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Art for Life’s Sake: How Culturally-Focused Games Can Transform Overall Consciousness

This article explores the African perspective of art and its use in relation to a specific segment of games currently being developed in emerging markets around the world - culturally-based games.

Karin Cederskoog, Blogger

September 5, 2013

23 Min Read

Expanded from the original submission to the August 2013 IGDA Perspectives Newsletter.  The following article does not in any way represent the views of the author’s employer.


Just as there are varying perspectives on the functions of traditional art, there are varying perspectives on the functions of games.  In the European context, art is created for art’s sake (taken from the early 19th century “L’art pour l’art”).  However, in the African tradition, art serves a function (according to acclaimed writers Léopold Senghor and Chinua Achebe), “[ministering] to a basic human need, [serving] a down-to-earth necessity.”  By this definition, art only has value if it serves some greater purpose.  A similar viewpoint is often cited by prominent independent game developers, particularly by Jonathan Blow (developer of Braid and The Witness).  Blow is a proponent of uncovering both universal truths and further exploring age-old philosophical questions through game design (such as those concerning our very existence).  He believes that games can and should serve a purpose beyond mere entertainment.  This approach to design opens up an interesting avenue for exploration, particularly when it comes to using the medium to communicate culture.  Video games can and do reveal collective truths on a global level, as they explore societal factors that affect communities in different parts of the world.  Thus, an emerging segment of games is serving to seek a specific function – culturally-based games are propelling more realistic representations of local regions, giving gamers the opportunity to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories (rather than as the antagonists, as so often happens).  These kinds of games can ultimately transform the stereotypes that dominate the entertainment industry and thus, change the overall perception of various regions and the people within those regions.

Revealing culture through games is nothing new: in some genres, games and culture areseamlessly integrated so they are nearly one and the same, such as Japanese culture in JRPGs and Norse mythology in fantasy RPGs (i.e. games that refer to Valhalla, mead, Odin, Freya, Thor).  There has already been an incredible movement of people who developed an interest in Japan largely due to games and anime.  It isn't far-fetched to believe that culturally-based games could also inspire interest in other cultures.  In recent years, indie developers took it upon themselves to integrate their own culture into games, often due to inaccurate representations or even the absence of those cultures within the medium.  Through Language Automation, Inc.’s interview series, I spoke with Ziad Feghali of Wixel Studios, based in Beirut, Lebanon, in which Ziad states that Wixel’s overarching goal is to combat the stereotypes and unflattering perceptions of Arabs perpetuated by games and other mediums.  This vision directly correlates to the African perspective on the purpose of art.  As globally-acclaimed, Nigerian author Achebe asserts in the book Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe Volume II:

The quintessential task of the artist is that of rescuing the African past from the colonial misrepresentation and biased stereotyping to which it had been subjected […] This task cannot be compromised because in the eyes of Europe, to a very large extent, Africa is the “other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked at by triumphant bestiality (251).

Achebe uses literature to tell his own story and the stories of his people, the Igbo.  As he recalled during an interview, there was a particular moment in which he realized that he had “instinctively” been on the side of the protagonist in The Heart of Darkness, on the side of the “good white man.”  However, he suddenly saw that he was “one of the savages […] jumping up and down on the beach.”  This had a profound impact on Achebe, given his statement, “Once that kind of enlightenment comes to you, you realize that you need to write a different story, that someone has to write a different story.”  Just as Achebe sought to “[rescue] the African past from […] colonial misrepresentation and biased stereotyping,” game developers like Ziad see games as a way to transform the global perceptions and misrepresentations of local people and culture.

Achebe’s sentiment is echoed in Ziad’s motivation behind creating culturally-based games.  “In the world that we live in […] it’s kind of a stereotyping towards everything that is Arabized now, and this problem, we are facing on a daily basis.”  Wixel Studios’ game Survival Race shows a different representation of the Arab region than is ordinarily seen in games, creating heroes with whom the player can connect and showing Wixel’s own heroic story for the Middle East.  Survival Race integrates elements prevalent in Middle Eastern culture, such as car racing in the Gulf region and the age-old Arab tradition of botany, bringing together a wheelie car racing champion and a botanist to save the world from the Anti-Plants Terrorism Agency.  Survival Race explores regional concerns and broadens them into one larger, universal topic.  In my interview with him, Ziad states:

Our heroes rose from within, and that’s the concept [for the game] – we have these heroes, and these heroes will come up, and every person, every one of us, in everything that we do that is constructed towards humanity, towards existence […] There are a lot of messages behind the game […] and this cause is not just to save the Middle East.  This cause is to save humanity after all.

