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Monday, April 28, 2014

How Can Gaming Be a Culture?

This is an excerpt from my senior thesis entitled Gamers: The Invisible People Group (What the Church is Missing and How to Reach Them).  

How Can Gaming Be A Culture?
Academics can’t agree on a single definition of what constitutes “culture”. Webster’s defines culture as “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.[1]” Scholars disagree over the anthropological lenses through which to define culture. What they all agree on, and what forms the root of culture is what binds a group of people together. The language, rituals, belief systems, and arts of a particular set of people is what enables them to identify with themselves and each other. To identify themselves by the moniker of the group as a whole.
            So what is gamer culture? What are the binds that hold gamers together? It begins with language. Both spoken and written language among gamers forms a sort of slang that is often referred to as “Leet”. Alphabetically this refers to the replacing of many traditional Latinate letters with other numbers or symbols. For example, replacing “Leet” itself with “1337” or “l33t”. Leet is often used both as a way to discourage non-gamer, non-computer savvy players from participating in discussions by ensuring they don’t understand the meanings and as a way of evading the censorship filters often present by spelling out swear words with numbers and symbols. Even when not written in Leet, gamer language tends to include many acronyms that have different or no meaning outside the context of gaming. Some examples include AFK (Away from Keyboard), FPS (First Person Shooter), RPG (Role Playing Game), MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online), and MARP (Message to All Recent Players).
            Spoken language is largely different from standard English by shortening or changing the definition of certain words. For example, “cap” is used as a slang term for “capture” in games that feature Capture the Flag style gameplay. “Two-piece” is used as a way to indicate two take downs or kills within a short period of time and goes upwards in numbers as well. “Tank” often refers to a style of play in Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games that refers to having a character with lots of health and area-of-effect attacks that are meant to draw attention and fire to themselves to allow teammates to take down opposing players by flanking them. These are just a few examples, and while by and large the language is still English it wouldn’t take long at all for a non-gamer to quickly lose track of a conversation when gamers begin discussing the games themselves.
            Past language, gamer culture is held together by its belief system. Gamer culture is strangely both extremely egalitarian and yet very hierarchical.  Anyone can be a gamer and anyone can be accepted as a gamer. Black, white, asian, Christian, Jew, atheist, straight, gay…most of these barriers simply don’t exist among gamers as the solid walls that they so often are in wider society. The ties that bring them together are very often stronger than the ones that would draw them apart. While it’s dangerous to attribute causation to it, it helps that games almost universally have an online “identity” system, where one is known by a nickname or screen name instead of a real name. This brings a level of anonymity to online gaming communities that’s absent in real world counterparts. However, how strictly gamers adhere to this anonymity is extremely relative, and the fact is that large communities of gamers who know each other in real life are common. The largest factors in creating the openness of gamer culture is the both the infinite variety of backgrounds represented by gamers and the artificial value systems within the games themselves. Someone’s worth to you as a partner in Left 4 Dead, for example, is not based upon their race or creed but upon how skillful they are at staying on their feet and killing zombies. This largely prevents large communities forming based on shared creeds, race, or other social lines from having the same sort of stability or gravitational pull that they would have in other contexts. Gamer culture finds value in one’s identity and self within the game rather than who you are on the street.
 However, the competitive nature of gaming itself imposes a hierarchical structure over the egalitarian veneer. Competition is rife and often fierce, and while not rigidly stratified there are definite “levels” based upon one’s particular skill set. That having superior skill at something over someone else makes you a more desirable teammate (and friend) is a core tenet of gamer culture. Even those who rebel against this and insist on playing “simply for fun” still typically have respect for those who are more skillful than they are. The law of the land in gamer culture is that the competitive nature of games means that anyone with a high level of skill instantly has the same sort of social cache that would correlate to wealthy or powerful individuals in the real world. This is both encouraged and enabled within most games by the presence of ranking systems that usually stratify players based upon their skill set and offer tangible benefits and rewards for those that climb the ranks.
            Ultimately what brings gamers together and defines the culture are the games themselves. As artistic mediums, social events, competition, sport, and lifestyle wrapped all into one; it is the games that are the lifeblood to gamer culture. It’s a unique aspect of gaming culture that so much of it is derived from a single aspect that forms it. It’s also what makes the growing community so diverse. First person shooters on consoles, massive multiplayer role playing games, Dungeons and Dragons style board games, collectible trading card games, and sports games are just a few of the communities that form the larger culture. Many of the psychological underpinnings that bring gamers together are the same attractive forces at work in other artistic communities: shared interest and understanding of a particular medium combined with the feeling of being part of an experience both that’s larger than one’s self and yet unique to one’s own perspective. Video games make this quite literal, as the largest multiplayer games often have tens to hundreds of thousands of gamers playing at once. 



[1] Webster’s Online Dictionary, “Culture”

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