This post was written by Carolyn Birdsall, Wouter van Gent, Thijs Jeursen as part of the GDC-funded project “Gaming the Global City: Imagining and Experiencing Digital Urban Worlds“
Digital gaming has become an increasingly important everyday pastime and a leading global cultural industry, with revenues for games now far surpassing that of films. Both the production and consumption of games have a global and an urban dimension: the gaming industry is largely concentrated in globally-connected cities; many widely-distributed digital games feature urban landscapes; and online gamer communities are most active in cities. To understand how globally-produced and globally-consumed digital urban worlds shape social communities and cultural practices, this research develops an interdisciplinary methodological approach and innovative conceptual apparatus to “playing the city”.
We aim to develop a better understanding of what qualifies as an “urban” videogame. First, we look at the most popular games since 2000, drawing on reviews and critics. Second, we search for keywords related to urban in the search engines of several game stores and platforms. Such a list provides us not only with the quantity of urban games, and their respective share and popularity compared to non-urban videogames, it also allows us to conceptualize how and when a videogame is classified “urban” in the first place. In other words, it can help us understand how notions of the urban become meaningful in such globally-produced and globally consumed titles.
Here, we are specifically interested in the ways that gaming platforms and stores classify and define the difference between urban and non-urban categories. What terms, images and narratives are used to differentiate such categories? Are there other forms of categorization, that transcend such binary understandings, or classify urban worlds differently? In developing our research project, we aim to create an overview of the most popular urban games in the past 20 years (popular with critics and with audiences) and a more targeted search using keywords in the search engines of online game stores. The next step is to analyze the urban aspects of games we defined as “urban” based on the initial analyses, and games that came up in the engine searches (there is likely a strong overlap). Are cities and urban landscapes (historical, fantasy, ruins, modern etc.) part of the setting or story of the game? Are cities and urban landscapes part of the gameplay of the game (think of city building, cities on a strategic map, but also first-person interaction with urban environments)? Are cities and urban landscapes a strong part of the theming or central narrative of this game?
The questions and expected outcomes of this research project are relevant to societal, educational and industry stakeholders with an interest in understanding the societal impacts of digital technology. Gamers and game designers alike often present and experience gaming as an apolitical phenomenon. The potential societal impact we aim to achieve is sensitizing creative industry and gamer communities to the socio-spatial and cultural-political implications of gaming, which can lead to more pro-social forms of design and use. The problem definition of this project – addressing the societal impacts of digital gaming, and approaching urban space through the lens of digital culture – will be further developed on the basis of already established relationships and recent collaborations with various partners. We look forward to keeping you updated on our preliminary findings in the nearby future!
Thijs Jeursen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Law, Economics and Governance at Utrecht University. Thijs works on political belonging and digital technologies in urban space, and engages with perspectives from media and critical data studies in order to address broader questions of inequality and urban futures
Carolyn Birdsall is an Associate Professor at the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Carolyn works on media cultures, technology and urban environments, and knowledge production across a variety of global and historical contexts.
Wouter van Gent is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Wouter focuses on urban geographies and the interplay between social-material changes in urban landscapes and broader (cultural) politics.