Culture comes from the latin cultura meaning cultivation. Cicero borrowed the agrarian term and applied it to the soul, encouraging individuals to cultivate themselves as they would a garden or farm.
But not all growth is healthy, or beneficial. A culture of e coli can be deadly, an uncontrolled growth on the body can lead to a malignant tumor.
There’s no question that gaming has a culture. In fact, it has many, though not all of them are necessarily growing, or growing in healthy ways.
Perhaps it’s less helpful to talk about gaming culture than the gaming ecosystem: a bustling series of communities full of overlap and discontinuities, with some boundaries that are more hard and fast than others. It’s like a high school cafeteria–there are lots of individual groups, many of which will never interact with one another, but that nevertheless still have some overriding things in common, even if it’s just the fact that they’re all stuck in a building together and need to eat.
My primary criticism of Leigh Alexander’s (admittedly bold and inspired) Nine Worlds Convention speech (which was later reprinted at Gamasutra), is the way it blends manifesto with cultural anthropology.
A manifesto should be strongly worded and socially challenging. A comparison between musical movements and video game development should be nuanced and cautious. And at least in this instance, I think the combination of the two has hindered each more than helped.
While I agree for the most part with Leigh’s world view, and the future of video games she wants to see, I’m not sure I have any better idea now of how to get there, or what will help bring those who don’t already agree along with us.
Leigh’s speech is both political and personal. She’s trying push for a sort of counter-cultural maturation of the video game ecosystem, while also sharing her experiences growing up at the cross-roads of the 80s and 90s music scene, and how that has informed her vision for where games need to go next.
But why should it go there? Why are the problems she identifies, the areas of stagnation and malignant growth she believes are diluting and polluting the rest of the gaming media environment, the ones anyone else should be concerned about?
“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.”
What are the “bigger conversations” though? And in so far as it’s true that little progress ever seems to be made in mainstream debates, is there a time where that ever wasn’t the case? How long has the “big conversation” of global climate changed remained static? If we can’t move that one forward, what hope is there for sub-cultural debates over gaming?
How do you convince someone, who doesn’t think so, that global warming is a future catastrophe that needs to be prevented? Or do you bypass them altogether, and try to move ahead by leaving people like that behind, and/or marginalizing them until they hold little to no sway over the broader course of events?
Those seem like the only real two courses of action. I’m not sure which is more viable or effective. Part of the trouble with Leigh’s proposal though is that it hedges, and doesn’t truly commit to either path.
On the one hand, Leigh makes the following point,
“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.”
On the other, she also says,
“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.”
“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.”
I’m wary of making claims of what games are, or what they are supposed to be. That’s not to say that I don’t have my own ideas about both of those things, but I also know full well that there are many communities within the video game ecosystem who would disagree with me. What it really comes down to is balance and pluralism. Are lots of different approaches to video games thriving? Is there vibrant criticism where necessary?
In other words, is the garden well tended, or are there parts of it that are overgrown, barren, or infested with weeds? There’s a big picture here and a little picture. The garden itself, and the individual plots within it. How much room do the Zinesters have? Is E3 at the center of things (in America), or nudged off to the side where its overall cultural significance has been decoupled from its commercial importance? Is everyone given a patch and allowed to cultivate it in their own way, or is the garden still guarded primarily by straight, white, upper middle class cis men (like myself)?
Should the garden “reject complacency, protest commercialism, embrace diversity,” and should those who bother to tend it be rioting and screaming while we do so? Is that even possible? Where are the boundaries of diversity if it means only accepting the things we like? I’m willing to reject that which is harmful (misogyny, racism, bullying of any kind, etc.) and thus necessarily hostile to diversity and pluralism, out of hand. But is commercialism necessarily harmful? Or complacency, i.e. a gaming sub-culture based around nostalgia and geek credentialing?
“Bear with me, though. It’s not all hopeless. Things in the gaming world are not as bad as gamerculture 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.” (Emphasis and italics are mine.)
Who is “we?” Is it everyone in the gaming world, the gamerculture of which seems overly dominated only by a few? Is it a coalition of fringe groups looking to wrest control of the “bigger conversations,” or even what constitutes them, away from the loudest, most traditional, and most economically powerful voices?
I’m not sure if Leigh’s trying to be coy, or was just being sloppy with the pronouns, but even if the phrasing of her message is telling me we can all do this together, the content of it seems to demand a more militant approach. Everyone isn’t on the same page here. “We” are the counter-movement(s). And the things we are most concerned about cannot be negotiated or compromised upon.
“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 was (is) a school bus driver who spends his weekends fixing up his house and playing guitar and my mother was (is) a psychiatric nurse who has been a runner all her life, though not for body-image reasons. Whatever dreams and regrets they had (have), neither of them ever let their days be defined by their day jobs and what society thought of them.
“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.”
Then who exactly are we talking about here?
“E3 is pure ‘80s: Aging men in tight pants who are still really excited about babes, robots and aliens.”
While I think Leigh’s analogy from the 80s ideals for corporate tech and masculinity to the current excesses swirling around shows like E3 is appropriate, and gets at a lot of important issues, I think it also denies the 80s the same complexity she attributes to other decades. After all, they had their alternative music, underground scenes, and dissenting pop cultural media as well.
And pop notions of masculinity, feminine sexuality, and what was cool didn’t change all that much in the 90s either, or the 2000s, or even the 2010s. Turn on network TV, listen to the radio, or scan the most popular movies from the last 30 years and it’s surprising just how little the basic constructs are the same. Their presentation may have evolved, and the aesthetic tweaked, but the rot is still there.
