Einstein Junior Fellow, Americanist and cultural studies scholar Martin Lüthe doesn’t just play video games, he also studies them meticulously. He has recently contributed an essay on digital sports games to the collection Playing the Field: Video Games and American Studies, edited by Sascha Pöhlmann and published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg in 2019. We sat down with Martin to talk about his personal and academic interest in video games, popular culture studies, stereotypes in sports games, and his dislike of hiking.
DG: Why would you say that studying popular culture – and more specifically, studying video games – matters?
ML: The straightforward answer to that question is: Artifacts in pop culture like digital games help us to make sense of the world. They shape the ways in which we approach the world. They don’t always do it aggressively. They don’t do it all the time. It doesn’t mean that they have to be ideologically invested, but they do something with the way we approach the world. That’s why we study culture. We wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for culture. None of us would be. Our identities are made and thoroughly produced by our cultural environments. So in a way pop culture makes the world.
“Our identities are made and thoroughly produced by our cultural environments.”
There are these instances in pop culture where it becomes painfully obvious that that’s the case. Think about political music. Bob Dylan and all the political singer-songwriters and political songwriters would be the quintessential example. They helped shape elections. They shaped political mood swings. So these are the instances where it’s painfully obvious. And of course we have studied literature and high literature in the humanities and philologies basically forever. To include popular culture into that was basically a no-brainer, even though it took the disciplines a long time to realize that and to actually make that move.
With video games more specifically, the easy answer would be to say: Like film, like literature, like the novel, video games are now one of those cultural forms that people turn to in order to spend time with and so these games have become part of how people make sense of the world. But there’s also something else to them. Video games are crucially embedded in our digital world, in what we would call the digital now or digital contemporary. Think about this current phenomenon of the gamification of our world. The fact that not just games now offer a game-type of experience, but our overall experience – be it in the workplace, in the way that we cook, the way we run our households, go shopping and so on – is being gamified. That’s another reason why it’s important to study games.
And finally there are other reasons that are more culturally specific. Certain cultural narratives keep reemerging and resurfacing in digital games. They have caused major debates and even instances of hate speech online, for instance in the gamergate controversy. And when it comes to gender, sexism, racism and questions of representation games do open a prism to what we study as cultural study folks.
DG: What disciplines or fields are taking the lead in studying video games? Are they a primary topic for American studies? For history? Would you call games studies a discipline?
ML: Historically, if you think about the process in which a field becomes its own discipline, the decisive factor is probably institutionalization. That goes for universities, but also concerns publishers. At which point does a publisher say, “This is not a media studies series anymore, but it’s now become a game studies series”? Within American studies, I can say for sure that there isn’t a single professorship outside of the United States that is primarily dedicated to games studies. As far as the institutionalization is concerned at the university that is one reason why I would still call it a field and not a discipline. And it’s a field in which scholars from a lot of different disciplines come together to talk about this object. And that’s also why it’s such a fruitful laboratory where these different approaches come to interact.
One of the main disciplines to take an interest in games studies and digital games studies is media studies – for obvious reasons. Here games are often measured against other media forms. The typical example here would be film – why games are not film and in what sense they are different from film. There’s a major debate on what’s called ludology, meaning the question of the playability of games and how that makes them different from other media forms.
As far as the regional disciplines are concerned, for example American studies: People who are interested in American cultural production would most probably find a home in one of the American Studies departments at a German university. And a lot of the big studios or publishers producing these digital games are based in the United States and some have close ties to the Silicon Valley. This invites specific readings and analyses that are informed by an expertise in the culture from which these games emerge.
There are of course also great Japanese game developers, or Europeans or independent game developers around the world. But most of the big franchises and series have at least some close relationship to the United States. That can be their place of production or reception or can concern intra-game logics. Like the question: Who do you play? Do you play a North American character? Most of these games are presented in a vernacular American English. So that’s some ways in which digital games are thoroughly American. But of course they travel the world and it would be naive to say that they are quintessentially American, I wouldn’t go that far. We’re at this moment where digital cultures are always already transnational.
DG: Might this be a similarity to film? Hollywood is highly influential globally, but still not all films are American, there’s other national and transnational cinemas and film is a global phenomenon.
ML: Absolutely. And there are all these adaptations and remakes, so digital games are an inherently transnational phenomenon very much like film for sure. But if you think about these super popular games, these blockbuster games – Grand Theft Auto comes to mind – they are Americana in that they have this quintessentially American element to the cityscapes, the landscapes, the built environment that they present. One of my favorite games for instance, The Last of Us, which is set in this post-apocalyptic scenery, reminiscent of the series The Walking Dead, it builds on this kind of aesthetic of the ruined North American city. And of course we as audiences have been familiarized with these cityscapes through Hollywood movies.
DG: Is this now a two-way street? In the sense that video game aesthetics now also influence films…
ML: Absolutely. Now it does go into both directions. And now you have these more experimental films for instance that are made to be viewed on a small screen as an interface.
