In focus: Cultural connections for games

Two people sat in front of monitors playing computer games whilst wearing headphones.
Photo by Alex Haney used under licence and adapted from the original.

The British Council's Games and Interactive Programme Manager, Paul Callaghan, explores how games can reflect our rich culture.

One of the things that excited me when I joined the British Council was the quality of our work in this area: Cara Ellison and Michele Poggi talking Shakespeare and video games in Verona; the 2011 DigiPlay Festival, focusing on the Thai–UK video games and animation industry; and Jessica Curry taking part in the Film, Archive, and Music Lab.

Does culture matter for games?

I had the chance to explore that question when I attended Continue - which was billed as a conference about video games and culture. I also learned about how other organisations are bringing together games and culture.

Speakers included included Marie Foulston from the V&A and The Wild Rumpus, Rick Gibson from the British Games Institute, writer and artist Leila Johnston, Stella Wisdom from the British Library, Toni Brasting from the Wellcome Trust.

The conversation was lively, as you’d expect from such a diverse group, covering everything from the work of grassroots events, institutional support, artists' residencies, collection, preservation, and new ways to think about creating and supporting collaborative play.

Each of these institutions, approached the question of video games and culture in their own way. The British Library examines where they intersect and expand on literature and writing; Wellcome is interested in science and health and communication; the Computerspiel Museum is interested in what a museum for video games can do.

Games as an art form

Continue was all about the different ways we can produce meaning from thinking about games beyond economic frames. The ongoing process of curators working in different ways, collectors thinking about archiving playable objects, artists finding new ways of producing with other art forms, and everything from grassroots activity to engaging with policy and government felt incredibly dynamic to me, and pointed to a vibrant network of cultural activity that is fundamentally a social experience. It is people working within the values and frameworks of institutions that create work that connects with other people, through that great big slippery word - culture.

'After all, films are an art.' Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

I finished up my talk with that quote from Susan Sontag. I’d modify the emphasis slightly to apply it to games though – Games are an art, one of many ways of producing meaning of and about the world and our experiences. This network of relationships and meaning is what makes them cultural, and Continue pointed the way to what we can learn from other art forms and institutions both in how we make specific work, but also in the way we can build the cultural infrastructure and dialogue that goes alongside it, both here and around the world.

What can the British Council do for games and culture?

The British Council is focused on finding ways games can help us connect with each other through creativity, arts and culture.

At the opening of the London Games Festival Culture Summit, I reflected on what culture means for games – especially the idea, reaffirmed by Continue, of this diversity of culture, and the broad ways we can interpret it.

Culture is a great big, slippery word. For games, when we talk about culture in its broadest sense, we’re talking about bringing together the shared history and values of a country or region; a games relationship to its players, and their relationship to each other; Capital-C Culture and the relationship of games to museums or galleries; grassroots events and communities; artists, makers, thinkers and critics working through what they think about games, and how they relate it to their lives.

Game's connection to Culture is all of these things simultaneously. It’s the knotty tension of different people doing different things in different places, and the friction, tension, and challenges within that - as well as the dialogue, art, and community that emerges in response.

Or, to put it far more elegantly:

'Culture is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experiences…' John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture

For further information, you might find these links useful:

This article was first published in 2017.