Wednesday, July 4, 2012

“Dear lost companions of my tuneful art”: Gamer Culture and A Life on Video (Part II-At Home and Abroad)

One of the ways Nintendo was able to rebuild the viability of home video games after Atari imploded and took the whole industry with it in 1983 was to reconceptualize video games as children's toys. It may seem strange to look back from our vantage point and observe how bizarre and radical a shift this was, but it was a very deliberate and tangible change in direction with repercussions. Nintendo had been expressly warned that launching a new game console in the wake of Atari guaranteed them failure as Atari's collapse had tainted the entire industry. Therefore, Nintendo consciously marketed the NES in the US as a hot new toy for kids in an attempt to avoid comparisons with the failed Atari 2600 and other personal computers that were starting to dominate the consumer electronics market. Afterward, and once it was a reasonable assumption that the majority of youngsters had access to an NES, it became very easy to take this fact and build a huge merchandising empire out of it. There was Nintendo breakfast cereal, Nintendo bedsheets, Nintendo clothes, Nintendo action figures, Nintendo stuffed animals, Nintendo sports equipment (*yes*) and even Nintendo Saturday Morning Cartoon shows (they were all crap, in case you're wondering, but this really isn't the place to talk about Saturday Morning Cartoon shows in any detail). But that's far from all that was going on with NOA and the NES: the clever idea they had was this. Once all the parents bought their kids Nintendo consoles and games for the Holidays, they'd be able to subtly start showing off the machine's true potential and capabilities. It worked, and worked amazingly well.

The conflation of games with toys that really started with the NES may be where some of the stigma gamers claim to experience originated from, as it could be said they never “outgrew” their “toys”, but it's telling no similar strategy was used in Japan, where the thing was simply dubbed the Family Computer and even had a floppy disk drive and a planned rudimentary Internet-like system. It's also crucial to note that Shigeru Miyamoto's early arcade games, Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. were expressly not designed to be solely kids' fare, meant to to be played as they were in bars. But of course we know better: NOA's little scheme to sneak the NES into households under the radar was absolute genius, and it was a common occurrence in many homes for parents to put their kids to bed after an evening of watching them play Mario and then, after the kids were asleep, to creep back downstairs and spend the rest of the night playing Nintendo themselves. Many grandparents were enthralled by the new games too and would discuss them just as earnestly and fervently with each other as their grandchildren did.

This was of course Nintendo's goal from the start: To make games anyone could enjoy, appreciate and share. This is an intellectual tradition of theirs that dates back to Donkey Kong, the Game and Watch series and their skeet shooting ranges. I surely need not remind my readers their first console was called the Family Computer. This is why I'm so continually baffled by people who bemoan the Wii and it's abandoning of the “hardcore” to court the “casual, social crowd”. As if Nintendo had ever catered exclusively to the “hardcore gamers” (a term of self-definition I personally find incredibly intellectually and historiographically lacking). Nintendo's games have always been for anyone who possessed a child's unconditional love of life, no matter what the biological or calendar age. No-one is entitled to a monopoly on them.

In any case, given the Nintendo saturation that was prevalent in the late '80s and early '90s, and even after Nintendo of America made a concerted effort to make video games synonymous with kids' stuff, which the medium absolutely had never been before 1985 or so, I can say from my experience at least that neither myself nor anyone I knew was ever persecuted or bullied for liking video games. It was just something kids did: You talked about Nintendo on the playground, went home, ran around outside for a bit, played some video games and watched TV. If it was the summer, you'd split your time between traipsing around forests building forts and playing kick-the-can and eating lunch with the Nintendo. To be perfectly honest and fair I was homeschooled for a lot of my childhood so the interaction with friends and the use of the playground as a social centre was a bit limited for me personally a lot of the time, though I did witness it and have comparable experiences with the friends I did make and members of my own family. In a previous post I've already recounted my memory of playing Super Mario Bros. at my cousins' house: Playing video games together with them was a regular occurrence, either at our place or theirs and was usually done after coming in from having adventures outdoors for the day and before dinner (and after at times as well) and those evenings spent playing local multiplayer on the NES or passing a Game Boy back-and-forth with my cousins are some of my most treasured.

