Gaming competition with world of warcraft poster in background

Gaming is a Cultural Anomaly in the Study of Anthropology


In the world of academia, academics do not consider gaming as a viable study material. Gaming is an anomaly to the study of anthropology; however, they feature in important debates concerning free speech and violence. Video games are not innocuous; they generate strong emotion and shape behavior. I will demonstrate how scholars have viewed games as powerful instruments in social control as well as how they serve as metaphors for the social habits around us.

Ethnographic Video Games
A study of Gaming in an Anthropological Perspective

Defining a Game

Perhaps defining a game is the most difficult endeavor. Many scholars try to find a definition. According to the article “Games,” “to play a game is to attempt to achieve a certain end goal. All the while, you try to follow the rules. Take Geertz’s Balanese Cock fight as an example.

Balinese Cockfights & Bitcoins: How one can help us understand the other |  by Metamick | Coinmonks | Medium
Geertz’s Balanese Cockfight relates to how gaming plays a cultural role

For the Balanese Cock fight, memory is not the only reason it is special. The competition in gaming also makes it special. Most people see gaming as an anomaly to anthropology. For the Balanese, gaming plays into their social structure. People play it to be competitive; that is what makes it so engaging.

Video Games as an Expressive Means

Scholars do extensive research on comparative video game critique. This is a comparison study of video games to literature. In his article “Games and Culture,” Bogus describes the goal of the study, which is to focus on how games transform and change. Comparative video game critique focuses on just that; it focuses on how games make a difference, like books and movies.

It's a golden age of expression in video games": How a new wave of creative  talent is changing the way that we play | GamesRadar+
A New World in Video Games

Video Games as an Expressive Medium

Video games are a medium of art. Comparative video game criticism studies how video games are cultured. They choose to focus on the values games provide for the humanities. Bogus states “Reproduced reality points to a ‘reality’ beyond itself, while the imaginary is lured into form” (Iser 23).

Reproduced reality is like an abstract reality related to ours. Video games are similar to literature. Video games can be scholarly objects. Stereotypes make gaming an anomaly in anthropology. A more careful observation of video games shows these are interesting to ethnographers.

Losing yourself in virtual worlds can have good as well as negative effects  | Ars Technica

Reproduced Reality in Other Mediums

Books and other literature also have this concept of reproduced reality. When talking about novels, Iser speaks of the importance of the novel. The novel simulates the world. Books create a world that reflects our own. Both books and games reflect reality by challenging the status quo.

What is augmented reality & Virtual Reality? - Quora
Reproduced Reality

Symbolism of Real-life

And certain games do reflect some cultures. When talking about the game Civilization, Baumard’s blog talks about  how Civilization has gameplay elements related to our world. Civilization’s gameplay is about inequality with money. In the game, you do not have to spend too much to succeed in the game. Civilization reflects how capitalism works. This is an example of how a game reflects a real-life cultural system.


Immersion of Game Worlds

 The immersion into the game world adds to this. Plummer talks about how players become involved in a different world. It is like another culture. Overall, this really demonstrates how the immersion in the universe is reflective of experiencing another culture. Gaming may be seen as an anomaly in anthropology. Yet, Plummer ultimately makes the case that video game worlds are like studying another culture.

Gamasutra: Adrian Chmielarz's Blog - The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds
Immersion in Game Worlds

Cultures provide symbols. There is representation. Video games give one of those representations. They simulate cultural phenomena just like other mediums like literature and films.

Video Game Culture

Cultural buy-in’s also play a role in making the atmosphere of video games. The author describes it as “buy-in builds on the interactions between the game, the virtual world, and the players—“culture,” in this sense, is not something separate from these components” (Plummer 1). Gaming may be seen as an anomaly in anthropology. However, video games require a lot of different components in order to create the culture within their place. Ultimately, the author summarizes a number of different elements that make up the culture of video gaming.

Video game culture - Wikipedia

Virtual Culture

These include competition buy-ins, which is how local traditions promote or turn off engagement. All these different elements create a “virtual culture” online. Even though it is not reality, it reflects the actual world. Lende ultimately explains how games apply to real life.

