Materialism, Music, and the Culture of Video Games

Recently, freelance games writer Leigh Alexander wrote a piece for Gamasutra titled “Grunge, Grrrls and Video Games: Turning the Dial for a More Meaningful Culture.” In the lengthy essay, Alexander expresses concern about gaming culture being in a destructive feedback loop where adolescent values are reinforced by corporations trying to market and sell things to gamers.

To combat this cycle, she talks about her own experiences growing up with ’90s alternative music, which offered her a more thoughtful, introspective view on the world rather than the testosterone-fueled hair-rock of the late ’80s. She then goes on to say how gaming culture needs its version of this — its own grunge revolution — to shake it out of the current materialistic malaise. To her, grunge was about making music personal and intimate, even if in practice it still reached a massive audience. Indie and zinester developers need to rise up and shake the gaming culture out of its trigger-happy, graphics-obsessed rut.

The following is an email exchange between GamerNode’s Associate Editor Greg Galiffa and freelance games writer Ethan Gach discussing Alexander’s piece. Gach and Galiffa grew up together and try to dissect how their own experiences influence and shape their views of videogame culture as it stands today.

“Turns out a lot of people were left scarred by the ’80s, an era marked by corporate climbing, capitalist idealism, and the machines of industry. 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.”

Ethan: I think this is supposed to apply to us as white, middle-class suburban kids, but I don’t recall that being the case for us, our friends, or any of our friend’s older siblings.

Greg: Yeah, she’s trying to make generalized statements about white, suburban kids for sure, since that’s who the music and the video games she’s talking about appealed to the most. I don’t think that was supposed to be taken literally, but rather as the proverbial “mom and dad of the ’80s.” She also makes general statements about the music of that time that may not be what its fans internalized, i.e. drugs, suicide, and thinking about who you are as a person: “we drifted around with willful numb detachment, disparaging everything.”

Again, I take that as the proverbial “we.” I don’t know exactly what was going through my brothers’ heads at that age, but they listened to that music and I don’t think that description applies to them. But, overall, I think it summarizes the feel of that period. I will say, though, that my mom had “Buns of Steel” VHS tapes.

“This endless loop of dog-eared geek references and getting mad on the internet isn’t culture.

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.

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.

Bear 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.

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.”

Ethan: I think a lot of what I have trouble with in the piece is this back and forth between simultaneously not being content just to preach to the choir, but also not having anything to say to those who “don’t get it,” and saying that gamer culture isn’t culture at all, but hey, it can be if people who don’t agree with me and who I think are exhausting just get on board with how the culture is “supposed” to be.

Also, regarding the music stuff, she keeps comparing ’90s alternative to ’80s pop, which seems less helpful than comparing ’90s alternative to ’80s alternative. Lots of not traditionally commercial or pop groups in the ’80s were talking about politics and real issues. Lots of pop in the ’90s and 2000s still doesn’t do that.

Which ends up bringing you back to: it’s great that video games can have an alternative scene now — but don’t think that you’re somehow going to co-op the big, bad AAA boys with it. Twine is for masses of people, but not the masses.

Greg: I guess my confusion is that we have really decent games in the mainstream at the moment that do address issues and have questions about identity, influence, and social issues. Maybe they don’t do as directly as something as emotionally charged as music, which is literally someone pouring out their heart through a guitar in the case of alternative ’90s, but they still have thoughtful thematic elements. I agree they aren’t frequent, but when they come around they do get huge market recognition.

For example:

– Ken Levine was on an episode of “The Nerdist,” one of the only video-game related interviews I know of in that show’s series.
Journey was beloved by EVERYONFGEONE
– Grand. Theft. Aw. Toe.

Ethan: Also, ’90s was super capitalistic — it was just a booming economy, so you could check out of the mainstream, go get high and be in a band or be a groupie, and still muddle through college somehow before coming to by your mid 20s and have white collar jobs just fall into your lap.

The ’80s were a very volatile economic time, and a lot of the yuppity stuff comes from the fact that people had to be more cutthroat because employment wasn’t as bountiful — kinda like today.

Only difference is that now you can be that culture elite for very cheap. Imagine if it were the ’80s and to really dig music and film you had to be blowing thousands of dollars on VCRs and boomboxes and cassettes and VHS tapes.

Greg: I think what you’re saying is there needs to be an “American Psycho” video game to bring all of this full circle. It could be set in the modern era. It could be an indie game with similar mechanics to the top-down GTA games. But instead of being completely free-roaming, you go through the meaningless effort to trying to make your life more fulfilling via media. Eventually, you crack under the pressure and the realization of how fruitless and empty everything is.

