Towards a Game Scene? Narrative, Gaming Audiences & Scene

Garry Crawford & Victoria K. Gosling


This paper offers a consideration of the location of gaming within patterns of everyday life. Building upon earlier work (such as Crawford 2006, and Crawford and Rutter 2007) we continue the argument for considering gamers as a media ‘audience’, as this allows useful parallels to be drawn with literatures on (other) media audiences. Specifically here, this paper argues that the concept of ‘scene’, borrowed most notably from music fan studies, provides a useful mechanism for understanding digital gaming culture. In particular, we suggest that the concept of scene is useful as this highlights how ‘elective belongings’ are located within our identities and ordinary lives, but can take on extraordinary meaning in certain (physical) spaces.

Though this paper is largely theoretical in its arguments, and endeavors to provide a basis for further and more detailed empirical work, the paper does draw on some illustrative examples in the last section to support our arguments. This data is gathered from ongoing ethnographic research into the everyday lives of digital gamers. To date, this research includes interviews with 82 gamers (66 male, 16 female) in the UK, media use diaries, and observations of gamers at play in their own homes, at several LAN events and in games arcades.

Audiences and Narratology

Crawford and Rutter (2007) argue that rather than being understood as an ‘audience’ much of the literature on gaming continues to situate gamers as individual players.
In particular, the case has often been made that gamers are simply not an ‘audience’. Eskelinen and Tronstad (2003) suggest that like many other games, such as soccer, having an audience present is not a requirement of play. However, Eskelinen and Tronstad present a very limited understanding of what an audience is; assuming that any one individual cannot occupy the positions of participant and audience at the same time, and what they do not recognize, is that through their gaming performances, gamers create spectacles, to which they are also a viewer of, and audience to (Rehak 2003).

Gamers can also be understood as an audience in a much more traditional sense. As Newman (2004: 95) writes: ‘it is essential to note that videogame experiences are frequently shared by groups, perhaps crowded around a television set in a domestic setting, or as Saxe (1994) has observed, around coin-op machines in arcades’. And recent research is increasingly highlighting the limitations of a focus merely on the individual gamer and game (Crawford and Rutter 2007).

However, there continues to be a reluctance by many (though notably not all) writers on games studies to align discussions of digital gamers with those of other media users. The basis of this rejection of the idea of gamers as a media audience needs to be understood as a wider rejection of the idea that games and gamers can be understood using theoretical and methodological tools borrowed from literary and/or film studies, such as narrative analysis.

In particular, in recent years there has been mounting and enthusiastic (and not wholly unconvincing) argument against the use of literary and film theory, and in particular narrative, in understanding digital games. For instance, several authors point out that not all games tell stories, and even those that do, tend to have very limited narratives or do this in different ways to other media forms (for instance, see Juul 2001).
This leads onto a further key criticism of a narratological approach; that unlike traditional narrative-based media forms (such as literature, television or cinema), which are ‘representational’, digital gamer are ‘interactive’ and ‘simulation’ based.

There is little doubt that the activity of playing a digital game is quantifiably different to watching a film or reading a book, and that it is an oversimplification of media forms to suggest that these can be studied in the same ways. However, while we do not wish to advocate the wholesale application of ‘second-hand’ theories borrowed from other disciplines, we would similarly warn against, not adopting (and if necessary adapting) still applicable ideas and tools and also making connections with other disciplines and areas of study.

Players and Ludology

One (other) fundamental difficulty with many narratological approaches to digital gaming is that too often these focus upon the ‘textual’ nature of games, at the expense of considering the gamers themselves or the social and cultural context of the game. This limitation is countered, to some degree, by a ‘ludology’ or ‘ludic’ approach to games studies, which focuses on play, and recognizes the active role of the game player.

