Video Games as Popular Culture

We may all have played one once, but why has playing games become so important?


I previously discussed the notion that video games and politics should be working harmoniously rather than combating each other’s existence and current state. This notion is not quite as revolutionary as I may have made it out to be previously, as the idea of political influence of “popular culture” has been documented since the mid-1970s during the evolution of the interactive medium. With the wrestling of the opposing parties coming into the public eye more prominently than before (with thanks to the Internet and social media), this topic is necessary to revisit. I aim to analyse where video games stand as a medium in popular culture and the influence that popular culture can have over politics.

What is Popular Culture?

In order to understand how video games fit into a popular cultural environment, we must first distinguish what we mean by “popular culture”. There are several variations and definitions provided to denote what can fit under popular culture. The Oxford Dictionary provides the explanation of “modern popular culture transmitted via the mass media and aimed particularly at a younger age.” Media outlets such as the television, the Internet, social media and e-mails have revolutionised the way in which information is transmitted at the turn of the 21st Century. Information has become more accessible to a wider community spanning multiple cultures, ethnicities and race, and spreads at a much quicker rate than the transmission of the printing press. However, the notion of popular culture being “aimed particularly at a younger age” does not speak the truth. As much as the meteoric popularity of popular culture such as the “Harlem Shake” videos (adopting the original music by Baauer, 40,000 videos were created on YoutTube and viewed 175 million times within two weeks) were mainly created and published by youths, the target demographic was never explicitly categorised as youths. Rather, popular culture is mainly interacted with by those of a younger age, but not exclusive to this demographic.

Another definition of popular culture comes from the Cambridge Dictionary, which denotes popular culture as “music, TV, cinema, literature etc. that is popular and enjoyed by ordinary people, rather than experts or very educated people.” The establishment of popular mediums to today’s society constrains the term “popular culture” exclusively to today’s society, with no real inclination of possible future mediums. Therefore, the context of this definition is limited by time and technological advancement. Also, the definition distinguishes a social divide in the interaction of popular culture, suggesting that “experts or very educated people” don’t generally interact with popular culture. Again, the categorisation of social groups is not the purpose of popular culture, and many of the world’s leaders engage in popular culture. The most recent example involves three of the world’s leaders during the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service on the 10th December 2013: Barack Obama, President of the United States of America; David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark. The three leaders’ sparked controversy (due to the timing of their actions, rather than the action itself) participated in taking a “selfie”, where one holds a camera at arm’s length to take a self-portrait picture or with others. This example displays the lack of need to distinguish popular culture with social class; it is interacted with the majority, regardless of social stature.

From both of these definitions, we can formulate a more succinct definition to define what popular culture is: a piece of media transmitted via the mass media that is popular and enjoyed by a majority population. This may not be a comprehensive definition, and more depth can be analysed such as the terminology of “popular” and “culture” as a stand-alone term, but I believe it sums up the notion of popular culture concisely.

How is Popular Culture Defined?

Popular culture can be defined through concurrent attributes. John Fiske, an American media scholar and author, classifies popular culture as being “polysemic in itself, and any one reading of it must be conditional, for it must be determined by the social conditions of its reading.” In context, a piece of information or media must hold various meanings and representations in order to become relevant and popular with a majority audience. The popularity of media is circumstantial based on the context in which it is received, interpreted and relevant to current societies.

For example, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” created a different cultural attraction to the online distribution service provided by Amazon, yet both exhibit popular cultural attributes. PSY distributed his internet sensation through YouTube and, as of January 2014, has been viewed over 1.8 billion times. Although “Gangnam Style” has been monetised through advertising and licensing through YouTube, the content was easily accessible for free, making use of “gift economy” (exchanging content without the prospect of immediate or future rewards). The record-breaking views and interest that PSY generated with this piece of media is a prominent example of what can be defined as popular culture. “Gangnam Style” remained relevant to the South Korean demographic due to its portrayal of current societal themes. It also appeals to youths for its use of bright colours and over-the-top antics seen predominantly in children’s television shows. It finds contemporary value with the teenage and adult generations for its upbeat tempo and simple chorus (it is interesting to note that the song became popular regardless of the knowledge of the lyrics).

