media' are used by regulators in order to avoid these aforementioned terms - but out of a sense of shame and embarrassment. Arguably a new glossary of videogaming is needed.

To begin this, we need to acknowledge that there are certain 'negative effects' of playing games. It is difficult to disagree with the fact that many games engage in gratuitous violence - i.e. violence for it's own sake, and also that too many games are misogynistic, and often celebrate their own lack of depth. Work done by Prensky, Jenkins, Greenfield and others has offered reasonably concrete proof that videogames can have extremely positive benefits - particularly in relation to learning, but we must recognise, even if only to strengthen our argument with balance, that games can indeed have more concrete adverse effects.

There are the more obvious physical dangers - wrist, neck and elbow pain (perhaps a form of RSI: Repetitive Strain Injury), as well as (in rare cases) epilepsy, peripheral neuropathy, and encoprisis, although Dr Mark Griffiths notes that the 'cure' for most of these ailments is to simply stop playing - or press 'pause' (Griffiths, 1999, np.).

Note that none of these 'ailments' can be curbed by age restrictions - they are theoretically applicable to all videogames. They are therefore 'gameplay' dangers - and are not related to the images or signs that we encounter in the game 'text'. As gamers, don't we often argue that it is precisely this gameplay we are enjoying? As psychologist Sherry Turkle once said, "Those who fear games often compare them to television. Games players almost never make this analogy" (Turkle, 1984, p.66), and that someone with a familiarity with games is more likely to associate playing them with "sports, sex or transcendental meditation" (Turkle, 1984, p.66).

Indeed, in 1988 Leslie Haddon wrote what is arguably still one of the most useful academic texts on games, 'Electronic and Computer Games: The History of an Interactive Medium'. He notes that as soon as games became sophisticated enough to have "at least some narrative content", they could immediately be discussed and analysed as 'media':
"The storyline of the games allowed commentators to see the new form as a medium, and thus comparable to other media texts. Indeed, it was this feature which enabled the transfer of concerns about 'violence' from areas like TV and film to the new entertainment machines" (Haddon, 1988, p.62)

Haddon refers to the narrative, characterisation etc as media content, a key concept. As gamers we might not use the same terms, but we are well used to separating the media content from the gameplay - and suggesting that it is only the latter that 'matters'. But Haddon's observation allows us to go to suggest that we can study 'media content' using the same theoretical tools that we would study news media, TV or cinema: that is, we can 'transfer the theory' as well as the 'concerns'. Until we do, the indignation continues. Two months ago, Prince Charles suggested, "One of the great battles we face today is to persuade our children away from the computer games towards what can only be described as worthwhile books". As JC Herz says, "Videogames inspire unstinting hysteria among adults in positions of bureaucratic authority" (Herz, 1997, Pp. 183-184).

So, we can clearly argue that there are games that do not conform to the model of 'a bad influence' or 'long-term ill effects'. We know that playing games can have enormous benefits in terms of contemporary work skills. So, what we have is the potential benefits obscured by the foregrounding of the 'bad influence' model. We can clearly see that the reaction is therefore out of all proportion to the genuine 'threat'. This is immediately relevant to the theories developed by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the Seventies, and in particular their analysis of youth cultures and the 'mugging' threat as explored in 'Policing the Crisis':
"When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when 'experts', in the form of...the judiciary, politicians, and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms...above and beyond that which a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic" (Hall et al, 1978, p.16, their emphases)

We are perhaps all familiar with the phrase 'moral panic' - but I think we need to look at this definition and remind ourselves of the crucial fact that moral panic is primarily related to ideology - or perhaps we might call it 'the politics of everyday life', and always draws attention to subsequent legislation. Arguably a key term here is consent - moral panic is used to justify, gain and maintain the consent of the moral majority.

The moral panic is a discrepancy, between a 'threat' posed to society, and the level of attention given to it (in the popular media, most notably the televised news, and national newspapers). Again, it is crucially an ideological process - involving as it does this notion of a threat to the moral majority. The panic is then used to justify - or gain consent to - increased curbs and regulatory powers.

