Up, Up, Down, Down
The pace of cultural change in the western world has accelerated so rapidly that it's reached the breaking point, according to the late anthropologist Margaret Mead. And that was before the Net, and the ascent of role playing and electronic gaming. No longer a subculture, gaming is becoming our ascendant culture, growing more than any other cultural form, sparking a moral panic and affecting the way people think, play, learn, communicate and work. First in a series.
"The future of technology is about shifting to what people like to do, and that's entertainment...I'm telling you: all the money and the energy in this country will eventually be devoted to doing things with your mind and your time." --- AI pioneer Marvin Minsky.
Left Right, Left Right, BA Start.
Recite this combination to millions of younger Americans, especially males, and it's like a secret handshake: the cheat code for Contra and other games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Most will know that for two-player mode you insert "select." Recite the same sequence to most older people, and they'll think you're mentally ill. But the beautiful thing, e-mails James Sumner of Yale, "is that all I have to do is start "up, up, down, down ..." and any male my age will finish it."
"I would recognize it anywhere, instantly..." one gamer e-mailed me when I sent him the sequence. "Until my dying breath ...It's a cheat, that you use to get 30 lives instead of 3 ... You press that combo while the intro screen is sliding by, then start the game and you get 30 lives ..."
Another answered this way: "Sure, I know it, it's a reflex, a neuron. My parents still think gaming is a weird hobby. But for me, it's a way of thinking, a password."
In his remarkable new book Playful World, Mark Pesce reminds us of Mead's observation about the pace of change in the Western world.
In earlier times, Mead had written, elders could educate the young in their traditions and wisdoms, passing along important lessons that would serve the youngsters well.
In the past generation, though, cultural development -- centered around new forms of popular culture, mostly involving computers, has so intensified that the generational transmission of values has become even more outmoded, increasingly irrelevant. What's evolved is perhaps the widest gap --informational, cultural and factual -- between the young and the old in human history. In many ways, gaming is at the center of this chasm.
Adults still insist they have lessons to teach the next generation. But the young have come to believe, with increasing justification, that their elders know much less than they do, and have little worth passing along. All they have to offer are boring and outmoded educational systems, political structures that no longer work, and exhausted forms of fading, sacrosanct, heavily subsidized "culture."
Obviously many older people do have useful things to pass along, especially their experiences with life and their accumulated perspectives. But there are also cultural and technological advances, more all the time, that they simply can't grasp. It often seems that only adolescents really have the time, instincts and motor skills to grasp the mechanics of cutting-edge gaming, programming and other digital technologies.
This chasm first opened on the cultural front, with the evolution of distinctly youth-centered entertainment forms like hip-hop, rock 'n' roll and then Nintendo and Sega; it's widened as gaming has expanded beyond its subculture status. Gaming isn't just a hobby any longer. In fact, it needs a new label, something like VI -- Virtual Imagination. Well on the way to being culture itself , gaming has all sorts of implications for education, work and politics.
Gaming has exploded in the past few years until, according to Steven Poole's book Trigger Happy, videogame sales now equal movie ticket receipts. Sales of game consoles and software in the United States will top $17 billion a year by 2003 (the music industry, by comparison, reported revenues of $15 billion last year).
The average American child plays videogames forty-nine minutes a day, but games are no longer the province of kids; 61 per cent of videogamers are eighteen or older, and more than a quarter are over thirty-six. Videogames are no longer bounded by gender, either: players are evenly divided between men and women.
This revolution has spawned its own vast, diverse and complicated media culture -- gamespy.com, avault.com, gamespot.com, ign.com, ugo.com. These sites teem with games and reviews, from programmers, writers, artists and designers. Media sites like Myvideogame.com and gamecritics.com report on story lines and offer essays on the creative shortcomings of game programmers.
Newer sites like Joystick101.org are gaming weblogs; they fuse gaming with individual stories. Recently, that site ran stories about a player named Sheyla who faked her death in a ploy for sympathy from the Everquest community; the stories linked to a story about the kind of gaming work ethic that prompted a Starcraft programmer to bring his laptop to the hospital birth of his daughter. Ign.com covers Quake III like MSNBC covered the presidential election. Academics all over the country are using the Sim games to teach urban planning and financial and social interaction.
And eBay now routinely auctions off characters and property from games like Ultima Online to newbies who don't want to spend years developing their own characters. The gaming industry employs thousands of writers, artists, producers, animators, filmmakers designers and programmers.
Virtual characters are now sometimes worth thousands of dollars, something inconceivable outside of Hollywood just a few years ago.
No other form of culture is ascending as rapidly. Compared to gaming, traditional kinds of culture -- some elements of book publishing, opera and classical music, dance, appear declining and endangered."