Impact story: Advancing game cultural literacy and agency in society

Photo from the 'Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt' exhibition at V&A in London, January 2019. Photo by Usva Friman.

One of the CoE GameCult’s main impact goals is to advance game cultural literacy and game cultural agency and to increase societal understanding of play and players. In this area of impact, the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies is aiming to:

  1. Advance the general understanding of games, players, and play on a societal level;
  2. Challenge and broaden the understanding of how and why games matter to people, including challenging the stereotypical ‘gamer identity’;
  3. Make visible how games and play expand and integrate into other areas of life; and
  4. Build more sustainable gaming cultures.

In this blog post, we will present some of the initiatives, activities, and research publications produced in this impact area so far.

Initiating and participating in public discussion on players and play cultures

To encourage public discussion on games and play, in 2020, CoE GameCult created a new event series titled GameCult Talks: Discussing games in culture and society. GameCult Talks is an event series aiming to create and strengthen dialogue between researchers and other societal actors on current game cultural topics in our culture and society. The events bring together game culture researchers, industry experts, cultural institutions, community representatives, activists, and policy makers to develop and highlight new initiatives into building sustainable game culture for our future.

The first GameCult Talks event titled Equity in games and play was organised on the national gaming week, on Friday 13 November 2020. The event included talks from CoE GameCult researchers as well as industry experts, and the end discussion was participated by representatives from ten different organisations, including the game industry, hobbyist organisations, and youth workers. The event received a great amount of positive attention: the public recording of the presentations, stored on the CoE GameCult YouTube channel, has received over 440 views, and the Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo tweeted about the event and its topics. More than a thousand people engaged with the minister’s tweet, which helped to raise awareness of the issues related to inequity in gaming as well as to the CoE’s work in the area. Between November 2020 and November 2021, the CoE has organised four GameCult Talks events: Equity in games and play, Sustainability in games, Collaborative game histories, and Competitive gaming, youth, and youth work.

CoE GameCult researchers have been creating and participating in public discussion on players and play cultures in the (social) media and in public events, aiming to increase the public understanding of the role of games and play in people’s lives, as well as to raise awareness of current problems in game cultures and to promote equity, inclusiveness, and accessibility in gaming.

CoE Researcher Lobna Hassan’s interview on game accessibility. Screenshot from article ’Saavutettavuudella peleistä kaikkien viihdettä’ by Miikka Lehtonen, Pelaaja magazine, April 2021.

Researcher Lobna Hassan has actively advocated for increasing accessibility in gaming and better taking into account players with different types of disabilities. She gave a publicly recorded talk on visually accessible gaming in the first GameCult Talks event Equity in games and play. She was interviewed for the Finnish Pelaaja magazine on the topic of game accessibility in April 2021. She has discussed the accessibility of educational games during Empower Week, organised by the  European Association of Distance Teaching Universities. Hassan has also actively communicated about her game accessibility research on her public research blog. Researcher Henry Korkeila has also written in the Finnish Autismi magazine about players on the autism spectrum in December 2020.

Researchers Usva Friman and Maria Ruotsalainen have been participating in the public discussions on equity and inclusiveness in gaming, particularly from the perspective of women gamers (e.g., Tivi 4.7.2020; Mikrobitti 7.7.2020; Turun Sanomat 30.8.2020).  Mediakasvatusseura interviewed Friman on her doctoral dissertation study on Finnish women gamers 12.11.2020. Ruotsalainen and Friman have also given public talks on women in esports and competitive gaming in the CoE’s GameCult Talks events (Ruotsalainen 13.11.2020; Friman 10.11.2021). Friman gave a lecture on equity in esports, aimed at Finnish ninth graders and secondary grade students as a part of the Tiedon valoa 2022 event organised by Tampere University 28.1.2022.

