Playing games is no longer sinful

Olli Sotamaa and Frans Mäyrä

Top research on games, playing and the gaming industry. Despite having dream jobs, Olli Sotamaa and Frans Mäyrä are not apologists who just promote the positives and the blessings brought by games.

Finnish society now accepts games, but there are still downsides to the rapidly expanding game culture.

Donkey Kong, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Defender of the Crown, Pool of Radiance.

In the 1980s, Associate Professor Olli Sotamaa, Professor Frans Mäyrä and many others of their generation grew up playing video games. At first, there were only simple electronic TV games, but they were soon followed by the pocket-sized, hand-held Game & Watch games. In 1982, the revolutionary Commodore 64 home computer was launched, offering a rich variety of games and bringing the thrills of the arcade into the home.

Thirty years later, Mäyrä and Sotamaa are now award-winning Finnish leaders of game research, and young people frequently ask them how they managed to get into such a dream profession.

“Early home computer games surely gave me an incentive to understand the potential and fascination of this art form,” says Mäyrä, professor of information research and interactive media at the University of Tampere.
In recent years, with the success of such game companies as Supercell and Rovio, Finnish society has come to accept games, and the appreciation of research in the field has risen proportionately. The Academy of Finland granted official status and funding for the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies (GameCult), which began work at the University of Tampere at the start of the year.

“To most people, playing is no longer the sinful phenomenon it used to be in past decades. It makes the work of researchers so much easier when people are able to confess to us that they are game players, which was in no way self-evident when we started our research,” Mäyrä says.

In Finland, the average age of players has risen alongside the ageing of the first generation of enthusiastic gamers. The stereotypical idea that games are only for children or teenage boys has slowly altered.

“The development is related to the broader idea of cultural youth. The fun things that we start doing when we are young are not left behind but follow us through life,” says Sotamaa, assistant professor of game culture research.

The researchers are happy that critical attitudes to games have diminished, but they must always be able to justify the importance of their research, and this holds true both for students who are enthusiastic about games and for the old hands who seek Centre of Excellence status and funding.

Sotamaa believes that the position of games has changed in an interesting way in Finland. In the last fifteen years, Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation – has invested over a hundred million euros in game companies.

“The debate ceased at the point when Supercell began to pay around 250 million euros annually in corporate taxes in Finland. That is understandable in a sense, but it is such a shame!” Sotamaa points out. There should be a more emphatic, multi-voiced debate about the pros and cons of games in society.

“However, we aren’t apologists who just promote the positives and the blessings brought by games,” Mäyrä says.

“Research is trying to critically identify, for example, blind spots in the games industry and explore game culture for such aspects as sexist mindsets or the excluded roles of women players and sexual minorities. We must wake up to such problems,” he notes.

In Finland, the public debate around games has become polarised in some sense; either the opportunities presented by games are praised or attention is paid to problem gaming or addiction to mobile devices.

“When you start investigating the sad stories of depressed young men who quit school and isolate themselves in their rooms to play games, you discover that there are many factors involved. Social exclusion, depression and a lack of positive future perspectives are intertwined with wider societal problems,” Mäyrä explains.

Games offer joy and a ready escape from sad and distressing daily realities.

“People who are continually playing may be trying to compensate for other areas in life where the original cause of their problems lies. In such situations, problems cannot be solved by simply switching off the game. There must be support structures, and society must assume responsibility for young people and comprehend their situation in a holistic way,” Mäyrä points out.

Of course, one can have too much even of a good thing. The researchers find that gaming and media education is an excellent tool for creating a balance. They offer research-based knowledge on games to parents, schools and education professionals. The game researchers in Tampere were involved in producing an open-access handbook for game educators, and a revised edition is being planned.

New digital teaching methods are being developed in the Growing Mind project led by the University of Helsinki, a cooperation partner of GameCult. This project also uses imaging to investigate the effects of digitalisation on the development of the adolescent brain.

According to Sotamaa, growing pains and need to find a balance are also reflected in the work culture of games companies. The gaming industry is still a heavily male-dominated field with relatively young employees; most staff members are men aged between 20 and 40 years.

“Game companies are accustomed to having passionate employees who work long hours. That can create unhealthy work cultures, and the employees are at risk of suffering from burnout,” Sotamaa says.

However, changes are already underway. Some companies consciously recruit different kinds of game developers and aim to make their staff more heterogeneous. In addition, many employees are now starting families, meaning that work can no longer take up all of their time.

“They have woken up to the fact that firms need more sustainable starting points to manage work,” Sotamaa continues.

The games industry is currently the premier Finnish creative field that is producing pioneering work. The funding models of games are enthusiastically benchmarked, and it is hoped that they could also be adopted in other fields.

Researchers see that creativity and gaming constitute far more than just a business. Gamers gather together for weekend game jams with short deadlines to develop their own games. The starting point of such games is very different from games that aim to generate profits for the developers.

“Game jams and player-made game modifications show the diverse scopes of games. Playing is not just playing according to the rules; it also means playing with the rules,” Sotamaa says.

The researchers readily quote Tove Jansson – the Finnish artist and author of the Moomin books – in saying, “When adults play, it is called a hobby.” Play and games can be defined as actions that create ludic impulses and are inventive, creative and enjoyable – such a definition can also be linked to many other topics and interests: perhaps browsing and using smartphone applications could be considered play for some people.

Over the last twenty years, the fields of game studies and games research have evolved rapidly as games have become ubiquitous.

“While theory building in game research has largely been related to digital games in recent decades, it is appropriate to focus academic interest on an even wider array of phenomena,” Sotamaa points out.

In recent years, research has expanded into the gamification and ludification of society. GameCult is thus examining the transformation of society and culture through games.

Nevertheless, games are primarily art, and that includes both carefully designed interactive works and the players’ performance created by playing games. Therefore, gamers, gaming communities, game creators and the entire gaming industry must be taken into account in the examination of game cultures.

“Game research must also look at the frameworks related to the marketing, economics, and social values that have contributed to creating the phenomenon of games, both today and in the future,” Mäyrä adds.


Game research at the University of Tampere

• Game research at the University of Tampere began already in the early 1990s with the creation of the Hypermedia Laboratory, and in the research done at the Department of Literature and the Arts. At that time, research focused in particular on hypertexts and hypermedia, digital games, and the new information and media services.
• In 2002, Frans Mäyrä – the first professor in the field in Finland – founded the Game Research Lab, the first Finnish game research group.
• The Academy of Finland funded Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies began its operations in 2018. Led by Mäyrä, the Centre of Excellence focuses on the transformation of society and culture through games. Olli Sotamaa leads the team that investigates the creation and production of games in Tampere.

Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photographs: Jonne Renvall