Video Games And Participatory Culture

Many video games let you create (your own levels in a first-person shooter, your own creatures in an adventure, for example) and upload these creations so you can share them with other players. It's called participatory culture, where consumers are not couch potatoes but rather active participants and creators themselves. But some argue we're merely being tricked into thinking we're being creative.

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Now to the Internet and a debate over whether our time online is spent doing new creative things or recycling trends of the past. The hottest things on the Internet involve sharing what we've made or written that extends from Facebook all the way to playing video games. Some academics argue that what we're doing isn't new, it's actually retro. Heather Chaplin explains.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: Stick Beaterator on your PlayStation Portable and suddenly you're a music producer. You lay down tracks, choose sound loops or input your own. It's like having a mini recording studio in your back pocket. Ivan Pavlovich is a music supervisor for Beaterator.

Mr. IVAN PAVLOVICH (Music Supervisor, Beaterator): Anybody can pick this up and start making music.

CHAPLIN: Creating, rather than just consuming, is not unique to Beaterator. A lot of first-person shooters, for example, have editing tools so you can design your own level. USC Professor Henry Jenkins calls it participatory culture.

Professor HENRY JENKINS (School of Communication, University of Southern California): Well, participatory culture in a nutshell is the application of folk culture practices to the content of mass culture.

CHAPLIN: In other words, 100 years ago, culture was produced by everyday people: square dancing, playing the piano, quilting, telling folk tales.

Prof. JENKINS: The 20th century mass media crowded an awful lot of it out.

CHAPLIN: Sing-alongs, why bother? There were hits to listen to on the radio. Forget a game of charades, now there was television to watch.

Prof. JENKINS: We commercialize, we can modify it, the contents of our culture. So, we created a world where some - a few people produce culture, the majority of us is consumed it.

(Soundbite of music)

CHAPLIN: That was the 20th century. Now you can play a game like LittleBigPlanet, where you run obstacle courses in a charming world of mechanical objects and toys come to life with a twist - that you design your own levels. You upload them from other people and then download theirs for yourself. You can fill the screen with pink squishy polka dots or black rubber slides. One player built in an elaborate computer made of levers and pulleys.

Mr. ALEX EVANS (Developer, LittleBigPlanet): At the end of half an hour of play, you've actually created something which you're potentially quite proud of and which you then really want to show off and that's the fundamental sort of mechanic at the heart of all of these games, I think.

CHAPLIN: That's one of LittleBigPlanet's developers Alex Evans.

Mr. EVANS: With LittleBigPlanet we were really trying to convey that sense of empowerment.

I don't need a corporation to help me be creative. If we get into this frame of mind where we feel like we can't be creative without the help of a corporation, that would be really messed up.

CHAPLIN: MIT researcher and game designer Matthew Weise says these games are less about empowerment and more about owning your creativity.

Mr. MATTHEW WEISE (Game Designer, MIT Researcher): They're kind of like colonizing your, you know, your own creative impulse.

CHAPLIN: The biggest game developer in the world is Electronic Arts. It made Spore, where you start life as a single-cell organism and then create your own creatures, build your own village, invent your own landscape and listen to tunes you yourself compose.

(Soundbite of music)

CHAPLIN: In the industry, they call it user generator content. When creator Will Wright first started talking about Spore, he said it could be a way of keeping game budgets down. And here's where participatory culture really isn't like square dancing and family sing-alongs of 100 years ago. The kid making creatures for Spore is doing the work of an animator. The kid making levels for LittleBigPlanet is updating the game which gives it a longer shelf life and every time the Beaterator player makes a song he's going to tell his friends, which turns him into a marketer. Henry Jenkins.

Prof. JENKINS: But the company is not giving us economic compensation for that value, right? If you had to hire a marketer, you'd pay them. If you hired an artist, you'd pay them. But in this case, little Jimmy is both an artist and a marketer and he's getting nothing out of the revenue that's brought in for that company.

CHAPLIN: Of course, little Jimmy is probably having an awfully good time even if he's helping Electronic Arts keep game cost down. But new media expert McKenzie Wark says there's something insidious about this kind of fun. He says it's really corporations co-opting and profiting from are natural drive to be creative.

Mr. MCKENZIE WARK (New Media Expert): Well, it might be creativity, but somebody is still extracting a rent from it. And the question you might ask is: Who gets the rent?

CHAPLIN: Still, Henry Jenkins picks creating with corporate controlled products over sitting blankly in front of the TV set. It is a way of influencing the culture, he says, or at least gives us a fighting chance.

For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.

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