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Grunge, Grrrls and Video Games: Turning the dial for a more meaningful culture

The grunge music movement usurped the big-haired incumbents during the 1990s. Will a similar supersession play out in the culture of video games? Leigh Alexander offers thought-provoking commentary, originally presented at the Nine Worlds Convention in the UK.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

August 16, 2013

21 Min Read

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander offers this thought-provoking opinion piece, originally presented at the Nine Worlds Convention in the UK.

Here goes: Your system sucks. I mean, gaming culture sucks.

This endless loop of dog-eared geek references and getting mad on the internet isn’t culture. It’s exhausting. While amazing little games and inspiring jams sprout like flowers all the time, the bigger conversations remain static.

If I’m to call what I’m doing “culture journalism,” I struggle to be content with celebrating and evangelizing the games and ideas I love and believe in only to the relatively-small audience that already likes them. Especially when, frankly, it often costs me a lot just to be here, pouring my heart all the time in the daily wringer of people who are offended by the very idea of change, by my unwelcome “alternative” presence.

Games are supposed to be about expressive play, creation and sharing, but often it feels more like it’s about nostalgia and gatekeeping, a competition to see who’s the most insular and obsessed. And let’s not forget about the guy rushing to the forefront to remind us that “games are a Business,” when he wants to talk about what he feels entitled to or why it oughtn’t be shared. There’s always that guy.

Bear with me, though. It’s not all hopeless. Things in the gaming world are not as bad as gamer culture makes them look. We’re standing at the precipice of a moment where we have the power to change everything: To reject complacency, to protest commercialism, to embrace diversity and to riot, screaming, toward our generation’s glorious inheritance. Everything is telling me it’s time.

Paula Abdul, Cracker, and Klax

I want to talk about the 1990s in America -- not as an exercise in ironic nostalgia, but to tell some stories about culture that might help us.

In 1993 I was about 12 years old, starting the seventh grade, wearing scrunchies and stonewashed denim and toting radio-friendly pop music cassettes. My little friend and I listened to Wilson Phillips -- songs with names like “You’re In Love!” -- and Paula Abdul, who had one of the year 1990’s most popular videos. It was called “Opposites Attract,” and it featured her dancing with a cartoon cat, even though it wasn’t a kids’ song.

The “Opposites Attract” video helped exemplify the naivete of popular music at the time. The music writer Steven Hyden, whose irreplaceable, must-read essay series “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation” heavily informs most of the music history I’ll share here, has a great quote about it, saying “it signaled that American culture desperately needed someone to wipe that stupid grin off its face.”

I hid from the 1980s playing computer games in the basement, engaged with the mysterious vocabulary of HyperCard shareware and stubborn, sagelike parser games. I didn’t really speak the language of pop culture, which demanded girls wear bright leotards and get yelled at in dance class by women with big hair. Miss Jane. Miss Sue.

At night, I’d get myself to sleep playing marathons of Klax into the night with my sister, and then I’d drift off to music I’d play on my clock radio in the dark. One night, something changed: I considered the manufactured, alienating pop music I heard and I thought, “If I don’t do something about this, I’m never going to be cool.”

When you’re young, “being cool” is, of course, just a shorthand for belonging, for feeling like you’re part of the world, for being able to share the conversation of the day with other kids without feeling terribly left-out and broken.

I decided to change the radio station to the rock frequency I’d heard of, the one my babysitter listened to when her boyfriend came to pick her up in a red pickup to go to a Mr. Big concert. I particularly remember the first song I discovered that night in the dark: It was called “Low” by Cracker, and it was shot through with a strange melancholy I’d never quite heard before. At first I didn’t even really know if I liked any of it, but it felt like a way out. It was called “Alternative music,” and it was for people who wanted a way out at the end of the 80s, at the turn of the decade.

