Reflections in the Screen: Virtual Spaces as Social Mirrors

Written for Anthropology R5B: Digital Games Anthropology taken at UC Berkeley. I am aware this is not particularly readable outside an academic context, and would like to remedy once I have some time.

I walk into the dimly-lit room and look to my mirror on the right; to my surprise, I see nothing there. As I continue to creep closer to the mirror, an apparition of me comes out of thin air; except it both is and isn’t quite me. This isn't a scene from a Lovecraftian tale; it's a regular surreal encounter within the virtual world of Second Life.

Video games today form a part of human social life for over 3 billion people, and often play a large part in the daily lives of hundreds of millions today (Pew Research Center 2015). My argument puts forward the view that games are not merely vessels for escapist desires but reveals something deep about the world and context it has developed under and also affects it directly, like all forms of play. Game worlds can reflect, propagate, or even contest social realities of our world.

When we start to play a game, we are presented with an environment and a social context to interact with, in direct ways such as playing with other players directly, or indirectly as part of a larger community of enthusiasts. Yet, as we engage more with the game’s community, our social context, which we contribute to by virtue of our participation or existence, determines what the game is and how it changes. In this way, we create our own social contexts which in turn then affect us, which play out in the medium of games. This argument arises from Geertz’s ‘deep play’ argument, which I aim to extend to the domain of video games and discuss related issues (Geertz 1972). Geertz discusses the Balinese cockfight, and how the rules and narrative around the game expresses the social structures and conditions, and allows social tensions to come around and resolve themselves in a healthy way. His argument puts forward the view that all games are a reflection of the socio-cultural environments in which they’ve developed and grown over time, and I argue that all video games are similarly influenced by their creation environments and then go on to impact far larger and diverse communities of people.

Before moving forward, I would like to clarify my terminology. In this essay, I use the real world to refer to our common physical reality, for consistency rather than to demean game worlds and label them as ‘not real’. Game worlds likewise refer predominantly to the environments of video games, whether that be the terminal for text adventures or a sprawling metropolis of a Sims game, and form the basis for our virtual spaces to grow upon with rich social contexts.

To start my argument, I consider the apparent absurdity of the success of Second Life (SL for short), and its connection to the creation and ownership of property. Once you enter the game and reach past the tutorial, nearly everything you see around in the game is primarily created by other users as virtual objects as is a lot of functionality in the form of “scripts” which autonomously change the behavior of the game. At first glance, this may seem to go against a naive and unstated assumption that perhaps games are about enjoying what someone else has prepared for you. But when we look closely at games, it is clear that they are a very distinct medium from books, theater, and movies. The consumer is also very much an agent, their actions cause a shift in what they (and others) perceive and this causes their experiences to vary beyond the usual deviation which is dependent on an individual for every media (Boellstorff 2015). For SL, the agency of being able to contribute to the world and make it your own is very reminiscent of the original ideas of property and ownership in western philosophy. John Locke described civil society in terms of a social contract between people to commonly respect individual (or private) property; we can see this strongly in SL, where social norms around property are enforced with explicit rules and implicit social pressures (Boellstorff 2015). A notable example in the book was when a resident in SL installed an obtrusive sign in a well-considered neighborhood, there were calls from other residents to remove it to maintain the sanctity of the space; similar to how people may respond to people adding “loud” street signs in a real residential area (Boellstorff 2008). Developing the line of thought around private property, Hegel can be said to have extended Locke’s thought by stating that it is the pouring of will into the world that changes the character of the outside world into the property of an individual (Hegel 1898). While it sounds like lunacy on the first read, history has been kind to Hegel in this respect and his understanding of property underlies our current shared understanding, especially concerning non-physical forms, such as intellectual property and virtual properties of many kinds. The character of property in SL can be thought of as being a more philosophically pure kind, as the efforts of the user very directly solidify into becoming their property.

