The Cultural Layer - Game Design and Paper Prototyping - Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Part I: Game Design and Paper Prototyping

Chapter 6. The Cultural Layer

As the final layer in the Layered Tetrad, the cultural layer is the furthest from the designer’s hand, yet it is still critical to a holistic understanding of game design and the implications of game development.

This chapter explores the cultural layer, the space where player communities and society take control of the game and make it their own.

Beyond Play

The inscribed and dynamic layers are obvious to all game designers, as they are both integral to the concept of interactive experiences. The cultural layer, however, is a little less obvious. The cultural layer exists at the intersection of the game and society. The players of a game become a community united by their shared experience of play, and that community takes the concepts and intellectual property of the game out into the world. The cultural layer of the game is seen from one side by the community of players who have intimate knowledge of the game and from the other by the members of society in general who have no prior knowledge of the game and first encounter it not through play but through the artifacts created by this community of players (see Figure 6.1).


Figure 6.1 The cultural layer, created by the community of game players and witnessed by society

As Constance Steinkuehler points out in her paper “The Mangle of Play,”1 the dynamic play of a game—particularly a massively multiplayer game—is an “interactively stabilized mangle of practice.” In saying so, she points out that, as discussed in the preceding chapter, the dynamic layer of a game is composed not only of the intents of the game developers but also of the intents of the players, and the overall responsibility for and control over the experience is shared between players and developers. Extending this concept, it is in the cultural layer that the players (and society in general) have more control and agency than the original developers. The cultural layer is where player communities actually change the inscribed game though game mods (that is, modifications to the game through software that changes the inscribed game elements), it is where player communities seize ownership of the game narrative by writing their own fan fiction, and it is where players create their own game-related aesthetics through fan art and music.

1 Constance Steinkuehler. “The Mangle of Play.” Games and Culture 1, no. 3 (2006): 199-213.

Unlike the inscribed layer, where the four elements (mechanics, aesthetics, narrative, and technology) are distinctly assigned to different members of the development team, there is much more overlap and fuzziness of borders between elements when they are examined through the lens of the cultural layer. Fan-made game mods, which feature prominently in the cultural layer, are often combinations of all four elements with the responsibility for each element within the mod often shared by the players and communities who make them.2

2 I definitely do not mean to disparage the developers of game mods by continuing to refer to them throughout this chapter as players. By doing so, I am only attempting to be clear so that there is no confusion between the developers (i.e., developers of the inscribed content) and players (i.e., those who played the game and who may develop game mods). Many fantastic game designers and developers have started by making game mods, and doing so is a fantastic way to practice the craft.

In the sections that follow, the four elemental divisions are maintained to provide consistency with the preceding chapters and to encourage you to look at the examples listed through the lens of that particular element. However, many of the examples listed under one cultural element could also have been listed under another.

Cultural Mechanics

Cultural mechanics occur when players take the mechanics of the game into their own hands, sometimes even crafting a new experience out of the game. The most common examples of this include the following:

Image Game mods: Players repurpose the game to accommodate their own mechanics. This is most extensive in games for Windows-based personal computers. Players modded Quake 2 by Id to make dozens if not hundreds of new games that all used the technology of Quake 2 but replaced the mechanics with gameplay and levels of their own (often also replacing the aesthetics and dramatics).

Several fantastic game mods have become commercial products in their own right. Counter Strike started as a mod for Half-Life and was subsequently purchased by Valve, the Half-Life developers.3 Similarly, Defense of the Ancients (DotA) started as a fan mod for Blizzard’s gameWarcraft III and eventually popularized the entire genre of multi-user online battle arenas (MOBAs).4

3 and

4 According to and, DotA was originally a Warcraft III remake of a mod for Starcraft known as Aeon of Strife. Both Warcraft III and Starcraft were created by Blizzard.

