[In this opinion piece, Daniel Johnson discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games.]
Piggybacking off the recent discussion surrounding Resident Evil 5
and the cultural liability of game developers or how the games industry breeds a “boys club”
culture? No, I wouldn't be so brash. Culture has always been an integral influencer of game development and consumption.
As this introductory guide will attempt to explain, culture is a difficult to define, powerful force which has become ever more important as video games begin to touch deeper themes, wider markets and an audience which is more culturally adept.
What is Culture?
Culture is one of those tricky concepts generalized by many, yet clearly defined by none. There's simple reason behind the ambiguity, being that even when given a clear definition the concept is still terribly icky since it manifests as a agent that influences the greater part of our thinking.
Culture affects the way we interpret the world and everything within that interpretation, hence it's difficult to separate culture from the mess of surrounding issues, so admitting generalization is almost compulsory when dealing with the matter.
Delving into the complexities of cultural definition are completely un-worthwhile (and hardly entertaining) for you the reader. It's an endless rabbit hole of confusion. Instead let's adopt the mantra that culture should be understood as a very open term, with the generally accepted definition being: “the way of life of a people”
. These people could be connected by geography (country), interest (fan) or anything else that binds them together.
Why Culture and Games?
Culture is becoming increasingly more important in the modern era due to globalization, multiculturalism and bilingualism. Businesses now operate on a worldwide scale, adapting their products and services to fit multiple cultural demographics. International communities reside in all corners of the earth, be it the Spanish speaking community of San Fransisco, Australian expatriates in the UK or mainland Chinese doing business in the bordering countries of South East Asia.
With the mixing of cultures, new hybridized identities have emerged such as the American-born Chinese, African-English (accented with the UK vernacular) and so on. Amongst all of this, second language acquisition and multilingualism is becoming a powerful asset in the contemporary modern world which demands greater cultural and linguistic sophistication.
Video games, much like anything else caught in this sphere is unavoidably affected by culture -- therefore, by understanding culture, we can better understand how game development, marketing and the games themselves are constantly changing under this phenomena.
Discussion of games in a cultural light has always been slim to non-existent, while at the same time game markets and developers continually become more culturally diversified. It's only been in recent times that this has caught up to us, sparking new awareness on the topic. The realization of potential markets such as China, Korea and Brazil as well as the increase in culturally rich titles including Resident Evil 5, Far Cry 2
and Grand Theft Auto IV
are all key contributors here.
How well the listed games portray a (foreign) culture is another matter altogether. Such issues as these raise the inevitable questions among audiences such as “Should developers be held accountable for the cultural messages inferred from their games?”
, “What's the difference between selling games to a U.S., Europe or Australian market?”
and “How much do we really know about developing a game for a Chinese, Jamaican or Middle-eastern audience?”
As you can see, now is as good a time as any to invest our thoughts into games and culture.
To bring this point home, I wish to discuss games as influenced by, representative of and a contributor to culture, and then conclude on some light discussion regarding the current cultural landscape.
Game Development as Influenced by Culture
Hopefully I've repeated it enough times already that you'll be aware that culture effects our everyday thinking. Living in a society with rules generated by our culture affects how we ourselves operate in that society. The process of developing video games is then obviously also affected by this culture, while at the same time being an extension into it's own industry culture. Game developers make games that abide by the rules of their culture, fair enough, most of the world lives in pretty humane societies, so the differences are mostly going to be pretty minor, right? True, but while subtle, they're hardly negligible.
Take the Metal Gear
series as an example. The Metal Gear
series was developed by a Japanese studio, whose influence can be seen throughout. For example, the series features a rather multicultural cast of characters with American, European, Russian, Chinese, African and Inuit backgrounds – an interesting fruit salad of ethnicities, all at the mercy of the Japanese interpretation of these cultures.
The way these ethnicities are represented in game are therefore very telling of the cultural angle in bias (be it positive, negative or otherwise). If you look hard enough the results are clearly apparent, cautious of spoilers, you can find some musings regarding the portrayal of the Chinese identity within the series here
The cast is just a single concentrated facet of this mammoth series. References to the Hiroshima bomb blast, the way that the US is scrutinized for its role with nuclear weapons and the commentaries on the Cold War are interesting hints of the larger cultural forces at play.
Larger still, the cast, delivery of dialogue and action hearkens back to the super-hero-super-villain manga style of story telling, which is particularly Japanese. From these minor observations we can draw powerful insights into the game and use them to better understand the title as well as its development.
The other, more homegrown way that culture affects industry is through the culture of the industry itself. That is, the way of life of game developers clearly affects the game development industry. A standout example immediately jumps straight to mind; Heather Chaplin's GDC talk
in which she criticized game development culture as being an adolescent boy's club, attributing this to why the medium isn't taken seriously. Funnily enough, my tutor (previously of RatBag Games) for an elective games course I'm taking, said similar things to our class a few weeks prior.
She asserted that game enthusiasts are the core group of people to enter development and therefore create games that appeal to themselves, hence limiting the progression of the medium. Her frustration on this issue as well as the responses generated from Heather's talk speaks volumes as to the effects that culture has on shifting the development process.
Games Representing Culture
Video games are a largely untapped, powerful medium of expression. Culture is an ingrown element of any form of story telling and is only more prevalent in a medium whose core quality is interactivity.
The actions and reactions of people is what defines their culture, in a game world they're also features of the game's story telling, hence developing a video game narrative is developing a culture. Story within an interactive experience can be told in various, perhaps limitless ways and forms, with culture underlying every one of them.
