There are hundreds of millions of games played across the world every day, there are clubs, conventions, and publications dedicated solely to the practice. In economic terms, the video game industry is certainly a powerful one, growing to rival any other kind of entertainment or media form one cares to mention. This is video game culture, and it is important.
So the ‘culture’ of people-who-play-games has begun to evolve to a point where we ‘gamers’ tend to self-identify. We proclaim ourselves gamers and partake in video game culture. What does this mean?
What is video game culture? What are the boundaries and who are the gatekeepers of the culture?
It seems fair to say that for many gamers, voicing an allegiance to game culture is prideful. We like video games, we wish to demonstrate our affinity for the pursuit, whilst hoping to receive a modicum of respect for our choice of entertainment. We value the experiences had while gaming, and wish others to at least appreciate the value of those experiences.
This process explicitly creates a rift between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We often acknowledge the positive, that is, finding a sense of belonging and fraternity amongst like-minded souls. Yet the negative exclusionary practice is just as important. Those people who “don’t get it” are the ones on the outside, those who “don’t play” are automatically excluded. “We” are alike, and together, we are different from “them.”
As video games themselves become more diverse, battlelines begin to emerge between the people who play different kinds of games. The perception is that some gamers are “real” gamers and others aren’t. Some are casual while others are “hardcore.” Some are “more” gamers and others are less. Some, then, “belong” as part of the culture, and others are pretenders.
As is usually the case amongst self-identifying groups of people, the ‘most dedicated’ or ‘hardest core’ or ‘longest serving’ members are those who look down upon anyone with less pedigree. This elite priesthood is often situated historically—that is, if you “weren’t there” at a certain point in time, you’ll just never belong as much as we do. Obviously, then, there is always a set of people who will always have a sense of superiority over relative newcomers.
As the pool of game players expands, we find other ways to distinguish between each other. The way we play, how often, the platforms we use, the genres we enjoy are all markers of our status within the game-playing population. Gamers begin to identify themselves through which brands or franchises they buy and play—not unlike skaters who identify with brands such as Globe, or car enthusiasts and Ford or Holden. Or by how much money we spend on our “gear.”
Increasingly, there is a certain ferocity about publicly identifying as a gamer. I am no sociologist so I can’t quite explain it, but perhaps the stridence comes from years of defending gaming from a disdainful mainstream. Perhaps gamers are predisposed to finding the competition in life, and are therefore simply playing at being the best gamer. Perhaps the most dedicated gamers need a way to rationalise their (over-?) investment.
This ferocious distillation of video game culture down to a potent, pure hardcore is distressing. There is a strange agenda that seeks to purge anything from “game culture” which might somehow dilute the field. That is, if something does not satisfy the criteria of a self-appointed cultural gatekeeper, it must be expunged.
Casual games. Consoles. Zynga. The Sims. Women. Free2Play games. Critical writing on games. All of these are often targeted by the elite priesthood as not being ‘real’ or ‘necessary’ to game culture. They “aren’t relevant.”
In reality, the elitist notion of a pure, hardcore games culture is a fantasy. There is no such thing as a video game culture hermetically sealed-off from the rest of the world. Of course there are concentrations, where or when individuals focus on some things over others, but cultures do not exist in Tupperware containers sitting neatly organised on shelves.
By being a gamer, I do not stop being a man, a university lecturer, a mediocre sports fan, an American, an immigrant, a husband, a son, a musician. I am not a one-dimensional creature that is composed entirely of, and sustained by, video games. I am not defined by gaming and only gaming.
That anyone should want to be is morbid.
That anyone should demand it of anyone else is evil.
No one who plays and enjoys video games is required to ignore every (or any) other aspect of what makes up their identity, in order to be considered a gamer. People do not work that way. Culture does not work that way.
In fact, the integration of wildly varied and diverse people into video game culture is literally the best thing that could possibly happen to our medium. Without different, new ideas smashing into each other our medium will stagnate and die. Our culture will become so incestuous that it will no longer function. We need to bring new people in, not keep them out.
This kind of exclusionary practice is not unique to video game culture. Like the skating or car cliques mentioned above, other hobbies are just as exclusionary. Read up on heavy metal or punk music for an interesting comparison.
But, like music in general, video games are a creative, expressive medium. They are an art form. As a result, video game culture bears a greater burden, that of art.
Art is communication. As individual yet social animals we are largely defined by our ability to communicate with one another, through speech, stories, pictures, and other media. By communicating, we learn to balance the tension between our uniqueness and commonality. Every human being has a right to be part of this artistic conversation, whether as a creator or an audience.
Through art we are able to embrace one another’s perspective, at least for a little while, and maintain the empathy that human society requires to exist.
So, when someone self-identifying as a gamer claims that someone else’s experience with or interpretation of a game is not relevant, the first gamer is attempting to stifle the other’s attempt to come to terms with life.
Simply put, video game culture does not exist. There is no stone tablet inscribed with commandments. Only gamers exist, and their experiences, ideas and interpretations are what create and sustain video game culture. That culture is a vapour, constantly about to disappear, and only remains through the actions of the people involved.
Video game culture does not define who is and is not a gamer; people who play, talk or write about, and make games define what video game culture is. So when Patricia Hernandez is reminded of her trauma by a video game, then rape is relevant to game culture. When Lisa Foiles finds some aspect of a video game funny, then humour is part of game culture. When Kirk Hamilton analyzes the soundscape of a game, music is relevant to game culture. When Dan Golding or Brendan Keogh (or hey, even me) talk about video game studies, academia is part of game culture. When players scream obscenities at each other through voice chat, trash talk, casual racism and homophobia are part of game culture. When female developers, critics or players are derided based on their gender or appearance, then misogyny is part of game culture.
There are no neutral video games, or experiences of video games. No one stops being who they are as they play a game. So, everything that happens in the game, and everything said about the game, is always already being filtered through whatever lenses the player brings with them wherever they go. So, the female games critics can no more prevent their gender from being part of their experience than I can, or than you, the reader, can. Simply because some players aren’t aware that their gender, race, wealth, privilege, age or whatever is impacting on their experience with a game does not mean it isn’t happening. The same is true for the people who create video games.
Being understood as an artistic practice alongside writing, painting, music or film certainly aids in elevating the status of video games in the wider social context. They become something a person can learn from, enjoy, and enrich their lives with. But there is a caveat: everything is relevant to art. There are no limits.
So like video games themselves, game culture is what we make of it. We are all, individually, the gatekeepers.