In addition, many companies have released editors for their games that encourage and allow players to create custom content for the game. For example, Bethesda Softworks has released Creation Kit for their game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Creation Kit allows players to create their own levels, quests, NPCs (nonplayer characters), etc. Bethesda has done this before for other games, including Fallout 3 and earlier games in the Elder Scrolls series.

Image Custom game levels: Even without changing the other mechanics, some games accommodate player-made levels. In fact, some games rely on players to make levels for the game. Little Big Planet by Media Molecule and Sound Shapes by Queasy Games both include simple level-editor tools and expect some of their players to create levels for the game. Both games also include systems for players to distribute the levels they create and to rate levels created by other players. The game editors and mod creation kits like those released for Skyrim and Fallout 3 also include level editors, and the level editing community for Epic’s first-person shooter Unreal is one of the broadest and most mature in modern gaming.

The major aspect that differentiates cultural mechanics like game mods from house rules (a dynamic mechanic) is whether the inscribed mechanics of the game are actually changed. If the inscribed mechanics remain the same but players choose to apply their own goals to the game (e.g., players choosing to do a “speed run” and finish the game as quickly as possible or attempting to play through a usually violent game like Skyrim without directly killing any enemies), that behavior still fits within the realm of dynamic mechanics. It is when players take control from the designers by modifying the inscribed elements of the game that the behavior moves into the cultural layer.

Cultural Aesthetics

Cultural aesthetics occur when the community of players creates their own aesthetics that relate to the game. This is often in the form of their own versions of the character art, music, or other aesthetics of the game, but it also can take the form of the community using the game engine to achieve their own aesthetic purposes:

Image Fan art: Many artists take games and game characters as inspiration for their work and create new art that depicts those characters.

Image Cosplay: Similar to fan art, cosplay (a portmanteau of costume and play) is the practice of a fan of a game (or comic, anime, manga, or film) dressing up as one of the characters from the game. In cosplay, the cosplayer takes on the role and personality of the game character in the real world, just as she did in the virtual world of the game. Cosplay is most commonly seen at game, anime, and comic fan conventions.

Image Gameplay as art: As was mentioned in an earlier chapter, in Keith Burgun’s book Game Design Theory, he proposes that some game developers should be seen in much the same way as those who make musical instruments: artisans who craft tools that performers can use to make art. According to him, there is an art not only to crafting games but also to gameplay itself, and the elegance with which some highly skilled players can play a game should be regarded as an aesthetic in and of itself.

Cultural Narrative

Sometimes, the community of players of a game will use the game or the world of the game to tell their own stories and create their own narratives. With pen and paper roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, this is a necessary part of the dynamics of play. However, there are also examples of players doing this far outside of the standard or expected dynamics of gameplay:

Image Fan fiction: Just as with film, television, or any other form of narrative media, some fans of games will write their own stories about the game’s characters or world.

Image Narrative game mods: Some games like Skyrim and Neverwinter Nights allow the players to use authorized tools to create their own interactive narratives within the game world. This allows players to tell their own stories with the game’s characters, and because they are built with tools similar to those used by the game developers, these stories can have the same depth and branching as the narratives originally inscribed in the game.

One particularly inspiring narrative game mod was just a simple change made by Mike Hoye, a father and fan of The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker. Hoye had been playing the game with his daughter, Maya, and she absolutely loved it, but he was bothered by the game constantly referring to Link (as played by Maya) as a boy. Mike hacked the game to create a version that referred to Link as a girl. In Hoye’s words, “As you might imagine, I’m not having my daughter growing up thinking girls don’t get to be the hero and rescue their little brothers.” This small change by a player of the game allowed his daughter to feel empowered as the hero of the story in a way she couldn’t have playing the original, gender-biased game.5

5 You can read Mike Hoye’s original blog post about this and download the custom patch that he made at

Image Machinima: Another interesting example of narrative in the cultural layer is machinima, which are linear videos made by taking screenshots of a game. One of the most famous of these is the Red vs. Blue (RvB), a comedy series by Rooster Teeth Productions that takes place entirely within the world of Bungie’s first-person shooter, Halo. In its original incarnation, the videos were all asymmetrically letterboxed with a thin bar at the top and a thick black bar at the bottom. The bottom bar was there to cover the gun that would have been in the scene because the creators of Red vs. Blue originally used footage exactly as seen by players in the game. In those early videos, you can still see the aiming reticle of the gun.