“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?'”
It seems like each and every generation has its “now what?’ moment. They happen at different times, maybe even several times. Nirvana’s, whether by accident or the meaningful confluence of various world historical forces, just happened to gain momentum and evolve into something more than a blip, and ended up being worthy of retaining some space in our ever growing shared cultural memory.
Leigh zeroes in on the corporate imperative underlying the most visible aspects of the video game industry. But I can’t imagine that the individuals involved in creating new games, and the technology that would play them, weren’t asking some version of “now what?” Not “how much” or “how many” or “ka-ching, ka-ching.” Some people surely were, but others surely weren’t. And then they did something like make The Legend of Zelda, or Fallout, or Morrowind, or Second Life, or World of Warcraft, or L.A. Noire.
A Peggy Lee fan probably followed up with, “Is that all there is?” and some player at home in her basement rolled over on the couch, pulling out her hair because all anyone was doing was iterating on the same boring, unrepresentative bag of tricks, and thought “I can’t go, I must go on,” and through all the books in the fire and collected what remained, combining the ashes with something different and bold and personal and told her story and then other people were inspired to tell theirs and haven’t “we” been doing this for a while now–who cares if some old, rich white guy staring at an earnings report or overseeing his digital distribution platform doesn’t care and just can’t get it?
Who is the Nirvana of video games? Who has the luxury to be the Nirvana of anything? Are they fit to be the savior of anything? Fuck saviors.
“Interestingly this was also the golden age of Japanese RPGs.”
Golden age for who? For middle class American suburbanites? Post-Berlin Wall Europeans? The Japanese developers who made them and the Japanese audience they primarily made them for?
“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.”
What about the people making games in the 80s and 70s? The beginning for video games, or just a particular gaming community, a single strain of video game culture, an individual generation of players?
Leigh claims that “Meaningful culture reflects and reacts. It doesn’t hand wave-away discussions or insist on maintaining the status quo.”
What if “meaningful culture” is a dialogue between opposing forces? A Hegelian dialectic? Creation, destruction, and reformulation? “The System” might be broken, but it’s infrastructure can be helpful or even necessary in seeking to rebuild or transform it. The revolution isn’t fought in a vacuum, but along the boulevards originally built to serve the establishment. Meaningful culture reacts because friction clears the way for growth. Sometimes this requires pruning, sometimes it requires razing the land and leaving it fallow for a season or two, and sometimes it preserving the seeds of worthwhile intentions, drives, and values.
“And yet video games continue to lavish upon shooting — insistently, while “gamer culture” militantly defends it.”
Which “gamer culture” militantly defends the shooters? The 1% of people who play them religiously and and feel the compulsion to talk, argue, and in many cases verbally or virtually abuse others online or in-game?
“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.”
Yes, those circles. What’s to be done with them though? Do you back them further and further into a corner, or simply leave their playground behind for greener pastures? In the real world we’re forced to live along-side people whose infatuation with fire-arms can lead to physical harm, but by its very nature the video game space allows those of us who disapprove and/or feel threatened to leave and form our own communities.
Maybe that’s not enough though. Maybe that psyche that informs “some circles” needs to be handled with extreme prejudice; to be violently dissembled, or shamed out of public view. You can pull the plug on a server or comments thread, but where’s the plug for a sick world-view; a fundamental lack of mutual-respect? Whose going to pull it and how?
“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.”
But what if those point-and-shoot galleries really do mean something to a great many people? What if Gears of War really does mean something because the first time you played it opened up a window into a place where you could play with brutal mutilations and decapitations, explore the power you never head by seeing what it’s like to exercise that power over a distant friend, an anonymous stranger, or a lonely AI?
“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.”
Right things for who? There’s a lot in Leigh’s piece that urges “us” to police the gaming culture(s) but not much on how to do that, or why others should help “us.”
“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.”
And yet this is precisely what Leigh seems to be calling on various ideological factions and communities to do, to argue with one another about why our culture, or the kind of culture we want, should take precedence over theirs. To tell the people in “some circles” that we don’t just approve of their lack of civility or abusive behavior, but that the seeds from which that culture sprang are sick, or harmful, or have had their time in the sun and now they’ve got to get out of our way so we can have ours.
“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.”
How are the values of production different from “actual” values? Or are they just values we believe to be harmful or destructive or seemingly unaligned with the ones we’d rather cultivate? Production’s values can destroy a great idea, contorting or perverting it in an attempt to commodity and distribute it. Certain large projects like The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and Skyrim (in so far as they are interesting, regardless of whether they are “good”) require certain production values. A game like Shadow of the Colussus somehow managed to survive them, and The Last Guardian might have finally reached completion if they were incorporated more dutifully among the ones guiding that project’s development.
Is the goal to supplant one culture with another, or just create room for the other to grow and spread more prodigiously? The first requires raging against a machine, the second only needs us to look for and create alternative ones. The latter is already happening, and has been for some time, perhaps all time, but with more energy and visibility thanks to (interestingly enough) a democratization of capital that market capitalism has itself seemingly made possible.
The former path is bloody and draining; an intercultural black hole with a poorly defined end game, if it even has one. Maybe both paths must be pursued simultaneously. Maybe a multitude of other paths present new opportunities that make this framing obsolete.
Whatever my disagreements with, criticism of, or questions for Leigh’s piece, it presents important challenges and forces the issue. So much of it rings true to me, not on an intellectual level so much as a personal one. I’m not sure what else to say at this point. You should read it if you haven’t already. If you already have then share it with someone else. Have a conversation. Take a moment to reflect. Revel in your differences.