As I got older and travelled elsewhere, home video game consoles continued to be a source of social bonding for me. For a time in my teenage years I attended a school where Olympic-bound athletes would take their lessons during their training period. The campus during that time was a weird confluence of extremely determined professional athletes, serious academic-minded scholars, artists and conservationists. It was an utterly unique and valuable experience and I even got to train with the local snowboard team for a bit while I was there. Video games were a big part of my social life there too, as me and the rest of the trainees would often hang out in the lounge after school taking turns on the communal NES and various SEGA consoles (there really were quite a lot of those, weren't there? And all out at the same time too). One of the at once coolest and strangest things I remember happening was hanging around the lounge alone after hours one evening playing Super Mario Bros. and having my science teacher, a charming young lady fresh out of college who split her time between teaching at the school and working as a tour guide and ecologist on the summit of the tallest mountain in the state, walk in and, seeing what I was playing, excitedly sit down next to me and jump into the game with me. She even taught me some of her signature tricks to navigate the underground levels-it was awesome.

Every new place I go games have traditionally been a kind of glue that held my various social connections together. From joining my whole dorm in an impromptu Halo: Combat Evolved tournament on the lounge XBOX, throwing LAN parties with my suite-mates over a local network we Gerry-rigged together for us and us alone to late-night Super Smash Bros. jam sessions with the guys from the common house, video games have continued to frequently go along with some of the best memories I've shared with my friends and family. And, just as always, everybody played: Girls, boys, athletes, alpine tundra ecologists, creative writing students, artists, frat guys, humanities scholars and astronomers. There was never anything strange or unusual about that: Video games were a universally shared cultural experience, just like any other kind of media, hobby or activity. I'd never thought of them otherwise.

Because of this, I've been presented with quite a few large and confounding philosophical problems these last few years. Things like “When did video games ever fall out of the 'mainstream'?”, “Where did the self professed gamers come from, why are they apparently so horribly persecuted?” “Why does playing video games constitute a subcultural lifestyle any more than watching movies, reading books or listening to music does?” and perhaps most annoyingly “Where are all these big mean jocks who are supposed to bully me for playing video games? I mean, I went to a jock school forchrissakes: If anything qualifies for that label it's a school for Olympic athletes in training. The only jocks I knew were the ones playing Nintendo with me in the lounge. Does that make me a big mean jock too? Do gamers just watch too many John Hughes movies?”.

In spite of the attitude my above glibness might imply, I'm not intending any of this to belittle anyone's personal experiences with video games as a medium or in anyway claim their positionality is imagined or fallacious or that mine is more valid. What I am saying is that my positionality is radically different from theirs, to the point of complete incongruity, and I don't understand why. There certainly does seem to have been a shift in the way video games were generally perceived and a clear-cut turn to a presumption that the medium has always been underground and fighting for legitimacy, I'm just not sure when and why that happened or where it came from. I certainly remember some half-baked moral panics in the mid-1990s to early 2000s over games like Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto III and some of id Software's early games and that some especially obnoxious politicians were complaining games were corrupting the youth, but I honestly remember that never being something anybody really took too seriously (the Columbine school shooting aside, of course, but even that seemed to resolve itself rather quickly) and the sort of thing that happened to all young media, like rock music and witchcraft. There is of course the omnipresent existential nightmare of how video games handle narrative and how they compare to other forms of media in terms of artistic expression and value (goodness knows I've written enough on that already and I'm far from through yet), but that's a problem of self-reflection the industry brought on itself, not had imposed on it from the outside.

