Knowledge on the Nordics

Gaming the Nordics

November 18, 2020 Season 1 Episode 5
Knowledge on the Nordics
Gaming the Nordics
Show Notes Transcript

Around a third of the world’s population play video games. But how are video games used to explore images of the Nordic region? What place do video games occupy in terms of cultural representations? To what extent can video games be considered part of a cultural hegemony from a historical culture perspective? 

Nordic regionality is expressed through different applications of game, game design and play. It is used in different ways (such as, counterfactual uses of history or using myth and nostalgia) and in different contexts (such as, using history and heritage). From a practical perspective, regional game production and game consumption by local teams and actors intersect with the mainstream and global game industry in different ways.

This podcast was recorded in September 2020 when the editor of nordics.info Nicola Witcombe caught up with three researchers from the Helsinki Game Research Collective from the University of Helsinki. The three participants - Heidi Rautalahti, Lysiane Lasausse, Ylva Grufstedt - are ideally placed to assist us in finding out more about the subject from different perspectives coming as they do from history, theology and Nordic Noir.

Find a list of the games and books mentioned on nordics.info.

Be sure to listen to the other nordics.info podcasts on Nordic identity, or the Nordic Model.
#nordicsinfo #ReNEWHub  

Nicola Witcombe:

Welcome to this nordics.info podcast. Nordics.info is a research dissemination website based office Aarhus University in Denmark, and publishes material by researchers on many different aspects of the Nordic countries within the social sciences and humanities. Nordics.info is part of the university hub ReImagining Norden in an Evolving World, ReNEW. This podcast series is I'm in Copenhagen and joining me today from Helsinki via zoom are three researchers from game studies at Helsinki University. They are Heidi Rautalahti, she is a theologian who is currently working in the field of religion and video games studies. Lysiane Lasausse has a background in Nordic and European studies and is currently researching Nordic noir and specifically issues pertaining to darkness in game studies. Ylva Grufstedt is a historian with a focus on uses of history specifically in the context of game studies. Coming from three different perspectives, theology, history and regional studies, they are ideally placed to give us a good overview about key questions on gaming the Nordics.

Thanks very much for being with us today on Zoom. And the first question that I'd like to address to all of you, and that perhaps Heidi could start is:

What can games tell us about a society?

Heidi Rautalahti:

According to my research, then I have interviewed players about meaningful encounters with videogames. That games can serve as important and crucial companions in different challenging points in life. So, in this sense, what it tells us about society is that games do, at this point, have a certain role in providing companionship, reflections and representing different

Lysiane Lasausse:

And speaking of societal issues, I think games are a great way to be socially critical of whats happening currently or contemporary, so they are a great tool to reflect on the darker sides of society, the pitfalls. The media does that, but games do as well. But they are also doing that.

Nicola Witcombe:

And we'll, we'll speak about that later on. But I wonder if I could push you Lysiane to give us an example of a particular game or a particular issue in society at this point?

Lysiane Lasausse:

Yes for example, it will be Through The Woods, where the main character is a female protagonist, whose kid is kidnapped and in the way that she talks, and the way that the game is presented, it shows us the troubles that shes having with fatherhood, for example, and connecting with her so or the fact that she and her ex split up over the custody of her son is kind of common

Ylva Grufstedt:

From a historians perspective, the question about what games can tell us about society? Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is, of course, the representation of history in the past in different contexts. We know that the role of history in the present is, is communicated through a variety of media, including games games, particularly tend to be a good resource for finding

Nicola Witcombe:

So this leads on to the second question, which is, why is it important to analyze games? And I suppose you've already, all three of you have touched on particular reasons why it's important. And but perhaps you can elaborate on that a bit more, why go in and analyze it in detail?

Heidi Rautalahti:

Yes, well, if I recall correctly, in 2018, there was this Finish nationwide survey about gaming or play conventions, and how people associate with play or gaming. And in that survey, if I'm correct, over 67% of people identified with playing digital games. So we have a large amount of people associating with digital games, and naming them a part of their lives in a way or another.

Lysiane Lasausse:

There are so many players, I think, in my Master's research, the global numbers from 2017 were that they were one and a half billion players globally, and it was expected to rise even more by 2020. So that's a lot. I mean, that's 1/3 of the population total, if you think about it in terms of world population, which is extreme. And these people, they are also spending money.

Nicola Witcombe:

And lastly, Ylva?