Turns out a lot of people were left scarred by the 80s, an era marked by corporate climbing, capitalist idealism, and the machines of industry. Your dad was defined by the Business (capital B) he was in, and your mom was at the gym, feverishly climbing a Stairmaster to nowhere. My dad, actually, was a journalist -- he wrote about hi-fis, and ended up with a “home technology” column in the Boston Globe, back when the idea you could have technology in the home at all still felt new.

Video games entered the home during the 80s, too. Because of my dad’s work, we got sent an Atari, a Coleco. We had a Commodore 64 and an Apple IIe, and shelves full of software we’d been sent by companies hoping my dad would write about them in his home technology column. Those games were adorable, a newborn little art form learning to talk.

Very quickly, though, they were pushed into the service of showcasing hardware platforms, a job they serve even today, ever called upon to be the horseman of hardware strategy. By the end of the 90s, games ended up developing the precise obsession with fancier tech and more lavish graphics that the hardware arms race needed it to. They ended up belonging to The Man.

The cool boys

The plentitude of the 1980s and the launch of the American love affair with tech advancement influenced the culture I grew up in considerably. Every movie was about a boy hero, we ate Nintendo cereal and watched G.I. Joe. For young girls, there were career Barbies and toy ovens -- or you could, as I did, get eyeballs-deep in princess-rescuing, muscle-flexing, dude hero dominant paradigms.

Even the very fantasy of owning a game system was dangled by advertisers as something that would make you a cooler kid in school -- a cooler white boy, of course, whereby if there were girls or people of color in the ads, they were mainly there to look awed by or envious of the sporty white boy who was winning the video game.

Meanwhile, by 1990 the musical aesthetic was also fixed on aspirational swagger. That year, the band Warrant put out the video for “Cherry Pie,” iconic of the ultimate power fantasy of owning a muscle car, hopefully having a woman in a bikini on top of the car, and ideally she’d be doing seductive things with confections. The same year, Poison’s “Unskinny Bop” analogized sex to pumping gas into a car.

This was the masculine ideal at the time, although the skin-tight pants, huge hair and pursed lips might have been these rockers’ way to express some discomfort at, or subversion of the consumer-friendly manliness galvanized by the 1980s. But through its hunger for growling cars, packed stadiums and women as awards, hair metal was reinforcing the messages of capitalist patriarchy all the same.

Like everything else from the 1980s, the most visible arms of the game industry, and the games with the most fans, are driven by an obsession with advancing and accumulating hardware. They exist to serve and express the corporate ideal of bigger-better-more, and even in 2013, still generally find themselves serving up shallow, corny male power fantasies made by people with money, to people with money. It promises big engines and cool explosions.

Most screenshots of present-day E3 are surprisingly, startlingly hard to aesthetically differentiate from screencaps of “Unskinny Bop” and MTV’s Headbangers’ Ball. E3 is pure ‘80s: Aging men in tight pants who are still really excited about babes, robots and aliens.

"Anthem of a generation"

By 1990s, the devouring aspiration of the 1980s had left a lot of people feeling adrift. Young people in the 90s had all the comfort and stability bought by their parents’ striving and climbing -- and perhaps ironically, it bought us the leisure to have existential crises. We didn’t necessarily want the Buns of Steel, or to Get Into Business. A lot of media began to emerge throughout the 90s that posed an interesting question: If I reject this System, then who will I be? And what if I just… do nothing?

Popular films of the age, like Reality Bites, or Slacker, were about the rebellion of not climbing, of rejecting corporate culture, The Man, The System. The youth was interested in the quiet revolution of figuring out who we Really Were, and what we Really Wanted. In the post-80s economic quietude of the 90s, the youth were able to say, “hey, give me a minute, man, I wanna, like, feel my feelings.”

We watched My So-Called Life, the first program we’d seen illustrate the life of a teen not as a romantic after-school special, but as a complicated identity quest. The mall formed an odd suburban mecca -- the only thing to do in any given small town, a locus of ennui, a temple to The Man. Like Beavis and Butthead, we drifted around with willful numb detachment, disparaging everything.

