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August 20, 2012

THE (sub)Cultural Institution

August 20, 2012

If you live in Indianapolis and spend any time downtown in the middle of August, then you know about GenCon. “Those people” walking around with pink bunny ears, Princess Leia outfits, and black tee-shirts exclaiming the wearer’s credentials as a “DM,” they are the folks embodying the spirit of GenCon. But there is more to the event.

I’m a sociologist by training and a “gamer” in my off time. I find GenCon fascinating from both perspectives. The gamer-dork in me enjoys playing new board and tabletop games, gawking at the off-the-wall choices in attire, and attending seminars about game design.

But as a sociologist I see the event slightly differently.

Cultures are often defined by their institutions, and institutions are powerful symbols. You can learn a lot about a group or organization by what they value and how they express those values. Cultural institutions are the ultimate expressions of values.

At a macro-level, in the United States we tend to value competition, as embodied by the multi-billion dollar industries of high school, collegiate, and professional sports. More specifically, March Madness and the Superbowl (and all of the merchandising and hoopla that accompany each) are unique institutions that broadcast to the rest of the world how much we value competition.

On a more meso-level, the inclusive LGBT movement identifies itself to the rest of the world, among other things, through large-scale PRIDE parades held in numerous cities across the country. These annual events are an institution that brings members of the LGBT subculture together and helps broadcast their values and beliefs outwardly.

These institutions also serve the purpose of helping create a shared identity among members of the groups, reinforcing the values internally, building cohesion, and generating understanding for members.

GenCon is just such an institution for the subculture of gamers. At GenCon we learn what it means to be communal, centering our community around the shared experience of game. Sure, there is some competition at GenCon, both at the gaming table and among exhibitors vying for the finite amount of money in each gamer’s pocket. But despite this competition, everyone is there for one main reason: to have fun WITH fellow gamers. GenCon itself, as an institution, reinforces the belief that most gamers have that gaming is about having fun in the company of friends. 

GenCon speaks volumes about the organizations and individuals who participate. We like to have fun. We like to be challenged. We like to be in a community of others who like to have fun and be challenged, so much so that we are willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in a single weekend in order to do so. This event is valuable to us, and it embodies our subculture.

Here at SmallBox, we also have institutions that speak to our values. The 24 Hour Web Project exhibits our desire to give back to the organizations that are giving so much to our community. Factory Week speaks to our shared desire to continually reflect on what we do and evolve to do it better. Attending SXSW speaks to our need to innovate and be immersed in a culture of creativity.

In a world where marketing is a byproduct of organizational culture, the development and promotion of institutions can inspire your colleagues and inform your clients about your values.

What do your organizational institutions say about your culture?

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