Video Game Subculture Essays

When I was 19, in the autumn of 1918, I was private Harvey Nottoway, serving in Kitchener’s Army on the Western Front in France. In my final, desperate moments, squatting beneath a wall in the mud, I reloaded my rifle, aimed down the sights and fired until the “ping” of the bolt told me I was out of ammunition and the knife at my throat told me I was out of time.

In 1918, I was also machine gunner Dean Stevenson, ordered to defend the ruins of a village church, before it was engulfed in flame. I was Paul McClaren, a Lewis gunner in a Mark IV tank, when it was annihilated by a German field gun. I was Wyeth Wright and then Needham Jackson. Through their eyes, I was all of them and none.

In the opening sequence of Electronic Arts’ blockbuster game Battlefield I – released in 2016 to coincide with the centenary of the First World War – I am told I am not expected to survive. It feels real, but in spite of the bullets and the mud, Battlefield I is not war, merely a convincing replica. Everyone is a hero, nobody really dies. My Lee-Enfield rifle bucks and jams and spits fire, but the game does not simulate the tap of hard tack on billy tin, or the taste of the weevils inside.

Yet the relationship of video games to history, politics and modern military cultures is no mere child’s play. Battlefield I is making a point, brutal and violent and pornographic though it is. That point is that in video games, enactment is akin to remembrance.

These links are deeply embedded in contemporary visual culture and their operations can be observed and exploited. Take, for example, a slick 2014 advertisement for Royal Australian Air Force pilots, viewed over 430,000 times on the RAAF’s official YouTube channel, as well as broadcast widely on TV.

In it, graphic overlays mimicking the heads-up display (HUD) of a fighter jet augment scenes of young Australian gamers playing Xbox and chess, and pursuing each other in go-karts like dogfighting aces. The tagline? Take your skills up a notch.

There is a young but sophisticated history of the use of video games as military recruitment and training tools, and much has been written about the success of pioneering games such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior as both PR platforms and commercial enterprises. Literacy and education historian Corey Mead’s book War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict traces the methods by which modern soldiers are trained through interactive media.

Others have analysed the relationship between video games, capitalism and militarism and the role of entertainment media in disseminating military doctrines and creating a latent acceptance of military might in popular culture.

The Australian Defence Force website alone lists an impressive array of games with titles such as Rise & Command, Army Artillery, Strike Fighter and Secure the Deck, inviting gamers to “battle online against your opponents in this Army Artillery warfare game”.

“Could you airdrop people from a swinging rope attached to your Seahawk helicopter?” it asks. Another, less exciting, option: “Learn how to tie Navy knots, the proper way”. Clearly, there is utility in gamifying life in the military.

Let’s put aside for the moment the awkward ethics of recruiting through the enculturation of play-based violence. While the relationship of war gaming to violent behaviour is still yet to be fully understood, we know that games and war orbit each other in a relatively predictable cosmology, each supporting the other.

But what happens when the system turns inward, when the physics of this cosmology becomes the subject of critical enquiry by both artists taking games as their medium, and gamers themselves forging narratives through play? How can the network of war and games be gamed?

Playing serious games

This network is the subject of the late German filmic essayist Harun Farocki’s series Serious Games (2009-10): four video works that explore the relationship between game simulation, combat training and traumatic reconciliation. Farocki’s works are often built from the stuff of surveillance – tapes, archival materials – and real-life footage of soldiers being trained using video game technology.

Serious Games was mostly filmed at Marine Corps Base 29 Palms in California in 2009. Between them, the first three works unveil a narrative that describes the trajectory of a soldier’s tour of duty. The footage can barely be described as aesthetic; the images are documentary, raw, somehow staid in spite of the spectacle of their subject. Farocki describes his material as “operative images” not intended for individual consumption out of context.

In Serious Games I: Watson is Down, on one side of the screen we see the crew of a Humvee at laptops as they play out a training mission in digitised Afghanistan. On the other side, we see their actions in the virtual world. An instructor simulates insurgents and IEDs and, at one point, shoots one of the men dead. They are being taught how to respond in real life.

Serious Games II: Three Dead documents a real-life military exercise undertaken at Base 29 where 300 extras played the roles of Afghani and Iraqi locals and insurgents in a town manufactured for the purpose from shipping containers. Farocki himself remarked on the blurring of visual languages between real life and virtual simulation.

In Serious Games III: Immersion, filmed at Fort Louis, Seattle, an army veteran describes combat while ensconced in a virtual reality headset. It is in fact a meta-memory, a simulation of actual events he experienced during his service in which he relives – with what appears to be genuine trauma – the death of his comrade. The denouement reveals the exercise to be a demonstration of new software that has been developed for the army to treat PTSD in returned soldiers.

