Looking Forward, Looking Back

Dear Reader,

It has been a long, long summer. The scariest part about it is that the majority of the work is still ahead of me, but the majority of the time is behind me. In a month and a half, I’ll be back in university, trying desperately to balance the work on this site with freelancing, studying and writing. It’s going to be ridiculous. Forgive me if I start going insane in the coming year. I assure you that it’s not you, it’s me.

Recently, I started thinking about how I got to where I am today. It has been a winding, convoluted path. It made me think about the past and the experiences that brought me here. I started remembering the worlds I used to imagine, the games I used to play, the things I sat down to learn… everything, really. Every story I didn’t write. Every chance I ended up taking. Mired in this pool of thoughts, soaking in my self, I was brought, inevitably, back to games.

Games have made so much of who I am. Even in the most horrific circumstances or outlandish situations, I’ve carried games with me. I spent years training with a wooden sword and rolling across the grass, because I’d done it as Link. Drunken nights in strange parts of strange cities have been, unwittingly, warmed with the thought that I could Hearthstone home. Now, I know that doesn’t make any sense, but the thought was infectious, especially after the sixth round. Puzzle games have helped me learn to problem solve. Game design has given me hours of rumination material. Games themselves have provided me with whole new ways to think about engaging an audience. To explore humanity. To have fun.

All of these things have suffused the layers of my being, but none more than video game culture. The experiences that we, as a group, share have introduced me to some of my greatest friends. The concept of the hero and the force of determination that I experienced by living through games have given me more than I can properly elucidate. Of course, there are elements to our culture that are less than pleasant: rampant sexism, griefing, toxic on-line behaviour, constant abnegation, intense nihilism… These things aren’t great.

They aren’t the totality of our culture; they are a part of it. There is no medium, no group, who can look upon the entirety of themselves and fully approve. There will always be disagreement among peoples. That problem goes deeper than being a gamer, though. That problem goes down to the core of being human. We will always disagree, and I have learned to accept that. That’s one of the reasons I feel justified in posting my opinions here. Not only do I get to share my ideas, but I occasionally get to share in a critique of them. I get to share in your thoughts.

This is our culture. This is part of what binds us. It’s what makes PAX so great. It’s what makes on-line multi-player so much fun. It’s what allows me to walk into a room full of people I’ve never met in my life, pick up a controller and play with them without fear. I know we’ve got some common ground, and I know I don’t have to hide that part of myself. I don’t hide it anywhere else, but I’ve heard that it’s still an issue for some people. Thankfully, I’ve got a wealth of neuropsych and cultural knowledge to bludgeon someone with if they attack that part of me. It’s not something I fear, even if my lack of caring is foolish at times. That’s fine.

There is a concern. The diversification of games is amazing, and it’s what makes writing about games so much fun right now, but it does mean that we risk leaving behind cultural choke-points. At one time, I could be sure that any console gamer I met had played Sonic or Mario. Most table-toppers I knew played D&D. My PC friends had all run through Star Craft and Half-Life, or engaged in Quake or Counter-Strike LAN marathons.

It’s scary to think that the console wars are wiping out our shared cultural history one generation at a time. Proprietary software and the march of time are leaving behind games that the next generation of gamers will probably never know. We’re looking at a future where that PC gamer has never heard of Myst or played Deus Ex. Casual gamers and Casudevs are breaking into the market and littering it with experiences that I’m totally unfamiliar with. I hadn’t played Angry Birds until this Christmas, seriously.

Yes, we’ve still got moments and games that unite us, like the Mass Effect series. However, occasionally, I’ll enter a room, see a Wii and wonder if I’ve played any of their games. It’s a scary thought, considering how much of my life has been spent with the assurance that I’ve played enough to relate enough. With the constant flood of games on the market, this is only going to continue.

And that’s not a bad thing. As maligned as the Casgams are, they are an essential element of the gaming community. They’re the future hard-cores and the latest adopters. They are, in a phrase, who I used to be when I picked up a controller instead of a D20 or a keyboard. We put a lot of stock in our input devices, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still gaming. I know enough about how the brain works to be thoroughly unimpressed with learning a game-play quirk to criterion. I’m impressed by the dedication and creativity it takes to achieve a mad skill-level, but I respect that person, not the score or the act.

I refuse to grade or quantify the value of my gaming apparatus. I’ll poke fun at consoles and make fun of technology, but that doesn’t diminish my joy at their creation or my wonder at their use. That doesn’t reduce the value of their exploration of humanity. They’re no less joyful. It’s no less human. You’re no less “gamer” for liking it.

