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Apr 23, 2012

DIALOGUE with Paul Callaghan, Part One: Values and Identity in Videogames Culture

Editor’s Note:


Editor’s Note: Paul Callaghan is the director of Melbourne’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival, an annual event that explores indie videogame development, culture, arts and education. He is also a writer and a game designer, and someone with whom I frequently debate and discuss the state of videogames culture.

One of the biggest concerns at the moment for both of us—for Paul, as a festival director, and for me, as a critic—is the sense of unity within videogames culture. There is, perhaps, too strong a perception of gamers as a united, cohesive force after the same ends. The culture surrounding videogames is likely more diverse than ever, yet more and more we see examples of the loudest voices defining a diffuse set of people, and an uncritical assumption that “we’re all in this together.”

Over the last few weeks, Paul and I have put together a dialogue. Some might call this kind of thing a letters series—I call it a dialogue, as I think letters brings with it a kind of emotional content that isn’t our aim here. Over the next week, in three instalments, Paul and I will discuss the idea of multiple videogames cultures, external views of cohesion, the shaping influence of the medium of the videogame on the communities that play them, and echoes of design within games culture. This is, perhaps, a bit of an experiment for Game On in what forms videogame criticism and commentary can take. I hope you enjoy it.

Part Two may be found here. Part Three may be found here.

To: Dan Golding
Paul Callaghan

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the offer to do this. I guess as the first to start, I should frame the discussion a little.

In 2011, I found myself thinking and writing and speaking a lot about values. This initially stemmed from what I saw as a peculiarly games-centric view of almost everything—from developers to players—as all being part of this gestalt ‘industry’. My stance then, as now, is that industry is a very specific thing, and as someone who had worked in development and now finds themselves in more of a cultural role, I found it quite strange how people used the word in ways that showed a sense of self-identification. In exploring the ideas, I tried to clarify what might an industry might actually consist of, drawing from a range of sources, and trying to find the porous boundaries between the people who make, the people who fund, the people who distribute, and the people who play, while also trying to draw the parallels with how other creative industries function and define themselves as makers, producers, and audience.

It’s a very top down view of it all though. Not particularly personal. Even though I was talking about values, I was looking at what the values of an industry might be, or a studio, or some other great big collection of people—essentially trying to figure out the whole great social structure that makes, distributes, and plays games. I don’t think I came to any useful conclusions other than to better work out where I fit—which is at the cultural end of the whole thing rather than the industrial—and where my own interests lie—which is in making and collaboration rather than running a studio.

It all became more personal earlier this year when I watched Adam Curtis’ documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. In it, he weaves together a narrative of how technology has created a world in which systems dominate the perception of ourselves and the natural world, and the ways in which we’ve used them to abrogate some responsibility for ourselves through the creation of complex and only partially understood models and programs. While there’s much to question about its veracity, I afterwards found myself thinking along similar lines about video games. How much are the values of our audience, our practitioners, and our culture a product of the evolution of the medium or the technology and how much might simply be a reflection of us as people? Then beyond that, how do the actual properties of the medium—not necessarily what we make in it—create values and ways of thinking?

In discussions I’ve had, it’s become clear that other people are thinking along similar lines as they try to identify and express both a collective identity and an individual one. Are we artists? Entertainers? An Industry? A Community? A Sector? On our own or just a continuity of film? Are we all in this together, or do we want different things, endlessly negotiating the boundaries between us and finding consensus when we notice common goals? What are the boundaries between developers, artists, industry, players, games, politics, and everything else? And how might some of the contemporary issues in gaming culture be addressed,—or inflamed—by looking at them through these lenses?

I’m certain you have some thoughts on all these so I’ll leave it there. Looking forward to the ensuing conversation.


To: Paul Callaghan
 Dan Golding

Hi Paul,

Thanks for starting such an interesting discussion. You’re certainly right—I do have a lot to say about the issues you’ve brought up.

The tension between an individual identity and a collective one is perhaps one of the defining features of the cultures that have traditionally surrounded videogames. A lot of different people want a lot of different things when it comes to games, yet it seems quite difficult for these different directions to be identified. These positions are multitudinous, and as you have suggested, Paul, range from concepts of what the medium should be to notions of industry and community.

I think the largest factor at play here is the perception (however real) of antagonistic external forces. If most gamers (if I can use that term for a moment) share anything at all, it is an acute impression of how they are looked down upon and disregarded by outsiders, and nothing breeds a false sense of unity more effectively than an attacker at the gates. Because the various cultures surrounding videogames have had, for many years, a perceived common enemy, it only makes sense that they would understand themselves as a common group.

This unity is, it seems obvious to say, far from reality. It is an incredibly fraught move to ascribe a particular set of politics to a set of people only united by their appreciation for a cultural product. Are all Beatles fans left-wing? Of course not.

It shouldn’t be surprising that those who are ‘inside’ videogame culture—again, for want of a better term, gamers—want different things. As a critic and an academic, my primary use for videogames is as the subjects of analysis, but I needn’t go very far to find others (developers, journalists, retailers, consumers) who find the idea of analysing a videogame beyond the terms of good/bad or buy/don’t buy a complete novelty. Every strata, every profession, every individual within videogames culture wants different things.

This is not a prima facie problem. One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt as a researcher is to distinguish between whether you dislike an answer because you aren’t interested in it, or because you actually disagree with it. Do you dislike analyses of videogames-as-film because you aren’t interested, or do you dislike the analyses because you disagree with them?

It is an important distinction. It is also a distinction that a lot of people in videogame cultures fail to make. You can see this response in any number of major videogame controversies from the last decade (the emergence of the Wii, casual games, social games, etc), where large numbers of vocal gamers proclaim disagreement with something when really they’re just articulating their disinterest. They don’t want to play social games, for example, but they end up arguing no-one should.

This is not to say that nothing should ever be argued against in videogame culture. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. Arguments should be vehement and frequent, but only if the disagreement is actually a disagreement, and not simply one group yawning very loudly.

It boils down to this: videogame cultures can actually go in many different directions at once. In fact, they probably need to do so if the videogame is to cement a place in everyday life.

A medium is not a culture.

We’re not all in this together.


Look for the next instalment of this dialogue to be posted at Game On on Wednesday.


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