But, similar to “American Psycho” (also, this being a video game), no one stops you from going on your rampage. Meta. Thematic. Aware. It shows the apathy of a generation while simultaneously blending in modern elements of gamer gratification. AND it could show how insignificant both are. AANNND it being cosmetically indie will only further its anti-marketing mantra.

Ethan: Yes! Also, imagine if you lose control of the avatar in those moments? He starts doing horrible things — and you can’t stop him. How has no game done that before? Taken control away from you, not through a cutscene, but by literally overwriting it with an AI for a certain duration.

And your task then becomes trying to figure out what will normalize or prevent these psychotic breakdowns from happening in the future. You win only if you A) can “cure” the protagonist, i.e. give him/her meaning, or B) kill yourself before committing as few murders as possible.

Except that the police won’t stop you, and various rules prevent the character from suicide.


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Author: Greg Galiffa View all posts by
Greg Galiffa is an Associate Editor at GamerNode. He's also an apologist for the first TMNT film. You can follow him on Twitter @greggaliffa

10 Comments on "Materialism, Music, and the Culture of Video Games"

  1. inzautoe September 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm -

    Ethan’s second response resonates with my feelings about the article.

    I feel like the complaint is that the “underground” games aren’t popular enough, even though we are consistently seeing them become more popular. Then she has to find even more “underground” stuff to talk about and be upset about because not enough people like it.

    I don’t even know what the Twine scene IS, but I feel like if I told her that I don’t get it, she’d throw her hands up and walk away rather than explain it to me, which is exactly the opposite of what she seems to want “culture journalists” such as herself to do. Talk about insular. It all seems very hypocritical.

    Perhaps her feelings didn’t come across perfectly through her words, but it really just sounds like she’s upset about a “problem” and would rather not work to “fix” it.

    My contention remains, however, that there are TONS of “alternative” options in gaming. SO many. It’s alternative, by definition, because it’s not mainstream. This is an emergent and multi-faceted subculture, and there will always be shifting lines as far as the mainstream, alternative, and underground are concerned.

    And there will always be hipsters to feel self-important and/or angsty about which sides of those lines they choose to stand on most often … and who’s listening to them talk about it.

    • Josh September 10, 2013 at 4:01 pm -

      I never understand half of what she writes about. Seriously, what the hell IS ‘the Twine scene’?

      She’s usually one of the angriest, most upset people I come across online. Honestly, I sometimes wonder if she actually plays games, because she doesn’t act as if she’s ever had fun in her life.

      It doesn’t come across in this piece as much, but you’re right, Eddie. Leigh is, at least in what I’ve witnessed, the type of person who will get angry and upset if you either don’t get her point, or worse, don’t agree with it. Hell, the Q&A section on her own blog emphatically states that she’s not willing to have a discussion with people who have a different opinion.

      “Question: Hmm, that’s a lot of stuff, there. And not all of it applies to me. And I’m not sure if I agree with you. Can we discuss?

      Answer: No. Be quiet and listen for once.”

      Okay then, well just be prepared for people to not take you seriously.

      She talks about “rebelling” and being a part of a “revolution,” but it all just makes me roll my eyes, because it sounds so melodramatic.

      “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.”

      What the hell does that even mean? That just sounds so silly. It makes me feel like doing my best Allen Iverson impression. These are games, man. We’re talkin’ ’bout GAMES. And I love them! They are my passion and what I spend hours playing and talking, reading and writing about. There’s a lot to be excited about! But we’re not talking about revolting against an oligarchy who’s denying its citizens basic human rights. We’re talkin’ ’bout GAMES, man.

      BLAH, okay, that’s the end of my rant.

      • inzautoe September 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm -

        Iverson would have said “games” at least 20 more times.

      • Dan Crabtree September 10, 2013 at 8:09 pm -

        For what it’s worth, Josh, the “JUST games” argument is about as invalidating as some of Leigh’s conversational prereqs. Games are a reflection of the people who make them, and the mindsets of the people who make them. If there is a perceived imbalance in one, it’s likely there is an imbalance in the other, which I believe is what she’s hoping to remedy.

        And I think she knows it’s not a CURE, per se, but that in order for things to get better, someone has to speak up. I’m more of the mind that additive, positive creative energy has a larger footprint than the ol’ stare-down-the-nose.

      • Josh September 10, 2013 at 9:14 pm -

        I’m not saying we shouldn’t be striving to better our industry, as there’s a lot of room for improvement. I’m also not saying games aren’t something to take seriously. Perhaps it’s just an issue of semantics and phrasing, but I feel as though she regards games as the height of social injustice. And I just don’t feel the same.

        And as you say, positive creative energy should be the driving force behind the ways in which we improve our community and the products we love.