Depression and boredom were in vogue. Romantic heroes were all dead guys, and all love was tragic, as in films like The Crow, Interview With The Vampire, or Baz Lurmann’s trendy re-imagining of Romeo & Juliet.

And then in 1991, a blurry, lo-fi music video came out, featuring a strange young guy with his hair in his face like he didn’t even want to be on camera at all. The band played a song in a desaturated gymnasium, a mockery of prom. It was Nirvana doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song they’d go on to call the “anthem of a generation.”

At first blush the lyrics seem like general nonsense (“I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us”), but if you take a step back, they make a strange kind of sense, like a Magic Eye poster: It was like frontman Kurt Cobain was looking to the hyper-capitalist, superficial excesses of the 1980s that his generation had been handed, and sardonically quipping, “now what?”

Nirvana had just three band members and played sloppy music -- rock opera fans in my high school would try to discredit the band’s sudden popularity by claiming “anyone could play” Nirvana songs. And it was true: Having never played music before in my life (or since), I got a guitar for my 13th or 14th birthday, and I played Nirvana songs. I sucked, but it was awesome.

That same year, Guns and Roses released two albums called “Use Your Illusion I & II,” massive and overwrought and lacy, iconic of egocentricism and excess. The track I remember best was “November Rain,” some nine minutes long, featuring a wedding (and Stephanie Seymour in a tasteless gown), a funeral, and Axl Rose moping around a grand piano. It was huge.

Yet it was Nirvana with its stripped-down aesthetic and nonsense lyrics, that would primarily usher in the 90s, leading to no end of feuding in the media among Axl and Kurt, a war of opposing ideals.

The Nirvana of video games?

It actually reminds me of some of the simplistic ideological tensions that often appear to be going on between old-guard game designer dudes and indies today: The indies look at the industry and see The Man, and the industry simultaneously wishes it could be as cool as indies, and resents their freedom, alongside the headlines they keep reading about how indies are going to end up making more money than them.

Kurt took his own life in 1994, and many people my age and older, up to a point, remember where they were when they found out. These days kids coming of age don’t really know who he was, or why anyone cared about Nirvana’s weird, scratchy little songs. But he was a generational voice.

Who is the Nirvana of video games? I don’t know if there’s a perfectly-fitting answer to this, but it’s a thought-provoking question: Is there a creator who took one look at the climate and then changed it forever, where you will always remember where you were when they burned out? Is there anyone in games you can tell your kids about when you’re old and uncool?

Of course, it’s simplistic and inaccurate to say that any kind of movement began solely with Nirvana. At the advent of the 90s, musical protests against the status quo were happening everywhere thanks to the flourishing of the underground do it yourself scene centered around the Pacific Northwest -- perhaps not coincidentally, as it rains all the time there and seems like a really good environment to nurture the age’s beloved depression and discontent.

I know I played more video and computer games than ever during the 90s, but I can’t say I remember too much about them -- the boys took over the computer labs, occupying all available stations for hours to glaze out silently in front of polygonal shooters, so my friends and I paired up over adventure games.

I have clearer memories of Aeon Flux, a surrealist animation that aired late nights on MTV: A woman heroine grotesque as a spider, who refused to titillate without complications. She was alienating and unsettling, but the show was powerful. By contrast, games offered Lara Croft. Many women talk about how empowering they found Lara in the 90s, but I don’t really buy it: She was rich, and powerful, but never allowed to be so powerful she couldn’t end up on a sticky dorm-room poster.

By the time I entered high school in 1994, Pearl Jam was huge, a band fronted by shy, fame-averse Eddie Vedder, who seemed as if he mainly wanted to sing about global issues, his relationship with his mother, his discomfort with guns. During a live nationally-televised MTV performance, he famously scrawled pro-choice messages on his forearm -- and this was no underground band. They crushed the charts with a song about depression and suicide.

