Video Game Culture: A Retrospective

Yesterday I finished what will probably be the coolest class I will ever take in college. That class was Writing 334 at Oakland University; aka Video Game Culture. That’s right; I got college credit for taking a class in which I essentially reviewed and played video games. But it was more than that, obviously. We all know that every college class has a set of goals and objectives that the student is supposed to learn by the end of the semester. This class was really no different in that regard. It just remains to be seen if my end-of-semester, stress-addled brain can recall these goals and objectives. So, here we go!
In Video Game Culture, I was introduced to the rhetorical, ethical, stylistic, and technical principles of video games and gaming culture. It wasn’t a very intensive class per-se, but the authors we engaged with this semester were pretty interesting. We started with game designer Jane McDonigal, who suggested at a TED talk that games can offer solutions to real world problems. Video games are the fastest growing entertainment form in our world today, and they have the power to bring people together in a spirit of blissful productivity. Video games can be – and often are – fun, novel and entertaining. These are not attributes that most people would apply to their daily workplaces. But throw games into other economic sectors like healthcare, education, and business – as McDonigal suggests – and just watch learning and innovation take off.

However, there are still plenty of political and social issues with video games that would stall McDonigal’s utopian vision of a pervasive gaming culture. Just Google Helen Lewis or Anita Sarkeesian and you will see just how closely aligned violence, sexism and misogyny are with video games. This is a present-day problem in the world of Video Game Culture and is the singular reason why video games as a medium are not going to gain cultural legitimacy unless they carry people to a new kind of aesthetic level.

That is why we began to deal with authors like Ian Bogost and Jesse Schell. While Schell gave us a conceptual framework for designing successful games, Bogost offered some theoretical concepts on how video games can direct emotional insight. Indeed, with video games becoming increasingly realistic, game directors must concentrate more heavily on other aspects of game design as well. These aspects are the rhetorical ones, such as game philosophy and narrative storytelling. Any game with artistic ambitions – and I would argue any game with any ambitions at all – must work to affect meaning in terms of their emotional impact and philosophy.

And so what? Perhaps none of this is really all that new. Gamers already know that the video game debate can be particularly divisive. The way I see it, video games can be either constructive or destructive. If you take a game like Darfur is Dying, the player can observe remotely what it might be like to live in another person’s shoes in a devastated, war-torn and famine stricken area. A game like Darfur is Dying might encourage ideas on how to improve the social reality of misplaced Darfurians. Conversely, we can look at a game like Ethnic Cleansing, in which the message is one of racial hatred. These are examples of games which are controversial. They may not exactly be popular, but they illustrate how games can pull from a wide subject area. Here, we no longer have simple entertainment; instead, we have games that have forced themselves into a polemic that can get politicians all up in a tizzy (of course, we know that said politicians are just upset that they didn’t grow up in an era where there were awesome video games).

Video Game Culture is still very much a subculture. But it may be that in another twenty or thirty years video games will be part of our dominant culture. If so, it should be interesting to see how our values will change and normalize as a society. I’m sure there will still be violent, misogynist video games like a Hitman: Absolution; but these games will be in the minority. The debate surrounding video games will no longer be one obsessed with violence or sexual objectification, but one of high-culture, literary and artistic values. Only time will tell.

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