This is something of a hobby horse of mine, but I am constantly saddened by the almost complete lack of any regional cultural style in video games these days. It struck me again today as I (once again) perused the upcoming games lineup for various machines, looking for a cast-iron reason to plant my flag somewhere (no, I still didn’t find one).
There was a time when it was very easy to discern the country in which a game had been developed, because each country brought its own unique style to the table and wasn’t afraid to display it. If the game shelves are anything to go by, there are only 2 countries in the world of any significance - the USA and Japan. And Japan is only there because of its extraordinary dedication to electronic entertainment. No matter where a game is designed / developed these days, it’s more than likely aimed squarely at one of these markets, and anything that might make either market ‘uncomfortable’, including cultural references they might not ‘get’, seems to be intentionally eradicated at an early stage.
Why is this an issue? Am I just a frustrated citizen of an ex-imperialist nation, bitter that his country is not as influential as it once was? Well, yes - but that’s not the point 😉 It’s important because reflecting different cultures in games brought much needed variety and breadth to the experience. For the gaming coinnoissuer, it offered richer fare than stylisticly neutered content (or worse, content engineered to fit in with another culture from that which it was developed in) - in the same way as world cinema brings many succulent dishes to the filmgoer. I keep hearing a lot of hot air about ‘games becoming art’ these days, but how can that be even remotely possible when today’s games are devoid of any cultural reflection? Art has a hell of a lot to do with culture, after all, it is inherently personal, and indeed has to be to be meaningful on any level. Even between the UK and the USA, whose attitudes are probably closer than most other distinct nations, there are yawning chasms between our cultures which are now completely overlooked by the game industry in the interests of targetting the maximum audience.
How about a couple of examples?
**Country: United Kingdom
** Exploitable cultural traits: Irreverence, self-depreciation, diverse comedy (off-kilter / satirical / extremely silly)
Other media examples: The Sex Pistols, Monty Python, Wallace & Gromit, Shaun of the Dead
Culturally reflective games from previous generations: Everyone’s a Wally, Llamatron, Cannon Fodder, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Giants: Citizen Kabuto (expats!)
Exploitable cultural traits: Visual flair, individualistic, strong artistic tradition
Other media examples: City of Lost Children, Delicatessen
Culturally reflective games from previous generations: Les voyageurs du temps: la menace (Future Wars), Another World, Captain Blood, Beyond Good and Evil
Today’s mainstream game industry seems to have no place for these regionally identifiable games, except perhaps as a sideshow in the downloadables area (and even then, I don’t think we’re seeing much of that). I realise that it’s all about money at the end of the day, but I do lament that we seem to be stuck in a situation where there are really only 2 overarching ‘cultural styles’ in which to make a game, when you remove all the actual detail anyway. Does it make the experiences more bland? I think it does. I wouldn’t choose to eat burgers when I’m in Paris for example. Newsflash - experiencing other cultures is interesting, opens our eyes to the wider world, and hell, we might just learn something. Unfortunately both of the 2 countries which dominate the gaming landscape are notoriously inward-looking, which goes some way to explaining the situation.
To me it seems like we’ve lost something important on the way to becoming a multi-million dollar industry, which is a bit sad. I hope eventually that will be rectified, perhaps as technology plateaus and becomes more commoditised (hardware and software) and content creation becomes easier, cheaper and more open, and games creators have more incentive to target local audiences (and those from other countries interested in culture outside their borders). I can hope.