The fact that video game industry revenue has surpassed $19 billion dollars and that one on-line game commands a following of over 8 million people certainly constitutes a phenomenon. Yet until recently, few scholars, and even fewer theologians, have taken the initiative to critically engage the medium. Far more prevalent are the critics who either primarily focus on a game’s entertainment value (which essentially serves retail) or those critics who bemoan the presence of sex and violence in increasingly graphic fashion in video games with increasingly photorealistic graphics. If, as Craig Detweiler asserts, we are in a golden age of video games, I hope that a similar phase of video game criticism will not be too far behind. One fine example of the potential for in-depth critical analysis of video games is Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and Ralf Stockmann’s collection of essays is Computer Games as a Sociocultural Phenomenon: Games Without Frontiers War Without Tears.
Computer Games as a Sociocultural Phenomenon serves as a good introduction to the possible avenues that the critical study of video games can take. The book is divided into six sections that cover Game Design and Aesthetics, Space and Time, War and Violence, Ethics and Morality, Politics and Ideology, and Gamers and Cultural Identities. Though these are distinct areas of discussion, it is clear, after reading the book, that any combination of these topics will be at play together in any individual game. A really great game, game analysis, will have implications that touch on all of them at once.
The contributors to the first two sections reveal how the design and aesthetics of video games and the space and time of games and gameplay play an important role in meaning-making. In his article, “The Aesthetic Vocabulary of Video Games,” Joost van Dreunen writes about “medialect,” the intersection of medium and dialect. He comments, “The function, meaning and significance of a medium changes constantly because of its adherence to the fluid practices of both social convention and technological development” (4). This, perhaps, might be a healthy point of entry for theologians and scholars of religion to take up the conversation through an analysis of the values and meanings that undergird this “medialect.”
In terms of this site and my own research, the sections on War and Violence and Ethics and Morality, obviously closely linked, are the most interesting. Claudia Herbst reveals that violence is not just a visible component of video games but an invisible part as well…coded in the very fabric of the game. Henry Lowood looks at independent computer games in a post-9/11 world as forces or examples of impotency and agency. Perhaps the most interesting essay of this section, and the entire book, is Christoph Klimmt et al’s “‘Moral Mangement:’ Dealing with Moral Concerns to Maintain Enjoyment of Violent Video Games.” Drawing from Bandura’s moral management theory, they analyze the ways in which game designers and gamers negotiate violent acts and representations in games. These include moral justification, euphemistic labelling (using words like “neutralizing” instead of “killing”), advantageous comparison (“At least it’s not as bad as….”), displacement or diffusion of responsibility (“They made me do it.”), disregard or distortion of consequences, dehumanization (of the other), and attribution of blame (“they” deserve it) (112-113). I’ll say more on the importance of this below
The Politics and Ideology section looks at games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and City of Heroes for their political or politically incorrect implications. In his article, “Preconscious Apocalypse: The Failure of Capitalism in Computer Games,” Sven O. Cavalcanti makes a crucial observation of the prophetic (?) appearances of failed capitalist societies in a number of video games. Interestingly enough, many of these games represent dystopias that result from economic/political catastrophes, ecological catastrophes, genetic engineering catastrophes, technological catastrophes, or psychological and religious catastrophes (137-138).
Also limiting his focus to games after 9/11, Nowell Marshall wonders why, “[…In] an age when technology offers vast potential for designing virtual spaces […] software engineers [have] chosen to create such dystopian national narratives” (147).
Finally, contributors look at how developers and marketers negotiate cultural identities in the production and advertising of video games while the books’ final article looks at how British teenage girls navigate identity formation while playing The Sims.
While some of the essays in Computer Games as a Sociocultural Phenomenon might be of interest to the casual or hardcore gamer, the text as a whole is geared toward college or graduate level studies of the medium. Again, perhaps the most interesting article of the lot (and the one with broader appeal) is the one on moral negotiation when playing violent video games. Klimmt et al’s discussion could easily expand to help us make sense of our consumption of violent films, television programs, and even music. We could take their research a step further and bring it to bear on a real-world political narratives which often undertake moral management in elections or leading up to violent conflicts. In his essay, Cavalcanti’s concludes one of his sections with this brief observation that he would have done well to flesh out even more: “For a short while, the player may forget civic morality, which is that murder is forbidden but breeding is permitted, while sexuality may not be depicted and murder may be shown on screens” (138). Again, another prophetic statement regarding the nature of our society that emerges from an interaction with video games, that most unlikely source of social commentary.