April 9, 2009

End Of History

I have a younger brother, who, last year, pointed to my bookshelf and said: "The Witcher, I've heard of that." At that time my brother was still in high school and didn't play very many games, so I asked him how he could possibly know what The Witcher is. He said that this is the game all his friends are talking about. Nothing against The Witcher, but in what universe do high school boys care more about a Polish CRPG than Gears of War 2 or Rock Band? Apparently it's this universe, which makes me feel confused and alone. You can make certain assumptions about how the next generation will be different, but here they are evolving along a completely unexpected track. I no longer understand anything of the world beneath my age bracket.

Around the time of this conversation, I went into a game store and overheard two nine-year-old kids talking about how casual games are ruining the industry. I assume that at some point these kids found out what NeoGAF was and believed that they had stumbled upon the inner sanctum and, overnight, had become industry experts and also cooler than all their friends. From a purely intellectual perspective, it shouldn't be surprising that today's nine-year-olds are forming their impressions of the industry entirely from the most sensationalistic sites on the internet. Cultural touchstones are exchanged for newer versions as a matter of course: Kotaku replaces Usenet replaces Electronic Gaming Monthly as a teenager's conduit for gaming hipness.

It's still easy to be disorientated at how fast everything changes and relevance diminishes. Kids growing up on Joystiq is unsettling for the same reasons as it is to imagine those same high school kids with Twitter accounts. That's where social interaction and romances are playing out for 15-year-olds: on Twitter, Facebook, and maybe LinkedIn, who knows. The generations who conducted awkward teenage relationships via nervous phone calls and love letters look at their children and think: what the fuck is all this? Where's the legitimacy and innocence in a relationship borne of cyberspace nudges and pokes? We had to do it the hard way. It's a shame that technology advances at such a rate that our children will never understand what we were forced to put up without the luxuries that they currently burn through. Incidentally, I think every person reaches a milestone in their life when they begin to identify with the dad from Calvin & Hobbes who talked about how shoveling snow builds character.

We have a desire, I think, to preserve our own experiences, to prove that they were worth experiencing in the first place. Otherwise, everything that made our lives meaningful ends up forgotten. This is why pretty much anyone born in the last ten years will be told by their parents to disregard everything they've learned about the numerical system and accept that the Star Wars movies start with the fourth one. If we can pass on anything to our kids, it's knowledge like that.

It's hard enough to recommend Star Wars when it's constantly being retroactively altered, and classic albums whose reissues conclude not as originally intended but with a collection of forgettable bonus tracks that were left on the cutting room floor for a reason. Recommending a video game to the younger generation is harder still. Not only because it's increasingly difficult to run old games on available hardware, or that graphics age painfully fast. When games are increasingly tied to narrative campaigns and individual experiences, recommending Deus Ex means something different than a recommendation for chess. Even if players get the former running, odds are they won't play the game the way you did and so, consequently, they aren't playing it right. When they play the game as a shooter they've abandoned all the reasons why it was so memorable for us as a stealth game, or whatever.

To pass down video games is to live vicariously through someone else's playthrough. Whenever I made my younger brother play a game that I liked, I would get so frustrated at how he wasn't getting it right, or would miss every possible hidden room in a level. His experience wasn't the one that I recommended; how could he get it so wrong? I'm the oldest of two brothers, so that's the only role I know: yelling over his shoulder like an English teacher, turning play into work.

He doesn't understand what I saw in these games in the first place, and probably never will. In the future, he will understand what it's like to have Peggle streamed to him intraveneously while riding a hoverboard and also wearing some cool sunglasses. He won't, however, be able to convince his son or daughter that that was ever considered fun.

I'll never get to know what that's like. And that's fine, because it sounds stupid.


qrter said...

I wouldn't be too scared regarding Twitter - it supposedly is used mostly by people over 30. I read it in several articles written by people over 30 - hey, wait a minute..

Highschool kids knowing about The Witcher isn't that weird, there are cards with naked ladies in there, after all. Even in an age with the internet-porn dynamo whirring at full power, there's an attraction to that. Also, there are always the kids who don't like sports but do like D&D etc. I guess the same goes for games.

Nels Anderson said...

All hope isn't necessarily lost. I had Monkey Island 1 & 2 on my DS when I was down for GDC (via ScummVM and R4). I had dinner with the fam' one night and after my ten year-old cousin kicked my ass in Mario Kart DS, I showed her Monkey Island.

She seemed interested, discussing how she and a friend had enjoyed Professor Layton and the Curious Village. I'm a little concerned about recommending she get Monkey Island, since it might simply be inaccessible, but I'll likely supply her anyway. If nothing else, I made an attempt.

But yea, I understand all too well what you're saying. Part of me wonders if games age so poorly just because they're still so new, relatively speaking, or if there's something more fundamental there.

Jorge Albor said...

I don't know if you intended to invoke Francis Fukuyama with your title there, but his prediction didn't allow for all that much change in the future. Games and technology, on the other hand, show no sign of slowing in a dramatic way. So even the "youngins" will have their "back in my day" moment. At least that can bind us, or at least satisfy my vindictive nature. That aside, I'm not so sure I experience the same thing as people in my age bracket anyhow, so maybe this is nothing new. As you can tell, I'm not much of a believer in the age gap.

Duncan said...

A sobering illustration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvKwpNywHh0

Jorge: I have to admit that I knew the Fukuyama reference didn't make much sense in the context of this post, but I couldn't think of anything else to call it. Sorry, I'm terrible. I love that I have readers who can call me out on misappropriating a Francis Fukuyama thesis, though.

Nels: Some of those Lucasarts puzzles are so obtuse, I have no idea how kids (myself included) ever dealt with them. In your case, it sounds like you won't be there to scream at your cousin to make the monkey into the wrench, which is probably a good thing. I'm sure that's what I would do.

qrter: You're right, of course, but it's still weird to me. Naked ladies, sure, but what, did the internet miss a shipment? I'm not sure if The Witcher appeals to 13 year olds in quite the same way that Leisure Suit Larry did.