However, ludological approaches to games studies, drawing on the work of both Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, have often sought (sometimes misrepresenting this work) to distinguish and separate play from ‘ordinary’ life (Eskelinen and Tronstad 2003). For instance, Kerr et al. (2004: 13) argues that a key feature of gaming pleasure is derived from ‘…that it [gaming] is separate from everyday life’ (cited in Crawford 2006: 500).
However, as Eskelinen and Tronstad (2003) rightly recognize, games can never be totally isolated from ordinary life, as gameplay will always be located within, and may have ‘intended or unintended consequences’, which impact upon our social lives, and in turn, it is our everyday lives that shape our gameplay (see Crawford and Gosling 2005). However, there have been few attempts to theorize the location and importance of gaming within everyday practices.

Scene & Everyday Life

Though several authors have often drawn on the vocabulary of audience and fan research, very few have sought to apply this at anything but a fairly superficial level.

One attempt to apply the literature of audience research to gaming is offered by Crawford and Rutter (2007) in their consideration of the social location of gaming ‘performances’. In particular, Crawford and Rutter (2007) seek to expand the consideration of gaming performativity beyond those that take place ‘in-game’, and consider how gamers will similarly ‘perform’ to others they play with (either online or in-person), such as ‘trash talking’ opponents in online first person shooters like Counter-Strike (see Wright et al. 2002). Furthermore, they consider how these performances may extend beyond the game screen. For instance, how producing game mods (add-ons) or offering knowledge and advice on games to others (either online, such as through the production of ‘walkthroughs’ or in-person) can be seen as a display and performance of gaming competence.

In theorizing gaming (and game-related) social performances, Crawford and Rutter (2007) draw parallels with, and upon, the literature on audiences and fans, and considerations of a ‘performative society’. Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) suggest that, we live in an increasingly narcissistic and ‘performative society’ where individuals will draw on the media as a ‘resource’ (such as informing the way they dress, speak or act) in constructing their social performances, and consequently, in turn we become, what Abercrombie and Longhurst refer to as a ‘diffused’ audience to others’ social performances.

This idea of the ‘diffused audience’ is then expanded further by Longhurst in 2007. In particular, Longhurst suggests that the concept of ‘scene’ provides a useful mechanism for understanding how our social performances are located within our ‘ordinary’ lives. Longhurst (2007: 57) suggests that the concept of scene has generally been used in two ways: either to understand ‘place bound’ music cultures or as ‘complex spatial flows of music affiliations’. Though Hesmondhalgh (2005) highlights these two separate usages as incompatible, and therefore questions the validity of the concept of scene, Longhurst suggests that these are not necessarily conflictual readings, and in fact, highlight the very usefulness of this term. For two main reasons: first, scene allows for an understanding of how elective belongings are lived out and experienced in our ordinary lives, and second, how scenes take on ‘extraordinary’ meaning at certain times and in specific locations. Hence, this concept places particular emphasis on the importance of ‘place’.

Also, and significantly, Longhurst (2007) highlights the important role of narrative within scenes, suggesting that scenes include group (or scene) narratives, composed of interrelating and individual narratives, which in turn are also located within wider social narratives. And specifically it is to this, that we now which to turn.

Narrative and Everyday Life

Jenkins (2004: 121) suggests that too often critics of a narratological approach focus too much on ‘the activities and aspirations of the storyteller and too little on the process of narrative comprehension’. That is to say, critics of narratology tend not to recognize that narratives exist beyond the page or screen. This is an argument also made, by amongst others, Torben Grodal (2003). Grodal (2003: 130) argues that narratives as well as being external to us (such as written on page) are also ‘body-brain-internal processes’, in that it is we who comprehend, internalize and emotionally respond to narratives. Though neither Grodal (nor Jenkins) make reference to their work, these arguments share many similarities and parallels with the work of Paul Ricoeur and Anthony Giddens on the role narrative in identity formation. For Ricoeur (1988) the idea of ‘narrative identity’ suggests the idea of a self as a ‘storied self’, made up of stories told by the person about themselves and their lives, stories told by others about them and wider social and cultural narratives. Similarly, Giddens (1991) suggests that contemporary identities are made and maintained through narratives.