"Meaningful entertainment doesn’t take well to being commoditized"

Interestingly this was also the golden age of Japanese RPGs. Of course these games weren’t created to reflect or respond to a youth that saw itself in crisis, but they were stories of small-town kids who start out powerless and are given a purpose. In the end, the RPG hero confronts The System -- The Man, a god or a “Mother Brain” machine entity in order to save the world, keep it pure. I think RPGs were so big back then because all 90s kids were searching for a sense of power and self-discovery in what they saw as a world well out of their hands.

As “alternative music” went mainstream and became a commodity, though, a lot of the heroes of grunge wore the crown of fame poorly, warring with record labels and ticket bookers, sabotaging awards shows and even openly hating fans. I actually think some of the controversy about Phil Fish is an interesting signpost of a creative medium in conflict with product culture, where people want to make things and share them but don’t necessarily want to be in the customer service capital-B business.

Meaningful entertainment doesn’t take well to being commoditized, and that’s important to remember in the context of conversations about what the games industry “owes” players, about the parameters of the product or service we’re being provided, or how we expect creators always to be in service to us, to be “professional.”

The thing I treasure about the music of the 90s is that we felt we knew who these bands and songwriters were. We watched them struggle in public, followed them through a body of work. Even when we didn’t like them, we felt part of what they were making. Bands I hated in my youth now sound like warm, resonant touchstones to me now.  The grunge aesthetic was about not caring -- slacker clothes, unisex flannel -- but oh, how we cared.

It was no golden age: It fetishized eating disorders and drug abuse, and all that angsting had a bleak survival rate. Eventually, “Alternative Nation” died with MTV, as the counterculture became as commercialized as everything that it was trying to protest: If it weren’t for Pearl Jam, we’d have no Nickelback or Creed, for one thing.

But I could still assemble, out of the media I enjoyed in the 1990s, something to give my kid, if I ever have one, to tell her who I was then. Mixtapes, movies. Games? What games could I give her to tell her who I was or what was happening in the world when I was her age? Would there be anything in the games that are on shelves now for my kid to relate to at all?

But that’s because for games, the 1990s are kind of just beginning. We have the opportunity to pioneer and to celebrate and to be welcomed and comforted by a visible, meaningful counterculture. There is one very important part of history that I’ve skipped over, and it’s that before Nirvana, before all the sensitive, brooding Grunge Men from Seattle, there was something else.

At the beginning of the 1990s the Christian pro-life movement had really started to enter public conversation. AIDS frightened people in the 80s, and in the 1990s the effort of religion to punish what it saw as deviancy of any kind -- and women, as religion usually punishes women -- began in earnest, alongside high-profile sexual harassment cases in the news.

I was too young to be much aware of the news then, but I remember that at the time powerful women began to appear in the pages of my rock music magazines. In the Northwest, the Riot Grrrl movement was beginning, with bands like Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill sowing an indelible impression on the music scene in the area.

Video games' Riot Grrrls

Meaningful culture reflects and reacts. It doesn’t hand wave-away discussions or insist on maintaining the status quo. And I’m sure it was also lots of fun to make zines, or to go to those Riot Grrrl shows at the turn of the decade. But it was important, too.

When it comes to video games, the feminist-led DIY scene is probably the most important thing happening in game culture right now. Thanks to accessible, cheap or free tools, there’s a virtual flourishing of games made about personal experiences, by talented artists and by everyday people taking game-making into their hands for the very first time. The fact we basically have a Riot Grrgrrl movement in games now as a response to the historical oppression of women in our space is one of the things keeping me going.  Culture reacts; this is culture.

Anyone who tells me they “don’t get” or aren’t interested in the Twine scene, or in what’s being called “personal games,” I’m not sure I even have anything to talk with them about in regards to games culture. History has shown us repeatedly that rejecting the systemic machines and instead looking inward at what we have to express as people is one of the most important things a creative culture can do.

The Riot Grrrls of the early 90s were a big influence on, perhaps even a major progenitor of the popular grunge that would emerge throughout the rest of the decade. The biggest grunge success stories were all still men, but they were men consciously rejecting the Hot Chicks on Cars narratives, and the bigger-better-more narratives of the 1980s in favor of making songs about politics, depression and drugs.