Ylva Grufstedt:

Well one reason that comes to mind is that we see a lot of debates on the internet, for example, when a new game about a specific historical thing is being released. It's quite interesting to study the different discourses surrounding a thing. For example, in Second World War, there was a game that came out called battlefield five that took some liberties with the actual

Nicola Witcombe:

So does that mean then that historical accuracy is important to users of games? Generally?

Ylva Grufstedt:

That question is more difficult to answer than you might think. I would say that, in general, historical accuracy matters. But the specific context in which it matters varies. A lot of people expect counterfactual outcomes, that is alternative outcomes, when they play with history in games, like for example, Hearts of Iron. And since that's something that they expect from playing,

Nicola Witcombe:

Are there any examples of games that look back at maybe an idealized or a dystopian view of history within the Nordics?

Heidi Rautalahti:

Yes, in addition to my academic work, Im also affiliated with an independent game design collective making our PC game called Runor. Runor is touching on issues of Finnish indigenous heritage, and gets inspiration from the Finnish national (epi kolavala????). And that game, and what we are doing in the collective game development is looking back at the past. Its looking

Ylva Grufstedt:

I could also mention a game called Unravel that I find to be really interesting in this particular respect. It is a game made in Sweden about a little ball of yarn that you esentially play as. It is an animated yarn ball who travels through the lives of a family in the Northern Sweden, and you get to interact with the nature of that place, the specific framing within which this

Lysiane Lasausse:

Yes it is a very interesting example. As far as Swedish games go, I would also add the game Year Walk, which is almost a little time travel on two different layers, because as a player, we go back to the past with the concept of Year Walk, which is rgang in Swedish. And that was something that was practiced in Heagan times, mostly, where someone would go on the so-called

Ylva Grufstedt:

One thing that historians who studied games love to talk about is the way historiography comes through in games, meaning, not specifically what events or what historical people are being portrayed, but how notions of change and development and progression or decline, for example, come through in games. And the reason for that is because games as systems have the ability to when we look at the conflict in hindsight, we begin to implement, or, in this case the game developers and also the players, begin to implement that hindsight perspective on to the historical scenario itself. Just a really interesting example of when changing history is also influenced by these contemporary notions and sensibilities, if you will

Nicola Witcombe:

Those are all really interesting examples, which seem to be anchored in the Nordic area. Do you think that game designers use their Nordic heritage as inspiration for their designs? Or are they more thinking that the end user would be interested in these sorts of narratives?

Lysiane Lasausse:

So for my own research, I have interviewed one of the gaming designers for Through The Woods and everyone on the team are Norwegian. He was saying that it was something that they really wanted to show in their games. The folklore that they use, the story itself and where it is set, it is a very Norwegian atmosphere, a very Norwegian context, because that is something that they

Heidi Rautalahti:

It is completely true what Lysiane just said that for example we, in the game, have this scene that the player can go to and warm up the sauna. In Finnish context, the sauna is a really stable heart of everyday life. When you go to the sauna, its so intertwined with everyday life. Its the place for bathing, socializing and not to mention the health benefits. Thinking of our

Ylva Grufstedt:

So, what Id like to add to that is just that the game market in general isnt local. Its actually a financial ecosystem that is very international and very global. And from my research on game designers and on game design practice specifically, I found that theres a lot of navigational practices that goes on at game studios and game publishers in order to find that sweet

Nicola Witcombe:

And perhaps I could ask you, Lysiane, there has been a lot of different perceptions of the Nordic countries globally. And often from a utopian point of view in terms of happiness index, lack of corruption, healthy cycling images, etc. And sometimes from a dystopian point of view, perhaps you can say something about how those different images have influenced gaming generally.

Lysiane Lasausse:

So because I specifically study darkness in videogames in Nordic Noir, I am able to talk a lot more about the dystopia than the healthy cycling and etc. However, I would say, in my opnion, in a sense, games are really cashing in on this dystopian ideas of the Nordics. Of the dark forests, the monsters that might be lurking in these beautiful but deadly landscapes and I think

Ylva Grufstedt:

I was just thinking, wouldnt you say, Lysiane, that in that darkness, in that dystopia, there is a sort of a counter message to this image that Nicola mentions? That the darkness gains its value from the way it is not what you would expect from a Nordic country

Lysiane Lasausse: Thats my point of view:

that games are, in a way, trying to counter the image that the Nordics are trying to show that we are healthy and we are great at gender equality and things like that. But the games are there to tone this down, to bring it back down a bit and say: Yes, but this also happens for example gender inequality also happens, or people also drink in the Nordics

Around 2015, the Nordics were extremely popular in videogames, now they are still very popular, there are triple A games, big company thats making game releases in November:

Assassins Creed Valhalla which is all about Vikings and Viking raids. It is still popular, however, its hard to say: Is it more popular than a game set in Japan? Or South America

Nicola Witcombe:

Yeah, it's interesting that you mentioned the Vikings as there seems to be a global, very intense interest in Vikings. I guess there's interest in the Nordics has always been there. But it could also be attributed to other cultural products like the HBO series, for example.

