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

This is the first of a two part series reflecting on my experience with the history of the video game medium and gamer culture. This part focuses on the rise and fall of the Golden Age of the Arcade.
Note: This was first posted on my personal video game blog Forest of Illusions on July 1, 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.

“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, Atari deliberately targeted barrooms and pubs to introduce the new machine to the public. 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, video game-centric amusement arcades began to spring up and 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 scuttled Atari in 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.

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