The entire concept of “art for life’s sake” or, art serving a particular function, is rooted in the idea that art serves as an agent for change.  For independent developers creating games based in culture, a large part of the motivation is something beyond games as entertainment.  It’s about transforming the perceptions continuously perpetuated by negative portrayals of local culture across a broad range of mediums.  This goal is echoed across indie studios in emerging markets around the world, from Latin America to Southeast Asia.  The creator of Unearthed: Trail of IBN Battuta (a Saudi Arabian game released on multiple platforms, including the PS3 and Xbox 360), hopes that games like Unearthed will draw global attention to Middle Eastern game development.  Semaphore’s Ahmad Jadallah states that his goal with Unearthed was, “To present a locally-developed product with a global appeal in multiple languages and to break the mainstream conventions about the Middle East and the portrayal of women in gaming.”  Similarly, Lebnan Nader of Game Cooks (also located in Beirut, Lebanon) developed the game Run for Peace because he saw the need “to secure peace” within the region, “to spread peace.”  Not only does the game involve physically spreading peace across the Middle East, but the protaganist’s name – Salim – is inspired from “salam,” the Arabic word meaning “peace.”  Run for Peace takes local issues and engages the player within those concerns, expressing a clear vision and hope for the state of the Arab world and the world at large. 

Game developers are not only able to aid in reforming stereotypes, but they are also able to educate players about their specific region through games.  In a presentation at GDC 2013, African developers Wesley Kirinya and Eyram Tawia stated their ideas for the future of Ghanaian studio Leti Games, “What we are trying to do it is to find the intersection [between education and games].  When we did that, we realized that there’s historic legend [in Africa] that could make really good games.”  They are currently re-envisioning important African historical figures and transforming them into exciting, relatable stories, such as giving Ashanti rebellion leader Yaa Asantewaa superpowers.  Culturally-based games are able to do something more significant than simply using stereotyped sidekicks: they show gamers realistic and creative interpretations of specific regions, allowing gamers to experience stories with local heroes.  This parallels what Achebe was seeking to accomplish within his own works – reversing the “biased stereotyping” engrained through the mainstream by humanizing Africans who have long been considered part of the “other world.”  The necessity of sharing local stories stems from the plethora of creative mediums portraying Africans from the eyes of the conqueror, which ultimately results in the representation of Africa as “the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization.”  Game developers at Wixel Studios, Game Cooks, Semaphore, Leti Games, and many others are giving a voice to their given regions, showing gamers on a global level stories of Arabs and Africans as heroes.

In speaking with developers like Ziad and Lebnan and in researching studios creating culturally-based games, it quickly became apparent that at the very core of these games, the underlying purpose is to reverse stereotypes.  This is done by creating games intended to resonate with international audiences and shifting marginalized cultures into the global consciousness of the mainstream via positive representations.  After all, by only consuming games that repeatedly feature one kind of hero (often a white male), games inevitably shape who players see as the “true hero.”  This shaping of the player parallels the shaping of the reader within literature.  Although well-known for “fathering” African literature, Achebe spent a period of time writing children’s stories because he and his wife found that the books they gave their young daughter were “stories full of racism […] full of ideas of Africa again as the other place, as the back of the world.”  Similarly, game developers don’t actively seek to mold the consciousness of gamers into seeing white males as the “true heroes” of the gaming world, but by dismissing and marginalizing the perceived significance of other ethnic and gender groups, games are perpetuating a trope that ultimately takes root in the collective consciousness of players.  On Kotaku, Evan Narcisse often writes about the representation of blacks in games (or rather, the misrepresentation).  Last year, he wrote an article in which he eloquently summed up this shaping of the consciousness as it relates to the perception of race:

I think that’s what happens in both Resident Evil 5 and also Dead Island.  They’re not just invoking fear of zombies, they are invoking fear of blackness, and offering the gamer an opportunity to challenge their racial fears as well as their other fears.  What you’re seeing here is a subconscious action.  And the reason it becomes clear [is] because it’s not in one game, it’s in several different games.

