Games can be gateways to greater cultural awareness, and mirrors to someone else’s world

CaoCaoWhen I was a kid I was fascinated by Monkey Magic (commonly known as Monkey).  I would watch reruns on Saturday mornings, staring at the screen in sheer wonderment, admiring just how different it was from the world I lived in.  The design of the costumes, the demons, the world, not to mention the stark contrast of its heroes to the world of comic books and cartoons, it hit something of a nerve in my brain that practically implored me to read further.  And so I did.  Finding out just how culturally significant the story of Monkey is for chinese buddhist mythology gave it an air of gravitas that no english literature i’d read ever did.  And that kickstarted a life-long fascination with the east.

I was worried when japan started to lose its grip on the industry last generation.  Not because I’m a fan of any particular japanese developer, or couldn’t live without the next entry in the long and storied Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy series, but because the games they developed were so different from anything else I encountered.  There were largely no stories about modern conflicts in the middle east, alternate takes on european history, or games about shooting sprees through modern metropolises with stories thrown in for good measure.  These were the tales of the west, and the east, well that was something a little more dare I say exotic.  Losing that could’ve been the end, for me at least.

You see learning about other cultures and places – both real and imagined – is one of the key reasons I love playing games.  But it’s learning about the world around me that really inspires me and gives me the shove I need to learn more.  It’s part of the reason Jade Empire is my favourite Bioware game, with its fantastical take on asian culture providing a fantastic insight into the regional melting pot that made asian such a historically and culturally rich part of the world.  It’s also why Asura’s Wrath – a thoroughly average game mechanically – held my attention for so long.  The world was so rich with pseudo hindu and buddhist imagery that progressing through its story was a sheer joy, if only just to see the next beautiful cutscene.

If i’m honest it’s that same incentive that keeps me playing and enjoying Dynasty Warriors games.  It’s easy to make jokes about the series’ serial retelling of the Three Kingdoms story, but unless you’ve read a little bit further into it, you probably wouldn’t ever understand just how significant it is for China both historically and understanding the country’s role in the current geopolitical climate.  It may not be my lineage or even yours, but with the rapid onset of globalisation and migration the tales of Lu Bu and company’s galavanting around the Middle Kingdom is as relevant to our collective cultures as the Italian Renaissance, the First Fleet or the decades of Western-led wars in Afghanistan.  And I think Koei’s series is just about the best place to start that journey of discovery – a journey I just about guarantee I never would’ve embarked on without.

Fast forward to this generation and Far Cry 4 is the next great big sprawling adventure.  But it’s not the guns, the charismatic Pagan Min, or stealthily taking out an outpost that caught and held my attention.  Rather it was the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat, complete with religious and cultural detail, that captured my imagination.  I am lucky to live with someone who studied southeast asian art and artefacts, which I vicariously learnt bits and pieces of through conversation, and witnessing representations of these artefacts ‘in situ’ as it were was more exciting than it should’ve been.  “Which one was this one again?” I asked as I walked up to a stone statue sitting in a cave tucked away behind a waterfall. “I think it’s a kind of representation of Avalokiteśvara” she responded.  After an afternoon of research, I think she was right, and that is the coolest thing about the game.  It’s these little things, both in the latest game and to a lesser extent Far Cry 3, that makes the Far Cry games amazing cultural adventures.  They may not be accurate, and they may be sensational and distilled versions of cultural stereotypes, but the fact that I am compelled to find out is an enormous testament to the strength of the worlds created.  Without them, they’d just be a few bozos with guns, just like every other game about bozos with guns.

In the end Japan didn’t lose its grip on the industry, but even if it did, the willingness for western developers to embrace other cultures would’ve no doubt filled that gap.  And that’s only a good thing.  Sure we’re going to still see games spruiking just how great anglo civilisation is, but only as long as that is balanced or even drowned out by the voices and stories of other nations and people will video games continue to grow, and become the inspiring and culturally relevant artistic endeavours they should be.  Maybe one day without the guns.



  1. I really liked this post.

    I think a lot of what you touched on is why I’m currently only playing on Nintendo systems in a lot of ways. I prefer the fantastical; games that take you places beyond your imagination. I’m not looking for stuff that mirrors the world I already see — I want worlds that are so made-up, so wild that I want to adventure in them.

