What Is a Cultural Game – Opinion

As stated previously, it is tricky to define what makes a cultural game. I don’t agree with a nationalistic view on this, nor do I think this accolade should be linked to money, as it can meddle with the creative process and vision. As a counterpart to the previous post, however, here is what I think should be considered to decide whether a game can be considered cultural

(1) Is it a game that teaches players something about culture in general?   

Games are a powerful way to engage players and teach them new things – not just about their own country or culture, but about the world.


  • Chopin
    Composer Frédéric François Chopin in Eternal Sonata

    Show the player what Renaissance Italy looks like, and tell them about notable pieces of art and architecture of the era? Check > Assassin’s Creed II

  • Invent a world where you follow a famous classical music composer’s dreams on his deathbed, and introduce the player to their work? Check > Eternal Sonata


(2) Is it a game that transports the player to another time and place (either realistic or based on realistic situations)?

We live in an age where you can effectively play through historical periods or world events at the touch of a controller. It can be a powerful tool that uses emotion and empathy to resonate with the player, and teach them about the world around them… or before them.


  • ValiantHearts
    Valiant Hearts. I’m not crying. It’s just all this dust..

    Make the player experience WWI through the tragic perspectives of a civilian, a French soldier, a German soldier? Check > Valiant Hearts: The Great War

  • Put the player in the role of a scavenger during an imagined civil war, forced to consider what survival means? Check > This War of Mine


(3) Is it a game that establishes lore and uses world-building?

We usually consider what culture is in the real-world, but can we truly say that imagined world and lore are not also a form of culture, whether they are a criticism of our real world, or just a very detailed new world?


  • Bioshock
    Would you kindly…

    Create a world with distinct people, forms of art, forms of music, lore, locations, literature, politics and characters? Check > The Elder Scrolls

  • Use a real historical period and existing philosophies to create a mirror game-world, hypothesising on what would happen if you took the ideologies to an extreme? Check > BioShock


(4) Is it a game relevant to gaming history, through significant technological or mechanical innovation?

I believe that culture should also be a nod to history and to how a medium got to where it is now, even if by modern standards a product or piece of art might seem inferior. What can make a game matter for the medium as a whole?


  • SI_3DSVC_SuperMarioBros_image1280w
    The goomba is looking straight at you.

    First game ever made, using 1960s computing power to create an entertaining experience and become the pioneer for the medium we know and love today? Check > 1961’s Spacewar!

  • Spearhead and launch the video games-only consoles market, introducing platformers to the masses? Check > Super Mario Bros*

*of course platformers, consoles and even Mario existed beforehand, but the commercial significance of this particular game makes it quite special.

These are not mutually exclusive, nor do they have to be all fulfilled to make a game cultural. Games are a very broad and varied form of expression, and I think it’s wrong to try and box them up into one neat category – so we will have to make do with more than one criteria or checklist. If your games fits my list, I can’t fund you but at least I can vote for it with my wallet!


11 Bit Studios (2014) This War of Mine. 11 Bit Studios.

2K Australia, 2K Boston (2007) BioShock. 2K Games.

Bethesda Game Studios (2011) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Bethesda Softworks.

Nintendo R&D4 (1985) Super Mario Bros. Nintendo.

Russell, S (1962) Spacewar!

Tri-Crescendo (2007) Eternal Sonata. Namco.

Ubisoft Montpellier (2014) Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Ubisoft.

Ubisoft Montreal (2009) Assassin’s Creed II. Ubisoft.


BioShock Image (no date). Available at: http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Andrew_Ryan (Accessed 23 October 2017)

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim – Varen’s Wall Image (no date). Available at: http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Varen%27s_Wall_(Book) (Accessed: 23 October 2017)

Eternal Sonata – Chopin Image (no date). Available at: http://eternalsonata.wikia.com/wiki/Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Fran%C3%A7ois_Chopin (Accessed: 23 October 2017)

Super Mario Bros Image (2017), Nintendo. Available at: https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Games/NES/Super-Mario-Bros–803853.html (Accessed 23 October 2017)

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Image (2014). Available at: https://www.giantbomb.com/forums/valiant-hearts-the-great-war-629705/valiant-hearts-is-the-most-respectful-war-game-eve-1490711/ (Accessed 23 October 2017)


Games and Culture: A National Matter?

