Video games, sociology of mass leisure

Video games are a massive social fact, both in terms of the size of their turnover and that of its practices. This masculinist universe is characterized by a tension between the stranglehold of the merchant industries and the autonomy of its various subcultures.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Video games are the youngest of the cultural industries. They have become, with the massification of their practice during the 2000s, one of the most popular leisure activities in industrialized countries. The success of video games with the general public has been accompanied by a series of controversies and scandals that are still alive. The 1990s were marked by debates on the dangers of representations of violence in video games; the 2000s with denunciations of the addictive nature of online video games. These two public problems are still topical: in the United States, each mass killing reactivates the question of video game violence. From now on, the strongest tensions in the public debate are around misogyny, racism, heteronormativity, and more broadly the closure of this world.


Video games are rarely considered by the social sciences. It is indeed a digital hobby: however, technology, particularly information and communication techniques, embarrass sociologists, and leisure, a central subject of debate in sociology there is still a few decades away ), is now the subject of few surveys. In this essay, I propose, based on a synthesis of work carried out internationally, to shed light on three central and interconnected issues raised by video games. Initial questioning of contemporary gaming audiences highlights the omnipresence of this hobby, but the massification of the practice is accompanied by a significant differentiation, an additional index of persistent inequalities in the use of digital technology. Next, examining the integration dynamics of the video game industry highlights a fundamental tension between the autonomy of fan subcultures and the growing control exercised by cultural industries. Finally, despite the massification of audiences, the dominant image of the player remains young and masculine. Video games are characterized by masculinist social movements defending an exclusivity of the medium. The third part of the article examines these movements and their consequences on female play practices.

A strongly differentiated mass practice

Spacewar! Game developed in 1961 by students at MI.

Video games have a long history. As Mathieu Triclot (2011) recounts in his book on the forms of video game experience, in the 1950s in the computer science departments of US universities, they arose from misuse of the computers used by Researchers. They have since undergone several major changes, linked to the contexts of their design and practice. After this university moment, video games integrate places of male sociability, bars, bowling alleys, etc., then arcades, dedicated to their practice. The medium’s main affiliation, then, is with bar games: they are the heirs of darts, billiards, and pinball. ; their audiences are male, young, and popular – the reverse, except for the gender they were in college.


The most important turning point is the one that occurs in the 1980s and solidified in the 1990s: the domestication of the medium. The birth of personal computing, with the miniaturization of computer components, allows the industry to produce and sell consoles, plugged into the television; and games were among the earliest software available on personal computers. The significant enthusiasm led the industry to its first crisis of overproduction in 1983. The domestication of games significantly changes their audiences. It is strongly rejuvenating, at least about consoles, which are sold with the target of ” families “, that is to say, couples with children. ; it feminizes a little, the home is more favorable to female practice than places of male sociability; and it is bourgeois, again relatively, first affecting the middle and upper classes. The public for computer games is a little older and richer, as shown by the pioneering survey by Pierre Bruno (1993), which is due in particular to the early diffusion of computers among executives. Finally, the 2000s are the time of the massification of the public of video games: the gender gap is narrowing, adults play more and more, and the game penetrates all layers of the population, thanks to the massification of the Internet and the generalization of games on non-dedicated terminals, such as mobile phones.

Atari 2600 Promotional image (1978).

What place do video games occupy in our daily lives?

The measurement of the practice of video games is not easy. The very definition of “ video game ” is controversial: for example, mobile games, like Candy Crush, or games preinstalled on devices, like Windows Minesweeper or Nokia’s Snake, are often denigrated by players, including those who engage in it (“I don’t play”), And even by academic specialists, and the term should for them be reserved for core games, those produced for consoles and computers. Nearly the academic literature is devoted to a few genres of video games that are highly visible in the media, but relatively little played online multiplayer games. These defining struggles tend to idealize an audience of adolescent boys and young adults and to make other, yet engaged audiences invisible: women, children, and middle-aged and older adults. In addition, it appears difficult to formally distinguish these two sets, “real” video games and “general public” digital games Concrete practices tend to circulate between these categories, the players most engaged in core games being also consumers of more peripheral games.

