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The Importance of Gaming Culture

In this post, I discuss the importance of gaming culture in serving as a bridge between the game industry, gamers, and non-gamers.

I want to start this post with a story…

A few years ago a friend of mine that I was doing some ill-fated indie game designs with invited me to go see Dear Friends, the Final Fantasy concert.  The concert was at a performing arts center in Hartford, Connecticut where the typical event was the likes of Gershwin or West Side Story. Needless to say, the crowd; a guy behind us playing the at-the-time new PSP, a college student in a red mage outfit, an obese woman in an Aerith costume, a gaggle of average gamers in jeans and t-shirts, and a charismatic local DJ that could recite the Contra Code from memory; was not the kind thatthe Bushnell Performing Arts Center was used to.  My friend and I, however, were sitting next to possibly the most interesting patrons of the show that evening:  two little old ladies with a love of classical music.   

The two well-dressed ladies sat next to us quietly, waiting for the show to start.  I was terrified; how would these regular theatergoers react to the content of the show?  What were they thinking as they looked around at the awkward twenty-somethings in their casual dress or cosplay?  Though many of US knew the artistic power and potential of games, did they?  Or would they think we were invading their theater? 

As it turns out, they were season ticket holders, and made a habit of seeing most; if not all; productions put on at the Bushnell.  One of them also had a grandson whose girlfriend was in the choir that was to perform at the show.  As my friend and I talked with them, they asked us questions about the music, and were surprised to learn that classically influenced orchestral music was used in video game production. 

Likewise, a quick reading of the program itself also brought up connections to how Mozart himself had written incidental music for stage performances. With these connections to discuss, the women became excited to experience music that they had enjoyed put into the context of a media form they had never experienced.  Whenthe music began and the imagery from the games played on the large screens, we saw the ladies’ faces gaze in astonishment at Nobuo Uematsu’s work.  As they listened and waited to see their grandson’s girlfriend sing, they asked us questions about the stories from the game and who the characters were.  They had just discovered a depth of beautiful and tragic stories in a place they had never considered. 

 Dear Friends Concert 

Not from the Bushnell, but you get the idea...


Oh and when did the girlfriend finally sing?  During One-Winged Angel…it was awesome…

So what is the point of my relaying this story?  To me, it made me think about how those not participating in the hobby typically view video games and how we as gamers feel when those people do occasionally cast their gaze our way.  Ironically, it was gaming culture that served as a bridge between the two worlds.  Now, keep in mind that when I say “gaming culture”, I do NOT mean all aspects of gaming culture (cursing twelve-year-olds on Xbox Live, trolling on news site forums, leetspeak, teabagging, etc.)  I am, however, talking about the creative individuals that express their love of games by creating or supporting fan-created content and attending gaming events. 

This is one of the biggest examples of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman would call, “metagame.” Salen and Zimmerman state that the metagame has three parts:

  • What the player brings into a game based on their own experience and personality
  • What effect the game has on the player while the game is happening
  • What the player takes away from their experience with the game

Clearly, the effects of some games have been strong enough to inspire gamers to form their own subculture based on games, which exists outside of the game world.  Instead of the stereotypical gamer locked in their room, these gamers are going out nto the real world and celebrating aspects of games that give them joy and sharing them with others. 

This has taken many forms.  Obviously one of my favorites is game music.  My own iPod is full of various game-themed bands that I often find myself having to explain to people.  While live performance of music from video games has existed in Japan for some time, it has only within the last decade become a pastime in the United States.  Concerts like Video Games Live and the Final Fantasy shows are now doing regular national tours to locations such as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; a huge step for music that originated from a “time-wasting distraction.” 

Let’s go even deeper and more obscure now…

As I said before, there are also creative gamers making their own fan content inspired by games. If we continue to look at the gaming music example, bands like the MinibossesNESkimosOneUpsMetroid MetalPowergloveVGO, and many many others come to mind.  These groups were started by enterprising gamers who saw an opportunity to use their musical talents to express their love of games. Such groups have even sprouted up on college campuses; the University of Maryland, for example, has their own student-run orchestra dedicated to playing video game music.  

 The OneUps

video games + jazz = amazing 

To get away from music now, shows like I Am 8-Bit bring gaming culture to the art world, showing off modern artwork created with a gaming theme.  Also, the craft and baking worlds have been invaded by gamers selling their work on websites or hobby shows.  I also can’t do a blog post about gaming culture without mentioning, which provides gaming themed comedy shows and even movies, like the recent Eddie Lebron’s Megaman. 

So why is this important? 

As I made the jump from gamer to game designer and educator, I found myself considering the culture surrounding games more and more often.   I also began seeing bits of game culture pop up in surprising places.  Did you know that the theme from Super Mario Bros. is one of the most downloaded ringtones ever?  (I myself have CarboHydroM's rock version)  

Have you ever seen a graphic design imitate an 8-bit display?  Have you ever seen a video-game themed piece of graffiti?  What I’ve discovered looking for gaming culture and interacting with both gamers and non-gamers in game culture situations is that the game culture; through it’s more creative and artistic aspects; can become a valuable window into the gaming industry for those outside who may know nothing about gaming or even dislike it.  To once again quote Daniel Floyd, “Gamers have something of an image problem” and I think that the gaming culture can be a way to change that. 

Okay, okay.  I’m talking about it from a seemingly gamer-centric point of view.  What about the industry? At a time where we have recently had to consider our medium’s relevance as an art form ,would it not be important to understand our relationship with those outside theindustry?  To go back to the story with the season ticket holders at the Bushnell, those women got to peek into the gaming world through the filter of classical music and came out of the experience curious about the medium of gaming.  Do I think they went to the mall afterward to buy a used PS1 and copy of Final Fantasy VII?  Of course not, but they did leave the experience with a new perspective on gaming. 

I’ll tell another story.  I promise this one will be shorter.  I used to date a musical theate major.  She endlessly screamed at me for playing video games instead of paying attention to her.  It was around this time that I was feverishly playing through The Orange Box to study its level design for my Game Design and Architecture thesis. I tried to convince her that it was time well spent by describing how it was important to the content of my paper, which didn’t really work. 

However, once I mentioned that Merle Dandridge, the actress who provided the voice for Alyx Vance, was a performer in the musical Rent, the game and character became more interesting.  In this way, gaming culture provided a way for a non-gamer to become interested in a game.  Likewise, it became a way for me as a gamer to discuss her favorite pastime, musicals.  By making the connection between gaming and another person’s preferred art form, I found a way to fit gaming into what she considered to be more acceptable popular culture (at least temporarily…there are no Broadway performers among the zombies in Left 4 Dead.)  

 Merle Dandridge in Spamalot

Merle Dandridge was also the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot..."God be praised!"

If used properly, gaming culture can help improve the public’s outlook on games and gamers. If games are to be considered a collaboration of several artists, taking some of these artistic assets and celebrating them in such a way that expresses their similarities with other forms of art is an excellent way to build a bridge between gaming and non-gamers. 

Likewise, by allowing non-gamers to discuss gaming in terms of other parts of culture that they enjoy, some gamers may even find new cultural avenues to explore (you know…besides just games and anime.)  Hopefully, if we can build these bridges, we can also build better gamers and become a medium that can be taken seriously by even people who don't play games.  


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