Interrogating the links between gaming, simulation and reality in this way is instructive. In training, these soldiers are literally able to view themselves in the third person as digital avatars. They are disembodied and reconstituted in a world that has confusing boundaries between action and consequence.

Just as in Battlefield I on Playstation 4, what does it mean for these soldiers to be killed in a virtual Afghanistan on a laptop in California? How does this condition their responses to real combat and its aftermath?

This has civic implications too: what happens to democratic governance when wartime sacrifice – the greatest burden of the body politic – becomes disassociated from the sacrifice of the individual body?

The economies of war

In some sense, this disassociation is a necessary part of the prosecution of modern wars. War consumes. It consumes raw materials, people, nations. It facilitates industries – technological, logistical, financial, medical, governmental – that maintain the consumption of goods and services.

There is a vast economy to war that hides behind the edifice of its moral and political imperatives. And there is also a positive social feedback loop that we are often loath to admit. It is hard to envisage the Apollo missions, nuclear medicine, radar, microwave ovens or the internet without war.

War consumes and it is also greedily consumed by us in newspapers, on film, TV and online. It is streamed in real time to handheld devices, archived on servers, mapped, simulated and replayed. All this must necessarily happen at some distance.

War games form a link in this chain, but they can also expose its loops. In his recent work MQ-9 Reaper III (Skyquest) (2015) Australian new media artist Baden Pailthorpe references the language of video games to visualise the complicit economies of war.

Over a mountainscape that evokes the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan as much as it does the backdrop of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar made famous in Top Gun, hovers a microcosm of capitalist activity. A surreal structure formed from a resource extractor, drone control room and luxury apartment with wifi access is inhabited by an ambiguous figure who may be a drone pilot.

HUD graphics intermittently flash across the screen – they might be the visualisations seen by an F-35 pilot, but occasionally they are filled with consumer products – a pram, a spa, recliner chairs – so they may alternatively be the home shopping network.

Giant, floating billboards twirl across the sky. Sometimes soldiers appear, sometimes scientists. At one point an F-14 Tomcat flashes through the screen, a nod to the 1987 Sega Master System game Afterburner. If the imagery is baffling, dense and difficult to unpack it is because the network of production between games, industry and war is less a single chain link than a dense chain mail.

In video games, players mold the narrative, reforming the system to suit their purposes. But this is sometimes difficult in a creative realm with a visual culture that is often self-referential and heavily influenced by the conventions governing representations of the military in history and pop culture.

Enshrining military politics

For example, Campbell Simpson, a writer for the gaming website Kotaku, reported that “Battlefield I isn’t a game, it’s a history lesson”. I think about this as I return to one of Battlefield I’s narrative vignettes, which takes place on the shores of Gallipoli. In it I play the role of Frederick Bishop, a message runner who lands amongst the carnage of Cape Helles from the doomed collier SS River Clyde.

Surely, I wonder, this role is a homage to Mark Lee and Mel Gibson’s characters in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.

I have asked the same question before about Mark Lee’s Archy Hamilton, the golden-haired runner machine-gunned in no man’s land at the Nek and the strikingly-similarly blonde interlocutor murdered in artist George Lambert’s 1924 masterpiece of war art The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915.

I’m reminded that the River Clyde, that modern day Trojan horse from which I leap as Bishop, disgorged its victims at the Hellespont, mere miles from the city of Troy. It was also the site of another great naval landing – the thousand boat bridge built by Xerxes in the 5th century BC to invade Europe. Further up the peninsula, Australian troops landed at Anzac Cove under the watchful gaze of a promontory they named “The Sphinx” after its resemblance to the Egyptian wonder.

Kotaku had it a little wrong. Battlefield I is not a history so much as a scaffold built from the cultural myths to which we have been conditioned in order to find purpose in the act of war. Perhaps more than any game before it, we are made to understand the horror of total war - the tone is not triumphant, though it is certainly valedictory.

Simpson writes that:

the player doesn’t win. There’s no medal ceremony and kiss from a pretty girl for the player in the missions, most of which end with friends and comrades dead and dismembered on the battlefield… in a very self-aware, un-game-like nod to the fact that wars don’t play out like the movies say they do.

This is true. Battlefield I doesn’t glorify war per se, but it reinforces nationalist narratives with zeal – the endgame sequence informs us that the Turkish heroes of Gallipoli went on to found the Republic, and that “tales of heroism and mateship were pivotal in forging [Australian national identity]”.

