It’s in the Visual: Game Designers Perceptions of Culture

Alyea Sandovar (Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara (CA), USA)

Summary of the Project


Game studies scholars have focused on many aspects of culture in digital games [8][10][15] and related areas in game production [2][12]. This study, however, focuses on culture from a game designer’s perspective and on the cultural narrative -including the visual narrative- which game designers communicate through their designs. This study will examine: 1) The ways in which game designers reflect on the concept of culture 2) The choices game designer’s make in designing a game and 3) The ways in which game designers reflect on how culture may inform game design.

Research Questions

The research question is “In what ways do published game designers reflect on the concept of culture and how do these reflections inform design choices in their games?

Three sub-questions are explored:

1) In what ways do professional game designers define and understand culture?

2) In what ways do the design choices of a game reflect a game designer’s cultural values and beliefs?

3) In what ways, do game designers think about the relationship between culture and game design?

Theoretical Framework

This study draws from three bodies of literature: cultural research, game studies, and interactive design practices. The first set of literature relevant to this study draws from cultural research, including visual anthropology [7] [11] [14] and intercultural competence [16]. These texts provide framing on the cultures of games and play [15]; an individual’s internal state and cultural framing [6]; and the cultural processes of imaging and meaning making [4] [7]. A second set of literatures by Game Studies scholars provides a foundation for the exploration of game design and design processes. A final set of texts that situate the study draw from the works of value design practices including Values at Play (VAP) [5].


As the term “culture” is heavily debated in many fields, making it difficult to define [17] [18], inquiring about such a topic requires a multi-faceted approach. This study is closest to ethnographic inquiry and modified by several perspectives. As a qualitative inquiry, it draws on interpretive constructivist perspective to better understand and describe game designers’ views of culture. Also informing this study are postmodern art perspectives that playfully stimulate game designers’ cultural reflection [6].

I draw from various approaches including reflective design practices [6], context mapping studies [3] and visual anthropology [13] [14]. The use of tools, methods, and approaches from a variety of approaches thus supports a better understanding of what culture is, how it is symbolized, how it is narrated, and how it is constructed for participants. In what follows I will describe the data collection and analysis for the pilot study conducted in November of 2014. Two participants from the Game Developers Conference were recruited and interviewed.

Data Collection

Prior to meeting in person, participants were asked to view digital probes to answer three questions about culture and to gather personal images that represent how they view culture [4]. Nine video picture diaries with nine pictures each were developed as cultural probes. Video diaries were developed using two separate applications, vPhoto and GoPix:

-To probe thoughts about the symbolic composition of culture, two videos were made with the question probes “What is culture?” and “Where is culture?”

-To probe thoughts on societal grounding of collective identity, the following video “Who is culture?” was made:

A Google Doc with each of the questions above was created for participants to respond to. The Google Doc serves as a modified self-reflective exercise to address intercultural learning as defined by Vande Berg and Paige [16].

Next, participants were invited to participate in a context mapping exercise about culture [6]; this was followed by a discussion of a game and their game design choices for that game. Participants were instructed to write words about culture and later their game choices on 3×5 cards. Pictures were taken of each card. Participants used the mobile application Fotor to create digital collages using their personal images and card images. Participants were also encouraged to talk out loud as they thought about their arrangement.

As a final part of the interview protocol, participants were asked: “In what ways did the exercises, if at all, help you think about the relationship between your concept of culture and game design?”


Interview data was transcribed and will be analyzed through thematic analysis. All images created and produced were coded using interpretive methods for visual data [1] [3]. After analysis, the goal of the research is to elicit the salient story in each of the types of data, visual and written.

As there are many techniques for analyzing visual elements (content analysis, semiology, interpretative, psychoanalysis, and discourse analysis) it was challenging to analyze the images. After reading each technique, I developed a preliminary protocol for organizing the coding for the images, which served as a road map for analyzing the images in a systematic way. Inspired by Panofsky’s [13] interpretation of images whereby he divided the three areas of focus into primary, secondary and intrinsic levels, this protocol includes elements from different visual anthropology traditions of analysis (i.e., interpretative and semiology) and components that emphasize construction of meaning from visual narrative inquiry. The following details the process for visual image coding:

Individual Images. The following two steps were employed: 1) the use of the protocol as a guide and 2) the coding of my personal reflections about the photographs. First, the protocol was used as a guide to elicit findings from the pictures, as a way of “interrogating” the images to uncover the messages within. Next, I searched for primary patterns in the images and moved toward locating more intrinsic levels and visual patterns of meaning [1]. Following the written descriptions of the images, codes were created from the newly created field text [3].

