The Gamer’s Conscience 10.20.03

“What will I be like, when I get old?”
-The Descendents

Well, I’ve got to be honest with all of ya- I never really thought I had to wrestle with this question. The prospect of thinking of myself as genuinely ‘older’ than an entire functioning segment of society is something I find extremely alarming. Almost downright scary.

Take for instance a time when I decide to make an off-hand remark about The Transformers in front of my sister, who is 7 years my junior, hoping to elicit some kind! no, any kind of laughter. Because, as I had thought was common knowledge in many parts of Western civilization, if there’s any semblance of a cultural icon to any child born in the 1980s, it must be the supreme and omnipotent Optimus Prime. So, you could imagine my surprise when, almost immediately, she asks rather intently: “What’s an Optimus Prime?” with all of the honest ignorance that can be conveyed in a single voice. Sure, I could rip out the Season One DVD set AND the movie and present them to her, in a last attempt to educate this lost soul, but my effort would be in vain. The entire legacy of Autobots and Decepticons is lost on my own flesh and blood.

And sadily, according to Electronic Gaming Monthly, it appears that video games are no different. Desecrating the classics one-by-one, their crack-team of middle-class suburban yuppie pre-teen offspring offers new-world criticism of the era when entertainment was prime, and flashy graphics weren’t needed to shock and amaze. The reactions of some of these kids are honest as my sister’s unforgivable admission of ignorance mentioned above- and in retrospect of the said product being reviewed, damned funny.

However, EGM’s light-hearted journalistic endeavor has perhaps pioneered what will become a figment of popular gaming culture. With the resurrection of home-based video gaming in the 1980s, Nintendo spearheaded a cultural phenomenon. What had been considered a source of secondary amusement to a handful of people prior to (largely) the Nintendo, would later become an integral piece of a collective entertainment lifestyle for a generation of kids whose first taste of video games was during the 80s. As time has passed, so have the games advanced, and their players grown into functioning (?) adults. It is these very adults that have carried gaming memories from their childhood, and an earlier gaming experience, which in time will lead to the creation of a collective video game nostalgia- a nostalgia that will shape the historical narrative of video gaming for years to come. Nostalgia from later generations will add their take on the narrative as time goes on.

Since we (gamers who got ‘into the game’ around the NES days) are amongst the first generation to experience such nostalgia, it is safe to assume that we who will be setting a historical tone for such nostalgia to develop. And when you think about it, based on that EGM article, a whole new generation is going to contribute to the definition of everything they see today from the games that they’re going to be introduced to. What a thought!

The process of the construction of nostalgia is simple enough. Think of it- how many times have you been in a discussion with your gamer friends and not alluded to like-oriented franchises of yesteryear for comparison? When it comes to platformers coming out today, I might think that Jak II may be a great game, but it’s no comparison to the quality I grew up with in Super Mario Bros 3. Based on that nostalgia, games like Jak II will never live up what I experienced when Mario first put on that Tanooki suit. Hell- I have no idea exactly what a Tanooki is, but I’ve got damned fond memories of it- which is more than I can say about a wise-talking Timon knock-off. However, I’m sure that there’s probably a contingent of new young gamers that will take to Daxter’s mannerisms and the games that go along with it as their personal holy grail of gaming. That’s the effect of nostalgia, holmes- and I’m damned sure that I’m not the only one who could attest to this.

Or take Street Fighter 2, for instance, as another example. Growing up playing that game has had such a profound effect on the fighting games I know and enjoy today. SF2 was the game that got myself, and many others, hooked on 1-1 fighting games, and is the ‘measuring stick’ on which I base whatever has come after it. However for the younger generation, who find 3D fighters as revolutionary as I found 2D Street Fighter, their ‘measuring stick’ will probably be Soul Calibur or, God forbid, Tekken. It’s interesting, from my ‘aged’ vantage point, to see how a younger cat would react to a copy of Soul Calibur 2 placed beside a copy of Guilty Gear XX, or at this point, even SNK Vs Capcom: Chaos. The interpretations of what you will see in the future are compared to that similar-yet-different first experience- this is nostalgia; the shaping of the historical narrative.

One thing to consider about nostalgia is it’s powerful marketing angle. Think of the intrinsic relationship between age and taste. Now, think of that relationship in respect to games. As time goes on, game makers are going to have to adapt their products to service what each new generation of game player is used to. Still with me? Good.

Back in the 80s, the only major group of ‘commercially targeted’ game players were younger kids (from my generation), thus the bulk of the market consisted of franchises that were marketed towards them. Now, the market this now-older group, and a new group of today’s younger cats; thus, the number of new franchises will have to widen in order to capture the bulk of the market, and the franchises will reflect the new spread. The market gets bigger, and here’s where this sentimental nostalgia kicks in.

Developers and publishers will then scramble for the next marketable franchise to manufacture- but to what group? Nintendo has profited immensely from their nostalgia-rooted games, which is why you’re still seeing new games with the same familiar faces. However, Sony and a lot of other publishers, who at the beginning of the ‘pop-gaming resurrection’ are racing to create franchises of their own- i.e. the Gran Turismo series and the aforementioned Jak and Daxter line. Who knows? As weird as it sounds, you might meet a kid who grew up on a franchise you never gave much thought- all because it was one of the first things they touched. Pokemon, anyone? As you see, all of these franchises exists in the hindsight of nostalgia, and are already in some cases part of video gaming’s history.

Also, think of the huge cultural implication that this nostalgia will have on future video games to come. Video game icons are already surfacing in today’s mainstream media; many pop music acts’ lyrics showcase icons. Think about Biggie Smallz and his little mention of the two 16-bit juggernauts– a direct product of this new nostalgia, and movies have popped up featuring games from quasi-respected franchises to the utterly expendable. And just when you thought that only your opinion mattered, Spike TV will let theirs be known to a national audience, because Spike TV believes that there’s enough viewers out there who would eat a show like that up. These are all examples of early video game franchises that come from a collective gaming nostalgia, and contribute to the historical narrative from the outside.

I guess what I’m trying to convey here is that the initial memory of the collective gaming population- that is, gamers from the pop-gaming resurrection who grew up with the first groundbreaking games are now setting the historical lenses in which video game history will be viewed by new gamers that are just stepping up to the plate. As more gamers enter the field for the first time, their nostalgic views will add to this narrative as time goes by. The nostalgia that gamers from this generation carry will have a deciding impact on the shape of thing to come within the gaming world. What that shape will ultimately become, I don’t know. However, I suspect it’ll be one hell of a show in seeing how the narrative will be constructed.

Preservation of the gaming memory for the appreciation of future gamers- that’s the Gamer’s Conscience.

And that about does it for this rather academic edition of the Conscience. This week at 411Games will be TWICE as great as the last one, as our roving band of gaming heads bring you the best that humanity can afford, with news and insight fit for publication in The Economist. Feedback is always appreciated.

Until next time!