Red vs. Blue began in April 2003 and has become much more successful and polished over the years, eventually even receiving direct support from the Bungie team. A bug in the original version of Halo caused a character’s head to pop back up to looking straight forward when the character’s gun was aimed all the way down. This was used by Rooster Teeth to make it look like the characters were nodding their heads while talking (without their guns pointing at each other). In Halo 2, Bungie fixed this bug but enabled a non-aiming posture for characters to make machinima like RvB easier to make.

Other game engines have also embraced machinima. Quake by Id was one of the earliest heavily used machinima engines. Uncharted 2: Drake’s Deception by Naughty Dog had a multiplayer online Machinima Mode that encouraged players to make machinima with the game engine and enabled several changes to camera angles, animation, and more.

Cultural Technology

As mentioned in the note earlier in this chapter, there is a lot of fuzziness between the four elements in the cultural layer, and therefore, most of the examples of cultural technology have already been listed under the other three elements (e.g., game mods, which are listed under cultural mechanics but also require technology for their implementation). As with the other three elements, the core of cultural technology is twofold; it covers both the effect that the game’s technology has on the lives of players once they have stopped playing and the technology that player communities develop to alter the inscribed technology in the game or the dynamic game experience:

Image Game technology beyond games: Over the past couple of decades, game technology has expanded by leaps and bounds. The increasing resolution of displays (e.g., the transition of television from 480i to 1080p and 4K) and the appetite of players for progressively better-looking games have driven developers to constantly improve their techniques for rendering high-quality graphics quickly. These real-time techniques, developed for games, have found their way into everything from medical imaging to previsualization of films (the practice of using game-like animations and real-time graphics to carefully plan complicated shots).

Image Player-made external tools: External tools, created by players, that can change a player’s game experience but don’t count as game mods because they don’t alter any of the inscribed mechanics of the game are part of the technical layer. Examples include the following:

Image Map applications for Minecraft enable players to see a large-area map of their game, giving them the ability to search for specific geographic features or minerals.

Image Damage per second (DPS) calculators for massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), like World of Warcraft, that can help players determine the best ways to level their characters and the best equipment to obtain to do the most average damage per second in combat.

Image Any of several tools for the MMOG Eve Online that are available on iOS. These include tools to manage skill training, assets, in-game mail, and so on.6

6 In Eve Online, skills are trained in real time regardless of whether the player is currently logged in; so, having an alarm to tell the player that a skill is done and she can now select a new one to train is very useful (information from and

Image Fan-made game guides like those available at These guides help players understand the game better and can improve a player’s ability to play a game well, but they don’t actually modify the inscribed game.

Authorized Transmedia Are Not in the Cultural Layer

The word transmedia refers to narrative or intellectual property that exists across more than one medium. An excellent example of this is Pokemon, which has been extremely successful as a television show, a card game, a series of handheld games for portable Nintendo consoles, and a manga series since its creation in 1996. There are many other examples of this, including the video games made to accompany the release of nearly every new Disney film and the movies that have been made from famous games like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider.

Transmedia can be an important part of the brand of a game and can be a strategy to increase market penetration and duration of that brand. However, it’s important to draw a distinction between authorized transmedia (like the Pokemon example) and unauthorized fan-made transmedia. The latter belongs in the cultural layer, but the former does not (see Figure 6.2).