By continuously drawing upon racial fears so often perpetuated across mediums, games are further instilling these biases into the collective consciousness of players, “[problematically] [pouncing] on fears that were promulgated about black people in the not-so-distant past,” according to Narcisse.  Thus, writers like Achebe and select game developers seek to humanize groups that are far too often marginalized across literature, games, and other mediums. 

In following that strain of thought, Lebanese game developer Lebnan Nader doesn’t blame the way AAA developers portray Arabs in games since “people believe what they see on the media, and when you look at the media worldwide, you see that the Arab/Middle East region and Africa is all about wars […] but assuming Arabs all are terrorists, all of them, that’s just wrong.”  It is inevitable that stereotyped images will take root if representations of specific groups are largely homogenized.  It’s reminiscent of the way other media portrays gamers – often the teenage boy playing overly violent games for hours on end or the overweight, older man taking up residence in his mom’s basement, slowly wasting away his life on mind-numbing gaming.  Far from our own perception of what games are, TV shows, movies, and the news frequently represent games as a severe drain on society, a soul-sucking medium that turns children into killing machines and as they grow older, effectively removing these boys from functioning society to permanently hole up in their mothers’ basements.  It’s no wonder that the general population sees games as a disturbing and rather dangerous medium.  Society as a whole doesn’t see a positive use for games, and as such, many people are unable to see the possibilities for games as an inspiring storytelling medium or to communicate the nuances of different cultures and the global human experience.  Similarly, when specific groups of people are continuously portrayed in a homogeneous light, those modes of thought are prone to manifestation within our own minds, effectively shaping the collective consciousness of an entire population of people.  It will take time to reverse the tradition of marginalizing certain groups of people within the medium, and some developers may never move beyond those tropes.  However, if we want our industry to evolve and ultimately have a more positive impact upon human thought, it is necessary to create and inspire others to include more humanized and diverse characters.  In another article by Evan Narcisse, he quoted a game developer he interviewed some time ago for an unreleased piece:

Gamers need to understand the many shades of life that are out there.  Not all African Americans are big, jive-talkin’ strong guys with gatling cannons, the same way not all Asians are honorable silent types who know kung-fu.  Television and movies had to evolve to show the many facets of humanity and games really need to start.

It is critical for games to represent all kinds of people within a complex tapestry, revealing the multi-faceted experience of human thought and human life.  This includes reshaping the public consciousness toward humanizing groups long marginalized, creating a library of culturally-based games like Survival Race, Unearthed, and Run for Peace in order to give gamers a platform to interact positively with Middle Eastern and other cultures.

The idea that video games can shape human thought is a powerful concept because game developers are now able to reach a larger audience than ever before.  Games are exploding in popularity due to mobile and casual gaming consoles like the Wii, and this means that game developers have the opportunity to reach millions of people.  As renowned game developer Jonathan Blow states:

That’s very exciting because we’re going to have more people playing our stuff than ever before, and what that means to me is that games are going to be moving more and more to becoming central to our culture.  They’re going to heavily impact the patterns of human thought and thus, help define what it means to be human.

He points to other mediums, such as books and film, which have a traceable effect on human thought, with books comprising “a fundamental part of what it means to be human today,” as the education system and everyday uses of technology would be rendered impossible without books and the written word.  Blow has no doubt that games shape consciousness, but the important question for him is what games teach, “If games are going to be one of the foundations of human thought in the future, we really need to think about what those games are going to be teaching all these people.”  It is limiting to play games that reiterate select viewpoints of the world and the people within it.  By exploring multiple perspectives, we are able to connect with global outlooks on life and ultimately achieve a greater understanding of the human condition and the overarching questions of humanity – what it means to be human and why the world (and each one of us) exists. 