The question of increasingly (post)modern fluid identities within contemporary society is applied to digital gaming by Miroslaw Filiciak (2003); however, Filiciak’s main focus is upon in-game identity formations and he does not fully explore the location or implications of game-related identities within a wider social setting. But, as argued earlier, there is little doubt that not only is gameplay influenced by its location with everyday social practices, but that their importance extends far beyond the sight of the gaming screen.

Towards a Game Scene?

Following Longhurst (2007) and others, a scene exist largely in everyday, ordinary (and sometimes even mundane) activities and identities. While, many authors are keen to highlight the extraordinary, and even disruptive nature of gameplay, it is evident that the culture of gaming, is for many a relatively ordinary, even at times, mundane activity. This can be seen in what Kirkpatrick (2004) refers to as the ‘cynicism’ of the gamer, where often gameplay involves the recognition by the player that gaming success comes from completing (and often having to repeat) a series, of at times, routine and monotonous tasks. This is clearly illustrated by one of our interviewees (‘Mark’, male, 35 years old, university researcher):

Yeah like gameplay can involve lots of like boring stuff, stuff that you just need to do like to get on. Like in Oblivion [single person role playing game] there is this cheat…well you don’t have to do it, I suppose, but it really helps, where if you put your guy [player controlled avatar] in this one particular room, when there is this other guy [Non Player Character] and sneak against the wall, your sneak skill slowly goes up over time. So in then end what I did was taped my xbox controller stick into an upwards position, so my guy was just constantly walking, sneaking, into a corner and [I] sat there reading a book while it did that for a few hours [laughs].

This ‘work-like’ nature of many games is nowhere more evident than in the ‘grind’ needed in many MMOGs, which require gamers to carry out repetitive tasks to acquire greater skills.
The increasingly everyday nature of gameplay is also evident in the way that this has diffused into many people’s everyday lives, such as the businessperson playing Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the train, or the teenager whiling away the time by playing games on their mobile phone on the way to school. In particular, the majority of interviews all stated that they would often play games just to ‘relieve boredom’ or ‘fill time’, particularly while commuting to and from work, such the comments made by ‘Natasha’ (female, 21 years old, dental nurse):

well I play Who Wants to be a Millionaire because I always like to think I could win one million pounds. But I never do, I never get past thirty-two thousand but also I said it’s on my phone so I can just take that with me and it’s like mobile basically, so it’s something to do once I’m bored on the train.

Also new gaming trends see the nature of gameplay blurring with other forms of leisure and entertainment, such as the afore mentioned Nintendo Brain Training games, or similarly, games such as Wii Fit, which blur the boundaries between gameplay, and the already routine leisure activities of puzzle solving and keep-fit. But probably the most telling example of the everydayness of gaming, is its location within the conversations and identities of millions of people all over the world, as people at work, school, in the pub or elsewhere discuss games, strategies, cheats, hardware, or read about these in newspapers, magazines or online.

As with most ‘fan’ activities and elective belongings, where these ‘communities’ are primarily located is within the imaginations and identities of their ‘members’. And it is evident that many gamers within our research did indicate that they viewed themselves as part of a (some form of) ‘gamer’ community. Such as the comments made by ‘David’ (male, 36 years old, civil engineering contractor):

…you know it’s [gaming] important to me because it’s another group of friends and I can sort of like you know meet up with people and know people and whatever else, but it is like important. It’s a difficult thing [gaming]…to talk about to people who aren’t sort of really aware of it. So although it’s an important part of what I do there are…I know that non-gaming friends know about it, occasionally ask about it, but we talk about other [non-game related] stuff, you know.