Lende talks about how a single player of World of Warcraft is fun. However, playing the game in multi-player is even more enjoyable. The reason is that there is a sense of community in playing multi-player. This shows how humans are social creatures. Other examples include how games help human needs.

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Online creates a whole other world.

Fulfillment of Human Needs

Studying games at a much deeper level, anthropologists have attempted to discover how games relate to social interaction. In the article “Why Game: An Anthropological Approach,” it talks about how gaming helps social problems. Many humans desire to feel important. They have the player solve problems by doing tasks that are immediately rewarding.

It's Fine to Play Lots of Video Games in Quarantine | Time

Fulfilling Basic Psychological Needs

The instant gratification in gaming fulfills many human needs. As Hiscock stated in his article, “we are a people designed in very specific ways that don’t always mesh perfectly with the world we have created around us. Video games seal the deal by tuning into basic psychological needs that have an evolutionary basis, insofar as humans need culture to exist” (Hiscock 1). Video games fulfill the desires in life that real-life society cannot. They help fill our dire wants.


Anthropology and Social Meaning of Video Games

Video games convey a lot of different social meanings. One of the examples was how video games represent an aspect of culture. In the “Geek Anthropologist” Nick Mizer noted “the water tower as a gym shapes my experience of the two. The gym’s location shapes its social meaning like the White House leader” (Mizer 1).

This ultimately shows how different places can have different types of meanings within the society that they are presented within. While video games do not have the same effect, they serve a similar purpose when creating representations of the culture. Video games are reflections of the social order around us.

Understanding the lives of problem gamers: The meaning, purpose, and  influences of video gaming - ScienceDirect
The Place Gaming Has in the Overall Society

The Experience of Play

Different pieces of literature have symbols in order to create representations of the different concepts in life. Symbolism is very deep within a lot of cultures. Different types of games show this. One of the prominent examples is “historical” games, “focusing on war—usually Western perspectives and assumptions–and offering statements in the service of the experience of play” (Mizer 1).

In this case, the “experience of play” is almost similar to that of how symbolism works in an anthropological sense.  Symbolism creates for the person a perspective on the society they live in. In a similar way, video games also offer a form of virtual reality for the real world. While not completely identical to real life, it serves a similar role to literature and other media. Video games have the same capabilities as those of other mediums because they serve as a reflection of our own world.

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Reflection of Gaming World to Real World

The reflection of the gaming world on the real world is further demonstrated through games like World of Warcraft. In the article “The Game Anthropologist: The World Behind the World of Warcraft,” the author talks about the game world being “inherently materialistic. It’s the rat race. It’s climbing the ladder” (Baumar 1). The author demonstrates that success is the only option. If your lack of success hurts others, you need to work to improve. World of Warcraft comments on the materialism of capitalism.

What if life were a video game? These 650,000 people imagine it that way. -  The Washington Post
Real world vs. Gaming world

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft ultimately reflects the capitalist society we live in. To survive, you must engage the game world. While on the surface, games come across as trivial activities one engages in at your leisure, a deeper observation of games demonstrates how they can help us understand the society around us better.

World of Warcraft has the player go through a capitalistic kind of gameplay. It is gameplay that reflects our own system. World of Warcraft has currency that is like money. If you overspend, you will end up paying the price. However, if you use just the right amount, you will be able to play the game longer. World of Warcraft is an example of how games reflect our world. It simulates the society around us, giving a deeper understanding of the workings within it.

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World of Warcraft reflects real-life society.

Significance in Anthropology

To conclude, video games ultimately are one of the many overlooked rituals within culture. While most games are often dismissed as time-wasters and trivial to the academic environment, they can help us understand our human ways. This puts them next to literature and film. Ultimately, this demonstrates how games can help us see how symbols shape our individual lives. It can give us insight into how we live. Even the simplest of mediums can also provide so much meaning in a society.

anthropology of gaming | The Geek Anthropologist
Anthropology of Gaming


Salter. Anastasia. “Gaming Anthropology.”

Lende, Daniel. “MMORPG Anthropology: Video Games and Morphing Our Discipline.”

Golub, Alex. “The Anthropology of Virtual Worlds.”

Baumard, Nicholas. “Video Games as Applied Anthropology.”

Watson, Max. ‘Games.”

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