I'm also not saying bullying and bigotry isn't a problem for far too many people: In fact, the older I get the more convinced I am it's the defining aspect of Western society. I was picked on as a kid too, though not nearly to the same extent as others and nowhere near as much as I would have had I not been an extremely private person, and only so far as the fact my elementary school was full of egomaniacal bastards who were horrible to everybody. In other words, of all the things I was made fun of for growing up, playing video games was not one of them. And while I never experienced any video game-driven harassment as a kid, or at any other age for that matter, this does segue nicely into my final point which is, if video games had never been a harsh, exclusive, unwelcoming environment in the past, they bloody well are NOW and most of the vitriol is coming from within the so-called “gamer” community and is being perpetuated by the industry itself.

While I of course am going to avoid generalizations and stereotypes and know full well not all self-professed gamers are angry, bigoted people there's no way to put a fine point on this: The games industry as it stands today is a damn scary place as far as I'm concerned and honestly makes me ashamed to be involved with it at times. The treatment of women is particularly unforgivable: Just this past year we've had competitors at a Capcom-sponsored Street Fighter tournament sexually harass a female player to the point she was forced to drop out, a sizable army of cyberbullies send incalculable amounts of appalling hate speech and threats of violence to a female producer attempting a startup campaign for a Web TV show about Male Gaze in video games and not one but TWO high profile games journalists getting fired for verbally abusing female personalities over the Internet in clearly sexualized ways. I'd go into these cases more and scores others to boot, but I'll instead link to this article which summarises them all nicely.

It's not just from the gamers: Our industry thrives on sexualized violence, and why not if that's what its consumers want? I briefly mentioned the male domination subtext in the blockbuster hit Batman: Arkham City in the past and the questionable gender politics inherent in franchises like Call of Duty and Gears of War should hopefully require no elucidation. This year we even got a lovely trailer for the new Hitman game, Absolution, which took great pains to show protagonist Agent 42 brutally slaughtering a group of supermodel female assassins dressed in fetish nun gear. However, for my money there's no better example than the games proudly showed off to legions of jubilant games journalists at E3 2012. The Far Cry 3 demo began with a minigame where the player gets to grope a submissive female NPC's blocky breasts and proceeds into a horrific bloodbath of explicit and brutal violence. Assassin’s Creed 3, the latest entry in a franchise already about creative ways to murder people, clearly revels in the new elegant ways to dispatch the many representations of living things contained within. New entries in the Splinter Cell and Tomb Raider series were no different, the latter even being an exciting reboot where pioneering video game leading lady Lara Croft gets a new violent and depraved backstory and gets threatened with rape at numerous points in the game to make her feel more “vulnerable” and “realistic” so players would want to “protect” her. Hell, even Watch Dogs, arguably the most interesting reveal at the show, has one or two fairly disturbing moments.

I'm not one to defend censorship or claim violence has no place in fiction, but there's a difference in the way the violence was treated here. If you must use overly violent content in your work, it ought to have a purpose, usually to show off how serious and disturbing the setting has become. None of these games do any of that, and it seems more and more like gamers don't care. This violence is sexualized and celebrated in a way that alarms me (especially given this industry's obvious problems with women in general), and both the producers and critics seem on the whole fine with this. This editorial from GamesRadar adequately relates the sickening feeling and impending sense of dread I got sitting through this year's E3 and the problem is so pervasive and evident that both Warren Spector and Shigeru Miyamoto have publicly come out to condemn it. What this year has ultimately shown me is how out-of-touch the games industry has drifted from reality and I from it. Simply put, this medium is unrecognizable to me and both the latest crop of games and the sentiment I'm getting from the “gamer culture” these past few years is most assuredly not why I fell in love with video games. Should the industry continue down this path, I'll eventually, and sooner rather than later, run out of positive things to say about it or really anything to say about it at all.