This is why feminism matters in games: Not as a feel-good issue, not as “political correctness,” and not even because inclusivity is morally correct or more economically viable. It’s because it’s a key component in disrupting the status quo, the oppressive ideals that constrain and prescribe on behalf of everyone who wants to participate, men included.

Another sign that games are broadly representative of The System is their obsession with depiction, rationalization and defense of violence. Guns are iconic of one’s sense of privilege over another -- I’m powerful because I can end your life. The whole idea of wielding a gun is bound up in racism and classism: If some poor person tries to take what’s yours, you can kill him, and if you were raised under American capitalism you probably have some problematic ideas about what that target who wants to take what’s yours looks like.

In opposition to the ideologies that come with celebrating weaponry, rock songs in the 1990s were about mocking or dismantling the American obsession with arms. Pearl Jam did this, as did Rage Against The Machine (probably the most overt ‘protest band’), raging about how fear of violence creates oppression within systems. Rock music in the 1990s had meaning precisely because it encouraged youth to question systems, not to support them.

"The fervent prizing of 'fun' is controlling the commercial game industry"

And yet video games continue to lavish upon shooting -- insistently, while “gamer culture” militantly defends it. In some circles of “gamer culture,” players are actually motivated to hate speech at the very idea that you might try to take their guns. This is worse than the most strident caricature of a shotgun-toting conservative -- these are young people upset about virtual guns, with the gall to liken it to a free speech issue, no less.

It’s not that culture isn’t allowed to include pointless entertainment, silly moments you can live in and then forget; of course it can. But the fervent prizing of “fun” is controlling the commercial game industry, and helping defend the corporate menu of aim-and-shoot is probably the single biggest way to ensure that games will never really mean anything to anyone, will never change lives or create memories. As long as we pretend games exist in some vacuum that has nothing to do with what happens in the rest of the world, we’ll never have a culture worth talking about.

It’s unfortunate that games are, again and again, trotted out to play the scapegoat for wider problems in cultures. We’re all outsider kids who’ve been wanting a safe place, and continually being told we’re problematic, hateful or meaningless is painful, and it makes people understandably defensive. But why don’t fans defend the right things, instead of those games that mainly exist to make rich men richer, to exploit them as a market category? Why go to bat for some console brand? You’re creating their business, but not contributing to our culture.

Instead of looking at expressive game makers, we’re still stuck trying to prove we’re valid by purchasing whatever marketers say the Hot Title is. We’re so loath to admit we’re stuck in a sad consumer cycle that we argue about console wars and repeat geek in-jokes for fear of having little to talk about among ourselves that isn’t a “this is better than that” argument.

I think right now for the most part games can only talk about games, and gamers can only talk about gamers. I don’t think this is where things have to stop, but we need to be part of the counterculture. We need to support the riot girls, and raise our own voices, and celebrate games that reflect our identity and our experiences. Games will be culture when the people who love them fully embrace them as an expressive medium.

Turning the dial

Culture means a shift, even temporarily, away from production values to actual values. What are video games if they can be made by “just anyone?” No less than what Nirvana was to me as a child discovering a guitar, creating a memory instead of just one more interaction with a hostile system.

What are games if they don’t tone up their graphics to try to make money? That’s the kind of question, however well-meaning, that made Kurt Cobain flip off Axl Rose in the 1990s.

Does it mean we have to be humorless, angsting all the time? Of course not -- 90s were as absurd, irreverent and silly as they were dark. They also gave us Beavis & Butt-Head, Celebrity Deathmatch, Daria, and songs like Beck’s “Loser,” capturing the humor in feeling like you might be going nowhere. It helps, in fact, to laugh.

I’m reminded of that time I was a child lying in the dark, and I felt emotionally I was going nowhere, so I reached out for my little clock radio and I turned the dial. If you really love games, turn that dial -- find an alternative. In 20 years, I want to be able to talk about games culture with the same fervent passion that I talk about (awful!) 90s music. I think we can have that. I think we can.

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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