Amazon, however, exemplifies popular culture through a “market economy” (the investment, production and distribution of content). As published by consumer research firm Kanter Worldpanel, Amazon had increased its market share in the electronics department to 26.3% — a quarter of all electronic sales — and Ofcom reports that Amazon holds 79% of the emerging e-book market in the UK. By this understanding (as Amazon are generally secretive over data sharing), it is safe to assume that Amazon holds a firm grasp on the online distribution service due to the use of their service by a majority of people; therefore, Amazon can be categorised as popular culture. Amazon’s ability to facilitate a service as a marketplace for key shopping archetypes — books, electronics, clothes, games, jewellery — means that it is relevant to multiple individuals with separate, individual (and possibly unique) requirements.

Who Does Popular Culture Attract?

Popular culture, as mentioned in the definitions provided earlier, is generally regarded as appealing to a specific demographic. My disagreement in the idea that popular culture alienates the well-educated or the older generation is not a sentiment shared by Patricia Greenfield in her 1984 publication Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Video Games, and Computers. In her book, Greenfield suggests that adults (especially in the case of well-educated adults) have difficulty with video games because the ability to play video games requires “parallel processing”, the understanding of multiple patterns and relationships at a given time. This hindrance is due to the nature of the linear education that they are well-versed to through education. Given that this study was published in the mid-1980s and, as published by UK newspaper The Telegraph in July 2013, the average age of a video game player is thirty-five, it is not so apparent that video games hold as much of a divide in terms of audience demographic.

However, well-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal retorts that “today’s ‘born-digital’ kids — the first generation to grow up with the Internet, born 1990 and later — crave gameplay in a way that older generations don’t.” This is true in societal terms, as games have become a more accessible medium with the introduction of home consoles, handheld consoles and, as mentioned, the Internet. However, the largest demographic have shifted to middle-aged adults (both male and female) with full-time jobs. Video games has become a popular culture with an older generation (albeit, a generation that has grown up with the birth of video games) as much as being a youthful past-time, increasing the interactive medium’s hold as a popular culture to today’s society.

Why are Video Games Important to Society?

Video games as a form of popular culture has become an important part of today’s advancing society. Fiske explains that video games replicate the structures of the social system and by playing games, players are enacting “the social relations of the subordinate with the one crucial inversion — in the video arcade the skill, performance and self-esteem of the subordinate receive rewards and recognition that they never do in society.” Fiske’s sentiments are mirrored by that of McGonigal’s, who reiterates that “until and unless the real work world changes for the better, games… will fulfil a fundamental human need: the need to feel productive.” From this, it is understood that people are turning to video games in order to feel the benefits of society that they currently are not experiencing: reward through performance, improvement and success.

Within the past two years, it has be a well-publicised story of video games playing an important role in societal issues, such as the educatory value of games and the mental implications of violent game content. Video games are also implicating political culture, with developers such as Molleindustria developing interactive media as a stance against the way media is currently transmitted.

Where the divide is apparent between video games and politics in today’s society, I believe there is an opportunity for the two cultures to collaborate. Video games, as we have distinguished, are a popular culture and, as such, reach out to a majority audience through a very powerful medium of digital interaction. Attributed to this is a form of societal impact not too different from politics. Topics such as education, race and class are attributed to both, yet they are addressed in very different ways: politics expects the audience to act passively for a large majority of the time (until elections), whereas video games transform a spectacle into participation. Because of the contrast in approaches, it is difficult for collaboration to happen, which could lead to distinct differences in societal classes and engagement in the future. With distinct borders drawn around authority and orthodoxy, popular culture provides a challenge that resonates with the public and poses threats for order.

The need for initiative, negotiation and initiation between politics and popular culture is apparent. The longer this divide exists, societies will become more regressive, politics will act more defensively, and the more disruptive popular culture will become to authority.