In light of this context, the fact that SL players spend a lot of time contributing to the game world makes sense; they feel a sense of ownership, and as is established in Tom Boellstroff’s ethnography work, they experience community at different scales in their daily experiences in SL, and work to preserve that. There are casual relationships with other players, neighbors where you “live”, and even romantic partners, and each has unique needs players need to care for. Furthermore, the users can trade in virtual currency, which is pegged to the US dollar, in exchange for the products they make or services they render in-game. This also adds a financial incentive to players of the game to make things that others would like to use, which is the hallmark of a capitalist system as argued by Adam Smith in his seminal work in economics (Smith 1776); whether this is a desirable development would vary greatly by who you ask. This is a rather straightforward (and perhaps extreme) example of how players can create the games and social contexts that then impact them and other players.

Boluk and Lemieux discuss the game Triforce in their work on metagames, which is a metagame that explores the non-intuitive geometry of the 'Lost Wood' and 'Lost Hills' locations in 1986 The Legend of Zelda game world, where if the players move too close to the edge, they don't fall off the edge of the screen and instead teleport directly to the opposite side, due to a programming artifact. If you stand on the left edge of the world, you have the coordinate in-game of (X, 0), where X can be anything, and 0 signifies that we’re at the first position. Moving left causes a subtraction of 1 from the 0, which actually causes the position to max out to (X, 255). This shows that even as game worlds try to emulate and abstract real worlds, they are significantly impacted by quirks of unintentional and intentional programmer behavior, and this is before we start to consider the role of the player in attaching meaning to the world (Boluk and Lemieux 2017). An interesting point is examining how while many games recreate the world inside the game, with the development of new AR games a reversal takes place, where the real world is gamified and integrated as a virtual public space, and produces an almost 1-1 spatial correspondence in the limited area that is covered. Zizek briefly talks about some of these ideas in his essay From Virtual Reality to the Virtualization of Reality: he argues that while the virtual world and real world are different, one is a model of the other, and they reflect each other in all the significant ways qualitatively (Zizek 1996). The metaphor he gives is of a map that gets more and more detailed until it is of the size of the landmass it represents, at which point the map is the landmass and the landmass is the map; there is no discernable difference in some senses. And yet, even as the physical world is increasingly mapped out onto virtual platforms, I disagree that both will ever be quite the same; just by inherently being composed of atoms on one side and code on the other; although I concede that I do not believe that the differences will significantly matter for a lot of practical purposes, I do believe there will always be an experiential divide.

Kitchin and Dodge in their book “code/space” argue that the world affected by software forms its own space (Kitchin and Dodge 2011). In chapter 4 in particular, they argue the importance of considering spatial forms from a relativist perspective; rather than thinking only about how things look and are placed, one should think about the history of an object and its meaning and importance under different contexts. This applies doubly to games, where the “virtual space” created by software is experienced by participants, and the environment is transformed by the experience of the participants over time.

We move onto a more mainstream example, a great opportunity to demonstrate a strong argument around games acting as social mirrors, if a hard one: Pokémon.

On first glance, Pokémon is the prime example of a static, “unchanging” game: it is primarily designed for the purpose of individual play, and has few limited opportunities for interacting with other players in-game other than trading and more recently online battles, which are still not a central focus of the game. The player follows a linear path to achieve the main goal of the game, to become a “Pokémon master”, by defeating and capturing progressively stronger Pokémon, and the player experiences a single perspective—the one of the avatar you choose—and views the events of the world in that context. It is not immediately obvious how our Pokémon participates in social dynamics if we look strictly at the visual breakdown of the game world, but to tackle the game’s social aspects, we just need to look at the meta properties that have arisen in the three decades of the game series. As they’ve matured, games, like other media, have moved to being more about show than tell, if not explicitly then by virtue of their communities. Mario Kart isn’t about knocking off toads and turtles off ramps, it's about beating your friends and having high-octane fun with your friends on a couch. Pokémon, similarly, is about going on a journey and sharing in the common experience of the game mechanics of beating gyms to get badges, and defeating the past champion to become the Pokémon master. Despite initial appearances, there are significant differences in how different people experience the game, starting with your choice in the first Pokémon you choose, and followed by how you decide to raise your Pokémon and level up; farming Pokémon by just running around in bushes till you find good ones, and training your Pokémon to get to higher levels is a legitimate strategy. Subcommunities, like Eevee fans and Charizard fans, form over time thanks to shared experiences, generating merchandise sales over 3 times the game sales (100B USD VS 30B USD) (Video Game Sales Wiki).

