22 Feb 2009

Symbology and Ideology in Gaming


Over the last 20 years the games industry has raised its status from the home made games distributed through the post to modern multi million dollar epics that rival Hollywood block busters. Games are now a much larger part of our wider culture. With this gain in responsibility comes more power as said in the statement “Video games...are neither neutral nor harmless, but represent very specific social and symbolic constructs” Provenzo, Eugene (1991), video games are now very much a part of our culture. A point that needs to be made concerning this quote is that it was coined in 1991, the book containing it is about the influence of the Nintendo games console that was incredibly popular with children in America at the time. We must understand the context of this quote to be able to interpret it. Nintendo was the new comics, new cinema, new ‘seduction of the innocent’ and was being consistently demonized in the media, and not without cause. Early gaming was regularly violent, misanthropic and played in isolation. There was a fear of this new media invading American families homes and garnered many negative associations. Negative associations that we are still trying to fight against today. Today’s games industry is in a very different place to where it was in 1991, the major difference is that it is no longer a child’s toy, but a lifestyle choice, a hobby, a past time enjoyed by an age range far exceeding those of the early 90’s. A study made in 2005 suggested the average age of gamers in America was 33 (http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=9342). Therefore we must broaden the quotes impact, to take into account it’s responsibility not just to children but also to the face of society as a whole. Does this quote still stand in today’s world?

Early games that may seem simplistic and straightforward in their meaning may have underlying themes and ideology attached to them. Of course this is open to interpretation, but are evident. Lets take Pac-man as an example. Within the game you, Pac-man, are in control of the title character whose only purpose is to consume. There are no moral implications, no fight between good and evil, simply the need to eat. Is this in someway a comment on commercialism, in someway the ghost are really debt collectors, thieves, politicians, society all attempting to stop him. Or are we witnessing the extent of gluttony, were we witness how greed allows some to essentially bring themselves to destruction. In any sense we can see metaphorical layers beneath the simple surface values we are given.

Super Mario Bros. Another early game from the same period, itself is filled with metaphors and allegory; we have a hero’s journey, good vs. evil, a rather stereotypical Italian plumber, and many other symbols. Mario collects coins as a form of wealth and eats mushrooms to make him larger and more powerful; these on there own right represent different sociological issues concerning capitalism and drug use. Again these elements only exist in the depths of the game rather than the cartoon-exaggerated surface. These ideas are not new or radical, but simply ideas propagated over many generations. The accumulation of wealth, risk and reward, the kidnapped princesses are all ideologies that we assimilate as children. Even the idea of taking mushrooms, can be seen in many cultures, where habitual drug taking remains an element of their sociological structure, and still continues today. As we can clearly see, behind playing a simple game, there are layers hidden behind the surface that are only evident if you interpret them beyond the superficial. There have been many changes in Gaming and the interpretation of them.


We can track the changes of societies views through its media. Being a heavily male dominated industry in its infancy we could see many misogynistic examples of women in gaming. Most females in early games were simply the goal of the journey, the hostage or prisoner that needed to be saved, the objectification of women in this sense is something that feminists have been fighting against throughout time. Obviously as more women enter the industry, and the general tone of games matures, we have had a huge increase in the number of titles that are gender neutral, and in some cases actually more popular with females. In recent years with the rise of casual, online games, we have burgeoning new demographic playing games.

The role of gender in gaming is an interesting facet of the argument for gaming in culture and the constructs it propagates. Women have taken an increasingly dominant role in gaming. This evolution can be seen to come from a number of different factors, the rise in the number of women in the industry, the criticism of past games and the diversification of the target audience. All these points and more can be seen over the course of gaming history. One of the most popular role models in gaming is Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider series. Even with her obviously exaggerated looks, and impractical clothing, Lara Croft is still seen as the step forward, “she was both a favorite icon of the era’s girl power movements...” and she “paved the way for other female protagonists” (Nielson, Smith, Tosca). As mentioned in the quote, girl power was very much a positive if commercial post feminist movement, and Lara Croft was a part of that.