It has been noted that the arcade was once a source of moral panic. Fears were publicly expressed about the often darkened, smoky halls that housed remarkably successful videogames: the nascent games industry. Indeed, most public coin-operated amusements, from phonograph machines in the 1890's through 1920's kinetoscopes and pinball parlours in the 1950's, have all been associated with 'dangerous' male youth cultures (Herz, 1997, Pp.44-45). JC Herz argues that the arcade has been a constant source of moral indignation about potential delinquency, or the corruption of youth .She describes it as "parental paranoia", about children coming "into contact with all sorts of social undesirables, blue collar kids, maybe even blacks and Hispanics" (Herz, 1997, p185). Herz identifies the crucial class element that underlies ideological theories, and is a key element of the moral panic.

Another key element, and again central to the relationship it has to power structures, is the subsequent state legislation - based on public consent - that should inevitably follow the panic. The arcades were no exception, Haddon notes that "In the US, moral panics resulted in some much publicised by-laws to regulate arcades", and that in Britain in 1981, the 'Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games) Bill', tabled by Labour MP George Foulkes, was narrowly defeated (Haddon, 1988, p.60). True to the claims of Hall et al, politicians are amongst those whose reactions are out of proportion to any actual threat. Haddon perhaps sums it up best when he suggests that:
"Very traditional fears about 'deviancy' and working class, male youth seem to underlie much of the apparently new alarm about video games playing" (Haddon, 1988, p.61)

However, this model does not quite fit in terms of contemporary games. Both the videogame and broader media industries have become far more densely complex, and intertwining. Firstly, the cultural space is often now the home - not a public gathering space, which has in any case become commodified into giant entertainment centres. Online gaming, and the micro worlds that modern games can offer (see Cassell and Jenkins, 1988, Pp. 262-297), mean that the home is not necessarily an anti-social or closed space; indeed through networks the opposite is possible. Panics seem to remain, but often now focus more solidly than before on the media content of particular games themselves, and are far more prosaic. In "The Moral Panic in the Age of the Postmodern Mass Media", Angela McRobbie suggests that:
"Moral Panics...[have] become the norm of journalistic practice, the way in which daily events are brought to the attention of the public" (McRobbie, 1994, p.202)

And in fact, when one looks to recent 'panics' about specific games, it can be said that often the controversy is initiated and sustained by the game developers themselves, for publicity. 'Grand Theft Auto', generated what appeared to be a minor moral panic in Britain, connecting videogames to joyriding, and implying that civil society was in some form of 'danger'. Stories could be found in the News of the World, The Sunday Times (front page), and on 'Newsnight' (Arcade, Iss. 4, p.83). In fact, a marketing company engineered every aspect of the panic, initiated by contacting a 'typical rentamouth peer' (Arcade, Iss. 4, p.83). Sony was also 'forced' to withdraw an advertisement for 'Cool Boarders 2' after complaints. Arguably the withdrawal of the advert, more than the advert itself, becomes of more value to the marketing department:
"Powder. My body yells for powder. I need the rush, the buzz. I have to get higher than the last time" (Guardian, 18/2/98, p.2, underlined as per advertisement)

For McRobbie, whilst the moral panic is still used by the right, as a strategy for generating control, their "high rate of turnover" (McRobbie, 1994, p.198) in contemporary media, and the familiarity that the public has with the strategy (although perhaps not in terms of consequent legislation), radically affects its use. The traditional structures have:
"been replaced by a more diverse and more fluid set of institutions, agencies and practices which sometimes interlock" (McRobbie, 1994, p.211)

We can argue that the games industry is one of these institutions, manipulating the moral panic as a strategy of it's own in post-modern 'news', associating their product with some oblique 'deviancy', and so appealing to young people. Public indignation about games can still be connected to theories of moral panic, but only after accepting firstly that, occasionally, they can be easily 'self-generated', and secondly that they are too common to be as effective as they once might have been. Therefore, we need to broaden the ideological debate.

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