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Cultural connections for games

Paul Callaghan, the British Council's first Games & Interactive Programme Manager, reflects on how games can reflect the diversity of culture.

One of the things that excited me when I joined the British Council back in January was how much cultural work the organisation had already done in games – Cara Ellison & Michele Poggi talking Shakespeare & videogames in Verona; the 2011 DigiPlay Festival, focusing on the Thai – UK video games and animation industry; Jessica Curry taking part in the Film, Archive, and Music Lab.

This work was all about coming from an artform perspective and asking what was interesting about games from a literature, design, music, or film perspective, and it prompted me to ask the same questions – looking at what the British Council does as cultural relations for those artforms, what could it do for games?

Continue -- billed as a "conference about videogames and culture" -- was a chance to explore that question – but also to hear how other organisations and institutions were asking their own. Speakers included included Jo Twist from Ukie, Marie Foulston from the V&A & The Wild Rumpus, Holly Gramazio from Mattheson Marcault, Rick Gibson from the British Games Institute, writer and artist Leila Johnston, Stella Wisdom from the British Library, Toni Brasting from the Wellcome Trust, Rob Sherman from Bonfire Dog and John Whall from Derby QUAD. The conversation was lively, as you’d expect from such a diverse group, covering everything from the work of grassroots events, institutional support, artists residencies, collection, and preservation, and new ways to think about creating and supporting collaborative play.

Within that diversity though, a common theme soon emerged – each of these institutions, approached the question of videogames and culture in their own way. The British Library examines where they intersect and expand on literature and writing; Wellcome is interested in science and health and communication; the computerspiel museum is interested in what a museum for videogames can do; and the British Council is focused on finding ways of connecting with and understanding each other through creativity, arts, and culture.

At the opening of the London Games Festival Culture Summit, I reflected on what that means for games – especially the idea, reaffirmed by Continue, of this diversity of culture, and the broad ways we can interpret it.

“[Culture is] a great big, slippery word. For games, when we talk about culture - in its broadest sense - we’re bringing together under the umbrella of that word, the shared history and values of a country or region; our relationship to our players, and their relationship to each other; our studio and company and industrial rhetoric and behaviours; Capital-C culture and the relationship of games to museums or galleries; grass roots events and communities; and artists and makers and thinkers and critics working through what they think about games -- and how they relate to their lives.

"Culture is all of these things simultaneously. It’s the knotty tension of different people doing different things in different places, and the friction, tension, and challenges within that -- as well as the dialogue, art, and community that emerges in response.”

Or, to put it far more elegantly:

“Culture is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experiences…”
John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture

Continue was all about the different ways we can produce meaning from thinking about games beyond economic frames. The ongoing process of curators working in different ways, collectors thinking about archiving playable objects, artists finding new ways of producing with other artforms, and everything from grass roots activity to engaging with policy and government felt incredibly dynamic to me, and pointed to a vibrant network of cultural activity that is fundamentally a social experience. It is people working within the values & frameworks of institutions that create work that connects with other people, through that great big slippery word - culture.

“(After all, Films are an art).”
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

I finished up my talk with that quote from Susan Sontag. I’d modify the emphasise slightly to apply it to games though – Games are an art, one of many ways of producing meaning of and about the world and our experiences. This network of relationships & meaning is what makes them cultural, and Continue pointed the way to what we can learn from other artforms and institutions both in how we make specific work, but also in the way we can build the cultural infrastructure and dialogue that goes alongside it, both here and around the world.