        I just loathe the pretentiousness and bile that comes from so many within gaming, whether it’s rabid fans or figureheads within the media. What can these people hope to achieve with their vitriol? Most people don’t respond well to negativity. I know I certainly don’t.

      • inzautoe September 10, 2013 at 9:25 pm -

        Would you call her writing staring down the nose or positive creative energy?

      • inzautoe September 11, 2013 at 9:28 am -

        I also get really annoyed when I read the way “Girls” is written in the title of the Gama article.

        “Grrrls” suggests that “girls” is somehow a bad or derogatory word, like there’s something wrong with being a girl (or “just a girl,” as Gwen Stefani would say), or that there’s an inherent anger (grrr as in a growl) that is a necessary part of being female.

        F that.

      • Josh September 12, 2013 at 6:32 pm -

        I think it’s the name of some feminist movement. There’s a girl I used to work with who talks about something called ‘Riot Grrrl’ all the time.

      • inzautoe September 13, 2013 at 8:41 am -

        My comment still stands; that’s a stupid way to write it.

  2. Nintendo Fan 4 Lif3 September 11, 2013 at 4:06 pm -

    I think the big issue many non-gamers find with the game industry is that they feel they’re not in full control of the experience or able to relate in a more materialistic way like the way people connect with music and your avatar being taken away that is the main quota of Leigh’s arguments and what was talked about in the article. Because when those non-gamers look at us gamers, they don’t see a culture, they see a ‘cult’, they see us as a minority that can’t justify the entertainment of their medium without causing controversy and feel they’ll never find a way to break that mold. The point of video games is that the developer/creator and/or their game(s) leave an impression on you while it is the gamer’s job to express their reaction to it and show how it has impacted them by changing their perspective on life or just applying it to their own problems or ideals or even just through emotions as human beings, and that’s one of the things I feel Leigh was trying to pinpoint that is overlooked because she feels the medium is too shallow for novices who have no experience to minimal. So with everything that was mentioned, I feel the only solution to address this is that we start making more games feel like experiences that can be taken hands on instead of requiring numerous effort just to get into gaming: accessibility. I’m not saying games become easier or stories aren’t allowed to be complex, but that the experience has to feel more organic and have the player connect with it so that like other mediums, and/or transcend them, they can evoke a change that will stimulate those doubters to invest their time so that they fully comprehend the reward of not only being an observer but also a participant in the experience, and disprove the points that Leigh was nailing in most of her argument. The key is so that they feel like they’re living the experience; not just see or feel what’s going on in the game and on screen. Like with music how through the lyrics we feel what the artist/band is talking about by taking us through the song with descriptions and details that appeal to our sensory and analytical instincts and movies that show us a depiction of ideas that make us fully realize a director’s vision and help feel more intimately the pain or triumph that is emphasized to not only entertain the viewers’ curiosity but also give them something to look back upon and broaden their horizon on the way things are and how things ought to be. Games combine those two devices by putting people into the creator’s/protagonist’s/antagonist’s shoes and make it all feel alive so that it is not only meaningful but leaves us with purpose because that experience makes us stronger and leave us walking away in a new light that can’t ever be outshone by the outlooks music and movies may give on yourself and the meaning of life. That is the essence of what video games are about; so when more video games start making the player feel pertinent and integral to the story and/or progression of the game to fuel the core aura of the experience and ultimately improve both the creator’s and player’s lives in an unexpected way, a la The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Ocarina of Time and all of Zelda, Mario games, Half Life, Halo, Chrono Trigger, FF VII, Batman Arkham games, Metal Gear Solid series, Assasisn’s Creed series, Splinter Cell series, Ghost Recon series, Bayonetta, Tomb Raider reboot, and Earthbound as some noteworthy examples, that is when video games will touch everyone’s heart and leave with them an experience they won’t forget, as right now only gamers understand but I believe in the future when that day comes everyone will that’s a nongamer will come to appreciate and understand the entirety of industry and the doctrines/principles it stands on. We are progressing towards that future and I don’t want that to stop because if we do, gaming loses its meaning, we lose our place in society, and Leigh will end up being right. We may not need the approval of everyone else to be unique and be our own culture and community, but everyone will learn to accept the video game industry as an inseparable part of our lives whether people want to erase it altogether or embrace its unity; no matter where we go one gamer or another, or musician or actor/actress will be everywhere so we must comprehend that if the industry is to soar from this point forward and soar in the mist of all this chaos. Games are fun and enjoyed so that they give us purpose and the strength to go on in life. Without those qualities, they’re just as useless as if they were missing from music or movies; the medium is still young and in due time-soon in fact-no one will ever doubt the industry again. I don’t know if I contributed to the thoughts in the article, but if I did happy to help. If not, then sorry for wasting your time Greg and Ethan. Otherwise, thanks for listening :)

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