The gameplay is further directly impacted, even transformed, by and reflects who is playing. Arguably, with the Pokémon games marketed towards young children, the objective of the game is more focused on the immersion and enjoyable experience of interacting with the world and finishing the game rather than having a challenge while playing it. As the game matured, however, many of the fans have as well. Nostalgia is a powerful force in creating games, as Boluk and Lemieux discuss, noting that the successful indie games Braid and Super Meat Boy played on mechanics, graphics, and storylines that were reminiscent of particular 1990 retro consoles, which likely strongly contributed to their success (Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick Lemieux. 2017. “About, Within, Around, Without: A Survey of Six Metagames.”). Thanks to a swelling of nostalgia, as well as lack of difficulty options/controls in the games themselves, the Nuzlocke community has been started by a user of the same name in 2010), and an explosion of related content and participation occurred around 2016 thanks to the rise of mainstream gamer platforms such as Twitch (Pokémon Fandom 2024). This challenge keeps with the spirit and objective of the Pokémon games: caring for your Pokémon, fighting for what is considered good in the game, and becoming the Pokémon master. But where this metagame is really clever is that all it does is have players self-impose constraints on winning the game. It is no longer about just winning and beating the game, you want to do it in a way that gets you acclaim and/or greater self-satisfaction. The main notable constraints common to all Nuzlocke strains are (1) that you must finish the game without the option to revive your Pokémon; when they faint in-game, you must release them, (2) limited encounters with Pokémon, you cannot stay in a place and just farm/grind it out, and (3) mandatory nicknames to make the loss of Pokémon much harder on you, because you are not losing “just a Charizard” but must actually grow away from “Mr. Sniffles”. This profoundly changes your relationship with the game and the experience you go through, and in some ways can be said to be adhering more to the core spirit of the game than the unconstrained version; the costs are much more real, and you value your Pokémon far more thanks to the limitations and the fact that you don’t know when you won’t be together anymore. The players who opt for playing this “hard-mode” version reflect their social contexts with the game: big fans who want to do the game well, maybe even competitively, and this is also reflected in the vast popularity of how many participate in it as a contest to do it in the shortest time. It reminds me of the Mario64 challenges which minimized the number of jumps used: it makes no upfront sense, but as you examine and engage with the history of the game and its fanbase, it is understandable (Dood 2023).

Socio-cultural environments inside games (created collectively by prevailing conditions of the real world, the game creators, and its users) also vary greatly, akin to the construction of virtual spaces inside games; indeed it can be considered as an independent dimension part of the virtual space itself. These environments, which more broadly form the “gamer social sphere” on the internet, can range from being accepting and welcoming environments where people find a home and themselves where the real world may not let them (e.g. members of the LBGTQ community in Second Life while it was more dangerous and less accepted) (Boellstorff 2008) to being actively regressive. Lisa Nakamura talks about racism in her piece on racialized labor in World of Warcraft, where many asian players grind to get items and then sell them for real world currency, and the racism leveled at all players that identify or seem asian as a result (Nakamura 2009). This reflects the social reality of economic inequality of opportunity and arguably the lack of empathy towards many people for whom this is a legitimate way of keeping their families fed; even if other players feel like it is not in the spirit of the game, it is unfair and unacceptable to level such racism on all players who identify with a region, and yet such binary thinking is also a reflection of a not-uncommon mindset of binary thinking and and even of notions of western supremacy. These kinds of attacks can be completely unsubstantiated as well, as Amanda Phillips talks about in length in her book where horrid rumors were spread around women in the game industry trying to improve the range of games that were made and narratives told, as well as increase representation in this male-dominated field (Phillips 2020), reflecting on the resistance of the gamer community to reform its behaviors and look inwards. This also reflects that the gamer community is largely male-dominated as well, which it pushes against changing; a lot of this kind of behavior, particularly as in GamerGate, is catalyzed by the fact that gamers were considered almost outcasts, and can be attributed to a notion of rebellious identity as they don’t conform to “what they’re told”. Large parts of the gaming community react with amusement and encouragement to such “trolls'' who often target certain players or demographics, as a kind of protest against social norms they find uncomfortable.