I do have to argue with the idea that Lara Croft was the catalyst of female protagonists. I believe a more prevalent example in case is the lesser-known Metroid series by Nintendo, a non-linear space exploration series that has gained reasonable success over the years and has a reasonable fan base. The game has often been praised for it exploratory nature and its excessive boss battles. The fact that the protagonist is female is treated as neither here nor there and is only revealed at the end of the game. The titles success is perceived only in its celebration of the game itself rather than the sexuality of the protagonist, and this was achieved 10 year previous to Lara’s debut.

Tomb Raider alternatively uses the sexuality of the protagonist as the crux of its sales pitch. The character itself is a stereotype, an English rose, with sassy overtones; she has little or no real character or conflict, and is superficially 2-dimensional. Saying that, it is interesting to point out Lara Crofts subtle changes over the course of the games series as her exaggerated features became more and more modest as the complexity of the graphics matures. This was not the case early on though, the major visual difference between tomb raider 1 and 2, is the cut of her vest top, which shows more cleavage than the first incarnation. Tomb Raider Angel of Darkness, which was the first 128bit generation Lara, is the most conservative of designs, actually ended up being the least popular scoring a 56.4% on gamerankings.com. This is unlikely to have any connection, but is telling of how she fell out of favor with the mass media.

fig 1
In the latest of the series, her features have become more natural, more reminiscent of a page 3 model, rather than an exaggerated cartoon. Of course this is in part a reflection of the more complex graphics processors but this can be seen as a reaction to our increased sensitivity in the modern world, possibly even as an attempt to broaden their appeal to the female demographic. This is a modern reaction to the ongoing body image crisis that is prevalent in modern society. It is important to point out that when making the sexuality the most obvious facet of the product, then it is the part that is pulled most in to focus.

Of course for much of the early gaming catalogue female characters were on the whole completely absent and those female characters that did appear where usually used as victims, sex objects and the occasional female villain. Dietz (1998) studies of video games confirm this to be fact 10 years ago, but what of todays games? Has the industry improved its gender representation? The graph below shows a breakdown of playable female characters.

fig 2

As we can see there is a greatly increased percentage of playable female characters specifically in those games that appeal to female gamers. The most interesting point is the shooter genre, which has an incredibly male bias. This is derivative of a patriarchal society whose image of war, or physically violent conflict is typically male based. Only male soldiers go to war and therefore war-based game would have predominantly male protagonists. This has been countered in a few instances such as the perfect dark series, as well as playable female characters in the Timesplitters series, although it is safe to say that most shooters are very much male dominated.

Princess Peach from the Mario series, arguably one of the earliest examples of females in gaming has shown an evolution in the views of women in gaming. Peach who was once a simple victim needing to be saved, can now be seen regularly taking on much more powerful characters in the super smash bros series, as well as racing in the Mario kart series. She has even recently gained her own DS title, and continues to become more and more popular over time. This raise in status for the diminutive princess is a positive movement for Nintendo, raising the role of such a minor character is another example of Nintendo’s attempts to engage the female fanbase.


Nintendo has received criticism lately from the gaming press for abandoning the gamers it created (http://www.edge-online.com/features/e3-is-nintendo-abandoning-hardcore). Nintendo’s departure from their more usual hardcore gaming market and their success with crossing over to the mainstream, bringing the typical bedroom media back in to the living room, is a true development of the gaming’s place in media culture. With the Nintendo Wii and DS they have managed to break away from the usual social views of gaming, making it seem more social and healthy, By defying the typical styling of modern gaming media, Nintendo have gained a huge amount of success through broadening its user base. Its success can be argued to have been borne from its reflection of current trends, specifically societies worries of health and fitness. The Wiis new active form of gameplay, and cross media games has opened up a new, larger and more diverse platform of potential users. Games such as Wii Sports, ‘Cooking Mama, Wii Music, and Brain Training have successfully sold games to a new audience by consistently representing themselves in a new and fresh light. They are very much representative of the current trends and in this way they help to further the trends and the memes which start them. Nintendo’s success can be seen as not a creation of specific constructs and symbols but a simplification of them. As with the Wii’s Mii’s you are asked to reduce your physical characteristics into a simplified cartoon of yourself, It is an interesting metaphor for how the Wii places gamers into the digital world.