Candy Crush

In the Ludespace survey, a questionnaire study with a sample of 2,542 people, including 500 people aged 11 to 17, who spoke on the telephone in 2012, we used the broadest definition, which considers that all games on media electronic could be considered video games. This definition is now the one used in audience research conducted by industry. The practice of video games thus measured appears massive. About 6 in 10 respondents say they have played a video game in the past twelve months. This proportion varies greatly, in particular, according to age and sex. Among 11-17-year-olds, the games are hegemonic (more than 95%), and the practices more frequent and more diversified than among adults. At all ages, women play a little less and a little less frequently than men. However, even the categories furthest from the game experience rates of practice far from negligible. Thus, nearly a third of the over 60s surveyed played at least once a year, and nearly 15% did so at least once a week. ; and if adult women are less numerous than men of the same age among the players, the practice at least once a year still concerns one in two women (Rufat, Ter Minassian, and Coavoux 2014).

The social differentiation of video game practices is characterized, in addition to the frequency of practice, by the kinds of games played. Among children and young adolescents, life simulation games (The Sims), music and dance (Just Dance), and platform games (Mario) are the most represented; adults prefer card games or number and letter games. It is among adolescents and young adults that games of the cannon core, such as shooting games, are most practiced. Orientation towards types of games is strongly gendered, especially among the youngest in adolescence, cultural practices are a central element in the construction of social identities, in particular gender. The practice of video games is widespread in all social classes, but we note, among adults, that the upper classes have a lower rate of practice than the lower classes (54 % of executives and higher intellectual professions against 62 % of workers), higher computer (as opposed to console) practice, and more frequent genre choices such as strategy games (as opposed to shooting or fighting games), confirming the persistence of distinctions spotted in the 1990s (Bruno 1993). Also, within the same games, we see different ways of playing, indicating gaps in the forms of appropriation of the medium (Coavoux, Berry, and Boutet 2014).

These indicators thus draw a landscape in which video games are a massive practice, present in the daily life of a large part of the population, but in a different way. The ethnographic study of uses takes into account the capacity of games to punctuate daily life, which explains its anchoring in current lifestyles. This research thus highlights the importance of not reducing the phenomenon to an adolescent subculture.

Between autonomous subcultures and the stranglehold of industry

The concept of subculture was coined by the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies to designate the coherent sets of goods and symbols (cultural products, clothing, attitudes, language) that unite small communities in their opposition to the dominant culture. The prefix “sub-” is purely descriptive (a sub-culture is a subset inscribed within other cultures) and non-normative (a sub-culture is not an inferior culture). The textbook cases studied by cultural studies are musical subcultures: rocker, mods (Hebdige 1979), electronic music (Thornton 1995), etc. Following them, fan studies were interested in audiovisual, film, and television (Jenkins 1992). Sub-cultures are characterized by their small size, the high degree of commitment required to participate, the strength of the symbolic boundaries between members and non-members, but also the activity and productivity of members (Fiske 1992).

In his account of the ethnographic study by Gary Alan Fine (1983) groups of players the role of table game Dungeons and Dragons, Daniel Dayan (1986) proposes to speak of ” copyrighted subculture,” a ” subculture owner ”(Fine 2015a) or“ copyrighted subculture “. The young subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s were built from below, by gathering around popular music and leaving a strong autonomy to their participants in the manufacture of symbols. Conversely, merchant subcultures are defined by their commercial manufacture: they are formed around industrial goods over which the public has no formal control – although their mobilizations contribute to this production. The contemporary evolution of mass culture reinforces this phenomenon: commercialization of fan culture, centered around transmedia franchises ( Star Wars, Marvel, Lego, Pokemon, etc.), diversification of the ages of the public (from only adolescents to the whole population), etc.

One of the major challenges of this commodification of fan cultures is the power relationship between cultural industries and their audiences. Fan movements are characterized by their autonomy, their ability to participate in producing the worlds to which they refer (Fiske 1992), for example via fanfiction, ” texts that certain spectators write to extend, complete or amend their novels, films. or even favorite television series. The increasingly important control of the cultural industries on these universes reduces their room for maneuver. Any franchise is now deployed in many media, including games, films, books, but also figurines, costumes, everyday objects, etc., colonizing the space of fans and reducing their room for maneuver. Video games are integrated into these transmedia circuits, for example via their cinematographic adaptations (Blanchet 2010), reducing the fans’ room for maneuver.