It is common-placed for disciplines to look broadly across cultures.  In fact, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has an entire Bridging Cultures initiative that specifically focuses upon the broad range of human experience to aid in utilizing the humanities “to promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives.”  As the chairman of the initiative explains, “The sharing of language, philosophy, literature, and art – the history of peoples – is the most profound bridge between societies and across cultures.”  Since, according to Jonathan Blow, the rising number in people who play games indicates that games will impact human thought to the point of defining what it means to be human, games may also aid in forming this “bridge between societies and across cultures [promoting] understanding and mutual respect.”  There is no singular approach adequate in exploring the humanities, just as there is no singular approach adequate in exploring people and cultures within games.  It is the diversity of exploring these elements that allow us insight into other worlds and patterns of thought, rather than remaining confined to seeing the world from a singular viewpoint, the viewpoint of the culture currently dominating various entertainment mediums.  Just as children’s literature can reinforce or deconstruct racist patterns of thought and TV can reinforce or deconstruct the stereotyped image of gamers, video games can either reinforce or deconstruct racist patterns of thought and stereotyped images of specific groups of people.  Game developers can use video games in a positive way, giving gamers the opportunity to directly confront socially-engrained racism and by giving a real voice to characters within marginalized groups, whether according to race, gender, or sexual orientation.

It is sometimes cited by developers that there is no conclusive evidence linking the diversity of game characters to a beneficial impact upon the game or gamer.  According to Dr. Beverly Tatum (renowned authority on the psychology of racism), racism does not have to be overt – it is systemic and apparent in everyday life, eliciting social and economic advantages or disadvantages for given groups.  In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Tatum cites the significant role of social segregation in shaping individual thought, as it results in frequent dissemination of second-hand information about people of other racial, religious, or socioeconomic groups, information that is subsequently “distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete.”  Entertainment mediums and news sources may be the only frequent interaction an individual has with people of differing backgrounds, and these mediums continue to perpetuate the stereotyped characterizations propagated through Western entertainment, while news sources aid in fueling prejudice towards specific groups of people.  Video games have the opportunity to shape interactions with these groups and serve a real benefit to society by “reducing prejudice and stereotyping.”  This is entirely within the realm of our capability, given that games do teach and effectively shape human consciousness through immersion.  Not only that, but a recent psychological study “Changing Belief and Behavior Through Experience-Taking” revealed that narratives can conclusively expand “scope of experience, and thereby, change beliefs and behaviors [in] casting aside one’s own self-concept and mentally simulating the experiences of a story character as if they were one’s own.”  While the study focused solely upon narrative within literature, game developers have long cited the power of immersion within games to allow the player an opportunity to experience narrative just as deeply as novels (or perhaps even surpassing, due to the more active role players have in storytelling through games).  According to psychological studies, narrative allows a person to “assume the identity of the character” which ultimately “[reduces] prejudice and stereotyping,” a frequently cited goal of culturally-based games.

Game developers have often recounted the incredible difficulty of successfully pitching a character of a marginalized group as merely a sidekick within a game.  It is time for a transformation of the way race and culture is thought about and explored within games.  TV has done it with color-blind casting (such as in Grey’s Anatomy), and games need to follow suit.  It shouldn’t be difficult to portray characters from more realistic and varied representations, but our games continue to be dominated by these poor characterizations as Arabs again and again as terrorists and blacks as “big, jive-talkin’ strong guys.”  The responsibility of transforming these stereotypes does not belong solely to game developers of select markets.  In order to make a measurable difference in the preconceived notions of race, more games need to break away from the trend of succumbing to stereotypes and instead, explore new ways of approaching character creation.  For example, Chris Hecker’s upcoming game SpyParty explores cognitive bias through psychological espionage simulation, and one facet of cognitive bias is, of course, race.  There are a myriad of ways game developers can add complexity to their games, simply through integrating more realistic and diverse characters.  What kinds of games do you want to create?  As an industry, do we want to rehash the tired stereotypes and shallow characters that continue to plague the market, or do we want to explore multi-dimensional characters never seen before, each one distinct and full of intrigue? 

Fortunately, my own research and discussions with global game developers shows me that we are starting to move away from inadequate character renderings.  Imagine a game jam in Sweden.  What themes might participants there seek to explore within their games?  Earlier this summer, I was invited to speak at a game jam in Malmö, Sweden, the annual Arabic Game Jam, and in my presentation, I discussed the ways of approaching game development within the Middle East/North Africa region, including dialect and cultural considerations and specific advantages in targeting the market.  (You can view the full transcript on LAI’s blog.)  It was exciting and inspiring to see so many budding game developers enthusiastic to incorporate Arab culture into their games.  On the other side of the ocean, I also served as a judge for Mexico City’s university contest through ITESM for students creating games on the theme of “Mexico.”  In fact, game developers aren’t only involved in portraying modern-day culture: the Royal Ontario Museum recently served as a basis for the first ROM Game Jam, in which developers created games inspired by museum exhibits.  The museum even had experts available to answer questions and learn the behind-the-scenes of artifact excavation and preservation, pairing game development experts with historical and cultural museum experts.  Given rising global interest among students and developers in creating games with a cultural spin, coupled with the economic advantage of differentiating games via culture, I fully expect the trend of creating culturally-focused and regionally-inspired games to expand further.  With hope, the movement will also inspire new kinds of mainstream games in the coming years. 