But it's not all bad of course; niche games and communities can also enable access and enable representation and encourage more interesting stories told; growing up, I played a game called “Bhai the Gangster”, which was akin to GTA, but based in the Indian city of Delhi, with auto-rickshaws to go around and colorful trucks, which I’ve seen come from further south as I’ve grown up. I’ve been inspired, as have friends, by playing such local games to make our own games which connect more with our experiences and a more varied range of narratives. Moreover, global gaming phenomena such as Pokémon Go can connect people, young and old, asian and american, to come together and compete in a shared social activity globally with nothing more than a smartphone. I believe creating such links across nationalities and generations is a very powerful thing, and we should be encouraging games that promote harmony, along with games that are critical; essentially, games that move the needle of civilization ahead.

To conclude, games are not just a product of their social contexts; they are active contributors to the creation of entirely new social environments and virtual spaces. As we have seen, the virtual environments within games offer more than just escapism—they provide a platform for the liberation and exploration of identity. By "playing" with identity, individuals can explore aspects of themselves in ways that may be constrained in the physical world. This is central to understanding the personal impact of games and also speaks to the broader societal implications. Games allow for a unique form of expression and interaction that can challenge societal norms and facilitate a more complete understanding of oneself, others, and the cultures in which we exist.

Moreover, as the legal and societal landscapes continue to evolve, the role of video games in shaping culture and identity will continue to garner attention and as games mature there will be important conversations to be had that have been had for other media. The decisions we make about the games we play, and the policies governing them, reflect and influence our collective values and the very fabric of our social reality. For instance, the US Supreme Court’s stance on video game ratings underscores the importance of parental guidance over censorship (Library of Congress 2023), while international incidents, like the banning of PUBG in India due to its addictive nature and suspicions of illicit data collection (Hindustan Times 2021), highlight the geopolitical and societal stakes involved in the gaming industry.

It is high time for better information and discourse around games, for better policies to be implemented, better games to be made, and healthier attitudes adopted; games are not “just games”, they are so much more. So the next time you look into a screen while a game loads and you see yourself in the reflection, think about how the game you are about to play reflects its origins, the gaming community, and your experience.

And don’t stop just because the game loads and the screen turns on.


  • Boellstorff, Tom. 2015. Coming of Age in Second Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick Lemieux. 2017. “About, Within, Around, Without: A Survey of Six Metagames.” In Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames, 23–76. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1972. "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." Daedalus 101 (1): 1–37.
  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1898. Philosophy of Right. Translated by S. W. Dyde. London: Bell.
  • Kitchin, Rob, and Martin Dodge. 2011. Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Nakamura, Lisa. 2009. “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26 (2): 128–44.
  • Pew Research Center. 2015. Gaming and Gamers.
  • Phillips, Amanda. 2020. Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture. New York: NYU Press.
  • Zizek, Slavoj. 1996. "From Virtual Reality to the Virtualization of Reality."
  • Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell.
  • Hindustan Times. 2021. "PUBG Mobile ban: Here's why the Indian government blocked the game." Accessed May 5, 2024.
  • Library of Congress. 2023. "To Play or Not to Play: Video Game Ratings and the Law | In Custodia Legis." Accessed May 5, 2024.
  • Dood, Maximilian, dir. 2023. "I just...wanted to play...Mario 64..." Video, 2:09-3:21, 6:51-9:16, 15:00-16:17. Accessed May 5, 2024.
  • Pokémon Fandom. "Nuzlocke Challenge | Pokémon Fandom." Accessed May 5, 2024.
  • Video Game Sales Wiki. "Pokémon." Accessed May 5, 2024.,over%20480%20million%20units%20worldwide.