What do we mean when we call something a “subculture”? Most people think of weird and wonderful fashion and/or music – the spectacular. Punks. Cosplayers. Bronies. Sometimes the term has connotations of rebellion, deviance, or outright criminality. In sociology and cultural studies, subcultures have usually been understood as a way for people to adapt to (and express) the conditions of living within a particular social class. I want to begin this discussion by outlining some of the ways in which the term has been used academically in relation to gamers. I think that an understanding of subculture is relevant to understanding gamer culture – not so much in the sense that gamers form one single subculture, but in the sense that there are a number of subcultures within gaming culture.
I also want to reintroduce an older definition of subculture which is closely related to social class. For example, in DiSalvo and Bruckman’s study of African-American teens from lower-SES backgrounds (2010) they found that – having less access to the internet and to online PC-gaming in general – this group did not see playing an MMO as a “social” experience in the same way that long-time fans of WoW might. Helen Thornham’s Ethnographies of the Videogame (2011) similarly found that adult British gamers drew clear lines between “normal” everyday gaming (sociable, disinterested, socially accepted) and more “geeky” gaming (solitary, immersive, discouraged). Christo Sims’ (2014) recent ethnography at a school in New York found that most of the boys there played games of some description, but it tended to be white, middle-class boys who foregrounded gamer/geek in their public identities and relationships with peers.
Gamers as Subculture
Despite the growing acceptance of videogames as a medium, terms like ‘gamer’ are still sometimes taken to denote some sort of insider status. To some, “gamer” still describes some sort of specialized type of person, not just everybody who plays games – a view we’ve seen played out recently in the #gamersgate furore (which, at its heart, seems to be about who the “real” gamers are and what games should be about). Miroslav Dymek (2012) argues that the videogame industry is a “subcultural industry”. In his view, this is an appropriate description, because people still tend to associate a specific type of person with the label “gamer”, and because many hardcore gamers take an antagonistic stance toward the “casualization” of the gaming industry (44-47). This is similar to the way that subcultural music/fashion scenes tend to dislike the commercial mainstream.
Arguably what we see in the recent rise of casual games is a move away from this, to a position where game developers are no longer making games entirely for themselves as players (as documented by Juul, 2010). Dymek also argues that negative stereotypes of gamers reinforce some players’ self-images as rebel outsiders, creating a sense of exclusive belonging among the hardcore (39). Stanley Cohen’s account of the mods and rockers in 1960s Britain similarly emphasises how the media amplifies public perceptions of a group’s deviance, rendering them “folk devils” in the eyes of more conservative peers and elders (Cohen 2002:196). W. Keith Winkler similarly suggests that the games industry is unique in that both consumers and manufacturers are usually part of a common “gamer subculture” (2006:141).
Giddings and Kennedy also suggest that gaming culture involves an unusually participatory merging of “the dominant culture (the games industry) and the sub-culture (games players, modders and skinners)…” (2006:134). In most of these cases, we see a taken-for-granted, common-sense application of “subculture” as just being a type of culture which exists within a larger one while still being noticeably distinct from it. In Steven Downing’s (2011) ethnography of online retro-gaming forums, we also see an association of the term subculture with criminality or deviance (in the case of illegal game emulation).
Subcultures as Expressions of Class Identity
Sociologists Gosling and Crawford argue that while gaming culture has some of the qualities of a subculture (its own language, accepted codes of conduct and a definable social demographic) the term “subculture” is inappropriate because, strictly speaking, it describes static social groupings which are “clearly distinguished from wider society, and […] defined along class boundaries” (Gosling and Crawford 2011:141).I would argue that their rejection of term “subculture” in favour of “scene” (to describe gamers) is because social class most probably creates a plurality of subcultures within broader gamer culture, which are only visible at a more local level. Or because different gaming preferences and practices might be embedded in other subcultures (whether geeky or not) in ways we haven’t really observed yet (as observed in Christo Sim’s ethnography). The PC Gamer Master Race is an example of a gaming subculture with high socio-economic barriers to entry, which even co-opts the language of social elitism (albeit in a semi-ironic way). The Master Race meme originated from a ZeroPunctuation review of The Witcher which initially mocked the over-complicatedness of PC games, but was later co-opted and used un-ironically by PC gamers.
In the older British cultural studies definition, subcultures attempt to provide “magical resolutions” to class contradictions (Cohen 1972) such as disenfranchisement. They tend to contain elements of the parent culture, such as an emphasis on community in predominantly working-class subcultures (e.g. skinheads) or on individualistic expression in predominantly middle-class subcultures (e.g. goths, skaters).