Loot box (Overwatch)

Moreover, in the case of video games, the situation is aggravated by the economic turning point in the industry. The dominant economic model until the mid-2000s consisted of a single transaction: the player bought a finished product, a game, which he had at his leisure. The advent of subscription games, with online games, then of the free-to-play model – a free game, but in which there is the possibility of purchasing additional features, either in appearance or allowing more progress quickly – upset this balance (Benghozi and Chantepie 2017). The logic of microtransactions has spread, to the point of posing specific public problems, such as loot boxes, virtual objects purchased with real currency without the buyer knowing precisely what they contain before the transaction, now assimilated to gambling in some countries such as Belgium. Thus, a purchased game is not necessarily fully owned by the player. This translates into constant control of the game publisher: it no longer delivers a finished product, but the software that is constantly evolving, never letting go of its product. The economic logic of subscription or free-to-play also requires constant renewal, to maintain interest in the subscription, and to generate new purchases. These renewals are expected by the players but pose a problem because they tend to call into question the established rules. So, in an online game,

The emergence of esport

The most recent example of this turning point in the world of esports, video game competitions (Taylor 2012). The existence of competitions is old: in the 1980s, record recording systems made it possible to classify players from a distance. Competitive events, tournaments, were first organized by third parties, passionate volunteers, or companies that employed multiplayer games without these having been specifically manufactured for the competition. The success of the Starcraft game in the late 1990s is the best example of this. In South Korea, strong public investment in the Internet network and the video game industry led to the early emergence of video games as an institutionalized sport: from the beginning of the 2000s, the country was characterized by a high rate of convenience, the existence of professional leagues and paid player positions, television broadcasting, broadcasts, competitions, etc., while the phenomenon is much more discreet in other industrialized countries. The 2000s and especially 2010 saw, around the world, publishers regain control of these competitions. The turning point is in particular the release, in 2009, League of Legend, a free-to-play game that attracts a large number of players and spectators alike. Institutionally, esport seeks to imitate the worlds of sport, for example by taking up the format of US sports leagues in which teams must pay an entry ticket to have the right to participate.

Blitzchung (right)
The player who was sanctioned for showing his sympathy to pro Hong Kong protesters at a HearthStone tournament.

But unlike traditional sports, where the evolution of the rules is slow and is done by consensus within the federations, the game publishers have all the power to modify their product, just like the rules of the competition. They have discretion over their world. They can, for example, prohibit a player or a team from competing, without possible recourse. Recently a Hong Kong player from the game HearthStonethus received a severe sanction (ban from participating in competitions and non-payment of prices for recent competitions) for having shown during a game broadcast online his support for the ongoing mobilization on the island. This decision was the subject of indignant reactions, within the gaming community and well beyond, which forced the publisher, Blizzard, to reduce this sanction. But the case is emblematic of hundreds of much less publicized situations, in which the participation of players is endangered, sometimes permanently, with little possible recourse.

Items dependent on an almighty producer also have the characteristic of having limited lifespans. Few video games exceed ten years of existence; and the most popular games can only hope to stay that way for a few months to a few years, with rare exceptions. The contemporary development of esports is based on the new streaming market. On platforms like Twitch.tv, competitive players, or videographers who first have animation talents, like the videographers of YouTube, broadcast their games live, and interact with their audience through chats. There is now an audience of video game spectators. The strong renewal of the offer poses specific problems for these animators, who must constantly adapt to demand by changing the privileged games. The power of publishers over their products, as well as the stiff competition between games, poses a constant threat to them: that of locking themselves in a deadly game or missing the boat when the next very popular game comes out. In a survey conducted in 2017-2018 with Noémie Roques on videographers using this platform.

World League of Legends Championship in Paris

For professional players, the stakes linked to the lifespan of games are even more acute, because their careers are linked to particular titles, and whose competence, but also reputation is only partially transferable from a game. to the other. If the retraining of professional players is a problem in all sports, it is most often linked to the evolution of performance with age, and not to the rapid obsolescence of disciplines as is the case for players sport.

Masculinist demands

Video games are therefore engaged in two movements, the massification of their practice on the one hand, and the growing integration of the industry, leading to the strengthening of its stranglehold on subcultures, on the other. This double movement allows us to better understand the conflicts and tensions that currently cross the world of video games.