    The east is good about tapping into their history, lore and culture for that kind of thing. We in the west have these things too; it’s just that there’s a rut that people get stuck in about making money. And whimsical doesn’t make as much money.

    That’s why I’m glad to see such a big push into independent developers; they take their esoteric ideas and make them a reality, whether it’s profitable or not. Much like your beloved Monkey Magic, some of the best stuff out there is simply an homage to something else. And that’s perfectly OK.

    But I digress; loved the post. You made my Saturday morning.

    1. Thanks! And I’m glad you enjoyed it. Great point on the fantastical – for me it’s perhaps even more satisfying when that imagined world makes allusions or parallels to our own world. Discovering and thinking about that is mighty satisfying!

  2. I blame video games – specifically the Final Fantasy series – for my love of mythologies, religions, and history. Figuring out that the Summons’s names were ancient gods aroused so much curiosity in my young mind! I haven’t recovered since.

  3. I approach games in pretty much the same way. Especially the Tomb Raider games, which I’ve spent hours tracking down the real-life examples of the art and locations featured in the games and written about them on my own blog. Lara Croft’s archaeological methods may leave a lot to be desired but I do still think there’s some educational value in the games.

    1. Tomb Raider is such a great example – St Francis’ Folly captivated me more than almost any other level I’ve ever played. I also thought the Shinto imagery in the recent Tomb Raider was a great change of pace.

  4. I get what you’re saying, but… the west, America in particular, is the birth place of great things like jazz, gospel and the blues, which are the basis for pretty much all modern music across the world. We’re not just all gun fetish video games and jingoistic war movies (American Sniper?). I mean, James Brown is as important as any classical composer or impressionist painter, or even the authors of the Water Margin and I don’t see any American game designers referencing him in their games. Maybe they’re just not cultured enough to work in this business. If I see another motherf@#$ing Aliens reference in a video game I’m going to gouge my eyes out with the f@#$ing controller! Argh!

    Yeah, Call of Duty is a pretty bland experience all-around (it sure is a long ways away from the old days of Lucas Arts adventure games or even Doom for that matter, has it ever been topped?), but you could instead spend your money on The Screamers: Live in San Francisco ’78 DVD and simulate having your “brain blown back to the end of the auditorium” by Tomata Du Plenty and crew’s “122 Hours of Fear”, or a collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, which are surprisingly great and have a lot insight into the men of that time (Early 20th century America. Yes. Seriously.). Choices, right? Convenience. I suppose it’s easier to just buy what the TV says. What are people doing with this miraculous tool that is the internet anyways? It can’t all be porn can it?

    America’s most interesting artistic contributions to the world are often hidden from view (they are not discussed in public schools here and they should be), like Keith Haring’s day-glo graffiti fueled socially aware artwork in subways and on T-shirts, or Donny Hathaway’s near divinity (listen to him, you will cry), I don’t think corporate culture (video games, TV, etc.) is the best place to look for diversity in the arts (in America at least.) Video games seem like another lost frontier. For now.

    1. Agreed. The problem is that America in particular curates an image of itself globally that misses out on the more nuanced cultural impacts the nation has had globally. Rather its all this freedom, political and military nonsense – and modern Hollywood – that is the only window into your world. I don’t think anyone even in Australia would ever argue America is culturally bankrupt, we just don’t understand why the things you mentioned above aren’t the things you’re spruiking.

      Thanks for the (again) thoughtful comment!

  5. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. And thank you and Mr. Packwood for hosting a reasonable platform for video game discussion on the internet (something that is not easy to find).

    A couple more thoughts, when will Rock Star take all that know how from Grand Theft Auto and do something similar in cities like Hong Kong or Mumbai? With the option to play the campaign from the perspective of law enforcement (I’ve mentioned this before, if only it would catch on). How about a Call of Duty set in the Crusades, Activision? Could they pull it off? Is Assassin’s Creed the best we can do for a “historical” video game these days? I’d like to see video game developers take a look at recent historical wargames like Warriors of God, Red Winter or Sekigahara, instead of just watching Blade Runner, Aliens or Scarface again.

    I think we should expect more from what has become a dominate form of entertainment. People put a lot of hours into these games and when you’ve put in as many as I have, you start to question the value of that time.

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