It seems to me, to quickly and unfairly psychoanalyse a ludicrously large swatch of people, that these most vocal aspects of “gamer culture” seem terrified their Old Boys Club might actually be split open to allow other people entry, even (gasp) women. This is positively ludicrous. As I've spent the last obscenely long tract arguing, video games are, and always have been, for everybody. They are, at least from my experience, a unique and intimate way to connect people separated by distance, worldview or even (and especially) in the same room. If “gamers” continue to complain about being unfairly marginalized and this is the best they can come up with to argue their case, well then frankly they ought to be ignored. Any creative outlet or culture this insular and hateful has no right to any kind of voice at a public forum or really even to exist. I still may not know who these gamers are and where they came from, but to be perfectly honest if this is how they represent themselves I don't want to know, nor do I want anything to do with them and I'll be damned if I let them selfishly hoard our shared cultural traditions and experiences. What I'd rather learn is what happened tho the kind of communal spirit and attitude towards video games I remember from my childhood and I know for a fact existed thanks to historical record. More to the point, I'd like to know if there's any way to ever get it back or if it too is forever doomed to be an artefact of history alongside my NES, the Pong cabinet at my local pizza parlour or the video arcades that used to be on every kid's street corners.

Monday, July 2, 2012

“Dear lost companions of my tuneful art”: Gamer Culture and A Life on Video (Part I-Arcade Memories)

Pictures of the past...
“Social game” is not a genre. It is a redundancy. All video games are, by definition, social. All video games are, in some form or another, fundamentally about interaction between two or more human agents, even single player games: The experience is simply shared between the player and the designers, not multiple players. As I have mentioned before, in terms of media, video games are most similar to theater and music, both of which also rely very heavily on aspects of performativity and agency. As this begins to segue into territory I'd like to cover sometime in the future, let's for now just say that this is due to the nature of certain kinds of media and the way they utilise narrative (or the lack thereof) because a more sweepingly general and relevant statement to make for the time being is that all of art itself is fundamentally a social thing. I mean, why wouldn't it be, given that its entire purpose is to facilitate humans sharing very human ideas and experiences? No art, no game, exists in a vacuum and neither does any one player, artist or patron of the arts.

Anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to this blog ought not to be surprised by my arriving at this conclusion, but I bring it up because of some observations I've made about video games, the industry that makes them and the kinds of people who play them. Some of them are very recent, some are trends that I have seen linger and evolve over the course of several decades, and not all of them are all that inspirational to talk about. This is going to be a slightly different series then is the norm here; a bit less academic and a bit more personal. I've always been unapologetically subjective on this site and in my writings in general, but this topic necessitates a bit more self-examination and reflection than usual as explaining my positionality is rather crucial to the argument I'm going to try to make. Also because, frankly, I cannot begin to understand the positionality of some of the people involved in this industry, I would like to, and tend to feel the best way to start to come to a kind of understanding is to articulate one's own perspective as meticulously and as clearly as possible. It is also more than likely going to come out a little tetchy and bitter. With that disclaimer, please allow me the rare luxury of diving into my life story, as it were.

It may come as a surprise to my readers, but one of the most confounding and baffling terms I've ever encountered in my travels is “gamer culture”. I mean, theoretically I understand what it means-A group of people with games, presumably (given the context) video games, as a commonality. As someone with a background in both sociocultural anthropology and social studies of knowledge (SSK) I'll be glad to debate the meaning of the term “culture” with anybody. But see to me, a culture has to have more then an affinity for a specific kind of media or artistic expression in common. I have a hard time seeing how video games alone can provide the foundation of an entire societal structure. But I'm being willfully thick and obstinate: Of course “gamer culture” means more than just video games. Let's play along, to torture a metaphor, and try and discern a quick-and-dirty general conception of “gamers" given different cultural patterns and stereotypes I've been able to pick up through years of working in, studying and observing the games industry and give a horrible name to my entire field by trying to cram this into the introductory section of a blog post instead of dedicating a 700 page ethnography to the subject:

“Gamer culture”, in its loosest and most superficial terms, can be defined as a group of socially marginalized, though curiously by-and-large still white, middle-class straight male, individuals who have been brought together in solidarity due to their communal appreciation of video games, Japanese animation, horror movies (especially super-gory slasher films), professional wrestling, heavy metal music, tabletop RPGs, computer science, camp cinema and an overwhelming dislike of physical activity, especially athletics. Another thing near and dear to the hearts of many gamers is a feeling of constant persecution and a strong desire to be validated by others, often explained by a lifetime, and more commonly especially a childhood, of being bullied or ignored for their interests. They claim their interests in general, and video games in particular, have never gained mainstream approval and they have been forever shunned because of it. Those who claim to be a part of it also have a tendency to be socially awkward and express a dislike of unnecessary social interaction. I hasten to add I'm not trying to be intentionally mean, sarcastic or snarky here: This is exactly the way the vast majority of self-professed gamers I've met or read in my life describe themselves and these shared truisms form the basis of a large amount of reflexive, self-deprecating humour.

Clearly I've simplified and stereotyped the situation quite a lot here, but I maintain there's a kind of truth in that last paragraph. Hang around enough gamers or read enough of what they write and I have a feeling you'll find similar motifs, undercurrents and trends. But this is the thing; the inevitable conclusion of the above train of thought: I play video games, many video games. They have indisputably changed and shaped my life. I write about them constantly and follow the industry incessantly. And I relate to absolutely nothing in what I just wrote in the paragraph above. I am not a “gamer”, nor have I ever been one.

My history and experience with the video game medium has been so radically different from those who call themselves gamers I can't even really talk to them intelligently, though I clearly have had one of some kind. What's more, “gamer culture” seems to be a relatively new phenomena from my perspective, appearing on the scene for the first time in the last decade or so (although I freely posit the possibility I just never met any proper gamers before then). One of the biggest cognitive dissonances I seem to have with gamers is over the conception of “social games”. At the moment it's a relatively hot topic in gamer circles, though not nearly as much as it was a few years ago. According to the typical account, “social games” are a new subgenre of video games brought on by the popularity of the Nintendo Wii and its me-too console motion control imitators, as well as smartphones and social media like Facebook, that's designed to be more physical, more based on local human interaction and to provide simpler, more accessible, (though shallower), experiences than “traditional” games. This is a very large debate, with some gamers claiming it's good to get the medium more “mainstream” exposure and others worrying its diluting and cheapening video games and mainstream exposure isn't worth it if this is how the industry is going to go about getting it.

We should all know the answer to this debate by now: There is none, because the debate is pointless. Games have always been social-It's in the fundamental structure of the medium. I would take this statement even further, however, and claim the essential social structure of video games goes beyond the medium's inherent performativity, playerXdeveloper interaction and the basic fact all art has has a necessary human component. No, video games have always been social because from the very dawn of the medium they fostered social interaction and powerful bonds of friendship and communal solidarity. And here, at long last, is where I come in.

When I was young, I never remember video games being a marginalized and taboo thing. I remember video games being for everyone; consciously, intentionally and always. The Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console, was expressly marketed as a mass-market consumer electronics device. When Pong kickstarted the Golden Age of the Arcade of the 1970s and 1980s, the new machine debuted in bars, pubs and later found a place in dedicated arcades. Far from the current conception of gamers as being primarily adolescent (or with adolescent interests and mindsets) shut-ins, these early arcade games seem to me to have been made for adults and installed in places adults would congregate. Very quickly Pong, and most importantly its descendants, earned its place alongside the jukeboxes, pinball machines, dancefloors, bar counters and wall-mounted televisions broadcasting football games as iconic aspects of the world's eating and drinking establishments. As the '70s blurred into the '80s and video game-centric amusement arcades began to spring up to became respected community fixtures in their own right, but the original and natural home of the arcade game remained the townhouse. I can still remember walking into my local establishment, grabbing some pizza for lunch and then my friends taking me into the bar to fire up a game of pinball or whatever Midway or Atari cabinet the place had in the back corner. It was as natural and expected a thing as popping a quarter in the jukebox or on the bar for a drink.