Figure 6.2 The location of transmedia relative to the Layered Tetrad

The inscribed, dynamic, and cultural layers of the Layered Tetrad are separated based on the progression from the elements inscribed by the game’s creators through the dynamic play of the game by players and out to the cultural impact that playing the game has on the players and society. In contrast, authorized transmedia are the re-inscribing of the game’s brand into something else by the owners of that brand and intellectual property (the ID owners). This places authorized transmedia firmly on the inscribed layer; each individual transmedia property is another product on the inscribed layer that has the possibility of its own dynamic and cultural layers. The important distinction is one of who has control. In both the inscribed layer of a game and an authorized transmedia companion product to a game, the control is held by the company that develops the game. When the game moves into the dynamic layer, the control is shared between technologies and mechanics put in place by the developers and the actual actions, procedures, strategies, and such executed by the players. In the cultural layer, the control has shifted completely from the developers of the game to the community of players of the game. For this reason, fan fiction, cosplay, game mods, and fan-made transmedia all belong in the cultural layer, but authorized transmedia products do not.

To learn more about transmedia, I recommend reading Professor Henry Jenkins’ books and papers on the topic.

The Cultural Impact of a Game

So far, we’ve looked at the cultural layer as the way in which players take ownership of a game and move it out into society at large. Another very different way of looking at this is to consider the impact that gameplay has on players. Disappointingly, the game industry over the past several decades has been quick to acknowledge and promote psychological studies that found evidence of the positive effects of game playing (e.g., improved multitasking skills, improved situational awareness), while simultaneously denying studies that found evidence of the negative impact of gaming (e.g., addiction to games and the negative effects of violence in video games).7 In the case of violent video games in particular, it’s probable that this was largely defensive. Nearly every company that belongs to the Entertainment Software Association (the lobbying group for video game companies) has made games where the core mechanic is some type of violence, and it seems that “violent video games” are often one of the first culprits that journalists tend to blame when unstable people commit horrible acts.8 However, in 2011, the landscape for this discussion changed in a critical way when the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor of California, et al., Petitioners v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al., 564 U.S. (2011), that games are art and are therefore protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Up to this point, members of the ESA and other game developers had good reason to fear government action to ban violent games. Now, just like most other forms of media, games are protected as art, and developers can make games about whatever they want without fear of government bans.

7 Even a cursory perusal of the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA’s) archive of noteworthy news (at reveals a plethora of articles about the positive benefits of gameplay and almost none about the potential negative effects.

8 Dave Moore and Bill Manville. “What role might video game addiction have played in the Columbine shootings?” New York Daily News, April 23, 2009 and Kevin Simpson and Jason Blevins. “Did Harris preview massacre on DOOM?Denver Post, May 4, 1999.

Of course, with this liberty also comes a responsibility to acknowledge the effects that the games we make have upon society, and this isn’t limited exclusively to the violence in games. In the 2011 class-action suit Meguerian v. Apple Inc.,9 Apple paid more than $100 million in settlements because games developed by third-party companies and approved by Apple had been designed with mechanics that encouraged children to pay hundreds of dollars for in-app purchases as part of gameplay. Though Apple settled the suit and thereby avoided a judgment, the complaint was that the games had been designed to prey on children’s underdeveloped understanding of real money, and some children had charged over $1,000 in less than a month without their parents’ knowledge or approval. It has also been shown that the peak time that people play casual social network games (e.g., Facebook games) is during work hours, and many of these games are designed with “energy” and “spoilage” mechanics that encourage players to return to the game every fifteen minutes, which certainly has a negative effect on workplace productivity.

9 Meguerian v. Apple Inc., case number 5:11-cv-01758, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.


The inscribed and dynamic layers of the Layered Tetrad have been discussed in several books prior to this one, but the cultural layer has received far less attention. In fact, even in my personal practice as a game designer and game design professor, though I think very concretely about the inscribed and dynamic layers on a daily basis, I spend much less time than I should considering the cultural impact of my work and the changes that players might make to my games.

It is largely beyond the scope of this book to cover game design ethics in meaningful detail, but it is important that designers think about the consequences of the games they create, particularly because after a player has finished playing a game and set it aside, the cultural layer is all that remains.