Within my own exploration of culture in games, I see the medium as a way to preserve stories.  Last year, I wrote an article titled, “Taking Video Games in a New Direction: Africans, Native Americans, and Storytellers,” in which I asked questions pertaining to whether cultural pasts could be preserved via games.  I cited Native American and African traditions in particular, as Native American cultural preservationists currently record stories in archives, while games allow people the opportunity to actively engage with these stories and cultures.  Although traditional storytelling is not as popular as it once was, there is a built-in market of people hungry for stories – thousands of RPG gamers worldwide looking for new adventures to embark upon.  In an interview years ago, Tim Schafer himself (designer of Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, Brütal Legend) stated:

There was Alan Dundee’s folklore class at Berkeley, which really inspired Grim Fandango.  Folklore is such a great place to mine for ideas and stories.  There’s such a rich body of work that people have, for no commercial reason, dragged from generation to generation, so it obviously resonates with people.

Game developers can take advantage of the wealth of stories and information that has been available to people for centuries, creating truly unique game experiences and immersing gamers in worlds far different than what is typically seen within games.

As games shape the thoughts of millions of people around the world, there is an enormous responsibility that follows.  Games are still a relatively new medium and have the opportunity to transform human thought in a substantial way, diminishing prejudice and stereotyping on a broad scale through immersion into other cultures.  We need to move beyond the stereotypes dominating television and move away from making homogenous games, instead creating games that show a different kind of hero, inspiring interest in other cultures and traditions.  Developers are faced with an extraordinary opportunity: each of you are able to take part in shaping the collective consciousness of gamers for the better, using the power of narrative to give players an immersive experience across different cultures and mindsets, breaking down cultural barriers and effectively eliminating stereotypes.  Since there are significant consequences in inadequately representing various groups of people, it becomes even more critical that developers show players a broader representation of other cultures.  Many of the games regularly consumed by the majority of gamers continue to portray certain groups as dehumanized characterizations (i.e. “African Americans [as] big, jive-talkin’ strong guys with gatling cannons) rather than allowing players the opportunity to interact with, for example, “important African historical figures [transformed] into exciting, relatable stories.” 

That is why games like Wixel Studios’ Survival Race, Semaphore’s Unearthed, Game Cook’s Run for Peace, and Leti Games’ African superhero games are critical to this movement.  Due to limitations such as internet infrastructure, it is only recently that developers within emerging markets have had the opportunity to make the games they would like to play and create the heroes they would like to see.  These gamers have gone from playing games in which they were portrayed as the villains, to using games to promote ideals such as global tolerance and acceptance.  In pursuing game design from such pure hopes and aspirations, game developers seek to shift the global consciousness away from engrained stereotypes, ultimately changing the overall perception of a region and its people.  It is not necessary to create culturally-based games in order to shift marginalized and stereotyped groups to truly believable and enticing characters.  After all, this quest isn’t solely limited to game developers in emerging markets, and it should be taken on by developers across the industry and around the world.  We need to work together to transform the industry, implementing more natural uses of characters from different cultural and racial backgrounds (such as using a type of color-blind casting system), rather than fueling the stereotypes and tropes too often perpetuated within games.  We need to work alongside literature and other mediums to help dissipate the “misrepresentation and biased stereotyping,” as Achebe was confronted with in The Heart of Darkness.  Games can serve a very real function, transcending to a greater purpose by transforming the stereotypes and prejudices that threaten humanity.  Games can rise up to the African principle of creating art for life’s sake, meeting a “down-to-earth necessity” by reducing prejudice within the world.  Games need to rise to the occasion and serve this need, for gamers and ultimately, for all of humanity.


To be informed of future articles, follow the author @KarinESkoog, or sign up for LAI’s newsletter.  Whether you liked this article or disagreed with it, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.  Thanks!

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