Video Games and Cultural Perception

First, a shout out to all the faithful readers in cyberspace on the Eve of Christmas.  (Yes, yes, I know, my first post went up a week ago.)  Have a great Holiday! 

Now let me get on with gaming and culture.  Today I want to talk about how gaming illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by the concept “culture.”  The traditional concept of culture is generally seen as something all around us, shaping our every move—Geertz’s system of symbols, where humans are caught up in webs of cultural meaning.  Even in the wake of 1980s and 1990s post-modern critique, we are still left with rather homogeneous and causal views—for example, Bourdieu’s habitus, derived from class and used an explanation for the differing tastes and behaviors of different groups of people; or the emphasis on discourses or ideologies that people cannot escape, so that discourses on gender and race seemingly define who we are and, in making that definition, provide others with power over us. 

Greg has already started the critique.  Here’s what he writes in his post Mirror Effects in Neurons Learned?: 

“The evidence from the brain sciences does not support the assumption that all implicit learning has ideational foundations or backing, but most models of culture really do not allow for motor learning to exist on its own as a relevant category of culture. I know, some will try to call me out on this and argue that late Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus is really a motor learning theory, but the fact that he has to assume that there is either a sociological structure (class) or cultural structure (a kind of crypto-structuralist cognitive set of categories) behind all action suggests that it is, ultimately, either a sociological- or cognitive-determinist model, not one that allows motor realms any autonomy.”

So, how about some gaming autonomy?  Let me turn once again to my trusty Game Informer in its January 2008 edition.  In yesterday’s post, I talked about how games offer us an immersive and interactive experience.  I want to expand on that post by focusing specifically on how designers utilize something close to the concept of “culture” as one part of how to make games immersive and involving.  In the feature article on the first person shooter Tiberium, which builds off the real-time strategy franchise Command & Conquer, the article goes: 
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Video Games: The Neuroanthropology of Interaction

By Daniel Lende 

We’re getting near Christmas, so today I want to talk about something fun—video games.  I also want to make the case over today and tomorrow for video games as a great place to apply neuroanthropology.  Writing these two blogs will also be my lame gift to myself, a way to vicariously enjoy a genre that can be entirely too addictive for me.  No Bioshock for Daniel this Christmas.  I’ve sworn off games until the summer…  (You do know, of course, that addiction is generally characterized by relapse, so if I start writing about Bioshock, Crysis, or The Witcher in the near future, feel free to give me crap about that.) 

This week I read cover-to-cover the new Game Informer, “The World’s #1 Computer and Video Game Magazine.”  In the Connect Opinion piece, Geremy Mustard has written an article “Small is Beautiful” on developing small-sized games for the Xbox Live Arcade.  As he noted, the “development process for XBLA games is not all that different from making any other game—except it’s smaller.”  In particular, the games are capped at 50 megabytes.  “That is not very much space—it is about the same size as just a few minutes of compressed video.” 

Mustard then highlights what he sees as the crucial challenge that this limited size places on the game developer:  

“With smaller file sizes game designers are forced to focus on the true essence of a game. What makes it fun? What makes it unique? Why would I want to play this? These are questions that any design team needs to ask throughout production. When making games for more casual audiences, other questions may include: How fast does the game hook the player? Is it simple to pick up and play? Is it deep enough to play again and again? We found it very helpful to let various types of gamers play the game [Undertow] at different stages of production and watch their reactions. When were they frustrated? Obviously, the more times developers can iterate a game to reduce frustration and increase enjoyment, the more fun that game will be. The fact that everyone on our team still loves playing Undertow tells me that we may have found that elusive fun factor.”

 In other words, the developers are focused on the on-going interactive experience with the game—that is the crucial thing for them to both develop and understand.  They do that by asking themselves questions, having different types of people play to get feedback, and following a certain cultural script they surely have for “the true essence” of a particular type of game.  (On a side note, some companies are also turning to “neuromarketing” to get insight into this process.) 
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