Modern Gaming and Morality

In modern games we see many reactionary and relevant media that is very much reflective of current trends. Xenophobia and anti-communist/extremist sentiments can be found in many of the big AAA first person shooter titles. Titles such as ‘Crysis’, ‘Call of Duty 4’ and ‘Ghost Recon 2’ have used North Koreans as villains in their games. Propagating the US’s fears of the communist state and therefore expounding the sentiment onto the gamers of the western world. This is particularly interesting as ‘Crysis’ was developed in Germany, showing how European developers have been influenced by the US’s ideologies. Also through much of these is an engaging sense of patriotism and the glamorization of war.

The development of Gaming technology has been linked inherently to the development of military technology and simulation. The US army in particular has been using digital simulation in the training of its soldiers for over 10 years. This is an interesting point as there are possible divergences in the understanding of reality and fantasy. When playing a game there are no possible physical repercussions. You cannot die in the digital world, as there is always the restart button, you are simply code.

The killing of digital representations of people has become a past time of much of the younger generations. It is common in many games to have to destroy targets to achieve goals, and this is commonly other humans. Most gamers have probably clocked up body counts well into there thousands, with little or no remorse. This desensitization of the populace has been deemed a negative side effect of modern society. Although it has to be said that gaming is not the only media form that has been blamed for this. Cinema has been showing increasingly gory and violent films over the decades, although gaming is usually deemed to be more affective due to its interactive nature. Taking for example the popular example of Grand theft Auto and increasingly other ‘sand-box’ games, the ability to kill random strangers has become standard. Of course this is usually met with the same hysterical fear and damnation of right wing media and church groups. This is an interesting example of games allowing people to enact certain actions that society would deem as anti social without the fear of physical repercussions. In this sense games are not only questioning social constructs but also allowing the user to interact and question their own morality and sociological ideas.

This brings us onto the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, Probably the most questionable series in terms of morality and social constructs. The series regularly glorifies crime, rewarding your illicit and illegal deeds with cash, upgrades etc. This can be seen as a reinforcement of negative societal trends, which to those who are easily persuaded it probably does. Surely though, the consenting and socially aware adults who have bought the games should be playing the game in the full awareness that they are playing a digital game rather than a guidebook for life. Of course the phobia of peer groups are when these games reach children, in which case the argument is null and void, as the classification ‘18’ of the game is there to suggest that it is to be viewed by adults. The argument by Reynolds when playing GTA3, “just think about the choices you have to take to win, and consider what they say about you.” Social responsibility is down to the players themselves. The representation of the society within the game is usually an exaggerated version of the real world. There are the usual stereotypes in the early games, pimps, prostitutes gangsters and police, but as the series grows in maturity the characters that are being represented do too. Characters have grown more complex and broken out of the hackneyed confines of the previous incarnations, exhibiting conflicts of conscience, trust and loyalty that real people do.

The Sims and Suburban Dreams

Another case in point is the popularity of the Sims, a game that represents ‘life’, a digital dolls house where people can live out their domestic fantasies. But what kinds of ideologies are represented in what seems like a harmless game? The game asks you to complete a series of tasks leading to what is a typical middle class working life, a 9 to 5 job, 2.4 kids, and a happy heterosexual relationship. The ideas represented in the Sims are almost archaic in our modern society of single parent families, and civil partnerships. The ideology can be derived from the 1950’s American Nuclear family. These ideologies have been passed down from the previous generations as being some way the perfect life, or ‘the American dream’ so to speak. Through the playing of this goal orientated game is the player indoctrinated to this way of thinking? It is a commonly understood lifestyle ‘ideal’, but there are constraints within the game. There is limited space to play with the parameters, like a child has with a dolls house. It is curious how this digitized version of a controlled dolls house has become the best-selling game on the PC. The Sims does actually contain some of the most obvious social and symbolic constructs. It contains familiar family structure; stringent gender roles and an underlying class system. A game that sticks so close to the boundaries by which society lives, is a form of escapism for many people? It is almost a contradiction in terms. Even the form of communication that the Sims use to communicate with each other is evocative of many different symbols that are commonly used to represent such basic emotions as fear, love, hate, hunger, thirst and these are used to help you understand the Sims feelings. In this way we communicate with them through the metaphorical speech they have created.