We would suggest that what makes gaming take on ‘extraordinary’ meaning, is its location within certain physical spaces. The importance of ‘space’ within games has been highlighted by several others, and most notably Henry Jenkins (both alone in 2004 and with Fuller in 1995). In particular, Jenkins suggests that games not only provide spaces for exploration, but also spaces that facilitate ‘different kinds of narrative experiences’ (2004: 122). That is to say, that games provide gamers with an environment (a ‘map’) in which they find their own path (‘tour’) and story. What this also does is carry narrative analysis beyond merely textual, game-based analysis, towards a consideration of how individual gamers, use, interact and play with games. However, what we find quite surprising, is that Jenkins does not carry his consideration of spatial narratives beyond those found ‘in-game’.

It is evident that the nature and importance of gameplay depends significantly upon its physical location. This is most obvious in public gaming locations or events, such as gaming arcades or LAN events, where respondents in our research tended to emphasize the importance of socializing with other friends and gamers within these spaces. However, the most common location for gaming is still within the private location of our homes. However, these spaces are not without their own (often individual) meanings and significance, which are largely created by those using them at a particular time. This can be seen in the description of ‘Michael’ (male, 21 years old, university student):

Yeah like when playing a big Champ[ionship] Man[ager] session me and my mates back home [away from university] would turn it into a real event. We’d all come in football shirts, he had this old Man U [Manchester United] duvet [cover] he had from when he was a kid, and he’d put that on his bed, and he’d decorate his room, put up ‘specially scarves and stuff, and we’d all bring beer and crisps and stuff, and we’d turn his room into this Champ Man zone for the day, you really felt like you were in this different world when you were in his room, it was such a laugh.

However, the transformation of place into gaming spaces need not be as physical or obvious as that illustrated by ‘Michael’ above, but can be (and is more commonly) created in individual’s own imaginations:

I remember when I was a kid playing Elite, when I sat in front of my computer in my bedroom, I felt like I was a lone pilot sitting in the cockpit of his Cobra Mark 3 [space ship]. That place for me was my ship, and for quite a while playing any other game [on my computer] seemed wrong and pointless, it was like, why would I play Frogger in my cockpit? (‘Mark’, male, 35 years old, University Researcher).

It is also important to recognize that even when gameplay is mediated across translocal (or ‘virtual’) spaces, such as gaming over the Internet, that the participants are still physically located somewhere. This is an important point recognized by Longhurst in his theorization of scenes, and argues that ‘while it is useful to point out that a scene have translocal…dimensions, I want to retain the idea that a scene involves some measure of potential co-present interaction’ (Longhurst 2007: 54). In particular, he returns to the concept of ‘performance’ to argue that translocal/‘virtual’ spaces are merely forms of mediated interaction/performance, which still involve physically located individuals in places that become ‘nodes of communication’.

Of course, this theorization of the location of gaming in both ordinary and extraordinary practices and spaces is not to suggest that there is a clear and distinct divide between these places and times, but rather that the social importance of gaming needs to be understood and (physically) located with the complex and fluid nature of everyday life.


Though it is an accepted convention to refer to television or film viewers or book readers as an ‘audience’, the very idea of a gaming audience is deeply controversial. To a large extent the rejection of the idea of a gaming audience is tied into a wider rejection of a literary/narrative based/inspired approach to games studies, and also (the associated) idea that digital games are fundamentally different to ‘traditional’ media forms due to their ‘interactive’ nature. Gaming, as with the consumption of other media forms, is located within everyday life and social patterns, as the nature of games is shaped by social and cultural expectations and conventions, and similarly these also shape our reactions and interactions with games and styles of gameplay. Games and gaming also have many and extensive social consequences.

It is therefore crucial that we consider the location and importance of gaming within everyday social relations and networks, and here we suggest that the concept of ‘scene’ may be useful in doing this. In particular, digital games, like all media resources, contribute to our sense of identity and life narratives in our everyday lives, but the (relative) significance of this increases within certain physical spaces. Ultimately, what this does is recognize our interests, memberships and identities as fluid, but ones that never become separate from everyday lives.


We would like to thank and acknowledge Dr Jason Rutter (University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), UK) for his contributions to earlier co-authored work on which this paper builds and develops.


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