April 28, 2017 | Posted in ASH Online
by Hanne Nijtmans
When considering culture, we discuss movies, literature, TV-series and even sports events. Yet one big domain of culture is often left out in this equation: video games. Except for the Special Topic “Virtually American,” which is no longer available, this area of cultural production is almost completely left out in our program. This might for one be because video games suffer from the stigma that they are only played by fifteen-year old boys. The statistics, however, prove this wrong. About sixty-five percent of the American households play video games, and the average age of the players is thirty-two years old. Furthermore, two out of five gamers is female. Another reason might be that games are mainly made for commercial purposes, but then again, so are movies and TV-series. However, games are harder to analyze than other forms of popular culture, as in many games there is no clear storyline. But the one thing that all games have in common, which hardly any other medium has, is the agency of the player. Gamers can decide for themselves how they want to proceed in a game. The amount of agency is dependent on the game itself: open-world games such as World of Warcraft or Red Dead Redemption allow for much more agency than Sonic or Mario. The more extensive the game, the more interesting the analysis.
Just shooting around?
If there is this huge open-world game such as Red Dead Redemption, situated in the Wild West, where you can spend over thirty hours exploring maps, killing coyotes, and enjoying yourself in saloons, how then can you derive any meaning from that? In order to look into these games, scholar Ian Bogost suggests that one should look into the processes of the game. One of the processes of Red Dead Redemption is the honor-system. If you, as a player, decide to just ride around on your horse and shoot everything that moves, that influences the behavior of the Non-Player Characters (NPC’s) in the remainder of the game. People who normally would be inclined to help you now scarily run away and your bad behavior makes you a wanted person which makes bounty hunters, outlaws, and sheriffs come for you. By implementing this system, the producers of this game show the player what moral behavior should be, and if the player decides to behave otherwise there will be consequences.
Another process in Red Dead Redemption is the content of the missions which you need to complete in order to complete the game. Surprisingly, the missions in Red Dead Redemption do not only include killing outlaws or chasing villains, but a substantial part of the first storyline in the game is to help farmer girl Bonnie out in the farm, which includes taming horses, herding cows, and protecting the crops against rabbits and the animals against the coyotes. These tasks need to be completed, or the player is unable to go to the next part in New Mexico. Interestingly, this ideal of farming reminds us to “the Americas II” and the Jeffersonian republic. The ideal that farmers are “the people of God” is echoed in this game, which is produced in 2011. The processes of this game embed lessons of morality and historical values which can only be found when one delves him or herself into the game and looks closely, as on the surface this game seems like “just a shooter.”
Rockstar, the producing company, is situated in the United States, and it’s games are sold globally. However, it’s not just the games they sell, it’s also American norms, values, and stereotypes. Within the processes and the assumed agency, individualism, capitalism, and masculinity are rewarded and the storylines and the system of honor move players towards a certain way of thinking. These are just two out of many aspects that can be assessed in games, and this makes the inquiry of games much more layered and complex than what one might expect at first sight. As games are upcoming forms of media and they allow for new methods of research, this would greatly complement the program. Moreover, the fact that our American Studies program leaves out a billion-dollar business which touches the majority of American households, might implicate that our understanding of popular culture is outdated.