Also recently we have seen the steady maturation of minorities in games. Although they are commonly rappers and athletes, there have been instances where main characters are black and not simply falling back onto the same stereotypes that games have been portraying for many years. With hip hops rise in popularity over the late 90's and early 2000's there have been many examples of games borne out of this infatuation, including 50 cent: Bulletproof, Def Jam Vendetta, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (one of the biggest selling games of all time) and Wu-Tang Shaolin style. Alot of these are self-styled, hip-hop glorifications of the usual ‘gangsta’, drug-crime styling of the genre, which may not be positive role models, but they are commercially successful. For example Ernest Adams stipulates “Def Jam Vendetta leverages hip-hop and rap culture, and has been credited with injecting new life into the wrestling game genre. But is it also perpetuating stereotypes that we ought to be trying to break free of?”, it is a valid argument, and an interesting debate. But to say this you may as well damn most hip hop music and culture. Games are simply another part of the reflective mass media culture, and although you may not agree with this aspect you cannot ignore it.

According to the IGDA (the international game developers association) roughly 80% of game developers are white, with less than 3% being black. It is difficult to cast a completely objective eye on the content of a game that covers predominantly black culture. Without people who live and experience this culture as a part of their life, you are left with a caricature. Joseph N Saulter puts it well in an article on Diversity, when he says ‘what would the music world be had it not been for the diverse sounds of Jazz, R&B, and Gospel?’ Its an interesting point. Without the input of different cultures we have a very limited view of the world around us. Maybe in someway this explains why the games industry is so limited in its creativity. Only through the further integration of different ideas and concepts we can further this new media form, “When we collaborate to create games that reveal the soul of diversity,” (Saulter).

Reflective Culture and Repetoires

Games Like the Resident Evil series, require a certain amount of previous knowledge, horror movie clich├ęs , zombie physiology, 3rd person control schemes etc. Using previous knowledge and ideas, a gamer is able to comfortable interact with the game, as gamers have a set knowledge aquired over many years of gameplay. Egenfeldt-Nielsen speculates “imagine, perhaps, that we had never played a similar game, or never seen a horror movie, the game cannot be appropriately enjoyed”, although this may seem rather conclusive, he does raise a strong argument. It is only through recalling past media experiences that we are able to enjoy the gaming to the degree that we do. For example putting a new first person shooter title in the hands of an avid gamer they will become comfortable with the controls quite quickly, recognizing familiar button control and patterns. Take someone who has never played a game and give them the same test, there will be an extended period of experimentation to learn the controls, but to a gamer it is almost innate. Gaming has created its own language of symbols, patterns and ideologies. Red or green life bars, represent life or ‘hit points’, small symbols of our avatars face representing ‘lives’ and numerical score meters are all easily identifiable to gamers as score meters, whereas someone who has never played games would not be able to garner the same level of information. A typical gamer is able to pick up any game at random and normally be able to decipher the style of game, control system and level of difficulty within a few minutes of picking it up. This is a sign of the cyclical production of the games industry when games are never really new or inventive but representative of what has come before.

Beyond Symbols and Constructs

Another interesting development in gaming is the rise of morally grey games or ‘choose your own destiny’ games. These new school of games have a non linear story with many branches too choose from, within this games we do not see a definitive moral or social structure but a world of choices and individual reactions. This is not a neutral nor harmless environment, but a place were people could act out and interact with certain decisions or ways of acting that they could not possibly achieve in the real world. In this sense the complexity of games has reached the point where they are not given the social and symbolic boundaries of yesteryear but given the choice to engage and react with them. Games of this genre include Deus Ex, Fable and Black and White. Fable and Black and White, both created by the Lionhead studios, give you a clear decision between Good and Evil, with little in between, to gain the most out of either game you must embrace the light or darkness as you wish. This in itself is a weakened concept as many people in the modern world fall in-between.