Culture is a difficult term to define; in fact, according to Williams, it is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams, 1983). However, several institutions have attempted to define it for video games. In 2014, the BFI created the Cultural Test for Video Games, enabling studios to get tax relief if their game scored enough points from their checklist (BFI, 2017). Using this example as a test case, can we truly define what constitutes a cultural game?

Wanna make a cultural game? Better have one of those! Wait, is this French at the bottom?!

Should games’ cultural potential be defined by their staff’s nationality and production location? For the BFI, this is an important matter: the checklist requires a minimum number of EEA/UK staff in the team, and also that at least half of the development process takes place in the UK. In a multicultural (and multi-national) country like the UK, especially in cities like London, this can be an odd requirement, especially when considering that roles in a team, including creative roles, are meant to be awarded on talent and merit from a large pool of international candidates, and not on nationality.



Assassin’s Creed II. Not culture. Nope.

The second part of the checklist then requires that games touch on British subject matters (undefined in the list), involve British citizens as characters, and represent British heritage and diversity. This raises many questions on nationalism and culture in general, but with regards to games, this is also problematic, judging that only a very particular type of culture (British-centric) is worth funding in games in the UK.


Victorian England dystopia? Yes. Made in the UK? No. Not good enough!

For example, Assassin’s Creed II, set in Renaissance Italy and developed by a Canadian studio, would not be funded despite featuring numerous cultural facts. This is also a problem for more creative worlds, such as Dishonored’s Victorian dystopian setting: while it is based on Victorian England and can arguable teach the player a lot about this time period, this link is not explicitly mentioned, and therefore may fail the BFI test despite being relevant to British history.

Finally, it is also worth mentioning that this test was created for money-saving purposes (tax relief). This raises further difficult questions: why should money be involved in conceptualising a game? Will this influence game designers’ ideas, knowing that one “more British” idea will get a tax-break, and another, perhaps more creatively inspired but not fitting the BFIs’ criteria, will not? Is it right to encourage British gamers to expand their culture by playing games strictly related to their own country and culture? If every country enforced such rules, how would it affect creative freedom and diversity in games?

As with culture in general, there are no answers, only many opinions. However, it is worth questioning what we are told is a game deserving a cultural accolade, and consider the problems that might arise from such unilateral thinking.


BFI (2017). The Cultural Test for Video Games. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/film-industry/british-certification-tax-relief/cultural-test-video-games (Accessed: 23 October 2017).

Williams, R (1983). Keywords. New York: Oxford UP, p. 87.


Assassin’s Creed II Screenshot (2009). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh_XZNqonv4 (Accessed 23 October 2017)

Dishonored Screenshot (2015). Available at: https://www.windowscentral.com/dishonored-digital-xbox-360-owners-can-get-xbox-one-definitive-edition-just-20 (Accessed 23 October 2017)

Union Jack Reproduction (2017). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Jack (Accessed 23 October 2017)



~ Clampdown – Game Design (Punk?) Manifesto ~

/ Stop spitting on AAA games // Stop dissing designers because they made a shooter you didn’t like // Stop feeling superior because a designer “sold out”, whatever that means in your textbook little world // Stop turning your nose at entire game genres // Stop looking down at indie games because you don’t recognise the name on the box // Stop thinking a game needs a big budget to be a masterpiece // Stop trying to define a game to your own narrow standards // Stop calling story-driven games walking simulators like you’re the game validity bible // Stop calling indie designers basement dwellers // Stop mocking your friend who’s trying to make a game in Unity // Stop calling Twine games shitty text games for girls // Stop saying “games for girls” and marketing at bullshit audiences like it’s 1955 // Stop harassing women who make games // Stop feeling threatened when people who aren’t exactly like you become part of games and gaming // Stop raging like a three year old when people who aren’t exactly like you become characters in games // Stop calling inclusion “pandering”, you don’t even know what that means // Stop bringing the medium down by making it an intolerant, shitty little club – that’s not what it is // Stop bleating that games have no value and cause violence // Stop working for the clampdown /

– Learn something from that big-budget game — Learn something from that big-budget designer — Admire designers who worked hard to get where they are now — Try something new — Try something different — Try something small — Challenge your perception of what a game is, and can be — Experience something that will make you feel something — Be in awe of that tiny team who made that amazing game — Encourage your friend — Fall in love with an interactive story — Make great games that can move anyone’s heart — Be welcoming to people who share your passion — Be welcoming to stories that aren’t yours, you’ll learn something — Celebrate inclusion and how much it broadens game stories — Make games the art that everyone can enjoy — Recognise the good that games can do — Support games by everyone, for everyone