A variety of science fiction authors offered theories about internet culture in the nineties, observing the potential and predicting various modes of expression possible in such a medium. William Gibson accurately guessed the artistic phenomenon of Youtube celebrities and their cult status, although he significantly over-estimated the appeal of anything beyond sneezing pandas. Ray Kurzweil, more of a futurist than a Sci-Fi author, calculated that downloadable content would replace DVD’s (as opposed to Blu-Ray) in a move that would eventually subsume all forms of media into the hands of one or two distributors. We aren’t there yet…but it is hardly as fantastic a notion now as it was ten years ago. In regards to the intellectual development of writing and communication, Neal Stephenson seemed to hit the nail on the head. In Snow Crash, he describes a type of writer called a gargoyle. Although he was certainly wrong about these people being computer-obsessed virtual junkies (I guess), their writing style he described is fairly apt. It’s a person who collects random information, researches topics online, and combines the data in unexpected and new ways.
For the past year or so, a growing movement of intellectual gamers has begun to take the spotlight. It is a social development that’s right on schedule (if not a bit early) in game culture, since all artistic mediums start hitting their stride once their initial fans are old enough to feel nostalgic about it. There was an interesting piece on GameSetWatch about the continuing evolution of video game journalism by Mike Walbridge. It’s a very good collection of different prominent gamerati and their takes on running a game blog. Some maintain well-developed communities, others view them more as soapboxes to stand on. He notes their curious habit of linking back & forth, discussing points raised by others, and in general functioning as an aggregate cabal of ideas. I’m reminded of Stephenson’s gargoyle term because of the way ideas flow and function amongst their blogs. They are not united by a magazine or website (though plenty write for one), they are united by an agenda: creating an intelligent and respectable discussion about video games. The way their attempts have become far more empowered than a single lonely critic or blogger is through the exact method that Stephenson predicted: aggregate ideas in new combinations are more powerful than individual ones. One blogger posts their experience designing an RTS. Another reads it, then cites it in reference to a think-tank on new RTS games. The next adds a little bit, the next adds a bit more, until a snowball effect has occurred and something wholly new is born.
So at what stage of intellectual development is the medium of video games right now? In an article about preserving classic video games by Michael Zenke, a particularly insightful comment summarizes it well. Danc, of Lost Garden fame explains: “As games increase in scope, play style and number, it simply isn’t possible to know all games all the time. So a curious thing occurs. You run into people who game and you have nothing in common with them…If the literary world is any indication, there will emerge an elite group that builds lists of canonical titles that everyone must play if they are to be considered ‘educated’…The existing gamer culture will fragment and adapt to this new reality of choice and variety. Entirely new cultures will emerge so that there is no longer a single ‘gamer culture’.” There’s a bit of cynicism about intellectual elitism that I cherry-picked out, but you get his point. And it’s already happening, a person playing Guitar Hero is not the same kind of person who plays FPS games, though they’re both technically playing video games. Working on the book club model, gamers are now picking a game of the month then discussing it through the internet. The aggregate cabal in motion, canonizing the revered classics and exploring different perspectives on them. Michael Abbott, a college professor and prominent blogger at Brainy Gamer, has already made plans for a course on RPG’s and created a loose list for his syllabus. Video games, in terms of development, have started to declare their touchstones, their games that all others are compared to.
Let’s take a moment to shake the magic 8-ball, blow the dust off history, and remind ourselves that this has already all been done before in other mediums. Going back to Danc’s comment about game culture fracturing, you can already begin to see the symptoms of factions in the intellectual community. It’s gettin crowded in there ya’ll. You can’t swing a digital cat without hitting another gamer with the surname intellectual, smart, sophisticated, etc. I’m not trivializing or belittling this, my own blog is called ‘Literati Game Reviews’, I’m just trying to have a chat with the kettle while we both sit on the stove. Although the internet is a wonderful place for six or seven intelligent people to chat and flesh out an idea, it is still constrained by the fundamental problem that reality has with conversations. There’s only room for so many people per conversation. A book club with forty members isn’t going to develop nearly as coherent a theme or message as one with twelve. We’ve all played enough video games made by 150+ developers to know that. Whether it’s because your favorite game isn’t on the list, they disagree with your ideas, or they just don’t have enough room for them, eventually writers are going to strike out on their own. And whether it’s from the bitterness of being ignored in one group or finding the necessary fire to get a second one started, these factions are going to start bickering.
Which is not such a bad thing, it’s right on course for the development of an artistic medium. Within those fights and dueling ideas is the magic that makes an artistic medium be alive instead of some dissected corpse. Within those conversations and arguments is what makes video games a living medium instead of a parade of dead people’s words or films. First you fight about the games you hate. Then you fight about the ones you love. Then you fight about what makes them great, then you fight about what made them even more. You fight about why they’ve changed. You fight about why they stayed the same. Finally, you fight about how the medium is dying, and then you fight about how it’s gone. Then you do something new.