Tuesday, May 5, 2009

EXP Podcast #24: Cultured Gaming

This week, Inspired by Daniel Johnson's article about games and culture, we wade in to the fascinating-yet-nebulous realm of culture in video games. After a brief discussion of how to define the term, we think about the cultural influences found in video games. Whether it is a game's content, the way it was produced, or its capacity to illustrate the societies in which it exists, games carry meaning about everyone involved in the process. As this site is largely about examining the culture that both flows through and emanates from games, we found plenty to talk about in this article. We hope to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- What games have you found particularly interesting in terms of the way they represented a specific culture (either positively or negatively)? Who is most qualified to handle cultural topics in video games?
- When does a culture become stifling? How do development techniques, business practices, social mores, and player expectation impact this?
- What do video games say about our current societies? What games from the past do you find particularly illustrative of cultural zeitgeists?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show Notes:

- Run time: 28 min 50 sec
- Daniel Johnson's Article, via GameSetWatch: "'Lingua Franca' – The Place Of Games In Culture"
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. The new game Zeno Clash that was recently released on Steam was made by people from Chile. The game doesn't have anything that seems identifiably Chilean, but the game looks so different from any other videogame that it makes you feel like you have entered another culture. I think the fact that the developers aren't from the US or Japan might have something to do with their ability to create fantasy worlds wildly different from the ones we're used to seeing.

  2. "People will sometimes put you on the spot and you know, define these crazy, nebulous terms." I had finished teaching for 8 hours and playing elementary school volleyball for one hour the other week when suddenly two guys walk up with a big video camera and asked me "What is multiculturalism, and how can Korea prepare for it?"


  3. Richard Garriott made an interesting comment in an interview about Tabula Rasa - that when Westerners try to ape Asian designs, it doesn't work as it just doesn't look 'right' to Asian audiences. Likewise, he noted, when Asians design what they think is a perfect rendition of, say, a European castle, it looks like a caricature to Westerners.

    Sorry if that sounds like gibberish, I can go dig the actual quote out if you want.

  4. @JT

    That Zeno Clash game looks sweet. Kind of a "Pan's Labyrinth" thing going on there.


    Did you even try to answer? I think I would have thrown a Ninja smoke bomb and ran like hell.


    I do know what you mean by that: there is something intangible about culture that is hard to convey, even for knowledgeable outsiders.

    To me, one example in which a Japanese developer did a very convincing job with blending Japanese culture with Euro-centric art direction is Squaresoft's "Vagrant Story."

    Anyone else familiar with it?

  5. Ok, I think you've bitten more off than you could chew. "Culture" is a way too complex term for a single podcast of only 30 mintues. People spend their whole life trying to deal with the question of what culture is.

    So naturally I disagree with many things you've said.

    First of all, you've said that culture isn't discussed often in regard to entertainment. ORLY? Maybe it's different in America but when I read movie reviews, I find them in the "culture" part of a newspaper or a magazine. In fact, all media ARE culture. Media are the expression of culture.

    Or can you make a game or a movie that WOULDN'T be influenced by culture?

    But it may be due to a different understanding of what culture is. I've noticed that there is a slight semantic drift here. The article you've mentioned seems to understand culture more in a way of "nation" or "ethnicity" while I always understood it more as a form of "discourse". In other words, I see it as something we actively shape and produce every day instead of passively inheriting it.

    Moving on to some more lighter topics: great example of a product with weird Japanese and US influences - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Started off as a big Final Fantasy JRPG Anime cutscene and was later converted into a 80ies style US Hollywood action flick. Ended up being a freak of it's multi-cultural heritage loved by no-one.

  6. @ Krystian

    I hope we didn't get the impression that we would cover the entirety of culture in the podcast. That is utterly impossible and any indication we were attempting such was likely sarcasm.

    As for culture in the media, I think there is an important difference between putting movie reviews in the "culture" section and actually critically examining how multiple cultural ideas intertwine within the entertainment industry. I also see culture as a discourse, but most entertainment coverage does not discuss even the changing landscape of American culture and how our entertainment media fits into it, not is there much discussion regarding our own perceptions of culture.

    My statement was not meant to say entertainment is independent of culture, but that at least state side, entertainment is not dissected with a critical cultural lens outside of academia.

    Also, your Spirits Within example is a great one. But I'll admit, I enjoyed that movie a lot as a kid.

  7. You know, Jenova Chen is Chinese. Just sayin'...

  8. @ Ben

    Ah, the beauty and permanency of podcast errors.

  9. Krystian:

    Wait, are you trying to say we can't cover every facet of human expression in half and hour? HOW DARE YOU!? ;-)

    I think you pick up on an important facet of our education in terms of how culture is defined. I definitely think of it as a discourse, but over time I've come to see how much people actually do "inherit" their culture.

    As always, thanks for the great comment! I think I should watch the FF movie again...


    Good call in Chen, but at the same time, he's also a good example of a multicultural developer: educated at USC, partnered with Kellee Santiago, and based in L.A.

    I still don't know if I've played a game "from China" in the same way that a Final Fantasy is "from Japan."

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  11. (sorry for the extra post, screwed up the HTML and no edit function)

    Wait, are you trying to say we can't cover every facet of human expression in half and hour? HOW DARE YOU!? ;-)

    Well, I initially thought if a podcast could pull it off, it would be you guys. I'm disappointed with you two. "You were the CHOSEN ONE, Anakin!" ;-)

    but most entertainment coverage does not discuss even the changing landscape of American culture and how our entertainment media fits into it

    Hmm, too bad. I guess it varies with the kind magazines/newspapers/TV Show in question. What I found alarming is that there are many DVD Review magazines that actually started adopting a very game'y-style way of reviewing movies. They separate visual quality, sound, DVD menu and plot and arrive at a percentage rating. Uh-oh!