Thoughts on Video Game Culture


Everyone talks about it.  Everyone that does talk about it, every game that comes out, every event held—everything adds to it.  This “gamer culture”.  What is it, and what does it mean?

To start with, the relevant definition is…

5 a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time <popular culture> <southern culture>

c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization <a corporate culture focused on the bottom line>

d : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic <studying the effect of computers on print culture> <changing the culture of materialism will take time — Peggy O’Mara>

All of those things can be boiled down into a few basic ideas—groups of people gathered together—at least intermittently—and sharing ideas and beliefs.

This basic concept can be traced back through the ages, when Egypt was the only “nation” in the world, when people were still living in small, autonomous villages.  People of dissimilar beliefs coming together to share knowledge, exchange ideas, and revel in our culture.

We’ve traded bazaars for L.A.N. parties all over the world.  We’ve traded exchanging hunting tips and techniques on how to kill that elusive boar for tips and techniques on how to beat that one boss.  We’ve come up with our own jargon that’s nearly incomprehensible to “outsiders”, much as the physicist’s or blacksmith’s jargon is indecipherable to us.

All of those are just “symptoms”, if you will, of the ultimate factor that makes us a culture—we band together.  Seems like such a simple thing, right?  yet it’s so important.  We come together, just as any town, city, or nation does.  We support each other, and, yes, we even deride each other.  We form sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures around this or that aspect of gaming.  The most heated debates are the wars between computer-based gaming and console-based gaming.  Good thing we’ve also traded swords and shields for barbed comments about one’s parentage, eh?

We’re also not happy with basic classifications.  We can’t just say “fighting games” and be done with it.  We have to add sub-classifications, such as beat-’em-up, one-on-one fighter, and so on.  We do this to every aspect of our culture.  It’s just another part of what makes it a culture.

Look at whatever geography-based culture you happen to find yourself in.  We can’t just have “readers” and “poets” and “bicyclists” or what-have-you.  We pin down what type of books they read, poetry they write, bicycles they ride.  All of this isn’t really a bad thing—or a good thing, for that matter.

If you’re more a fan of beat-’em-up games and you come across someone who’s more into one-on-one fighters, you have something to talk about—or, at the least, you know whom to not challenge to a round or two.  Hopefully,  however, we can all remember to use differences as jumping-off points for conversation.

“You’re a Halo fan?  I’ve never really played many F.P.S.es.  What’s it like, coming at it without much experience?”  “Oh, you’re into Street Fighter?  I’ve only played a little bit of that series.  What do you think of the latest titles?”

Things like that, where we use our differences to learn more about each other and, through that learning, celebrate just what makes us a budding “culture” in the first place.

That actually brings up another point—we really are a “budding” culture.  Video gaming couldn’t really be called anything like a “culture” until relatively recently—mid-‘Nineties is about as far back as one can safely go, though some arguments could be made for the very late-‘Eighties.  Even though video games had been around for a couple decades, they were still just nothing more than a fanciful hobby—like reading comic books, for example.  Sure, you had your favorite company out of the big two, and while you liked Spider-Man and your buddy liked Superman, even if you vehemently liked separate things, they weren’t exactly “cultures”.

Video games, like comic books, were much the same way at first.  You might have had your Atari, your buddy had a Colecovision, and maybe someone had a Nintendo Entertainment System—but at best, you just swapped houses to hang out at throughout the week, so everyone could eventually play everything.

That, though, is where video games started becoming a culture.  Yes, kids also swapped comic books now and then, but the main difference is that because they weren’t really interactive, they didn’t exactly engender the desire to work together.  When young boys and girls spent one day at the Atari home, the next at the N.E.S. home, they also shared tips and tricks on how to get past this or that level, or booted up a multi-player game and either whupped on each other or took down that one boss together.

Again, we’re still a budding culture—but we’re figuring it out as we go along.  In this uncharted era of a “global community”, it’s not terribly dissimilar, in a way, from villages being formed long ago.  People coming together to figure out how to till the land, how to get along, just what needs doing to make the community thrive—we’re doing the same.  We’re figuring out, whether knowingly or not, how to come together and make our community work.

And look at how far we’ve come.  Look at the events held around the world, where people—with nothing else tying them together—come together and share excited stories of this time they managed to pull off an “epic frag”, or that time they fought all the way to the boss without dying once.  We’re even making tournaments out of our games, where people from all over their countries—if not the world—come together, much like the combat tournaments of old, and like those, we bring with us—and thus share—our individual tastes and perceptions, making our culture grow all the more.

Not bad for a culture only a couple of decades old, eh?  I for one can’t wait to see where it goes next.

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