A definition of video game culture

The fundamental premise on which this research project is based is the idea that there is a growing and already consolidated video game culture, which permeates our contemporary societies to a great extent and makes possible to think in terms of video gamer identities, subjectivities and communities. Obviously, this culture is part of broader social phenomena and transformations, such as the existence of digital culture, neo-liberal political rationalities and many other aspects of reality with regard to patterns of leisure, consumption and production in late capitalism. In any case, video game culture is an addition -  it does not substitute other cultural forms - to other ‘cultures’ and social processes present in today’s world with which it intertwines in complex ways: expert culture, epistemic culture, knowledge society, risk society,  network society and so on.

Let me attempt a practical definition of video game culture: 
Video game culture is the institutionalisation of video game practices, experiences and meanings in contemporary societies, which places video games and video gaming not only in a central position among other cultural products but also traverses everyday life: an increasing number of people play video games and they are starting to be recognised as part of our social imaginary, enabling the construction of identities and communities based on them. 
This definition shares Garry Crawford’s argument by which video gaming should be understood not as a simple isolated leisure activity, but as a 'culture which extends far beyond the sight of a video game machine or screen' (2012: 143). Crawford states that 'video gaming is not just the act of playing a game, but also a source of memories, dreams, conversations, identities, friendships, artwork, storytelling and so much more’ (2012: 143). That is the definition of culture I would like to apply to the universe of video games, understood in a broad sense as “a system of meaning” (Mäyrä, 2008: 13) as well as a set of social practices.

In this sense, the definition of culture I am looking for to describe video games as culture can be situated between the traditional holistic anthropological approach to the notion - almost everything that is produced by humankind - and the more restrictive humanistic one - a particular aspect of a society, usually what is understood as the high forms of culture and within the field of arts. 

In its humanistic sense (the most restrictive), culture can be understood as that which is possessed after the effort made to take care of it. Culture distinguishes those who posses it from those who don’t. For the European elites of the 18th century, culture allowed the distinction between the Western European who have achieved the most remarkable human qualities and those, the poor and illiterate along with the non European, seen as primitive in their scale of progress (Berger, 1995: 15). This conceptualisation of culture is not useful for my research because it is too restrictive and discriminating.

In the turn to the 20th century, this ethnocentric usage of the voice ‘culture’ gave way to the traditional anthropological notion of culture, defined by Tylor - whose influence in the emergence and consolidation of anthropology is beyond doubt - in the following inclusive and universal terms:
Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society (Tylor, 1871: 1).
The problem with Tylor’s approach to culture is what Geertz points out: it is so eclectic that forces us to take all directions at the same time, what makes the concept impracticable from a theoretical and practical point of view (1973: 4-5). Even though I feel inclined to theorise video game culture in a broad sense, I agree with Mäyrä when applying those kinds of accounts: 
If the concept of culture is taken in this broad and general sense, and applied as such directly into game studies, this can lead into a rather heavy-handed way to conceptualize ‘game culture’. (…) One could also certainly argue that games do not define our existence or place in a society in a way that belonging to a traditional ethnic culture, say Bantu or Inuit culture, defines the way of life and identity for those people. But games and game playing practices do have some significance for those people who are actively engaged with games (Mäyrä 2008: 23).
Mäyrä helps to delimit the notion of culture I want to attach to video games and the group of people who play them. In sum, he is defining culture as a set of shared experiences. If I blend this definition of culture - as shared experiences and meanings - and add other parts like those mentioned by Crawford above - which include certain social practices, I will have as a result the definition of video game culture.

I would not go as further as affirming that video game culture is the most important reality of the present century, but it would be difficult to understand it without its presence. There is no doubt that video game culture is part of and overlaps with other cultures and social processes, but it is still important in order to understand our society and, above all, provides the opportunity to study contemporary identities and social universes of meaning in a strongly framed and bounded way, as if it were an almost perfect sociological laboratory.

  • Berger, Bennett M. (1995). An Essay on Culture: Symbolic Structure and Social Structure. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Crawford, Garry (2012). Video Gamers. London: Routledge.
  • Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  • Mäyrä, Frans (2008). An Introduction to Game Studies. London: Sage.
  • Tylor, Edward B. (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. London: John Murray.
[An extended version of this post in Spanish can be found here at Zenhgames]