Will our kids become more educated if they play certain games? If we prevent them from playing other games will it affect who they turn out to be? Is playing certain games a part of being ‘cultured’, like reading Moby Dick, citing Shakespeare, or listening to Bob Dylan?
I found myself thinking about this on a recent trip to Italy. I was standing in a local bookstore, looking at the packed shelves around me. It was a standard, modern, and well-lit place. Many of the books had been written by known English and American writers, like John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, Julia Donaldson, etc. It was a pretty familiar environment except that everything was, well, written in Italian.
You'll be surprised, but not all bookstores in Italy look like this one, Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
Like most bookstores these days, it wasn’t only books that were on display, but also other types of published media. The shelves contained newspapers, magazines, DVDs & CDs (they must be using another technology over there) and of course digital and physical games.
The digital games were easy to recognize. The titles and the text on the covers may vary from place to place, but they are made by a handful of publishers, and they all usually have the same design and graphics. When loaded into the computer or console, there are multiple language settings, so no matter where you buy them, they can be used in the same way.
But the physical games in that shop were much more obscure and risky. Except for puzzles and a few known brands, like Monopoly and Catan, it was difficult to know what was inside each box. Some of the boxes featured amazing graphics that I’ve never seen before. But buying them without knowing Italian seemed silly. I had to leave this part of the store, feeling like I just been shut outside a large library, full of discovery, knowledge, experiences, and fun.
Becoming knowledgeable about the latest books, films, and music is not that difficult. Most educated adults should be familiar with more than two or three famous authors. Most adults should also be familiar with films other than James Bond or Star Wars. And all of us should know the names and faces of more than at least three musicians and bands.
We’ve come to hear of these creators through the culture we live in. We often use the term ‘entertainment’ when we refer to music, TV and film, but usually when we throw in books and art, we refer to them collectively as ‘culture’.
We know about culture not necessarily by being part of showbiz or by being artists or obsessive fans ourselves, but because it is all around us. The radio is playing the latest hits. There are billboards around town showing the latest blockbuster. Talk shows have bands playing. Oprah is telling us about the books she loves to read. The newspaper’s weekend edition has a whole culture section, telling us what to see, read, hear, and experience. And all of it is replicated, scaled, and multiplied online.
We can attribute this flow of cultural info to the economic interest of the entertainment industry. While this is true, in recent years we’ve seen a gradual intrusion of more esoteric fields. The most notable of these was food. With the global gastronomy craze, food has become a vital part of any culture review. And yet, while food is a huge industry, much bigger than entertainment, it is usually not Kraft or Nestle that gets the reviews, but much smaller settings like restaurants, wineries, and bakeries.
Food has positioned itself as a part of culture, as well as an art form.
And it isn’t just food – unknown comedians are redefining comedy. Small TV networks create hits. Street artists challenge museums and galleries. It’s the smaller guys that create the buzz.
It’s not only economic interest that brings cultural information and reviews to our doorstep, newsfeed and mobile; we are actively and passively looking for ‘entertainment’ because we’d like to be, well, entertained.
The definition of entertainment is apparently very broad, Photo by Rich Dahlgren on Unsplash
At the same time, we are looking to be informed, enlightened and educated. We are consuming culture not only because it is entertaining but because we want to get insights about life as they are reflected in film, music, literature, and art. We want to sense and know cultural experiences that are meaningful.
Because of this latter tendency, we like reviews, whether they are made by the pretentious snobs writing opinion columns, by our like-minded friends or by the faceless crowd of Yelp. We are looking for what marketers refer to as Social Proof, i.e. knowing what other people have thought about our products and why they found them to be worth 5 stars.
And yet, despite this democratization of ‘culture’, games are often left outside. Very few people consider them to be cultural artifacts, including most players. Even though the annual revenues of gaming (108 Billion USD) outperform those of film (38 Billion USD), and those of toys & games (22 Billion USD) outperform those of music (16 Billion USD), they are not considered important enough to cover in the culture section. Except for the British Guardian, I’m unfamiliar with any major newspaper or news site published in English that regularly covers games.
When games do appear in mainstream media it’s usually in a negative way, like their influence on random acts of violence among American teens.
So, to be informed about games we need to be active. We need to search for info or follow other people who do - It is not just around us. We need to visit specific websites, most of which are nerdy gamers / tech-oriented, and many others are just unfriendly. Most of them make you feel like you’re hanging with the geeks in high school – even when you were one of them, you still felt like an outsider.
Right now, the cultural significance of knowing how to play chess is the same as knowing how to play GTA or tic-tac-toe. In the absence of research, choosing which game to play with your kids is the equivalent of choosing between buying a 99 cent pizza and making reservations at a 3-star Michelin restaurant. It’s all on the same level.
To be clear, we don’t need gatekeepers telling us what should be played.
You can come in, but your GTA5 has to leave, Photo by Maria Freyenbacher on Unsplash
But unless you’re deep into games, it’s hard to know what is simply a shiny box, and what box has some meaning inside. We just go about and buy whatever’s on the top shelf.
We don’t do this with other aspects of culture. From a very young age, we pick certain books to read to our kids, we play certain music, and we carefully monitor the films and TV they’re watching. Indeed, some of us will take them to concerts, galleries and museums to ‘broaden their horizons’.
As they grow up, we often expect them to know parts our culture, whether it is citing Shakespeare, or lines from Return of the Jedi. We want them to have a certain cultural heritage, and we make conscious decisions about what it is (and what it isn’t).
Because so many of us believe that games are just a waste of time, we think that if our kids are busy it must be fine. This is amazing given the amount of time we spend on cultivating their taste in other cultural fields.
Games which we now consider ‘classic’ were formed over the course of several centuries. They survived massive technological and social changes because they teach us some things which are personal and instantaneous but at same time are universal and timeless.
New games have the power to do that. We just need to be aware of it.