Collages. Collages were reviewed as a whole, seeking larger themes that appeared in the picture with the image protocol as a guide. The procedure was the same as with the single images–first responding to the protocol questions, then coding my responses, and again searching for emerging narratives.


Interviews and analysis are ongoing. However, narratives show themes of openness to self-reflection about culture. Game designers’ responses suggest that the design elements used to self-reflect about culture were effective in deepening designer’s awareness about culture. Game designer’s also commented that the overall research was an enjoyable experience.


[1] Banks, M. (2001). Visual methods in social research. London: Sage.

[2] Banks, J., & Deuze, M. (2009). Co-creative labour. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(5), 419-431

[3] Butler-Kisber, L. (2010). Qualitative inquiry: Thematic, narrative and arts-informed perspectives. Sage Publications.

[4] Flusser, V. (2013). Towards a philosophy of photography. Reaktion Books.

[5] Flanagan, M., & Nissenbaum, H. (2014). Values at Play in Digital Games. MIT Press.

[6] Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Design: Cultural probes. Interactions, 6(1), 21-29.

[7] Howells, R., & Negreiros, J. (2012). Visual culture. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

[8] Jenson, J., & de Castell, S. (2010). Gender, simulation, and gaming: Research review and redirections. Simulation & Gaming, 41, 51–71

[9] Kearney, A. R., & Kaplan, S. (1997). Toward a methodology for the measurement of knowledge structures of ordinary people the conceptual content cognitive map (3CM). Environment and Behavior, 29(5), 579-617.

[10] Kerr, A. (2006). The business and culture of digital games: Gamework and gameplay. London: Sage Publications.

[11] Lonner, W. J., & Adamapoulos, J. (1997). Culture as antecedent to behavior. In J. W. Berry, Y. H. Poortinga & J. Pandey (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology: Theory and method (Vol. 1, pp. 43-83). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

[12] O’Donnell, C. (2009). The everyday lives of video game developers: Experimentally understanding underlying systems/structures. Transformative Works and Cultures, 2

[13] Panofsky, Erwin (1957). Meaning in the visual arts. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

[14] Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: an introduction to the interpretation of visual methodologies. London: Sage.

[15] Shaw, A. (2010). What is video game culture? Cultural studies and game studies. Games and Culture, 5(4), 403–424.

[16] Vande Berg, M., & Paige, R. M. (2009). Applying theory and research: The evolution of intercultural competence in US study abroad. The SAGE handbook of intercultural competence, 404-418.

[17] Winschiers-theophilus, H. (2009). The Art of Cross-Cultural Design for Usability, in C. Stephanidis (Eds). Universal Access in HCI, Part 1, HCII 2009, LNCS 5614, 665–671.

[18] Young, P. A. (2008). Integrating Culture in the Design of ICTs. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(1)

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

Ethnographic research and qualitative interviews are often used to understand game designers’ experiences. This research contributes to such efforts by incorporating cultural probing exercises and current technology applications to elicit visual data from game designers. Visual data provides alternate narratives of game designers perceptions. This work extends beyond game studies, as it is applicable to the design of other interactive technologies such as websites, mobile applications and wearable technologies.

Methodological Challenges

There are many visual analysis options for the researcher to choose from including content analysis, semiology, interpretative, psychoanalytic frames, and discourse analysis. Analysis is further complicated when data is gathered from several sources and when these sources are 1) digital and include 2) participant’s personal images as well as 3) game play images. How then to design a analysis strategy that yields an answer to research on the visual culture of interactive media?

Also to consider are narrative comparisons in the data. There are at least three potential cultural narratives for each participant: the written narrative, the interview narrative and the visual narrative. How do written and transcribed narratives compare to the narrative in the images? Is each narrative distinct from the others or can these be integrated into a cohesive whole? How, if at all, could the researcher determine this?

Methodological Limitations

This study is further limited in the following ways:

– Game design professionals who are not in charge of the overall vision of the games are excluded

– The researcher and participants will reflect a mostly Western, North American worldview

– The methodology of self-reflection and narrative takes precedence over a systematic assessment or case study of the industry

– Given the small sample size, no generalizations about the industry or game designers as a whole can be made

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