One of the most common (if annoying) gibes I get when I talk about gaming in an academic context is that there’s nothing culturally or rhetorically significant about these things as a medium. They’re just games. The very idea that games might exert some kind of influence on us beyond just eating up our free time is beyond most people. The most common retort is “yeah, but they make more money than Hollywood,” but I’d be the first to agree that money and popularity are insufficient grounds for studying something academically. No, what we chiefly need is to acknowledge their influence on our lives, and take at least some responsibility for that influence on us and our fellow human beings on this planet.
Unfortunately, even the people on my side of the fence–the ones who think games are actually worthwhile and not just a waste of time–will typically deny that they have any lasting impact on our behavior, attitudes, outlook, and so on. It seems to me that much of this attitude is reactionary, mostly because they don’t wish to give the anti-gaming crowd (especially those who tirelessly try to connect gaming to violence) any additional fuel. So, for these folks, while games might be more than “just games,” they still don’t have any lasting impact on us beyond making us better at pattern recognition or some such.
I, on the other hand, can think of no other medium that exerts as strong an influence on our behavior and beliefs than gaming, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. And it’s not just about their being “interactive,” a rabbit hole term at best. Instead, I see all games I play from a rhetorical perspective.
In my view, even the most abstract games like Tetris are rhetorical. The key to seeing these games as rhetorical is to understand that whenever we play games–or read books, or watch movies, or even listen to a song–we are doing a lot of the “filling in.” Some of this filling in is highly individualistic, drawn from our experience. Other parts of this filling in are broader, drawn from our broader culture. Thus, in some critical ways, a Chinese person playing Tetris will always have a different experience than an American, a woman’s play will differ from a man’s, and so on. Likewise, no two Chinese players, nor two American females, will have the exact same experience. It doesn’t matter that they’re all playing the same game and that there’s no obvious rhetorical or political content.
To get at the individual meaning of Tetris, we’d need psychoanalysis. Figuring out what the L-block in Tetris means to you wouldn’t be that much different than figuring out what the shark in your dream last night means to you. The meaning will change drastically depending on your immediate and/or longterm past. Maybe you had a cousin named Larry who picked on you; that L might trigger some long-dormant memory of Larry, especially if you’ve had a bad day at work and feel “picked on” by your boss or co-workers.
Getting at the broader meaning of Tetris, we could look broadly at social norms and culture. For instance, my culture values neatness, symmetry, and categorization. Everything runs smoothly when everyone knows their role, duties, and fits snugly in place. When, for whatever reason, someone doesn’t “fit in,” the best we can do is try to accommodate or work around them. It’s not hard to see how these values are reinforced by Tetris. Get too disorderly–fail to properly categorize and bring people nicely and neatly into a nice, orderly system–and society fails (consider my culture’s obsessions with recycling and fears of toxic waste). In the same way that we like to believe “It doesn’t matter what color you are,” it doesn’t matter what color a Tetris piece is–as long as fits nice and snugly with the other pieces.
For obvious reasons, we can’t examine what each game means for each individual, so these broader cultural pressures are the best we can do.
Just like any other popular cultural artifact, a game can either reinforce or challenge these cultural beliefs (let’s just call them “ideology”). It could do so blatantly or covertly, intentionally or accidentally. Let’s take a game that reinforced the male hegemonic belief that a woman should be passive. This could be done simply by showing several families in the game who conform to this–strong husband breadwinners, weak women at home raising children. Plenty of games do so.
It doesn’t matter if the designer intended to reinforce this belief. Maybe he or she didn’t even consider it. Likewise, it does matter absolutely that the player isn’t passive, either. He or she could see this scenario and accept it as good, not think about it all (in which case it might still have a subtle effect on his or her outlook), or actively resist it. Indeed, often crudely done propaganda can have the exact opposite effect than was intended–particularly if we look at it and laugh, or if it makes us angry at the person who designed the propaganda.
Consider the rather complex cultural messages embedded in the game Bioshock: Infinite. I’ve played the game through once, and that rather casually, so forgive me if my assumptions aren’t entirely correct. Still, it seems pretty obvious (I hope) that the designers were engaging in some cultural work, trying to get us to reflect on concerns such as fundamentalism, racism, xenophobia, history (probably not a stretch to say “hegemony”), and technology. Obviously, anyone who plays this game will have a unique experience for the aforementioned reasons. So, a better question than “What does the racial imagery in this game mean?” is “What does the racial imagery in this game mean for a particular demographic of players?” The first question assumes (wrongly) that there’s one stable meaning for these images across cultures. In the case of this game, there’s also the interesting question of what these things mean for the player’s character, who occasionally remarks on them.
I think a fruitful question for any designer to ask as he or she is making a game is how different cultures will respond to any particular message. However, games can do more than this, particularly in MMO settings. The gameplay could allow not just for different interpretations, but different choices, and, ultimately, different consequences (provided the developers are paying attention to how their players engage with their product). In short, we could learn a great deal about ours and other cultures by studying the choices that massive numbers of players make.
Consider the ethical dilemmas of games such as The Walking Dead, which go so far as to show you graphs of the choices other players made. Imagine this kind of information coupled with demographics, so you could see, for instance, how your choice to save a white character instead of a black character compares to players of those racial identities. Imagine if the game also organized this info by region, income level, education, and so on.
In short, I’m no fan of “one-size-fits-all” solutions for games. I don’t think any one game needs to strive to be inclusive to all possible demographics. What I do feel strongly about, though, is that gamers of all demographics need options that do include them. Furthermore, all of us who want to affect the status quo need to take some responsibility for making it so. For instance, support Kickstarter projects like Molly the Barbarian, which emphasizes its strong female protagonist, or Board Games: Now for the Blind –regardless of whether you imagine yourself playing it. After all, we’ve seen how far an industry goes which caters to only one demographic–the same, the same, and more of the same. With diversity comes…diversity! Who would’ve thunk it?