Culture Bred Through Game Design

August 23rd, 2008

resident evil 4 pc

There were two articles which inspired me to write this piece so I’d like to call them out before I begin. They are Wanted: World Games by Chris Plante and The (possible) Source of Classical & Western Game Design by Richard Terrell.

Culture can roughly be defined as a set of socially transmitted norms that characterize the behaviour of a community. Our culture affects our understanding of the world around us and hence dictates how we behave in this space. Therefore when games are created, culture is inevitably bred through game design.

At this point in time game development is largely polarized between Japanese and Western (read: American) game design (European culture if often misinterpreted by the larger audience and as a result is often unfortunately left out). So to begin with, let us analyze some examples of how American and Japanese culture is expressed through games and what the overarching differences are.

One comment that has often been leveled towards the divide between Japanese and American games is the question of violence. Japanese games almost always go out of their way to provide reasoning behind violence. Think of the samurai who fights for honour or to avenge a tragedy in his life (typical example; home town being burnt down). The ninja’s actions are justified as he is retaliating to the violence bestowed upon him and due to the importance of face value in Asian culture (respect to elders, naming conventions in language) he is allowed to create violence, he is allowed to kill those who stand in his way. Unnecessary violence then, pushes against those ideals: if the ninja was to attack people because he felt like it would be a fun thing to do, within the village he’d lose face. Examples; Street Fighter, Ninja Gaiden Metal Gear Solid, Onimusha.

Furthermore when violence is used in Japanese games it is often heavily stylized, reflecting a cultural side effect of the Hiroshima bomb disaster where animation and art was used to displace people’s trauma of the devastating attack. The threat of nuclear bombs is also evident in numerous Japanese titles.

chun li street fighter

In American games, violence is seen differently, (in my interpretation) as a sport. This, I think, relates to the ‘gun culture’ bred into American society. Many American families own guns. The excuse is to ensure safety and since everyone feels insecurities at some point, guns are often seen as a solution to the problem (which is actually fear of each other, so really there is no problem) – hey, that really is American game design right there! Guns are seen as safety devices and not so much as killing devices and are therefore more warmly accepted which is why guns as sport is a common influence in American game design. Examples; Army of Two, Gears of War.

This cultural nuance goes hand in hand with another aspect of American culture which is cultural bigotry. I’m talking about an elitist attitude towards foreign countries and cultures. This can be seen in the large number of World War 2 games on the market. Why World War 2 though? How does this make sense? It does so as it represents America’s spot on the world stage in great triumph; their moment in the sun where they reign supreme. When developers grow tired of the World War 2 formula, bringing it into the modern day is relatively low fuss because in the modern day, America vs “ethnics” is always easy an easy sell. Be it Middle Eastern (Army of Two), German (World War 2 games), Russian (Syphon Filter), Asian (Crysis) it doesn’t matter; they are a threat to us and need to be culled for the sake of our “liberty”. As a side note and further proof of this, foreign language is commonly implemented when you kill Germans, Russians, Islamic people… know for the added hilarity?

NB:The above was no dig at Call of Duty 4 by the way. I will talk about that game one day though.

This comparison between how violence is dealt with in games is just a single example of how culture influences game design. Other aspects can be seen such as how younger women are often more sexualized in Japanese games; wearing less clothing and in some cases innuendo to Hentai culture with ‘panty peaks’ and whatnot. This falls in line with a country light on child pornography laws. RPGs and anime inspired games are prime examples here.

European, Asian and Australian culture can be seen in games from these regions too. For the UK, the accent, slang and metaphors used by commentators in soccer (or football) games leads into what many would call an integral part of English culture. Many online role playing games represent a need for identity in a massive population (such as China). As for Australian culture, we’ll I’m not too sure (and yes, we will exclude Ty the Tasmanian Tiger).

I hope this talk preludes well into further articles that I hope to write on my time away. Let me know if you can think of any more examples of culture in games.