More than just a ‘game’ | Stefano Gualeni

Stefano Gualeni, associate professor at the University of Malta’s Digital Gaming Institute, explains why the ‘video game’ is a cultural phenomenon one ignores at one’s own risk

To some people, it may seem strange that a University devotes an academic institute purely to the subject of games. Digital games, perhaps… ranging from the humblest of apps for a mobile phone, to the gaming industry equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Yet still, we call them ‘games’… a word that connotes ‘playthings for children’. Is there more to the digital gaming universe than mere child’s play, though? What is it about gaming that attracts so much academic interest these days?

One of the most famous quotes by [Canadian media scholar] Marshall MacLuhan was concerned with the fact that our lives were getting longer; and that technology was helping to reduce some of the toil that we are exposed to every day. So, he suggested the idea that, now that we are living in a technological age, we have to remain children for longer. So in a sense, ‘popular culture’ – including games, movies, comics, which are all disciplines currently being tackled academically at the University of Malta – is also becoming part of what was traditionally regarded as ‘serious’ culture. It’s no longer just associated with ‘entertainment’ or ‘leisure’; popular culture can also engage with political or philosophical discussions. You’ve probably already heard, for instance, how there has been a huge political upheaval in the gaming world in the past couple of years. Game designers came in for heavy criticism over sexism, or for their right-wing positions, or for implicit violence, and so on. That led to a rapid shift in that particular culture, affecting the output of game developers. To me, it is an important indication that we are no longer taking things like gaming lightly. We’re no longer talking about the culture we consume as something that is innocuous, or ‘neutral’. We’re taking it seriously. Gaming is in fact one of the key, formative ways in which we receive culture today: similar, perhaps, to theatre or public speaking in ancient Greece and Rome…

Like theatre and other classical art-forms, video games also create artificial worlds. There is an element of fantasy and imagination programmed into the entire concept to begin with. Do you see digital gaming as a legitimate successor to the more traditional vehicles of ‘serious culture’? If so, to what extent can a video game be realistically compared to, say, a classic novel or play?

That is in fact one of the questions I am asking myself right now. My academic background is in philosophy of technology, and together with a colleague who is a literary scholar, we are busy tracking and mapping the differences in representation between traditional fiction and virtual reality. What kind of rhetoric or academic impact can virtual worlds lead to, in comparison with the world of literature? I also have a background in the gaming industry itself: I have been, and still am, involved in the ‘entertainment’ side of things. Specifically, I make games to explain philosophical points: showing that there is more than one way a ‘text’ can be interpreted. Texts have their limitations; as do virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are in fact very limited. But maybe a combination of the two universes – the digital game, and the traditional text-based narrative, or philosophical treatise, etc. – might lead to better results. Maybe we will eventually think thoughts that can only ever emerge from those relationships. So not only is there a transition from classical culture to gaming; but it is also opening up new possibilities for literature, philosophy, theatre and so on. Gaming technology now plays a part in so many different media platforms: there are interactive media tools that may change the way we listen to or experience music, for instance. So I don’t think we’re living in a society that can realistically separate ‘high culture’ from ‘low culture’ any longer. Gaming culture has had a lot to do with that transition… to me, the only strange thing is that we didn’t give it the same academic attention sooner.

Could it have something to do with the sudden accessibility of affordable technology? For example: software that was previously too expensive (or simply too huge) for the average home computer are now widely available to everyone. You can download open-source game engines from sites like Steam. Has this played a part in the explosion of digital gaming as a cultural phenomenon?

The diffusion of the Internet, and high-powered computers, is certainly part of the answer. But running parallel to that is an evolution of a more political nature: the ‘democratisation’ of the production tools. Now, it is possible to make a game, and launch it to the world, in just a few weeks. Before, you needed a team of game designers and programmers, a publisher, a chain of distribution, and also some exposure in the media so that people get to hear about your games. Today, all that is up to a point ‘taken care of’: you can simply upload your game onto the Internet, where it is instantly within reach of everyone…

But surely there is a downside to that. To make a quick comparison with the music industry: any musician or band can now produce music and upload it onto the Internet, without any agents or record label. Whether they can make a living out of it, however, is another question. Has there been a similar affect in the gaming industry, in the sense that it is easier to produce and distribute… but harder to make money?

Similarly to Spotify – and this is a very Marxist point of view – the people making money in the gaming world are still the people who own the infrastructure. If you want to push your game out there by yourself, you definitely can; but if you want to use the big channels through which games are curated and marketed – like Steam or Gog – you need to share revenue. And right now, the ratios are kind of brutal, to be honest. Thirty percent goes to the infrastructure owners, and 70% to the developer. But there are independent grassroot marketplaces that offer ratios of 90/10%, trying to encourage the more ‘indie’ community of developers. And again, there’s a political dimension to it: it ties in with arguments in favour of autonomy, self-expression, and so on.

On the subject of ‘community’: there is also a growing international community of gamers out there, as evidenced even by the hugely successful ‘Esports Festival’ held in Malta recently. The Institute of Digital Gaming also organises its own events, such as the upcoming ‘Malta Global Game Jam’, to encourage people to make their own games. How much of a ‘techy’ do you have to be, to get involved in this community? How much does it all depend on programming skills, or knowing how to script code?