Bars and arcades are social places. They're businesses people go to with the express intent of meeting and spending time with actual, flesh-and-blood human friends. What's even better is that they're places anyone can go-People from all walks of life go to bars: Men, women, people of all different cultures and creeds. I would never be so reductive as to declare any cultural artefact universal across all societies, but if any one of them had any sort of claim to that stupidly overreaching title it would be the bar. And guess what? All those people used to play video games too. A game of Ms. Pac-Man, Defender, Donkey Kong or any one of those numerous light game outfits (I seem to remember at least one for every blockbuster movie that came out, though the only ones that immediately jump to my mind were the Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day ones, not to mention any number of the ones not based on movie licenses) was a great way to bond and make memories with your friends. If you were a kid and too young to drink, you could patronize any of the dedicated video arcades, and there were a ton of them throughout the Long '80s. They were a kind of community centre and a favourite hangout for any kid after school, and even for adults who were perhaps more interested in beating their personal high score than drinking. Many an afternoon, or evening rapidly turning into night was dedicated to friends challenging each others' high scores and teasing each other in the process. Heading to the corner arcade or bar to play video games used to be just as accepted a way to socialize as going to a mall or coffee shop with friends. At least, that's how I always used to feel.

Near the end of the Long 1980s and into the early part of the 1990s, the omnipresence of arcade games in bars and the dedicated video arcade itself seemed to go into a decline, most likely as a result of the rise of home video game consoles (the Atari 2600, it must be noted, was originally just as much a consumer electronics product as the Odyssey with all that entails). Before they disappeared completely, however, they made one last stab at greatness with the legendary Super Street Fighter II, Capcom's Hail-Mary that completely redefined the fighting game genre gave the video arcade its one last blast of brilliance (well, in the US at least-It's well-known there are still many dedicated arcades in Japan. As great as that is though, this article is about me and my story, and I've never been to a Japanese arcade). Now I don't care how iconic the Super Nintendo version of the game is, to me Super Street Fighter II is an arcade game born and bred and the purest way to experience it is at an actual cabinet. I mean, at the very least they were complimentary experiences; I have fond memories of both, for example practicing at my friends' houses and then trying to take on the arcade. But Super Street Fighter II was originally an arcade game and it's in the arcades that it had its biggest impact and where its most powerful and resonate legacy lies.

I have very vivid memories of jockeying for position amongst the swarms of people hovering around the fight stick just to get in one quick match with Chun-Li, my favourite fighter, against someone from that frenzied ball of humanity. I sucked at the game and lost horribly all the time (I'm still not amazing at Street Fighter) but I didn't care: It was unbelievably fun. Not just the game, but the whole atmosphere and the experience. There's no feeling quite like the compounded communal enthusiasm of people enjoying each others' company in a shared activity: The air simply crackled with energy. Super Street Fighter II was a landmark in the medium as a work, but it was also the arcade's Indian Summer and that's how I'll always remember it.

All my nostalgia for the bars and arcades that helped shape my view of video games and their place in my life is not meant to marginalize home consoles or claim that their games are not as social as arcade titles. The contrary: They were just as reliant on communal bonding, just in a different way. The Atari 2600 originally built its name on making home versions of popular arcade titles for families to play together in the living room, or for bachelors and bachlorettes to hone their skills away from the bars and socialize one-on-one. It was a rousing success and paved the way for a whole new market in video games that were targeted just as much at people who stayed at home as they were at people who went out every night. However, after a series of blindingly poor business decisions at Atari and parent company Warner Brothers directly resulted in the infamous game industry crash of 1983, home video games no longer seemed like a profitable investment. But nobody counted on an unknown toy company from Japan entering the market seemingly bewilderingly late and changing the game, so to speak, forever.