Five Minutes With...

Five Minutes with Phillip Penix-Tadsen

In Cultural Code, Phillip Penix-Tadsen examines Latin America’s gaming practices and the representation of the region’s cultures in games. He discusses his new book and how games have enormous potential for creating immersive and interactive cultural experiences.

Why did you write this book and for whom is it written?

I wrote Cultural Code to document the cultural history of gaming and game-related practices in Latin America, and also as an attempt to move forward in the analysis of how culture is represented and otherwise put to use in video games. I tried to reach out to as many audiences as possible—especially my colleagues and students in Latin American cultural studies and game studies, but also Latin American gamers and game developers, and any readers interested in learning more about the relationship between games and culture from a unique point of view.

What is unique about Latin America’s gaming practices?

We often think of video games as part of “global” media, without stopping to take account of how cultural context can affect the experience of gaming. For a long time, major game corporations ignored Latin America altogether, which had significant effects on the way games were played and distributed in the region. For one thing, prices skyrocketed beyond the average consumer’s reach, and as a result pirated software and hardware flooded the market, while the game consoles that were available tended to be either Chinese knock-offs or those “invisibly imported” by friends and relatives traveling abroad. Meanwhile, social institutions like the Cybercafé have historically spread access far beyond measurable sales data for individual games.

Today, increased access to cellular technology and the surge in popularity of casual games are shattering demographic myths about gamers in the region, nurturing a population of Latin American gamers that cuts across all socioeconomic classes. These and other examples in Cultural Code demonstrate the effects of cultural context on gaming in Latin America, and by extension, provide a framework for analyzing the relationship between games and culture worldwide.

A common critique of game studies has been a lack of cultural perspective, with most scholarly work focusing on the North American, European, or Asian influence. What do you think is the reason for the dearth of game study research in Latin America? And what are actions that can be taken to promote cultural diversity in game studies?

Like the marketing efforts of the major corporations of the game industry, scholarship on games has focused largely on those areas that have historically produced the most profits. But not only is Latin America one of the fastest-growing regions in terms of the global game industry today, there are many meaningful ways that games and culture intertwine above and beyond financial considerations alone. Designers use games for education, political activism, and artistic expression, while politicians and government initiatives use games not just as fodder for political controversy (although I look at several interesting such cases in the book), but also as a bridge to the global information economy.

Likewise, games contain enormous potential for creating immersive and interactive cultural experiences that can teach lessons with real-life cultural relevance. This is why in writing Cultural Code, I examined not just where cultural representation has gone wrong in games, but how game developers in Latin America and elsewhere are getting culture right. To bring more cultural perspective to game studies, we need more work on how cultural context impacts the circulation of games beyond the largest centers of production and consumption. In addition to scholarship on the role of race and culture in games, which continues to expand and diversify with each passing year, I would love to see more work analyzing the socio-cultural impact of games in under-examined regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and developing Asia.

You say that “video games are being converted into cultural currency for an ever-increasing array of purposes throughout Latin America and the globe.” Do you believe the video game economy risks creating cultural comparison instead of cultural study?

We have spent too long thinking of in terms of digital divides between hi-tech haves and have-nots. In reality, information and entertainment technologies have spread across the globe simultaneously but asymmetrically, in different ways depending on the region. To help move beyond outdated assumptions, it is helpful to focus on real-life manifestations of the relationship between games and culture from throughout the globe.

Drawing on your research into Latin American game studies, you introduce the concept of “cultural ludology,” through which you examine the relationship between video games and culture. Would you expand on this idea and the evolution of your cultural ludology theory?

Cultural ludology is an approach to analyzing video games in terms of their specific mechanisms for making meaning—the definition of “ludology”—, along with a recognition of the signifying potential of the cultural environment in which games are created, designed, manufactured, purchased, played, and otherwise put to use.

If you are a player, it matters whether you are Brazilian or Chinese when you play a game set in Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. If you are a game developer, it makes a difference whether you are producing your work in Silicon Valley or Bogotá. Cultural ludology is an attempt to attend to these considerations, taking account of the way cultural context affects the meaning of video games for game developers and players alike.

Today, video games are popping into real-world culture in previously unforeseen ways, including orchestra concerts and museum exhibitions, the birth of professional competitive gaming, and the explosive popularity of amateur gameplay videos online. Meanwhile, developers have produced ever-more complex ways of creating cultural context in their games, allowing players to explore cultural identity and concerns in ways that weren’t possible in the past. Examining these phenomena through the lens of cultural ludology reveals the increasingly complex and multifaceted relationship between video games and culture today.