As Anoop Nayak argues, while social class is rarely discussed by young people, it is “tacitly understood and deeply internalized” through “codes of respect, accent, dress, music, bodily adornment and comportment” (2006:828). For example, one recent study of youth the UK (McCulloch et al.2006: 552) found clear links between subcultural affiliation and class; those involved in subcultures based primarily around white rock music (e.g. “goths” and “skaters”) originated mainly from backgrounds where parents had more education and/or higher status employment, while working-class youth had less choice over their lifestyle than these groups and were more likely to be labelled with the pejorative “chavs”.
Case Study: Subcultural Imagery in Game Marketing
Up until recently, the UK had two major videogame chains; GAME and Gamestation. Both stores were owned by the same company, but the now defunct Gamestation tended to position itself more as a place for the “real gamers” to go to. Gamestation’s 2010 “Talk To The Gamers” ad campaign used real staff members to emphasise this distinction, but in doing so it also inadvertently reified a bunch of stereotypes about who “real gamers”. Through the use of subcultural imagery, we see a version of “geek cool” which asserts a sort of de-facto whiteness and (if we believe the McCulloch study) middle-classed-ness, through subcultural styles associated with predominantly white forms of rock music. (Obviously I’m not asserting that anyone who likes metal is socially or economically privileged, but looking at this ad it’s clear which demographics it is not aimed at).
Social Class and Game Preferences – Existing Studies
While class-based analysis of gamer cultures are uncommon, socio-economic status does appear to play an important role in determining who plays what. For example, large studies in Norway (Hovden and Klevjer 2012) and France (Rufat et al 2012) have shown clear relationships between social class and gaming tastes – with males from lower SES backgrounds generally preferring realistic aesthetics, traditionally masculine themes/characters and communal play, and a limited range of sports, racing and shooting genres. Similar play practices and preferences have been found in smaller studies with low-SES African-American youth (e.g. DeVane and Squire 2008; DiSalvo and Bruckman 2010).
So I disagree with Gosling and Crawford’s dismissal of subculture on the grounds of the term’s link to social class, because class seems to play an important role in mediating whether or not people engage with the more “geekier” elements of gamer culture, or whether they play more casually. For example, in Hovden and Klevjer’s study of Norwegian students, they found that the “geek” gamers (who played the largest variety of games and were more likely to like games rooted in fantasy and sci-fi worlds) were more likely to be middle-class, and that this group was less male-dominated that the working class “lads” who favoured sports, racing and shooting games.We could even classify the “geek” gamer (to whom most gaming websites etc. seem to be addressed) as an example of what Peterson and colleagues term the “cultural omnivore” – a new faction of the middle-classes for whom “good taste” means having a varied and broad cultural diet (Peterson 1992, 1997; Peterson et al 1992, 1996)– a description that might also fit geeks more generally.
Not a Conclusion
Gosling and Crawfords’ refusal of subculture fails to stand up to some of the empirical evidence which is beginning to emerge on the topic of social class and gaming. Subculture remains an important sociological concept because it helps us to identify how (young) peoples’ identities are constrained by their social backgrounds, and not just shaped by a series of personal choices (Blackman 2005).
I argue that while “gamers” are too diverse a group to be described as a subculture, there are groups within gaming culture which can be accurately described as subcultures, because they embody class-based attitudes to games. The hardware obsessed PC-gamer; the Tolkien-aficionado RPG player and the Western Otaku all (to my mind) exemplify typically middle-class orientations to culture. They usually depend on extra investments of time and money. While “gamer” is a general term, it still tends to conjure up these groups – the intended audience for most gaming websites, blogs etc. – the cultural omnivore who plays more than just Call of Duty and Madden.
Given the growing interest in social justice issues in fandoms, I’d urge other geek anthropologists to consider how socioeconomic privilege operates within our geeky past-times. As such, this is not a conclusion, but a call to discuss how geek subjectivities may be socially-shaped in ways which automatically exclude large groups of people.
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Joe is a doctoral candidate in media and cultural studies at Canterbury Christ Church University in England, where he’s collecting IT professionals’ biographical accounts of informal and incidental learning through PC gaming. When he was little he mostly wanted to be Dave Lister out of Red Dwarf. Other interests include; leftfield hip-hop and electronica, games and game development, and the Oxford comma. Joe blogs about his doctoral research, tech-based youth work and media/cultural stuffs over at joewebb86.wordpress.com. He also runs the website bosslevelvgm.com, where he writes about composing sub-par music for pretentious indie games. You can contact Joe at Jaw70@canterbury.ac.uk or on Twitter @joebaxterwebb.