“All your base are belong to us.” — CATS, villain from the Sega Genesis game Zero Wing
Digital Games are Stories Users Co-Create
When the “All your base” meme spread across the internet in late 2000 and early 2001, YouTube had not been invented yet. Web videos were slow to play when they played at all, and photoshopped images designed to create jokes or memes were relatively new. But something about the meme’s use of music, mashed-up photoshopped images and familiar real-world objects resonated with a generation of young adults who grew up with Japanese video games that sometimes had odd translations when they were reproduced for the American market. Users realized that the internet, a medium that functions as a convergence of all other media platforms, was capable of making us laugh and feel nostalgic. It was capable of transmitting culture.
Zero Wing, the video game at the heart of the meme, was a popular arcade game that was “ported” to (that is, recoded for) the Sega Genesis video game system in 1991. It was not the most popular arcade or SEGA game by any means, and yet something about the “All Your Base” meme was familiar to kids who grew up playing early home systems. The graphics were familiar. The orange background flashes were commonplace, as was the look of the cyborg villain. The hastily-translated Japanese-to-English text was not unusual for games of that era. If you had grown up in the 1980s and 1990s, it felt like part of your childhood had come back. Only this time there was an electronic music soundtrack and a collection of photoshopped images. Millions got the reference in what was one of the first internet memes to gain mainstream media attention.
Digital Gaming as Digital Culture
The meme’s intent may have been to make us laugh at the old games we thought were cool when we were kids. We laughed at how much 8-bit and 16-bit graphics had enthralled us. We remembered how the gameplay had excited us and we felt nostalgia for the 8-bit or “chiptune” music. (If you want, you can make your own chiptune music here.) Video game culture was a leap for children who grew up watching television. It gave players control over the actions of characters on TV. It engaged us in intertextuality, and the quality improved as the immersion increased. The environments, tasks, graphics and music evolved. Game creators pulled users into the story. The text itself did not always have to make sense: You could still understand the story because you were part of the game. Now there are digital games that allow us to enter digital space and interact with digital cultural to make our own cultural productions. We can remake games within games. Relatively affordable access and open platforms enable users to represent in the digital world almost every aspect of life in the tangible world.
Narratives and Platforms
Video games — including arcade games, console games (often with online multiplayer modes), mobile games for smartphones, online-only games including MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and open environment games like Minecraft — all have narratives to follow and widely varying levels of production value. They rival films as the most immersive medium in mass communication, and they can be much more personal. Both films and video games have high production values and immersing narratives, but video games allow consumers to play as an avatar and interact with the story to change the plot and the environment (within limitations). Video games now make more than double what movies make globally at the box office. Children who grow up with popular games today might not have much reason to be nostalgic 10-20 years from now because many popular games (such as Minecraft) are platforms that might remain accessible as they evolve.
If you want to learn how to reach individuals with a mass-marketed product, look to video games for guidance. By building in gaming options, character customization, extra levels and maps, collaborative online gaming and, in the case of Minecraft, broad swathes of digital space where users can explore their creativity, the same games can create differentiated, personal experiences for millions of people. Mobile games built on GPS technology such as Ingress and Pokémon GO from Niantic are a hybrid of shared and individuated experiences. Pokémon trainers can see and catch the same Pokémon in the wild. They can collaborate to fight Pokémon in raids, but some rare variants are distributed randomly, which can give players an incentive to trade with one another and engage in the game’s social aspects. Video games have cracked the code of how to be both a mass media product and a personalized experience.
The most successful mass communicators in the future will not only create products filled with messages for mass audiences. They will also create platforms and worlds where users can interact with each other and the communication environment, not unlike the world depicted in Ready Player One. The closest precedent for this might be when science fiction writers create universes with distinctive planets, atmospheres, topographies, sights, sounds, and even cultural norms and rules (as in the Star Trek universe, for example). “Choose Your Own” adventure books gave readers a chance to experience a level of choice in literature. Text-based games such as the Zork series gave computer users a similar experience. What we see now is an immersive graphical space with sights and sounds to match the imaginations of video game designers and developers. When a game is built to be its own creative digital platform or space where content can be created and shared, it becomes a space where much of the creative effort falls to the user. This can be viewed both as an opportunity and a responsibility.
Games and Behavior
Most of us who play video games enjoy a certain level of control. Video games are different from most forms of mass entertainment. Films, popular television shows, books and other works of creative fiction (besides the choose-your-own variety) tell you who the characters are, where they are located and what their capabilities and limitations are. In video games, you control your avatar. In role-playing games (RPGs) such as Dragon Age, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Divinity, players’ choices directly and deeply influence the narrative. Because these games offer a wide array of narrative paths, your choices create a varied gaming experience. While it is true that your choices in RPGs are always drawn from a finite set of options, the results of your in-game behavior give you a measure of power.