As an experiment, as Bishop, I attempt to exact vengeance on the inept British officer who has ordered me to my certain death, only to discover that in the virtual world, treason to the Anzac legacy is as impossible to commit as it is to contemplate in the real.

This, in short, is how military politics are enshrined in games.

Still, the great history lesson to be learnt from video games is that narratives are constantly in the processes of being written. New generations of artists and players find ways to reconcile themselves to the meanings of war and new ways of questioning the messages propagated by the system.

Homer played out the great narratives of the Illiad in the poetic medium of his time. And so it is with the great war stories of the 21st century, whose characters are partially recorded in this world, and partially written by us in a virtual one of our own making.

What do we mean when we call something a “subculture”? Most people think of weird and wonderful fashion and/or music – the spectacular. Punks. Cosplayers. Bronies. Sometimes the term has connotations of rebellion, deviance, or outright criminality. In sociology and cultural studies, subcultures have usually been understood as a way for people to adapt to (and express) the conditions of living within a particular social class. I want to begin this discussion by outlining some of the ways in which the term has been used academically in relation to gamers. I think that an understanding of subculture is relevant to understanding gamer culture – not so much in the sense that gamers form one single subculture, but in the sense that there are a number of subcultures within gaming culture.

I also want to reintroduce an older definition of subculture which is closely related to social class. For example, in DiSalvo and Bruckman’s study of African-American teens from lower-SES backgrounds (2010) they found that – having less access to the internet and to online PC-gaming in general – this group did not see playing an MMO as a “social” experience in the same way that long-time fans of WoW might. Helen Thornham’s Ethnographies of the Videogame (2011) similarly found that adult British gamers drew clear lines between “normal” everyday gaming (sociable, disinterested, socially accepted) and more “geeky” gaming (solitary, immersive, discouraged). Christo Sims’ (2014) recent ethnography at a school in New York found that most of the boys there played games of some description, but it tended to be white, middle-class boys who foregrounded gamer/geek in their public identities and relationships with peers.


Gamers as Subculture

Despite the growing acceptance of videogames as a medium, terms like ‘gamer’ are still sometimes taken to denote some sort of insider status. To some, “gamer” still describes some sort of specialized type of person, not just everybody who plays games – a view we’ve seen played out recently in the #gamersgate furore (which, at its heart, seems to be about who the “real” gamers are and what games should be about). Miroslav Dymek (2012) argues that the videogame industry is a “subcultural industry”. In his view, this is an appropriate description, because people still tend to associate a specific type of person with the label “gamer”, and because many hardcore gamers take an antagonistic stance toward the “casualization” of the gaming industry (44-47). This is similar to the way that subcultural music/fashion scenes tend to dislike the commercial mainstream.

Arguably what we see in the recent rise of casual games is a move away from this, to a position where game developers are no longer making games entirely for themselves as players (as documented by Juul, 2010). Dymek also argues that negative stereotypes of gamers reinforce some players’ self-images as rebel outsiders, creating a sense of exclusive belonging among the hardcore (39). Stanley Cohen’s account of the mods and rockers in 1960s Britain similarly emphasises how the media amplifies public perceptions of a group’s deviance, rendering them “folk devils” in the eyes of more conservative peers and elders (Cohen 2002:196). W. Keith Winkler similarly suggests that the games industry is unique in that both consumers and manufacturers are usually part of a common “gamer subculture” (2006:141).

Giddings and Kennedy also suggest that gaming culture involves an unusually participatory merging of “the dominant culture (the games industry) and the sub-culture (games players, modders and skinners)…” (2006:134). In most of these cases, we see a taken-for-granted, common-sense application of “subculture” as just being a type of culture which exists within a larger one while still being noticeably distinct from it. In Steven Downing’s (2011) ethnography of online retro-gaming forums, we also see an association of the term subculture with criminality or deviance (in the case of illegal game emulation).

