Why it's really hard to pin down the cultural identity of a video game

As the gaming industry is becoming ever more diverse, is it possible — let alone appropriate — to classify games based on the worlds they come from?

Every cinephile knows that you can’t separate Martin Scorsese from New York. Whether you are watching Taxi Driver or The Wolf of Wall Street, the Big Apple’s visual footprint — from dark, dirty alleyways to brightly lit high rise apartments — has been stamped onto every inch of celluloid.

Could you say the same about a video game like Marvel’s Spider-Man or the present-day missions in Assassin’s Creed III?

In the world of film, thousands upon thousands of pages have been written about the relationship between a place and the variety of artistic visions said place can inspire. As a result, we aren’t just able to separate an East Coast film from a West Coast one, but we can also say a thing or two about what makes the French New Wave different from the Indian or the Taiwanese.

Inuit artwork inspired the style of the Alaskan game Never Alone.Upper One Games

While cultural identity is easy to spot on the big screen, it can be virtually impossible to track down in video games, many of which promise to transport players to a place that is anywhere except on earth. If you’re not convinced, try finding traces of Kyoto in Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom or Warsaw in CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series.

To make things more complex, consider the fact these games are no longer produced by teams that share a common cultural identity. Among British developers, nearly 30 percent of employees come from different countries. In the US, the number of female, POC, and LGBTQ+ designers is also on the rise.

Figuring out the link between culture and game design seems like an impossible task. But just because something is difficult to see, doesn’t mean it isn’t there; you just have to travel far and wide to find it.

While cultural identity is easy to spot on the big screen, it can be virtually impossible to track down in video games.

Immigrants know better than anyone how elusive culture can be. When you move to a different place, not only do you notice things that locals do not, but the differences in the way they go about their daily life also make you realize things about your own customs which you may have never given a second thought prior to immigrating.

“Why do you eat fermented herring when you can buy perfectly fine herring in the store?” Dave Mervik, a Liverpool-bred designer who moved Malmö, Sweden, to work for Little Big Planet partner Tarsier Studios, would half-jokingly ask his colleagues. “I don’t know,” a soft-spoken Scandinavian colleague? would teasingly ask the loud-mouthed Brit in return. “Why do you always sound so angry?”

As of 2017, at least 30 game developers are based in Malmö. While that curious statistic led many tour guides to proclaim there must be something about this town, enveloped by fjords, that gets the game design juices flowing, Mervik thinks it has more to do with its proximity to Copenhagen Airport. Either that, or people accidentally formed a “queue” like do for the many pointless pop-up shops in lower-Manhattan.

The “fjord-noir”game Draugen, which sees players explore Scandinavia’s breathtaking landscapes, was funded by grants from the Norwegian Film Institute.Red Thread Games

He isn’t completely cynical, though, adding that the Nordic model of socialism encourages risk-taking and experimentation you won’t easily find in a cutthroat capitalist economy like England’s. “They’ll support you when you go out on a limb,” Mervik mentioned over a Zoom call, pointing to organizations like Game Habitat, a Malmö-based non-profit dedicated to creating a thriving ecosystem for game development that also offers Swedish lessons to foreign workers.

Although Tarsier is one of Scandinavia’s leading studios and its flagship series Little Nightmares is inspired by Nordic folklore, Mervik insists that the company does not openly identify as Swedish. If it did, he says, that kind of nationalism could potentially lead them to a “dark place.” It would not only disenfranchise non-Swedish employees but also limit them to adapting bankable export products like Midsommar and ABBA.

* * *

In the blooming video game industry of Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s quite a different story. Because the people living there aren’t as familiar with video games as they might be in Japan or the U.S., developers make games that are directly inspired by local culture. Nigerian studio Maliyo Games’ new mobile title Whot King, for example, was adapted from the popular West-African card game Whot-Waddington.

“We look for experiences within our environment that can inform video game design,” Hugo Obi, Maliyo’s founder, explained in an email. “There is a strong demand for cultural representation in our game-making process. Our community is our target audience, so we look for characters and storylines that reflect where our consumers are.”