It's arguably a faddish fashion statement nowadays for games attempting to be more engaging to set themselves in non-western contexts. In a way it's the always reliable crutch to make a game more culturally deep, well at least on the surface. Popular settings include Africa (Far Cry 2, Resident Evil 5
), the Middle-East (Six Days In Fallujah, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
), Chinatown (Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
), Shanghai (Army of Two
sequel) and Okinawa, Japan (Yakuza 3
Locations have a story of their own, and are an easy way for games to convey culture, it's what you see, there's the culture, right in front of you! Culture as environment can be meaningful, but is far too often used primarily for aesthetic reasons, rather than stirring about deep cultural themes.
I personally adore The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
for it's incredible portrayal of societal cultural rifts. The Zelda series features three reoccurring fictional races, being the mountain-dwelling, laid-back Gorons, the fish-like Zoras and the exotic, tribal Dekus. These races share similar personal qualities to real life ethnicities, but visually are representative of animals or nature. In previous Zelda titles, protagonist Link has always been an outsider to these races.
The mask system in Majora's Mask allows the player to take the physical mold of these three main races, and see the world through the eyes of each. You as the player are now accepted into the membership groups of these cultures, they no longer view you as a foreigner, but as an insider and their actions change accordingly. Take off the mask, and the world reacts to you differently.
As an insider, the game places you in the role of a cultural observer who can bear witness to backstage operations of each civilization as well as par-taking in their practices. The game particularly emphasizes the way these societies rely on the natural environment (which present the game's conflict), and how each race interconnect through the economy of Clock Town.
The mask system is an entrance way into experiencing these three different identities from a perspective that had never before been allowed by the series. The metaphoric depiction of this reality of cultures co-existing in the same space is one of the reasons why Majora's Mask
had garnered such a strong individual following within the franchise; it gave the thematic a cold edge of realism.
These two examples of landscapes and identity representation as portrayal of culture are only two techniques in which video game can express culture. There are of course, other ways such as through characters, relationships and cultural symbols. The potential here is boundless.
Games as a Contributor to Culture
Video games also act as their own culture - that's us! The people that play video games are a society in themselves that through interactions within this society craft a culture of their own. Through our social transmission we emit a series of norms, specialized language and behavior that define the role of the game player. The same is true of any specialized membership group, we are as such a sub-culture. L33t speak, the significance of “All your base are belong to us”
, NeoGAF and Metroidvania are all examples of products of our culture.
The gaming sub-culture also feeds itself back into the larger cultural realm. The cultural products and symbols to come out of games culture in turn influence popular culture (and many other facets of different cultures). Pixel art, chip tunes, Machinima, classic iconography (the original Mario sprite, for instance) are all widely known products of gaming culture, spread through popular culture and in turn affecting the state of that culture.
The General Scenario of Culture and Games
Contemporary video games appear to be largely polarized between Japanese and American cultures. These two countries are the cultural powerhouses of this industry as both play the two most significant roles in game production. In recent years the industry has gravitated more towards Americanized games, due to the increase in quality of American developed games, and the decline in Japanese development.
The result of this shift has prompted many countries to Americanize their titles to suit this widening, more culturally dominant market. Previously, after the video game crash of 83, Japanese games controlled the industry. The tide has slowly been turning in favour of western developed titles, to a point where nowadays players are being brought up with the mindset that most of the world's best games are American produced, rather than coming exclusively from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Unlike other industries such as film, the youthful games industry is yet to establish a strong presence of country/culture specific games. That is besides American and Japanese games, most countries don't hold a significant reputation for their own blend or style of video game. It may sound gloomy but smaller cultural niches are healthy in their own right, they just haven't fully grown into their own, nor have the audience even began to adopt the mindset that each culture can produce their own distinct variety of electronic entertainment.
The cultural ethos in Fable 2
is a good example of a European atmosphere present in the games industry. Korean and Chinese games are an industry of their own, the large part of this almost wholly separated from the Western world, but a booming industry nonetheless. Just recently it was announced that India were going to receive a small bounty of Indian exclusive PS2 titles.
So while on a surface level, games may appear predominately American or Japanese, there's no doubt that this medium is also thriving from cultural diversity. In addition to these more apparent examples, there is much cultural subtly waiting to be unearthed. How does a French development team handle a game set during the Renaissance? How is language used differently in games made by developers from a bilingual country such as Canada in contrast to a monolingual country like the United States? These are all tiny nuances that affect the greater schematic, less obvious than the Far Cry
The coming out party for games and culture hasn't started yet, and it'll no doubt be a long time coming, but it's nice to see some diversity from different corners of the medium. Monetary requirements is also a matter of concern, choking any further cultural diversity. Still, I find the current situation to be an adequate step in the evolution in this medium.
Unfortunately I can only begin to scratch the surface of this important issue within the constraints of this post. From what's been said though, you can see by the various arguments raised that culture is actually a pretty important issue worth discussing. Sure, the issue is messy and difficult to quantify, but the proof is in the pudding as highlighted; games are producers, representers and receivers of culture.
We'll only continue to see video games becoming more characteristic of their cultural origins. This is an entertainment medium after all, cultures shape markets, markets have tastes, tastes ought to be fulfilled, developer's need to meet the demands of their market, market is shaped by culture. We're a medium becoming more sophisticated, it's only a matter of time before the culture catches up to us for good. I hope this article has set the basic premise for you, I'll begin to chip away at this enormous issue in the following weeks, I do hope you'll join me.
[Daniel Johnson studies language and culture, and spends too many late nights conversing Mandarin to friends in Shanghai. He shares most of his video game musings on his blog at danielprimed.com]