With time, I’ve realized that that shared culture I talked about is in more than specific titles. It’s not about a game. It’s not about a type of gaming. It’s about gaming.

Yes, there are valuable experiences in the past, a shared cultural history. We are going to lose much of the information and many of the games of the past, unless someone moves to preserve it. That’s regrettable, and I’m in no place to do anything about it right now. That’s an unfortunate truth.

On the other hand, I don’t think I have to worry about losing that connection to the gaming community. At one time or another, we all threw down the shield of disinterest and decided to enjoy something. Even if it wasn’t with enthusiasm, a small part of us was given to the game and, in return, it became a part of us. That understanding, that potential for enthusiasm, is part of what it can mean to be a gamer. With that alone, we can forge a new shared cultural history with the pieces of the past and the stream of the future. Culture is an on-going process and so are we.

Now, not everyone will agree with me, and that’s fine. Players can and will judge others all they want; I can’t stop that. What I can do is recognize that common ground. No matter what you play or what you use to play it, if you’re a gamer, then we have something in common.

We game.

-Trivial Punk

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6 Responses to “Looking Forward, Looking Back”

  1. We game indeed. I want that on a t-shirt.

    In folklore studies we have an awkward legacy of being obsessed with the decline and disappearance of culture. In an older generation of scholarship, people were always rushing out to do so-called “salvage ethnography,” because they feared that whatever wasn’t written would vanish. Whether or not that’s true, or even a valid concern, it spawned a whole discipline of folks concerned with the way culture changes over time and space, how people define culture in their own lives, and the kinds of groups people form in which they express that culture.

    But games are in a good position, anyway, as far as preservation goes. Have you seen this? http://www.museumofplay.org/

    I’ve been a gamer since I was about five, in the mid-eighties. I remember all the major milestones, but I’ve never felt that things were truly “changing,” beyond the major forward march of computer hardware, until recently. I also feel a twinge of resentment when I think about the proliferation of casual games–particularly as I see it relating to the decline of Nintendo–but really, it has very little effect on my situation as a gamer. If anything, it drives more “hard core” gamers toward indie studios and their growing library of awesome games. So that’s a good thing, I think.

    • I’m familiar with the study; it’s pretty fascinating, either way.
      We’re actually in a pretty rickety situation in a lot of ways. If you think about the importance of input devices to the experience they were crafted for, then it starts looking shakier still. Track-balls, joysticks, motion-controls, game-pads… Even if programs like DOSbox preserves older games, they’re going to need to be up-dated eventually. Multi-player experiences defined by larger communities that don’t exist anymore and servers that are shutting down are experiences that will cease existing, yet have defined a portion of this last gaming generation.

      If we look at Doom and the like, with their strong modding communities, we see that even if the game exists, the experience is altered by their absence. I know I played a lot of the original Star Craft and half the time I was playing custom maps on-line.

      As devices and technologies, scripting languages and platforms change, the games of the past, designed for their context, are going to be altered, part of them irretrievably lost.

      I think that’s just part of culture, though. Even if we can pick up a book from long ago, doesn’t mean it’ll be the same without the cultural context in which it was meant to be read.

      Even though part of it is related to the obsolescence programs of some companies, most of it is just time. I feel like this experience leakage might even out a bit if we go full server-side game-streaming before the end of this console generation, but it still irks at me sometimes.

      I mean, half the challenge of playing N64 games was dealing with the alien controller >.>

      The way I see it is if there is a larger market, then there are more gamers in the population. This will drive some studios to try to aim a cannon at the audience and try to please everyone, but if there’s enough diversity and money in the market, then we’ll see the quality that’s eking in, even from the larger studios.

      And you’ll always get me to agree when we’re talking about the indie market. I love those guys.

      Cheers!

  2. Yeah, life is change, as it were. I don’t see it as loss, just motion. Gamers of the younger generations may not experience the thrill of seeing Samus remove her helmet for the first time, but they’ll have experiences of their own that will be meaningful in their lives.

    • Motion is loss, which is cool, too.

      • I suppose you can choose to view it that way, yes. Personally though, I don’t feel a sense of loss as such. Crono Trigger, for instance, is always going to be one of my personal favorite game experiences. I woke up early to play it for an hour before school, and did all my homework while I was still at school so I could rush home and play it in the evenings. Regardless of technology obsolescence, that experience remains.

      • Yes, you had that experience and you’ll always have it, but I’m looking at this from a larger cultural perspective. There will be different experiences, but we will lose the old ones. That’s just realistic. Losing something and experiencing a sense of loss are two different things.

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