Recently the game Fallout 3, created by Bethesda, presents the player with a dystopian post nuclear war future, it is a RPG/FPS that present the gamer with numerous decision branching and moral/ethical question. The real strength of the game lies in its reward of those players who choose to go down there own path instead of penalizing those who wish to play the game as they wish, rather than be particularly evil or good. The constructs of good and bad are actually questioned within the game, one such example id a race of people known as ghouls, horribly disfigured people who essentially look like the living dead. Within the game these people suffer racism and fear because of how they look, but if you choose to look past their physical disfigurement, they can become your greatest allies. The fact that you are able to challenge your own ideologies within a game is an interesting example of the maturity some games have developed. There are even moments in the game where you may negotiate your way out of conflict by selecting the most diplomatic choices in the dialogue trees. These instances have separate rewards for how you deal with them. This is a long way from the view “Eat him, burn him, zap him is the message rather than the bargaining and co-operation.” that Philip Zimbardo put across in “Videogames, Television Violence, and Aggression in Teenagers,” (1984). He also says “Most games tend to feed into masculine fantasies of control, power and destruction.” which can be argued is still more than valid in today’s market.


Games are not neutral; they do convey the ideologies and social constructs we use in everyday society. Just like any other media form does. But to describe game as ‘being neither harmless’ is implying that games are harmful, which I must disagree with. Throughout time people have learned and adapted to their own societies through the mediums of their time. It not a harmful medium but it is an affective medium. As children we learn through play, as adults we continue to do so. Within these mediums we interact there are many symbols and constructs. We decipher and absorb these and this is how we learn. We learn new patterns; opinion, ideas, concepts and we take these on with. Our understanding of this world and the people we share it with is dictated by our experiences whether they are primary or secondary accounts does not matter.

“In cultural studies it specifically refers to the maintenance of ruling class control.
The combination of consent and coercion that underlie this control.” (Southern 2001) here is another interesting case in point when talking about ideology. Of course we are led to believe that we live in a much more post modern time and therefore if we were not to be so coerced, one would think that one would be aware of it. But in our modern times we cannot only identify when we see an act of commercial intrusion but also get annoyed by it. In this sense, any kind of control our hierarchical structures have over us, must be much more subtle.

Of course we must understand that the quote was published in 1991, 18 years ago, during the heyday of the Nintendo. 8bit consoling was all the rage, and the typical fears of new media were cropping up, the corruption of youth etc and games were still in their teenage years. They were awkward, simplistic, and dependent on the simplest of symbolic constructs. When we are dealing with the symbology we must understand that games on the whole are dictated by the complexity of their graphics. When Mario i.e. jump-man was created, was he created as miniature bitmap version of an Italian plumber, or was he simply the best symbol of a physical man that they were able to create using 40 blocks of 8 different colours. Symbology and the understandings of social constructs are in and of themselves completely open to interpretation. Therefore any divergent interpretations are fallible to those who are viewing it. I think Provenzo sums it up best “Video games provide important insights into the values we hold as a culture”. The games industry does represent the specific social and symbolic constructs but only as it reflects the world around it.

Word Count = 4397


Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Jonas Heide Smith, Susana Pajares Tosca. (2008) “Understanding video games: the essential introduction”

Provenzo Jr. E, F (1991) “Video Kids, Making sense of Nintendo”

Dietz, T. L. (1998). “An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior.” Sex Roles, 38(5-6), 425-442.

fig 1 - http://digg.com/gaming_news/The_Evolution_of_Lara_Croft_Pics?FC=PRCQ0

fig 2 http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=20771

minorities in gaming - http://www.igda.org/articles/jsaulter_minorities.php

minorities in gaming figures - http://www.igda.org/diversity/report.php

gaming age - http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=9342

Mario communist speculation - http://nedmartin.org/amused/communist-mario

Nintendo abandoning the hardcore gamers - http://www.edge-online.com/features/e3-is-nintendo-abandoning-hardcore

Military and games - http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/news/2003/10/60688

15 Feb 2009