From ancient Aztec pyramids in the “Tomb
Raider” series to 20th century paramilitary missions in Panama and Cuba
in the “Call of Duty” franchise, Latin American settings and storylines
have a big presence in video games.
And no wonder, says the University of Delaware’s Phillip Penix-Tadsen, author of the new book Cultural Code.
Video games, he points out, are a multibillion-dollar industry in Latin
America and studying them can provide insights into the culture of the
“I study the intersection of games and culture – how culture uses
games and how games use culture,” says Penix-Tadsen, assistant professor
of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.
“People tend to look at video games as entertainment, a way to relax
and have fun, but they’re also used for a ton of other things, from
educational purposes to political activism.”
The founding member of UD’s Game Studies Research Group, he focused
his book on examples of game and cultural studies from Latin America.
The research group was established in 2013 with support from the
University’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center and also
includes faculty from such fields as communication, Japanese studies,
English, art and computer science.
Penix-Tadsen says he grew up with the first generation of video games
and casually played the most popular ones. As he worked toward his
doctoral degree in Latin American cultural studies, and spent extended
periods of time in the region, he began exploring the culture beyond its
literature, expanding his scholarship to include films and video games
“Games are socially impactful everywhere, and there is no shortage of
examples in Latin America,” he says. “I look beyond the superficial
setting and ask: How do these games produce cultural messages? What can
they teach us about the culture?”
Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America, published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, is divided into two main sections.
In the first section, “How Culture Uses Games,” topics include Latin
American players, examining who plays video games, which games they play
and where (cyber cafes, for example, are especially popular). The book
also discusses how games can be instruments of persuasion and subjects
of political controversy, as well as analyzing their economic and
creative potential in the region.
In “How Games Use Culture,” Penix-Tadsen discusses semiotics, or the
signs and images that are used in games to evoke or symbolize a culture
or a group of people. Other chapters explore how video game designers
make use of the environment and simulations of real people, such as the
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Reviewers have praised the book as thorough, well-researched and readable.
“Who would have guessed video games could shed so much light on
culture, history, politics and current affairs?” wrote Rubén Gallo of
Princeton University. “Cultural Code is a groundbreaking contribution to two fields: game studies and Latin American studies.”
The book’s “theoretical discussions on the representation of violence
and the violence of representation make this study a must-read in the
age of global terrorism,” Gallo added.
Other reviewers have noted that the Latin American video game
industry often is overlooked by those focusing on gaming in the United
States and Japan and have said that Penix-Tadsen has now helped put
Latin America on the map for further research and attention.
“Today, Latin America’s growing contributions to game design,
production and consumption are pushing it from the margins toward the
center of the gaming world,” Penix-Tadsen says, calling the region “an
ideal model of the shifting cultural terrain on which games operate in
21st century global society.”