DG: Let’s talk about sports. Why have so few people in digital games studies worked on digital sports games even though they are so successful with audiences? What is specifically interesting about sports games?
ML: The first aspect has to do with the preferences we have as scholars but also as gamers. You go by what you play, but you also go by what potentially lends itself to a great analysis. It’s somewhat easy and intuitive to talk about something like the ruin-porn aesthetics in The Last of Us if you have my kind of background. It’s really easy because these games present you with certain types of narratives akin to Hollywood movies, akin to novels. They are storytelling based. They bring storytelling archetypes and update them. So if you have a training in how to analyze cultural texts, be they literary or filmic, then these more narrative-driven games lend themselves to an analysis.
That’s one thing. But there’s also a certain scholarly bias. Not to overgeneralize, but people in games studies just tend to have a stronger interest in playing these open world games. And then there’s this bias against sports that is more general, it’s not just against digital sports games. If you think about how important sports are as a cultural meaning-making form pretty much anywhere in the world and how little we write about them in cultural studies, there is an interesting lack or even an ignorance. Social scientists seem to be drawn to sports: What is a fan? How do soccer fans organize? Why are they violent? These are some of the questions social scientists ask. But as a meaning-making tool? How do people make sense of the world through Eintracht Frankfurt or through Madden NFL or NBA2K or Pro Evolution Soccer? Those questions seem to be more difficult to address.
But I think there are ways in which these games have to be analyzed. And the most immediate point that came to my mind as I played these games was always the way that they represent our physicality. Because they are sports games they don’t just emulate the experience of the stadium or the televised soccer or football event but they also have to engage physical capabilities and limitations and in that sense they are really fascinating. Because they have a certain way that they deal with the limits of our bodies, our corporeality.
In addition, it’s a highly racialized discourse that you find. You play these games and you play them innocently. But if you think about the soccer games, in the national teams there’s usually some kind of way in that teams are described in their physicality vis-a-vis their tactical mindness or how mindful they play. So the strengths of the teams are broken down into different kinds of parameters, and for example national teams from the African continent will always be represented as hyperphysical while their knowledge of the tactics or their mindfulness will always lag behind European teams. Then there’s also this whole notion of the German exceptionalism in soccer and you’ll find that replicated in the games. The Germans might not be the fastest runners, they might not have the most technically advanced individual players, but as a collective and tactically they always function. And that’s cultural bias and it reproduces cultural stereotypes.
DG: Video games have a pretty bad rep in the public. They are made responsible for mass shootings and there is the whole notion of “Kids don’t play outside anymore.” What do you think about these debates as a cultural studies scholar?
ML: I am highly skeptical of these debates. First because, whenever something violent happens, the first thing that everybody seems to be doing is check whether or not the perpetrator actually played games (and what kind of games). So we know a lot about the history of these killers as gamers and that obviously obscures other enabling factors, such as the US gun legislation obviously. The reproduction of violence in games is a concern that should not be limited to games. Movies like those of Quentin Tarantino are based on excesses of violence.
“Media history always equals media hysteria.”
Secondly media history always also equals media hysteria. When the telegraph was first invented it seemed to be the end to western bourgeois culture, when the telephone came around most certainly there were similar debates, and I remember from when I was a kid and a teenager, which was the time when private television was introduced in west Germany, that there was also a huge hysteria. We were among the first families to have cable television and it was almost viewed as demonic, like having joined a cult. People were really on the fence about it. So digital games are only the newest technical invention in this respect.
The other concern seems to be that it’s time consuming, that it takes up all the time of the young kids, that kids are slouching, eating potato chips and so on. And again that’s a discourse that has been pervasive. For our generation it was television and now there’s the whole phenomenon of binge-watching, where people don’t leave their apartments for an entire weekend to finish a season of whichever show Netflix made available. Again there seems to be a lot of paranoia there, because people still seem to be leaving the house. And with digital games especially I would always advocate that playing digital sports games can actually trigger your will to go outside and play the actual sport. That was certainly the case for me. So in a way it might be an enabler.
DG: What do you think about this cultural value judgment that outside activities are inherently more valuable than playing digital games inside?
ML: That’s something I have been grappling with for my entire adult life. Because there’s another discourse here. As a grown up you’re supposed to do something better with your leisure time, like “being social”, which is what people often tell me to be. I used to live in Munich and I was still an active soccer player. On the weekends Munich is frantic about going to the mountains. Anybody who’s lived in Munich knows about these outdoor activities. People love to hike. And hiking was never my thing. So then I chose to play these games and I always felt like I was wasting time as opposed to these people who were enjoying nature and hiking. So where do these value judgements come from? Why is one so much better than the other? There are many reasons for it, but many of it can easily be debunked. Ultimately it is a question of what is culturally more legitimate as an activity, and gaming just isn’t.