[-empyre-] December Discussion: Gaming Subcultures

December Discussion on -empyre-: Gaming Subcultures :: Gabriel Menotti wrote: Dear all,

Welcome to an early December and another debate! This month, empyre is dedicated to the general universe of Gaming Subcultures – the different forms of “playing outside the console,” titles that explore such dynamics and, especially, the social practices built around them.

In spite of the many stories they might tell, videogames are first and foremost narratives of mastery over the system. Their particular drama is not situated on whatever turning points are shown on the screen, but between the player and the controls. This is easier to perceive in highly technical genres such as platformers and rhythm games. To play a game is to learn how to perform within it – how to take things into effect.

In an article about game design, [1] Daniel Cook shows that the gameplay is meant to conform the user to its rules gradually, in a sort of smooth pedagogy of procedures. The extent to which this increasing reflexivity between man and machine can be tutorial is obvious from titles such as Mario Teaches Typing. [2] However, this tendency may not be collateral, at least according to German philosopher Claus Pias: in a thesis that is available online (but that I could never read), Pias finds the historical origins of videogames in military training. [3]

Could videogames be then reduced to a mere dressage medium? I believe not. To do so is to attribute an impossible self-sufficiency to them. On the one hand, the designers themselves are never completely free to set the conditions for training. They are also constrained by rules: those of the available frameworks, libraries and engines, whose total parameters often escape them. This is why bugs occur and, sometimes, the users get to find something that the designer did not put there. The same Daniel Cook, upon sharing a hint page of his Steambirds on Google Reader, confesses: “Now I finally know how to play my own game.” [4]

In that sense, one cannot ignore that every platform is contained within others, and therefore can be exploited, hacked and cheated (just like school). This means that the feedbacks between player and system can occur far beyond the individual and pre-planned hand-eye coordination, they can happen on a larger socio-cultural scale. Even if internal mastery cannot be achieved, the game can be beaten from the outside – or, better yet, circumvented into other uses.

I personally consider these activities a constitutive and inseparable part of ordinary gameplay. I take that from my personal memories of titles such as Stunts [5] and Street Fighter II, which I played during my early teens with the neighbourhood gang. Our main mode of interaction with the former was making and exchanging racetracks in which we never actually care to race on. With the later, it was watching friends fight each other in living room championships, while we waited for our turn to use the joystick (for barely three minutes).

Even so, there was a lot of engagement even when no playing seemed to be involved. It comes as no surprise that the off-game creation and trade of in-game content (from Chinese Gold Farming to Knytt Stories [6]), as well as the physical situation of the gaming platform (from the Pokéwalker [7] to Auntie Pixelante’s Chicanery [8]), are fast approaching the centre of the stage. Maybe this is a mark of the increasing complexity of the medium. Maybe it’s a sign of the colonization of these social fields by the system’s logic.

Finally, the debate means to focus on how videogames can be publicly appropriated through the invention and transmission of supplementary parameters, leading to activities that James Newman dubs as “superplay.” [9] These include but are not limited to their use as platforms of audiovisual creation and their employment in sport-like tournaments.

Our first guests are Joshua Diaz and Julian Kücklich. They will be addressing how the gaming practice often spills into the immediate surroundings and then back again, as playing becomes a subject of everyday conversation and players resort to each other to understand rules, optimize their skills, pass through a certain stage, etc. All this communication requires and generates its own channels, such as gamesforums and faqs. More often than not, these external channels are the only way to get into the system’s most internal rules – the ones that are never written on manuals and made explicit, such as hints (e.g. the order to fight megaman’s bosses) and exploits (e.g. konami code). Bios below (and links bellower).

Joshua Diaz is a game designer and researcher. Currently working in social games in the SF Bay area, he’s a graduate of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT and an alum of the GAMBIT Game Lab. His research focused on multiplayer game design and the impact of player communities, collaborative storytelling and procedural narratives, and game literacy research in education and development. He’s findable under the nick “dizzyjosh” most places, like

Julian Kücklich is an independent media researcher based in Berlin. More at


Julian Kücklich wrote: Hi all,

after Gabriel’s introduction, I would like to get the ball rolling by raising the question what we are actually talking about when we talk about gaming subcultures. While Gabriel has provided some fascinating examples, which demonstrate the breadth of the contemporary videogame landscape, I think it might be useful to delve into the history of games, and look at some crucial junctures which lead up to the current situation.

I think it’s useful to keep in mind that computer gaming itself was seen as a subculture until recently, and that some “hardcore gamers” are still holding on to this notion, despite the demographic changes ascribed to the Nintendo Wii, browser-based gaming, and “social games” such as FarmVille. In the light of this development, we might also ask when the notion of a gaming mainstream was first articulated, and in which relation it stands vis-a-vis its subcultures.

1. Cold War Games
Gabriel mentioned Claus Pias’ book “Computer Spiel Welten”, which traces the history of computer games to military-cybernetic experiments in behavioural control. In this context, it seems pertinent that early computer games such as William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two and Steve Russell et al.’s Space War were developed on computers paid for by the Pentagon and represent both an abuse of military technology for entertainment purposes and an extension of military logic into gamespace.

2. Subcultural Networks
Another mythological foundation of computer game culture can be found in the development of “Colossal Cave / Advent”, which was allegedly only possible because Don Woods got in touch with Will Crowther through the new medium of email, sending messages to every server on the net in the mid-1970s (see True or not, this story draws attention to the fact that computer gaming was relegated to an academic elite for a long time.

3. Bedroom Coders
In the 1980s, it was still feasible to make a game for individuals or small teams of two or three people. The “bedroom coders” of the 1980s were mostly in it for the money, yet they refused to work according to project plans and predefined milestones. And in games like “Manic Miner” they infused videogames with political messages for the first time. After all, it is hardly a coincidence that “Manic Miner” was released shortly before the UK miner’s strike of 1984-85.

4. Skins, Maps, and Mods
It seems almost ironic that early 3D games like Doom and Quake managed to start a revolution in fan-created game modifications, while at the same time sounding the death knell for bedroom coders. The complexity and size of 3D games required much larger teams, so it was no longer feasible to create games by yourself. At the same time, however, id’s laissez-faire approach allowed gamers to create their own maps, skins and mods for their games.

5. Independent Games
The return of “independent games” (often created by individual game designers such as Jason Rohrer or Jonathan Blow) is often attributed to the increasing viability of digital distribution (and a concomitant deacrease in the influence of publishers) but it also seems to betray a changing aesthetic sensibility. After two decades of higher and higher polygon counts, gamers seem to be quite comfortable with the simple graphics of Rohrer’s Passage, or Daniel Benmergui’s Today I Die.

That’s it for today, looking forward to the debate,


Nov 29, 16:15
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