Subcultures as Expressions of Class Identity

Sociologists Gosling and Crawford argue that while gaming culture has some of the qualities of a subculture (its own language, accepted codes of conduct and a definable social demographic) the term “subculture” is inappropriate because, strictly speaking, it describes static social groupings which are “clearly distinguished from wider society, and […] defined along class boundaries” (Gosling and Crawford 2011:141).I would argue that their rejection of term “subculture” in favour of “scene” (to describe gamers) is because social class most probably creates a plurality of subcultures within broader gamer culture, which are only visible at a more local level. Or because different gaming preferences and practices might be embedded in other subcultures (whether geeky or not) in ways we haven’t really observed yet (as observed in Christo Sim’s ethnography). The PC Gamer Master Race is an example of a gaming subculture with high socio-economic barriers to entry, which even co-opts the language of social elitism (albeit in a semi-ironic way). The Master Race meme originated from a ZeroPunctuation review of The Witcher which initially mocked the over-complicatedness of PC games, but was later co-opted and used un-ironically by PC gamers.

the meme originates from ZeroPunctuation’s review of The Witcher

In the older British cultural studies definition, subcultures attempt to provide “magical resolutions” to class contradictions (Cohen 1972) such as disenfranchisement. They tend to contain elements of the parent culture, such as an emphasis on community in predominantly working-class subcultures (e.g. skinheads) or on individualistic expression in predominantly middle-class subcultures (e.g. goths, skaters).

As Anoop Nayak argues, while social class is rarely discussed by young people, it is “tacitly understood and deeply internalized” through “codes of respect, accent, dress, music, bodily adornment and comportment” (2006:828). For example, one recent study of youth the UK (McCulloch et al.2006: 552) found clear links between subcultural affiliation and class; those involved in subcultures based primarily around white rock music (e.g. “goths” and “skaters”) originated mainly from backgrounds where parents had more education and/or higher status employment, while working-class youth had less choice over their lifestyle than these groups and were more likely to be labelled with the pejorative “chavs”.

Case Study: Subcultural Imagery in Game Marketing

Up until recently, the UK had two major videogame chains; GAME and Gamestation. Both stores were owned by the same company, but the now defunct Gamestation tended to position itself more as a place for the “real gamers” to go to. Gamestation’s 2010 “Talk To The Gamers” ad campaign used real staff members to emphasise this distinction, but in doing so it also inadvertently reified a bunch of stereotypes about who “real gamers”. Through the use of subcultural imagery, we see a version of “geek cool” which asserts a sort of de-facto whiteness and (if we believe the McCulloch study) middle-classed-ness, through subcultural styles associated with predominantly white forms of rock music. (Obviously I’m not asserting that anyone who likes metal is socially or economically privileged, but looking at this ad it’s clear which demographics it is not aimed at).

ad from the now-defunct GameStation retailer in the UK (circa 2012)

Social Class and Game Preferences – Existing Studies

While class-based analysis of gamer cultures are uncommon, socio-economic status does appear to play an important role in determining who plays what. For example, large studies in Norway (Hovden and Klevjer 2012) and France (Rufat et al 2012) have shown clear relationships between social class and gaming tastes – with males from lower SES backgrounds generally preferring realistic aesthetics, traditionally masculine themes/characters and communal play, and a limited range of sports, racing and shooting genres. Similar play practices and preferences have been found in smaller studies with low-SES African-American youth (e.g. DeVane and Squire 2008; DiSalvo and Bruckman 2010).

So I disagree with Gosling and Crawford’s dismissal of subculture on the grounds of the term’s link to social class, because class seems to play an important role in mediating whether or not people engage with the more “geekier” elements of gamer culture, or whether they play more casually. For example, in Hovden and Klevjer’s study of Norwegian students, they found that the “geek” gamers (who played the largest variety of games and were more likely to like games rooted in fantasy and sci-fi worlds) were more likely to be middle-class, and that this group was less male-dominated that the working class “lads” who favoured sports, racing and shooting games.We could even classify the “geek” gamer (to whom most gaming websites etc. seem to be addressed) as an example of what Peterson and colleagues term the “cultural omnivore” – a new faction of the middle-classes for whom “good taste” means having a varied and broad cultural diet (Peterson 1992, 1997; Peterson et al 1992, 1996)– a description that might also fit geeks more generally.

Not a Conclusion

Gosling and Crawfords’ refusal of subculture fails to stand up to some of the empirical evidence which is beginning to emerge on the topic of social class and gaming. Subculture remains an important sociological concept because it helps us to identify how (young) peoples’ identities are constrained by their social backgrounds, and not just shaped by a series of personal choices (Blackman 2005).

I argue that while “gamers” are too diverse a group to be described as a subculture, there are groups within gaming culture which can be accurately described as subcultures, because they embody class-based attitudes to games. The hardware obsessed PC-gamer; the Tolkien-aficionado RPG player and the Western Otaku all (to my mind) exemplify typically middle-class orientations to culture. They usually depend on extra investments of time and money. While “gamer” is a general term, it still tends to conjure up these groups – the intended audience for most gaming websites, blogs etc. – the cultural omnivore who plays more than just Call of Duty and Madden.

