Playing With Videogame Culture: Videogames and Culture

The growth of digital technology has seen videogames play an ever-greater role as a global cultural force in our lives.

They are now recognised as the most important aspect of youth culture.[1] A recent OFCOM report stated that more 16-24 year olds play videogames than have a social media profile.[2]

Their value, both culturally and economically, came into sharp relief during the pandemic in 2020[3], with sales in the UK rising by 29%[4] on the previous year to £7bn and 62% of all UK adults playing videogames during the period[5].

People no longer just play videogames; they also play with videogames.

Alongside the streaming of gameplay, live performance, content creation, modding[6] and cosplay[7], games have become social destinations in their own right – including to access other cultural experiences such as music concerts and film screenings.

This presents a significant and mostly untapped opportunity for public engagement.

To date most engagement activities have focused on gamification[8].

However, the number of video games now available for young people to choose from has risen vastly over the last five years. ‘Steam’, the most popular PC games distribution platform saw 2964 games released in 2015, rising to 10263 in 2020[9].

As a result, investing in the creation of a single videogame as an engagement strategy can be both expensive and high risk – with any output competing with industry behemoths such as Fortnite.

Videogames Today

Videogames have evolved almost unrecognisably from their primitive beginnings.

Their economic ascent and ubiquity in contemporary media culture has been well documented. Their technological evolution has also been conspicuous, with games becoming near photo-real experiences and aligning themselves alongside cinema as a leading storytelling medium.

But from a public engagement perspective there are other qualities that videogames have developed that are particularly relevant.

The ways in which people play videogames is constantly changing: home consoles, arcade machines, phones, watches, joysticks, keyboards, touch-screens…all have been used in the delivery of videogames over the years. This relentless reinvention makes them a particularly rich field for innovation and research.

Notably, games have evolved from being a technology that one plays, to one that is played with. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

The idea of games as being formed of fixed rules of engagement with players attempting to reach a prescribed goal has been slowly subverted as alternative models of play have emerged.

Over the decades, videogames have emerged that have wholly ignored traditional ideas of ‘scores’ and even the concept of ‘winning’. Elite, originally released for the BBC Microcomputer in 1984 introduced the idea of an ‘openworld[10]’ videogame.

With no prescribed goal, players were free to act of their own free will in an apparently huge galaxy, making their own moral choices. This concept was developed most famously in Grand Theft Auto, with GTA V (2013) becoming one of the biggest selling media products of all time.

As the case-studies detailed in this report also explore, videogames are incredibly effective simulations. They allow players to explore potentials, model contingencies and rehearse solutions to problems.

SimCity laid the groundwork for this genre of game in the 1980s, and is still going strong.

Games are places to be creative

Many of the most popular videogames in the world are intrinsically ABOUT exploring the player’s creativity.

Minecraft, one of the most popular videogame phenomena of recent years has modes with no score, no lives, no objective; it’s simply a place to play (and was purchased by Microsoft for $1.6 billion).

They are also creative spaces that convene people. Roblox, a rapidly growing multi-user space measured 33.4 million daily users in Q2 2020.

Dreams, created for PlayStation by Guildford-based Media Molecule, empowers players to create and share their own rich creations with each other on a Sony Playstation – once the province of only professional creators.

Millions are watching people playing games

Whilst competitive e-sports are a rapidly accelerating new spectator activity, of equal interest and importance is the emergence of streaming content in and around non-elite competitive activity.

Twitch, the most popular live streaming platform registered 2.1 billion hours of viewed content in Feb 2021.[11]

YouTube and Facebook are also important locations for the creation and consumption of videogame-related culture.

This content is strikingly varied and created by and for diverse audiences.

Videos feature people talking, playing, critically examining, exploring, experimenting and staging entire events inside videogame worlds.

Games today aren’t just for playing but for creating, watching and reinventing.

Videogames and climate: A brief history

Given the centrality of videogames within mainstream popular culture since the 1970s, it is unsurprising to find that game designers and developers have made use of this powerful interpretative medium to explore issues and themes of contemporary social, cultural, political and economic significance.

Whether these be anxieties around weapons proliferation during the Cold War era as made manifest in arcade and console games such as Missile Command (Atari, 1980); concerns over ‘post truth’ alternative facts and fake news as meditated upon in games such as Metal Gear Solid 2 for the PlayStation 2 (Konami, 2001); or issues of online bullying and teen suicide as explored in the mobile/multiplatform Life is Strange (Square-Enix, 2017).

What is altogether more surprising, however, is how infrequently the topic of climate change has been investigated, either centrally or tangentially, within mainstream games.

As such, while for many decades, mainstream narrative films such as Soylent Green (1973), Blade Runner (1982), Waterworld (1995), and AI (2001) have directly tackled the causes and implications of the greenhouse effect, global warming, flooding and the melting of the polar ice caps, it is mostly within the genre of turn-based strategy/simulation games that mainstream videogame design and play has addressed such topics.

Games such as SimEarth (Maxis, 1990), SimCity Societies (Electronic Arts, 2007) and the Civilization series (Micro Prose, 1991-present) build various environmental variables such as the effects of sea level rise, global warming and cooling, and pollution into their world-building and management models.

However, as we note in our case studies, these games have placed varying levels of importance on environmental factors in different iterations and releases over the course of the series.

Interestingly, then, despite a preponderance of broadly dystopian settings for games, the comparative absence of climate change as a key theme within mainstream videogame design and play means that, historically, it has not been an especially significant theme within the broader discourses of gaming culture, criticism and communication.

This situation, however, has changed considerably in the last few years which have witnessed a surge in independent game developers directly addressing issues of climate change through their work both in the commercial and educational game development space. This work is very often more demonstrably politicised and places the complexities of decision making, the interpretation of climate change science principles and data, as well as the effects of action and inaction at its very heart.

In the following case studies, we explore a range of different contexts in which a variety of stakeholders including game designers, educators, students, climate scientists, activists and artists have made use of the persuasive nature of digital games to engage and communicate their message. Importantly, we also note the important work happening in the ‘analogue’ game sector with tabletop, card and board game creators similarly turning their attentions to climate change as a central theme to address through designs.

Alongside these developments and contexts, it is also important to recognise current videogame industry advocacy and campaigning around climate change such as the ‘Playing for the Planet’ initiative that specifically responds to the environmental impacts of the game design pipeline and infrastructure.

An important coda to this work is the underlying technological dependencies of digital gaming and the impact of obsolescence and incompatibility not only on the sustainability of development practice but also on our very ability to access and play these games in the future.

As we shall see, some exemplars of climate change game design such as the BBC-funded Climate Change Challenge (2014) are already difficult if not impossible to play on modern devices as they were developed using technologies such as Adobe’s ‘Flash’ platform which is no longer in development, no longer supported, and incompatible with contemporary mobile phones and tablets.







[6] Modding: ‘Modifying’ videogames is the deliberate altering of an original videogame by a third-party. Often this can be encouraged by the creators, sometimes going as far as to provide tools and documentation to help fans produce their own ‘mods’. Modding can also be an unsanctioned, subversive act.

[7] Cosplay: Short for ‘costumed play’, Cosplay is a popular fan activity of dressing up as a particular character from a videogame / movie/ manga / comicbook world. Often twinned with role-playing and performance, Cosplay is a popular activity at festivals and conventions.

[8] Gamification: The application of game-design mechanics and principles to non-game contexts. Gamification techniques are often linked to persuasion and have been deployed in marketing, political campaigns and recruitment campaigns.


[10] Openworld: A game design that provides players with the autonomy to approach the environment and challenges of the game in their own way, a bias toward the removal of strict rules and structures.