Ylva Grufstedt:

One point that I would like to make is the fact that there are certain tropes that go through all of this media, and in that sense, games are not very special. They are not unique in the themes that are popular, the way they sort of connect to consumers through notions of familiarity. We discussed Nordic Noir as a sort of aesthetic that people recognize and will be able to sort of

Nicola Witcombe:

So we have looked at the past quite a lot. Are you able to mention any issues that are currently occupying the game industry? Or with regards to how it will develop in the future?

Heidi Rautalahti:

Yeah, thinking of the future prospects, specifically in game development, current discourses in cultural appropriation of course kind of creates different and probably more sensitive types of using history and the past and even current cultures. And, indigenous people in games are of course sensitive topic and how they are heavy digits portrayed . Specifically, religion in

Nicola Witcombe:

Is cultural appropriation. and that whole issue potentially worse than in film or other media, because gaming gives somebody agency and they have to make decisions based on those sorts of issues, I wonder.. Ylva, you're nodding?

Ylva Grufstedt:

Well, this is a very, very common topic also among scholars, how do we understand the notion of agency and what does it do specifically when speaking about that heritage, for example, or appropriation? I've thought and studied a lot depictions of the Holocaust, for example, in games and there is no way around the fact that it needs to be done with a lot of caution. And there is one

Lysiane Lasausse:

I was thinking of a couple of examples, when it comes to cultural appropriation, or the power of games when it comes to these issues. For example, during my Masters, I quoted Michael A. Di, who talked about the problem of portraying the things that are being destroyed by tourists, because they come in and think they can climb on the walls and touch everything. That is

Nicola Witcombe:

I think that's all very interesting, but it doesn't square with the fact that aren't these apocalyptic scenarios chosen to enable people to completely step out of their everyday lives and into a fantasy world where anything goes and they can do whatever they want they can't do in the real world. And of course, there's dangers associated with that, but that's the very reason people

Heidi Rautalahti:

Yes, definitely, this is a kind of ongoing negotiation, how popular culture in general portrays different ideologies and do these themes come into our lives and what do we do with these themes? But in a sense, I always like to think about satire. What is satire as a genre? It is made, in a humorous way, to decompose or reopen some kind of societal painful pressure points or

Ylva Grufstedt:

I would just like to add that its also important, I think, in this discussion, to maybe just nuance the notion of entertainment a little bit. Because I think it might be that people assume that it has only to do with fun and frivolity and I think thats not necessarily the case. I think there needs to be a much more nuanced understanding of what, how entertainment is supposed to

Nicola Witcombe:

Super. Okay, thanks. So, on nordics.info, and specifically the University of Oslo, they've looked into, you know, Nordic branding, and the Nordic Council spends quite a lot of money on branding the Nordics in a particular way abroad. How does gaming play into that?

Lysiane Lasausse:

Well, for example, when it comes to Finland, there are a lot of gaming companies here and gaming startups, and thats something that is very much put forward, when it comes to branding the country. Please come here, were the creators of Angry Birds and We have even created a theme park around this game is something that fits very well with technology and the large

Nicola Witcombe:

Great. And that's interesting, isn't it? Because we have we have games about looking backwards, yet we have the the extreme modernity of you know, software and game development and so on and so forth. So it's kind of two very different pictures that sort of somehow combine very well. Thank you very much for those very interesting points. So as we have heard, video games can be analyzed in a similar way to any other cultural product or representation. They can also be useful in shedding light on how we perceive history at a particular point in time. Similarly, historical and contemporary perceptions of Nordicness, can be expressed through different applications of game game You have been listening to nordics.info podcast on Gaming the Nordics. Thanks go to our three researchers Lysiane, Heidi and Ylva and to our research hub, Reimagining Norden and an Evolving World. Thanks also go to our funders, NordForsk. If you'd like to find out more, please visit nordics.info.