Not much at all. It’s not just a community of game-developers; it’s also a community of gamers, game designers, game journalists, game critics, game reviewers, and just people who are interested in gaming in general. There are video-bloggers, for instance, who post videos of themselves playing games. Or who mod existing games, and re-propose them with new content. But even within game development itself: you might have someone who is interested in scripting, but uses only middle-ware software... like myself. I’m only a low-level programmer. The full range of this community is incredibly broad, however:  there are even ‘Esport commentators’, providing running commentary in gaming events just like in professional, competitive sports. It’s a community of all kinds of different people, and perhaps the only thing that brings them all together is a shared interest in this playful, explorative and exciting digital medium. So no, you don’t have to be a techy at all. Several students enrolled in our course, for instance, have a background in philosophy. Others are more technical; but they can talk to each other; they can work together. There is common interest…

You yourself specialised in Philosophy of Computer Games. Is there a natural convergence between philosophy and digital gaming? To give a practical example: MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, or single-player RPGs like Skyrim or Morrowind, immerse players in a huge, artificially created ‘universes’, full of cultural reference-points that were previously the domain of classic fantasy and science fiction. Will future generations be exposed to the great philosophical questions about the real universe, through the virtual universes of digital gaming?

Right now, I am reading a book by a colleague of mine [Gerald Farca] called ‘Playing Dystopia’, about how dystopias – and other literary genres – can be experienced interactively; and how the experience changes through the different media. Through gaming, we are shaping minds in different ways: with different rhetoric, and different aesthetic possibilities. You mentioned Skyrim and WOW – Bethesda and Blizzard productions – and I collaborate with those and other developers, as I also teach in California over the summer. From my own experience I can tell you that there is not only an interest, but also the capability of translating – or re-framing – some of the messages of world literature into those digital universes; to give rise to new forms of mythological or philosophical communications in a different medium. And already there is a good deal of inter-connectivity between gaming and other media: games which are influenced by movies or TV-series, or make references to classic literary texts…

It works the other way round, too. Much of contemporary cinema owes its origins to video games: the recent WOW movie being a case in point…

There is cultural cross-pollination going on, and this is very much discussed within the academic community. The next Digital Game Research Conference – which is the largest in its field – will be about the ‘ludomix’ in Japan. If you take Japan as a case study, the mix of multimedia there works more like an ecosystem, than a war for dominance of the digital medium over others. It is a case of one medium feeding off the other: and this suggests that we are already starting to look at ‘culture’ as a multi-modal, multi-medium phenomenon. Coming back to your earlier question: digital gaming may or may not be the dominant cultural medium in future; but even in the present, it is already something that is dangerous – or at best retrograde – to ignore.

Speaking of danger: not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for digital gaming. Parents complain about the time their children spend glued to their X-Boxes and Playstations. Gaming addiction is now a recognised psychological condition. There are even possible health and mobility concerns: are the hours we spend ‘pointing and clicking’ causing posture problems? Is the lack of exercise harming our health? Etc, etc. How much do these concerns affect the game development process?

These issues are all justifiable causes for concern. People can claim as much as they want that technology is positive or beneficial to us; but if there is a lesson to be learnt from the philosophy of technology, it is that technologies hardly ever do what we want them to do. They might give us things, but they can also take things away. Coming back to Marshall MacLuhan: he calls technology an ‘extension’ of man – in the sense that it enables faculties that were either undeveloped, or non-existent before – but also an ‘amputation’ of certain other faculties. New technologies may open up brave new worlds for us to explore; but they can also cut out some aspects of what it previously meant to be human. This is true of all technologies, incidentally, not just the digital revolution. With technological innovation, we also create new opportunities for dissatisfaction, discontent and incapability. In the case of virtual reality, the obvious danger is a potential solipsism, or detachment from one’s biological and social surroundings. It is something that science fiction has been warning us about for the past 60 or 70 years. So yes, we should always be concerned about technology. And this one in particular has its own potentially tragic dimensions. A deep humanistic concern therefore has to also be part of this package. This may be another reason why this world has so much appeal to philosophers, academics and scholars.

It has been argued that long-term exposure to the patterns of gameplay may even have an impact on how we think and interact in the real world. We might tend to start applying the same algorithms and routines we recognise in game worlds, to real life situations. Are video games having this effect? Do they control the player as much as, if not more, the player controls the game?

There is a lot of literature about that too. Books like ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr, or ‘What is Bad for you is Good for you’ by Stephen Johnson, as well as several published studies, claim that digital technologies like television, the Internet and gaming are changing us in profound cognitive, behavioural ways. And this is not new either: in the Neolithic Age, when people first started planting crops according to the season, and having to think longer in advance than ever before… our brain structure changed. Our posture changed. Our size changed. Even the way we bore children changed. Digital technology is another instance where we become extensions of our own inventions. For example, there are studies measuring the speed and spatial thinking aspect of intelligence – as opposed to concentration, long-term memory, etc. – which suggest that people are actually becoming more intelligent in those areas. But it’s a very specific type of intelligence we are gaining. And there is a trade-off. Inevitably, we will also lose something in the process, too.