Researcher Mikko Meriläinen has participated in discussions on young people’s gaming and its significance and effects in their lives. Meriläinen has also participated in the public discourse on the national gaming age limits in esports and youth work in media (Ilta-Sanomat 31.3.2021) and through a blog post. Researcher Joleen Blom started a podcast series called Mediated Intimacies, where she talks with invited experts about the different shapes and forms in which we engage with affection and intimacy through media platforms and technology.

Usva Friman and Mikko Meriläinen participated in Yle Kulttuuriykkönen radio discussion on trolling, misogyny and bullying in gaming 17.11.2020. Mikko Meriläinen gave a public, live-streamed talk at the Non-toxic – syrjimätön pelikulttuuri event organised by the Non-toxic project at the city of Helsinki 26.22.2020. In 2021, Meriläinen and Friman also recorded short, openly published video talks for the Non-toxic project on game education, problematic gaming, and women players in esports and game culture.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, CoE GameCult researchers have been active in increasing the public understanding of the role of games and play in our lives in these special circumstances. Researcher Tero Kerttula was interviewed on the topic of play in COVID times for Helsingin Sanomat 22.5.2020 and Ylen Aamu television broadcast 8.12.2020. Raine Koskimaa and Jonne Arjoranta have given interviews on how playing Among Us became a favourite pandemic pastime activity (e.g. Keski-Suomalainen 6.2.2021). Mikko Meriläinen was interviewed about the role of gaming in both young people’s (Yle 4.4.2021) and adults’ (Aamulehti 8.12.2021) everyday lives during the Covid-19 pandemic . Researcher Lobna Hassan discussed the impact of the pandemic on the game industry and players as part of an online visiting lecture at the Germany University in Cairo, Egypt.

Through actively communicating in media about The Finnish Player Barometer (Pelaajabarometri) studies, CoE GameCult has aimed to increase general understanding of playing activities and habits of Finns (e.g. regarding the use of time on games, and highlighting the rising popularity of mobile gaming, e.g. IteWiki 16.11.2020). One important aim of these communications has been to expand the image of a player from the stereotype of a young man to cover many different types of people, including players of different ages (e.g. Karjalainen 1.12.2020). Regarding the latest Player Barometer study published in 2020, this discussion has also helped to understand how gaming has changed during the Covid-19 pandemic (e.g. 9.11.2020; Yle 9.1.2021). The latest Player Barometer results and their implications were also presented in a special event to the Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention (EHYT) 9.4.2021 to be used in their game education work.

Working as experts and advisors in NGO projects

Due to the expertise developed in this area, CoE researchers have been invited to participate as scientific advisors in steering groups for NGO projects. In 2021, Usva Friman was a scientific advisor and steering group member for the project ‘Gender in Play – Representations of Gender in Games’ conducted by We in Games Finland and the National Council of Women of Finland, funded by the Ministry of Justice. In this role, Friman also participated in a panel discussion on games, gender, and gender-based violence as a part of the Digital world and violence (Digitaalinen maailma ja väkivalta) event organised by the Ministry of Justice and the National Council of Women of Finland 25.11.2021. Mikko Meriläinen has been a steering group member as a scientific advisor for the city of Helsinki’s ‘Non-toxic – Syrjimätön pelikulttuuri’ youth work project from 2017 onwards, and from 2020, a steering group member for the Peluuri Restart programme for individuals suffering from problematic gaming. He is also a permanent consulting specialist in the Ministry of Education and Culture’s working group currently revising the Act on Audiovisual Programmes. In 2021, Ville Kankainen became a game design consultant for a mental health activist group Koala on an ongoing serious board game project, aiming to demonstrate issues encountered by people with mental health problems.

CoE researcher Usva Friman (third from the right) participated in a panel discussion on games, gender, and gender-based violence in ‘Digitaalinen maailma ja väkivalta’ (Digital world and violence) event organised by the Ministry of Justice and the National Council of Women of Finland on 25 November 2021. Photo by he National Council of Women of Finland.

