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.
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.