Given the growing interest in social justice issues in fandoms, I’d urge other geek anthropologists to consider how socioeconomic privilege operates within our geeky past-times. As such, this is not a conclusion, but a call to discuss how geek subjectivities may be socially-shaped in ways which automatically exclude large groups of people.

Bibliography

Bennett, A. (1999) ‘*Subcultures or Neo-tribes? Rethinking the Relationship Between Youth,  Style and Musical Taste’, Sociology 33(3): 599–617

Blackman, S. (2005) ‘Youth Subcultural Theory: A Critical Engagement with the Concept, its Origins and Politics, from the Chicago School to Postmodernism’, Journal of Youth Studies. 8(1): 1-20

Cohen, P. (1972) ‘Subcultural conflict and working class community’. Working papers in Cultural Studies 2. University of Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Cohen, P. (1997) Rethinking the Youth Question. London: Macmillan

DeVane, B. and Squire, K. D. (2008) ‘*The meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto’. Games and Culture. 3(3-5) : 264-285.

DiSalvo, B. and Bruckman, A. (2010) ‘Race and Gender in Play Practices: Young African American Males’. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games: 56-63.

Downing, S. K. (2011) ‘Retrogaming Subculture and the Social Construction of a Piracy Ethic’ . International Journal of Cyber Criminology. 5(1): 750-772.

Dymek, M. (2012) ‘Video Games: a Subcultural Industry’ in Zackariasson, P. and Wilson, T. L. (eds.) The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State, and Future. London: Routledge: 34-56

Gosling, V. K., and Crawford, G. (2011) ‘Game Scenes: Theorizing Digital Game Audiences’ in Games and Culture. Vol. 6. No. 2 pp135-154.

Hovden, J. and Klevjer, R. (2012) ‘Game space and social space’. Paper presented at NorskMedieforskerkonferanse Author’s English translation.

Juul, J. (2010)  A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players.

McCulloch, K., A. Stewart and N. Lovegreen (2006) ‘“We Just Hang Out Together”: Youth Cultures and Social Class’, Journal of Youth Studies Vol 5. No. 9. 539–56.

Nayak, A. (2006) ‘Displaced Masculinities: Chavs, Youth and Class in the Post-industrial City’ in Sociology. Vol. 40. No. 5. 813-831.

Peterson, R. (1992) ‘Understanding Audience Segmentation: From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and Univore’. In Poetics, Vol.21. 243-248.

Peterson, R. (1997) ‘The Rise and Fall of Highbrow Snobbery as a Status Marker’. In Poetics, Vol. 25.75-92.

Peterson, R. and Kern, R. (1996) ‘Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore’. In American Sociological Review. Vol 61. 900-7.

Peterson, R. and Simkus, A. (1992) ‘How Musical Tastes Mark Occupational Status Groups’. In Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, edited by Michèle Lamont and Marcel Fournier, 152-186. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rufat, S. Coavoux, S. TerMinassian, H. Boutet, M. (2012) ‘Situating play cultures. A survey of videogame players and practices in France’. Findings of the French National Research Agency Ludespacesurvey.

Sims, C. (2014) ‘Video Game Culture, Contentious Masculinities, and Reproducing Racialized Social Class Divisions in Middle School’ in Signs, Vol. 39, No. 4. 848-857.

Thornham, H. (2011) Ethnographies of the Videogame: Gender, Narrative and Praxis. Ashgate Publishing.

Winkler, W. K. (2006) ‘The Business and Culture of Gaming’ in Williams, J. P. Hendricks, S. Q. and Winkler, W. K. (eds.) Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games. Jefferson: NC. McFarland: 140-153.

Joe is a doctoral candidate in media and cultural studies at Canterbury Christ Church University in England, where he’s collecting IT professionals’ biographical accounts of informal and incidental learning through PC gaming. When he was little he mostly wanted to be Dave Lister out of Red Dwarf. Other interests include; leftfield hip-hop and electronica, games and game development, and the Oxford comma. Joe blogs about his doctoral research, tech-based youth work and media/cultural stuffs over at joewebb86.wordpress.com. He also runs the website bosslevelvgm.com, where he writes about composing sub-par music for pretentious indie games.  You can contact Joe at Jaw70@canterbury.ac.uk or on Twitter @joebaxterwebb.

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Tagged: gamersgamesgamingsocial classsociologysubculturesvideo games

About joebaxterwebb

Designer and researcher of games. Previously lecturing at @BerkleeOnline and @MAD_CCCU. Now in design and production at a rather spiffing mobile studio. View all posts by joebaxterwebb →

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