Creating new educational approaches promoting game cultural literacy and agency

To promote game cultural literacy and agency, CoE researchers have created new educational approaches, including new university courses, contents, and pedagogical approaches. Additionally, CoE researchers have given public talks about game cultural literacy and gaming Bildung.

Usva Friman designed and taught a new course ‘Gender and game culture’ (5 ECTS) for the advanced studies in Digital Culture at the University of Turku in Autumn 2018. The course was based on Friman’s doctoral dissertation study and examined the relationship between gender, gamer identity, game cultural participation, and game cultural capital, as well as the research history of gender and games, especially from the perspective of women players. During the course, the students were encouraged to discuss and reflect on their personal encounters with gender-based discrimination and harassment in gaming environment and the structures of exclusion within game culture.

Based on her research on game accessibility, Lobna Hassan has created an advanced and post-graduate online study module ‘Accessibility in games & gamification’ (2 ECTS) and included accessibility as a part of the course ‘Players and Users Studies’ at Tampere University, where students conducted accessibility analysis of their favorite games as part of course work, and wrote their course papers on topics on accessibility and equality as well as on player experience at large.

Elisa Wiik has been teaching an intermediate level course ‘PlayLab! Game Journalism Project’ at Tampere University. During the course, the students write game reviews (of both digital and analog, old and new games), free-form texts about game cultures, and news about current game research, published in the course blog. The students are encouraged to critique games for displaying discrimination such as sexism or racism. Several students have also reflected on their own personal experiences on these topics.

On the ‘PlayLab! Game Journalism Project’ course at Tampere University, students learn to write about game cultures and game research. Screenshot from the course blog.

Based on their ongoing research, the University of Jyväskylä team has designed and taught a course ‘Esports Cultures’ (5 ECTS) from the spring 2021 onwards. The course examines the current day esports and its history, the various ways people and institutions partake in esports, and esports’ place in society. Through the course, students can enhance their esports and game cultural literacy.

Since 2019, Jaakko Suominen and Maria B. Garda have been teaching an advanced course on ‘Game History Research Methods’ (5 ECTS) at the University Turku. The course includes a module dedicated to observation and documentation of contemporary play practises. Using ethnographic methods, students have been critically exploring play environments popular with their own generation (e.g. physical playgrounds or streaming channels) but also engaging with disappearing game cultures, such as bingo halls, nowadays frequented mostly by senior citizens. As a result, students could not only improve their game literacy but also better understand historical changes related to agency and play.

All CoE researchers participate in teaching and aim to incorporate course contents and pedagogical approaches that encourage students to reflect on their position within and in relation to game cultures, and to construct their game cultural agency in a positive manner, while simultaneously acknowledging the various structures aiming to exclude certain players.

CoE GameCult researchers are also actively giving visiting lectures on courses in other subjects, aiming to increase game cultural literacy in fields outside game studies. For example, Tanja Välisalo and Jukka Varsaluoma have given a visiting lecture on games and gamification in museums (‘Pelit ja pelillisyys museon yleisötyössä’) on an intermediate level course in Museology at the University of Jyväskylä in 2019 and 2020. Mikko Meriläinen has given an invited lecture on building sustainable gaming cultures to students and industry professionals as a part of Aalto University’s Games Now! lecture series 15.2.2021 and on studying young people’s gaming for the FinED network (The Finnish Multidisciplinary Doctoral Training Network on Educational Sciences) FERA 2020 pre-seminar 14.12.2020.

Lu Chien has instructed students to perform statistical analysis using a dataset of Steam player profiles in the Tampere University Summer school course Introduction to R (LUOYY027) in 2019 and 2020. Commonly, statistical software courses have focused on data related to e.g. medical research and demographics, while game studies has not been a usual choice for demonstrating statistical analysis. By performing analysis using such a dataset, the students will also learn about game studies as a research field. The students attending the course were also from different nations and continents across the globe, which made it a great environment for increasing game cultural literacy in a cross-cultural setting.

