Games and the “It’s Just Entertainment” Myth

Meet Molly the Barbarian. Or, better yet, let's introduce her to non-traditional gamers!

Meet Molly the Barbarian. Or, better yet, let’s introduce her to non-stereotypical gamers!

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.

This complex political imagery won’t affect all players the same way.

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?

4 thoughts on “Games and the “It’s Just Entertainment” Myth

  1. Gotrek44

    Upon looking at the kickstarter and reading all about Molly the Barbarian, I can see some stereotypes already. I understand the style of whimsical art style and dry humor and such but what kind of barbarian wears make up? Then I see a picture of her mad and bloody with wounds. Upon looking at the gameplay I see that she IS ACTUALLY FULLY ARMORED. That is refreshing to see. I also see some brawn to her figure. Some muscles and imperfections (as little as I could make out anyways.) and not some sleek slender big boobied model bombshell. But then scrolling down I see her winking with sparkles and smiles. So I do not know what to make of Molly the Barbarian yet. All in all it still looks like a neat platformer/RPG. I also read it, I see they are asking the game community for what they want to see and include. Have a voice. Would that have something to do with it? Or will it? I hope more news is updated.

    Now I am not sure where it came from, or even if I made it up myself. (Probably my own thoughts) But I remember “Masculinism is stupid. Feminism is stupid. Because they both want power. Equality is better. We should all be like dogs and party!”

  2. Soy Leche

    Put me in the bucket who thinks most video games are merely there for entertainment.

    The caveat of course is the word “most”. Games CAN have a significant impact on societies, as well as reflect the reality of a culture.

    To give a few examples, one only needs to think of Chess. Anyone who reads the history of Bobby Fischer’s matches with Boris Spassky knows that at that moment it was much more than a simple game. In the same vein, in Henry Kissinger’s book, “On China”, he uses the games Chess and Go to describe the different cultural differences and viewpoints in foreign policy between Western and Eastern Asiatic nations.

    There’s also something there to your point on Tetris (although I applying psychoanalysis might be too. Uh haha. Why not Cognitive Behavioral psychology? Narrative? Or Solution Focused psychology for that matter? Sorry, just a random thought). But I makes me think back to the controversy over one of the Resident Evil games in which a majority of the zombies were of African nationality and black skin color. Although simple, how would the world react if a Shoot-em-up existed where a white triangle would shoot exclusively evil black monsters? I’m sure people would, at least subconsciously, draw the same parallels to the Resident Evil game.

    So long story short, although many times I don’t feel like games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush have any cultural significance, I think at least on a contextual level games can reflect our own culture and values in ways we haven’t really thought about. But again, I’m not sure this is unique to only games, video or otherwise. The same can be said about fashion, television and movies, food, etc.

    However, food for thought for sure.

  3. James

    I prefer a Freudian interpretation of Tetris; what really keeps us playing that game is a sublimation of our desire to put I-blocks into holes.

    But seriously, the idea that games are just time-wasters with no cultural impact is indeed very wrong. It undermines itself; games are things we use to occupy our attention and we call them time-wasters because we spend, in total, a lot of our time doing so. The things we spend a lot of time thinking about make our minds what they are. It is the same way that we are what we eat.

    I suspect the idea is a reaction to those who blame games for violent crime, a ludicrous connection that I would call a straw man argument were it not that many people who publicly make it do exist. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should not examine the possibilities that shooting one’s way to victory in game after game can affect one’s ability to deal with conflict with emotional stability or one’s moral outlook.

    Still, I am doubtful that a psychoanalyst could tell us anything meaningful about the broad cultural impact of a game like Tetris. With months or years of therapy one could discover that to a patient a T-block that must be placed flat side down represents their abandoned athletic career by way of an awards-podium; but this says nothing about Tetris, indeed, the analyst’s job is to examine the patient, not to examine Tetris. Similarly, Matt Barton’s thoughts about the use of colour in Tetris only contain information about the professor himself; one could just as easily say that each colour can manifest as only a small number of tetromino shapes (2 each in Nintendo’s first version, 1 in most others) each with their unique set of uses and needs while the game as a whole is about bringing all the colours into a useful harmony as opposed to a quickly game-ending chaos.

    Theories about the broad cultural impact of a work should be treated with healthy skepticism because it is very hard to say what a work’s impact will be. The only thing you can be sure of is that if it is popular, it is having some effect on the world.

    Final thoughts:

    Molly the Barbarian was obvious pandering to the social justice crowd.

    Board Games: Now for the Blind looks like an admirable effort to improve people’s lives.

    I would really enjoy a close reading of Tetris in the style of close readings of poetry.

  4. Syrah

    Hi! I actually worked on Molly The Barbarian!

    Good idea, but the execution (at least for me) was painful to say the least.
    ‘Make her rough, but really hot and pretty’
    I would have done SO MANY things differently when it came to the art of that game. I’ll let you know both of us artists worked our butts off on it, we just didn’t have an creative freedom. So it was hard.


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