The strategy game Africa’s Legends is the flagship franchise of Kenya-based developer Leti Arts and features an expansive cast of heroes and villains.Leti Arts

Of course, tradition isn’t the only determining factor in that process. Technological limitations work against African developers at every turn, though many have found ways to use those constraints to their advantage. Less-than-ideal internet connection in southern Ghana led Madina-based Leti Arts to optimize local games by reducing the bandwidth its games used, which, it promised, was just the beginning of their gaming revolution.

Still, the smaller the target audience, the more prominent the role of culture in game design appears to be. In South Africa, specialized schools are — for the time being — easier to access than they are in Nigeria or Ghana, where most developers educate their employees in-house. Consequently, South African games aren’t just bigger in scale; they also target a larger, more multicultural player base.

This means that they — similar to global powerhouses such as Ubisoft or Nintendo — have to be careful not to alienate one community by catering too much to the conventions and preferences of another. “We look inwards and build cultural games,” Hugo says, “whilst South African studios have a more global outlook.”

Technological limitations work against African developers at every turn.

Last but not least, culture can be hugely important to games that are developed by people who come from marginalized backgrounds. In 2014, Alaskan developer Upper One Games consulted with ambassadors from the state’s native Iñupiat people to create Never Alone. The game, a 2D side-scroller, centers on a girl who must traverse blinding blizzards, illuminated caverns and icy waterways to save her tribe.

Since animals feature prominently in Native Alaskan storytelling, players are given control of both the girl and her companion, an Arctic fox. On top of that, the game’s visual style puts a modern twist on Iñupiat artwork, a beautiful aesthetic that is sure to resonate even with people who know nothing about Inuit culture.

Games aren’t just a means to preserve artistic and narrative histories, however. They can also be used as a way of starting a dialogue with the past itself. In Maoriland Adventures, made by the New Zealand-born artist Johnson Witehira, you play as a European missionary who converts the island’s indigenous Māori people by attacking them with a Bible.

Concepts for Never Alone shows how the qualities of Inuit folk art inspired the look and feel of the final game.Upper One Games
The final product.Upper One Games

Witehira, who is of mixed Māori and British descent, uses rules and expectations of the platforming genre to make a powerful statement about the relationship between his two different lineages. Although the game at first appears to be as straightforward as the 8-bit platformers it emulates, the underlying subject matter is anything but shallow.

As Witehira puts it, the content is “rich with meaning and complexity, forcing the viewer to confront a history that some would rather forget. In playing these artworks one is left asking, who really wins?” It’s easy to see why the artist chose to express his ideas through the medium of games rather than painting: to play, after all, is to participate.

“In playing these artworks one is left asking, who really wins?”

While many big game companies diffuse cultural influences so as not to alienate players from various parts of the globe, it is hard to deny that the “default” AAA game — whether produced by Rockstar in America, Ubisoft in France, or Ninendo in Japan — has always tended to look and feel distinctly Western and Eurocentric.

Sometimes it’s obvious. In a world where just about every humanoid mascot — from Link to Mario — is a straight, white male with a straight, white love interest, protagonists like the African American Lee Everett (The Walking Dead), the Chinese Wei Shen (Sleeping Dogs) or the lesbian Ellie (The Last of Us) remain the exception rather than the norm.

Most times, though, it’s a bit more subtle. Think Hideo Kojima adding multiplayer and gun customization to Metal Gear Solid 4 so as to make it more appetizing to Gears of War veterans, or Hidetaka Miyazaki enlisting the help of New Jersey’s Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin to create the backstory for FromSoftware’s upcoming title Elden Ring.

Now that gaming has become a global industry, you’d expect these patterns to continue. Fortunately, the opposite is proving true. As studios continue to diversify, developers hailing from previously underrepresented places are getting an opportunity to weave their identity into their game design. As a result, the medium is setting itself up for something of a renaissance — and that is worth celebrating.