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

In the second and final part of my series on my experience with the history of the video game medium and gamer culture, I talk about home consoles, Nintendo, local multiplayer and the state of the game industry and culture today.

Note: This was first posted on my personal video game blog Forest of Illusions on July 3, 2012, so some of the material may have become slightly dated and I occasionally make references to previous posts . I don't think it singnificantly affects the tone of the piece, however.

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.


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