There are game worlds where cultural norms within the game are quite close to those most people experience in the physical world. There are other games where most of your actions, even negative ones, are without consequences. It is not clear that consequence-free video games create a real-world culture where people do not care about ethics or values. Time and time again research has shown that violent video games have no direct correlation with violent behavior in the physical world. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series are usually considered an escape rather than an example of how to live. Additionally, many social science and health studies suggest that we do not take cues from violent video games and practice those same behaviors in our real lives. Some studies show correlations between gameplay and short-term thoughts of violence, but this type of research only addresses temporary changes in mood. Direct impacts on long-term behavior from specific video games do not appear frequently enough in sample populations of gamers to suggest that games cause violent or other antisocial behaviors.
Then again, the long-term social influence of deeply immersive, violent games may not be fully understood. Many researchers who work with cultivation theory think there is a long-term social effect of this type of media content and behavior, even if limited experiments, surveys and other research tools have failed to capture it. Following a researcher named George Gerbner, cultivation theory scholars often suggest that changing perceptions can change cultural values over time and that those changes can lead to long-term behavioral changes. The concern is that society over time has changed to become more accepting of anti-social behaviors. Historians might argue, but there are scholars who contend that based on our mass media environment we might expect, perhaps, to reap what we sow.
Developed by Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory looks on its face like a “monkey-see-monkey-do” theory, but it goes deeper than suggesting we imitate the behaviors we see in the mass media. Bandura posits that our behavior creates an environment that then helps determine group and individual behavior. In other words, Social Learning Theory seems to support the big picture concepts behind cultivation theory. Bandura’s argument is that the social environment shapes actual behavior and that messages in the mass media over time create the environment; however, the argument is not that media influence must shape behavior. Media influences often moderate or influence other behaviors that were already occurring.
Following Social Learning Theory, we can imagine a dynamic where behavior shapes our social environment and, at the same time, our environment provides limits for acceptable behavior. The mass media dynamic is part of this bigger dynamic of social influence. If the idea of this dynamic is difficult to grasp, try thinking about a sports team. A team shapes each individual player’s behavior to some degree, but the players as individuals, pairs, and other groups-within-groups also influence the team, its mood, and the outcome of contests. Team influence and the environment of the group can set limits on individual behavior, but individuals are always free to excel or fail.
What does that leave us with? How do we reconcile the concepts of limited media effects with these ideas about how mass media — including many video games — shape the social environment? We have to place media effects in the broader context of the social sciences. In the study of social behavior, many factors including parents, friends, school, church, our neighborhoods, income level, opportunity and romantic relationships may influence our behavior, but they do not have to. It is not likely you will ever pin down a single cause for a certain behavior or set of behavioral trends. Instead, consider that there are many complex and sometimes chaotic social influences rather than causes. If you stop looking for causes, you can begin to look at which influences are stronger than others and how different social influences might act together to influence people. You might also consider your media environment and your own behavior as objects under your control and try to take responsibility for your consumption, your behavior and the relationship between the two.
Video Game Narratives
Besides social influences, video games make a cultural impact as well. One way that culture is influenced by video games is through the narratives they tell. All sorts of video games create stories. Whether you are playing as a plumber trying to save a princess, building a world out of blocks with little backstory, or going on an epic quest in a realm where distinctive characters have their own motivations, there are commonalities between good video games and the narratives of classic literature and film. In narrative storytelling, there are elements such as setting, characters, plot and themes that combine to make meaning for readers, viewers or users. Video games deserve credit for crafting narratives often as intricate, emotionally gripping and revealing as other forms of creative production.
Here are some questions to ask about a given video game narrative: How much control does the design of the game exert over the player and the gameplay? Are you a single character or part of a team? What is your mobility within the game, and is that a feature of gameplay?
Game design sets the stage. The narrative is the story. The two work together, and, depending on your interests, one may interest you more than the other. If you view a video game with a critical eye, you can appreciate worlds, characters and plot twists and the effort that goes into game design. If you view a game primarily as a player would, you might only see it at face value as boring, fun, immersive, and so forth. You can use almost all of the terms you use to describe great films and novels to describe contemporary video games.
Often, game design is where technological genius comes into play. The way a game environment is built matters almost as much as what you do in a game; however, we have all seen a special effects movie that was only a special effects movie. If the story falls flat, we will probably not recommend the film to our friends. Conversely, video games that start with compelling stories but have poorly executed design and functionality may be almost unplayable. The best works create compelling worlds and stories.