CoE GameCult researchers have also engaged with young audiences to increase gaming Bildung and game literacy. For example, Marko Siitonen was interviewed for Helsingin Sanomat 26.3.2021, responding to questions on violence and games in a section that targets young children. Mikko Meriläinen has given a live-streamed talk on gaming Bildung’s part of the Tampere Smart City Week youth day 22.1.2021. Meriläinen has also done a game-related AMA (‘ask me anything’) session on Sekasin Gaming Discord 30.3., and a video interview and gaming session with popular gaming Youtube channel Pavlovin Rotat, discussing gaming behaviour, wellbeing, and other topics important to young gamers. The video was published 5.2.2021 and it has reached over 27,000 views on YouTube.


CoE GameCult has successfully continued collecting reliable, representative data about how and what Finnish people play (Kinnunen et al. 2018; Kinnunen et al 2020) as well as actively disseminating the results of these studies to a variety of audiences to increase the general understanding of the role of play and games in the everyday lives of Finnish people.

Close collaboration with people and organisations working outside academia but engaging with games and gaming (youth workers, parents, esports people, youtubers, NGO workers) has allowed results and academic knowledge to be disseminated effectively directly to the players as well as professionals working with them, for a direct impact.

Discussions in social media have increased understanding and revealed more aspects of players and playing. These discussions have broadened the perception of player identities and characteristics of games in the eyes of the public.

The next steps in advancing the CoE’s goals in this area include promoting accessibility in future games and related applications by synthesising research-based guidelines to practitioners, expanding the notion of players by publishing research and initiating research-based public discussion on marginalised player groups and also on former and non-active players. One central aim is to reach a variety of audiences and advance ludic literacy, for example by creating events in the upcoming Paidia – Arena of Science space in Tampere, and by creating Youtube-videos targeted at general audiences, where accessibility and inclusivity concepts and research are presented and discussed in a clear and non-technical manner.

During the reporting period, the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly affected societies across the globe. In Finland, many societal activities from work to education have had to cope with sudden changes, resulting in increased use of information and communication technologies in their everyday operations. The special circumstances have also led to an increased interest towards playing games, as shown by The Finnish Player Barometer (Kinnunen et al. 2020). CoE GameCult researchers have participated in public discussions related to the role of play and games in a time of a pandemic, for example by giving interviews and writing blog posts, and also initiated new research projects on the matter. CoE GameCult also provided information on the Covid-19 pandemic related research data gathering within the CoE for the Finnish National Agency for Education (Opetushallitus) in May 2020.

Research background

  1. Apperley, T. & Gray, K. L. (2020) Digital divides and structural inequalities: Exploring the technomasculine culture of gaming. In R. Kowert & T. Quandt (Eds.) The Video Game Debate 2: Revisiting the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Videogames (pp. 41–52). Routledge.
  2. Arjoranta, J., Kontturi, K., Varis, E., & Välisalo, T. (2020) Nörttikulttuurin identiteettikriisi: Gamergate, comicsgate ja Star Wars poliittisten kiistojen näyttämöinä. Lähikuva, 33(3–4), 92–111.
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  4. Friman, U. & Ruotsalainen, M. (2022) Gender and toxic meritocracy in competitive Overwatch: Case “Ellie”. In M. Ruotsalainen, M. Törhönen, & V. Karhulahti (Eds.) Overwatch: Modes of Engagement. Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Friman, U. (forthcoming, 2022) Understanding game cultural agency in the post-gamer era: Gender, game cultural participation, and gamer identity in Finnish women’s gaming. Doctoral dissertation. University of Turku.
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  33. Stenros, J. (2019) Guided by transgressions: Defying norms as an integral part of play. In K. Jørgensen & F. Karlsen (Eds.) Transgression in Games and Play. The MIT Press.
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