Games as a cultural force

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The games industry has achieved huge cultural significance over the past few decades, and now entices other industries to integrate and collaborate.

We spoke to Louise Shorthouse from Ampere Analysis and John Wills from the University of Kent to hear their expert thoughts on why we’re seeing more and more non-endemic industries getting involved in games.

From the early days of Pong to the triple-A blockbusters of today, the games industry has grown to become a cultural monolith for the modern era. Whether through economic strength as Grand Theft Auto V breaks records in becoming the highest-grossing entertainment product of all time, or cultural influence as major brands like Mario, Pokémon and Fortnite stand as just as recognisable as the likes of Disney and Mickey Mouse, it’s difficult to deny the influence of games on the modern cultural landscape.

Through a growing number of collaborations with non-gaming industries, video games are increasingly seeping into every aspect of the modern consumer market, boosting the sector’s cultural power as a result. One need only take a look at recent high-fashion partnerships such as the League of Legends collection from Louis Vuitton to see this trend in action, with these seemingly-disparate brands coming together in 2019 for a high-profile blend of gaming and high fashion in celebration of the League of Legends Championship Series.

Louis Vuitton Take Over CupLouis Vuitton Take Over - 2020

According to a report from DFC Intelligence, it is estimated that over three billion people around the world play games - and that’s without the rising interest in adjacent methods of enjoying modern gaming, such as eSports. Thanks to this growing market, games are increasingly becoming a lifestyle beyond the experience for many players and fans, and collaborations with more traditional sectors like the fashion industry offer an avenue for fans to express themselves and the media they enjoy through both in-game and real-world apparel.

Take the Louis Vuitton x League of Legends collaboration as an example. While there may be no obvious overlap between League of Legends players and those who wear Louis Vuitton clothing, this is irrelevant for the latter brand where prestige and being in touch with current trends is most important. Gaming is popular with audiences of all ages, making League of Legends an obvious partner for a firm interested in using its popularity to reach a new audience; after all, this isn’t the first time Louis Vuitton has taken an interest in gaming as a means of showcasing its work. The company previously worked with Square Enix to headline Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning as a model in their Spring-Summer 2016 campaign.

“Gaming partnerships allow [these brands] to stay in touch with young people, whilst for gaming itself, such collaborations legitimise it as a true and established cultural force,” explained Louise Shorthouse, Senior Gaming Analyst at Ampere Analysis. Fashion’s role in gaming in particular is of growing importance to the mainstreaming of the industry within pop culture.

Shorthouse also predicted that, with growing interest in the metaverse and digital experiences where personal avatars become an extension of the self, portraying a person’s personality with those they meet in virtual worlds, these same brands will also want to maintain relevance in digital fashion going forwards. 

“As we move more towards virtual spaces as reflections or simulations of the physical world, I think we can expect to see new forms of monetisation and engagement emerge that brands will want to capitalise on,” she says. “Consumers are already buying and selling branded virtual goods like skins for their avatars.”

Games are of growing importance not just as a means of entertainment, but in how we engage and interact with other people and the world around us. For brands who wish to stay relevant in a world where games or virtual experiences are the centerpiece, these collaborations are a way to expand their reach to audiences who perhaps don’t engage with traditional media or fashion outside of gaming.

History Lessons

Another sign of gaming’s place as a cultural force is its influence on our understanding of the world around us. The media has a long and proven track record of influencing and shaping our recollection of historical events, as it has repeatedly been used as a vehicle to turn history into entertainment. An example of this can be seen with the American Wild West, where our understanding of these times is tied closely to the cinematic tradition of Western movies in post-war Hollywood. This glut of films influenced our understanding of the politics and even the racial makeup of cowboys in the American West. Almost all cowboys in Hollywood were portrayed as white, spearheaded by stars like John Wayne, with this reimagined ideal obscuring the reality that as many as 25% of cowboys were Black.

Like movies before it, games are increasingly becoming the dominant tool through which society understands and reinterprets popular history. 

“We can see how, through different technologies and through different media, history becomes entertainment at different points in time and video games are the next technology doing that,’ noted John Wills, a reader in American History and Culture and director of the Centre of American Studies at the University of Kent, as well as the author of Gamer Nation, a book examining the intersections between gaming and history. 

“Not a huge amount of people now watch Hollywood Westerns, whereas there's millions of people who have played Red Dead Redemption. In that sense, video games have a kind of dominance today for an insight into history.”

While the influence of smaller titles may be limited, mainstream games like Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed and World War II-based shooters are becoming an introduction to world history for many players, particularly for younger audiences. In the case of Assassin’s Creed, this goes beyond a mere setting as the franchise’s more recent entries have received the Discovery Tour updates, a mode that recontextualises these worlds as a virtual museum, allowing players to learn about the cultures and places these titles take place in. 

Of course, we needn’t simply look towards modern examples of how games have been used to shape the historical understandings of audiences young and old; games have been used as an educational tool going all the way back to titles such as The Oregon Trail in the 1970s.

Where games can be beneficial in understanding world history when compared to other mediums stems from their interactivity – although this sometimes hinders the ability for games to effectively explore sensitive events. This was seen with the controversy surrounding the recent Martin Luther King Jr. event in Fortnite, where the use of player emotes was deemed disrespectful. Even so, it’s difficult to deny the potential games hold as a tool to learn about historical issues.

The Not-So-Virtual World

Similarly, games can explore complex problems facing society today, and even offer solutions or platforms to discuss these issues with other users. 

“I like how a range of games for some time have been looking at or connecting with ideas about the environment or climate change,” says Wills. “And they can be subtle like in the early ‘90s with Ecco the Dolphin. Now we have the Minecraft Climate Hope City and Eco expansions for The Sims. There is a sense that games can challenge older generations at times as well as younger to highlight these issues, and they can be quite immediate at capturing cultural anxieties or cultural feelings.”

Games are a cultural force because of both their economic and cross-industry collaborative strengths, as well as their ability to be utilised as a tool for complex socio-political and historical issues. The medium has proven itself to be a force that brings industries and people together, whether that be through fashion and mutual interests or in the pursuit of knowledge.

Throughout history, music’s ability to transcend language, class and racial barriers has allowed it to act as a unifying force with the power to bring people together. With gaming more popular than ever before, has the games industry replaced music as the great cultural unifier? That’s a more difficult question to answer.

“I think music is still much more accessible as a medium,” admits Shorthouse. “Although many popular games are now free-to-play, they still require a device capable of running them, and therefore a certain level of disposable income. Also, although gaming has become incredibly widespread and is now enjoyed by much broader demographics, for me, music is still far more pervasive and inclusive. However, in the future gaming will become an increasingly unifying force as it merges more seamlessly with other entertainment forms.”

Gaming may be easier to get into today, but it is still less accessible, particularly to those with less disposable income, to be truly unifying to the broadest range of people. Yet it’s impact in transforming society means that, even if it may not replace mediums like music as a cultural unifier, its influence on modern society is undeniable and irreversible. And that influence will only grow in the future.

“It’s a kind of social norm for everybody now,” says Wills. “Most people are gamers now and it’s far more a part of modern life. I think we haven't recognised how much video games have connected us and familiarised us with delivering simulated lives, engaging with screens and going online. They're part of our digital existence and our simulated lives. 

“I think they're part of this transition towards a more virtual society, they're moving us along, and I think sometimes people forget how games are a part of that process. People only think of email or social media, but actually, games have been very important over the last 50 years in terms of making our society a digital society and pushing us towards new ways of engagement.”

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