A first opposition divides this universe: that which separates the games of the heart of the canon and the games perceived as producing experiences of low intensity. The definition of the legitimate player is linked to it: the ” real ” player would be the one who plays ” real ” games. This definition tends to invisibility and marginalizes women (Lignon 2013) by associating play with masculinity. In recent years, the struggles for definition have intensified due, in particular, to masculinist mobilizations of particularly virulent groups of players.

Zoë Quinn (2015)
Developer and first target of #Gamergate

The most emblematic mobilization is Gamergate. His starting point is a private affair turned scandal. Following a separation, a game developer publishes a blog post defaming his ex-girlfriend, also a freelance video game designer, whom he accuses of having sought favor from the press in the coverage of his games. The movement is structured on social networks around the hashtag #Gamergate. Its defenders highlight the denunciation of collusion between the press and the video game industry. But their actions mainly focus on the place of women in the sector, as designers or as players. A mobilization, not very centralized (Mortensen 2016) but extremely virulent, directly targets women. Gamergate activists organize coordinated harassment campaigns, targeting visible women in the community, including designers and journalists with a strong presence on social networks (Massanari 2016).

Tracer (Overwatch)

The episode exacerbates the male definition of the player that the video game subcultures carry. Most of the Gamergate activists are thus openly anti-feminist and consider their movement justified by what they perceive as a threat. Games, they say, have always been aimed at a male audience, and should stay that way. Recent controversies have thus focused in particular on the representation of video game characters, masculinist mobilizations, in the wake of Gamergate, seeking to defend the hypersexualization of female characters, denounced by feminists, or even to oppose it. introduction of a greater diversity of gender, sexuality, and race in video games, for example by criticizing in 2016 the introduction of a lesbian character in the multiplayer action game Overwatch (the information about the character’s sexuality, revealed in a franchise comic, does not affect the flow of the game). In this episode the publisher of the game, and through it, the entire industry was accused of using the game to promote a progressive political line.

Women and video games

The ‘ masculinity militarized “as Gears of War 5”

The exclusivity of video game subcultures is nothing new, however: Gamergate has helped reveal to the general public, rather than create, the difficulties faced by female gamers. The association of games with masculinity predates video games. As an intellectual activity, games are associated in the collective imagination with alternative masculinities, far from traditional virility and its bodily manifestations, such as sport. The reality is different. In chess competitions, sexual abuse, or the recurrent use of the metaphor of rape to designate victory, is the norm, and the general hostility of the community tends to exclude women from competitive practice from the start. age of school clubs. Video games are no exception to this masculinist tropism. The representations they convey could be described by the concept of “ militarized masculinity ”,a“ shared set of semiotic links woven between the themes of war, conquest, and combat. Beyond that, the practices of gamers, in particular those who claim to have a “ gamer ” identity, are marked by a form of “ geek ” masculinity in which mastery of technology is considered fundamental to the distinction between players. sexes.

This association of male video games has significant consequences for female players. The possibility of finding peer groups in which to share an interest in gambling is less for girls than for boys, so that female players are more often isolated. They must also guard against stigmatized female figures, such as the “ false player ”, playing games outside the heart of the canon, which leads the players to hide these practices. Online, they experience verbal abuse and sexual harassment, especially in competitive games, which again lead to concealment strategies and abandonment of the practice. In general, the lower practice of women, especially adults, is explained at least in part by the violence of the reactions they face and by the weakness of female playful sociability, two phenomena. linked to the association of male video games.


Masculinist mobilizations around video games are often linked to the massification of the practice: the growing presence of audiences far from the traditional definition of the core target of this medium has come to threaten their domination. The inexorable massification of video games, one of the most widespread hobbies today, necessarily leads to the diversification of its audience and the concomitant emergence of conflicts between newcomers and the most established fractions of players. However, another factor should be added to account for the conflicts crossing the world of video games: the growing integration of the industry. While subcultures have formed as spaces of autonomy for people brought together by their passion, the growing control of cultural industries has reduced the room for maneuver of these communities. The current tensions, if they are rooted in a long history of the construction of masculinities centered on the mastery of technology, are exacerbated by this growing control.



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