Starting quote, Dec. 2016 interview with Shigeru Miyamoto:
“I’m a designer. I don’t think of myself as creating works, I really think of myself as creating products for people to enjoy. That’s why I’ve always called my games products rather than works of art.”
There is a scene in the 1996 animated film Ghost In the Shell where a truck driver finds out that his memories and identity were fake. They were implanted by a nefarious character called the ‘puppet master’. The incredulity and devastation of the man, once he realized his life has been an illusion, was depicted quite well. Don’t worry, I’m not analyzing the film. Worry though about the fact that I want to discuss how many contemporary American identities, so-called ‘Gamers’, are manufactured, and what that means.
Ghost in the Shell? No really, it has large and fully fleshed-out philosophical aspects to it
If I were asked what TV shows as a child were influential to me (i.e. I liked a lot), I could easily name a few. I enjoyed He-Man, G.I. Joe, The Simpsons, Thundercats, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and Looney Toons, among many others I’m sure. Yet the production of these shows came with many goals. The shows didn’t appear out of nowhere. Common media design goals were to entertain, educate and get kids to be good nationalistic little boys and girls. Some of the shows might have been a bit less propagandist than others, but the main driver in most of the shows of my time (born in 1980) was to make a ton of money for company share-holders. They did this by getting kids hooked on some cute lovable (or manly and strong) IP and creating products the parents buy for the kids. Plastic He-men don’t grow on trees, y’know.
Now, many of us are looking back to the media of our childhoods for comfort, whether it’s video games, tv shows, comic books, music, fashion or whatever. We are clearly experiencing a wave of 80’s nostalgia, right now. Stranger Things season 2? Yes, please! But, what we might find in this cultural excavation is that what we loved so dearly is actually rather empty and dull. Captain America? Seriously? Things may seem in retrospect only precious to us because we were exposed to them in our formative years. We might struggle to rationalize why they feel so precious and important. That struggle is similar to the one of incredulous truck driver. Many of the precious things we grew up on were total fluff and/or propaganda designed to either make money, instill a rather simplistic political ideology, or both. Some of it is benign, to be sure, but that doesn’t stop the pain of realizing much of who you are is a sham.
In the 90’s, Reality Bit…
Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman published a book called Manufacturing Consent in 1998. The book is pretty much standard reading for liberal arts college-level students. It discusses how mass media, particularly the news, is heavily influenced by large businesses and other powerful interests and is therefore acting biased towards maintaining the pro big-business status quo of America, whilst marginalizing other stories of significance. Yet, it isn’t just consent that is being manufactured, it is identities. One of which is ‘the gamer’.
I don’t think this identity formation is fully intentional, nor could anybody have predicted the extent of mass media’s power over self-formation, but if my generation’s nostalgia for our childhood media is a sign of soul searching, than we are pretty lost. Maybe that’s okay, but it sure comes at a price. In the Euro-American vacuum of God being dead and such, we, in that sphere of influence, have been weaned on basically a bunch of hot air. Even though I am Native American and have been influenced by our tradition, I still grew up in world where mainstream American media has had hegemony, and I don’t think it would be honest or helpful to try to deny its influence on me. I feel the sting. On the positive note, this sting of meaninglessness only strengthens my respect for our traditions.
So what about people who do not have other traditional roots to ground them when they realize that their childhoods are just a part of an experiment in making a ton of money with the increasingly powerful tools of media? There are a mass of Americans out there who are on ‘spiritual’ journeys to find themselves, to find meaning and purpose, with disturbingly large backpacks in-tow. I often noticed while living in Korea that many Americans seemed to be trying to fill the void in their hearts by somehow trying to become Korean. Korean culture appears to those lost souls as more authentic and human compared to their own empty calculating-the-costs culture, despite the fact that Korea has a touch of the ultra-capitalism as well. Many Americans are going through something like this, perhaps not in Korea, but elsewhere or with some other ethnicity. A lot of them seem to be crazy for Japan. Personally, I have a great respect for Korean traditions, but don’t see myself in their terms. As someone married a native Korean, I can’t help but be seen in those terms by her and her family. I digress.
If you get this reference, you are my target audience
Now that the most popular medium for the younger American generations are video games, I suspect that when they get old enough to look at how they grew up with a critical eye that they will eventually analyze this mass of video games for what they are. It’s already being done actually. Really though, most of the AAA games are made with the goal of making money. If they have some integrity, it might be one that is polished, entertaining, makes a lot of money and has mass appeal. Meaning and purpose don’t really figure into the mix. Hence my starting quote. Any meaning that people might apply to them is consequentially arbitrary, much like the feels nostalgia. Gamers too will feel the sting of the truck driver when they get older and will have to search for something with more substance. This seems somewhat pitiable to me because it doesn’t appear that anything yet worthwhile in video games has come to be. There’s been examples of the potential of games, as something akin to art here and there, but that’s about it.
We know there is something meaningful in certain special games, that there is some wheat in that mountain of chaff. And, that some games, more than others, seem to have more space for meaning in them, like Dark Souls and it’s community of lore enthusiasts. To conclude, I will say that the communities that have formed around games are real, the jobs video games and their development provide are real, the families they sustain are real, and the hours of entertainment are too, but the spiritual horizon games provide doesn’t seem to have much substance. At some point the generations are going to have to come to terms with it, unless of course, the environmental apocalypse happens. In that case, the Fallout series might actually be able to prove useful beyond being just an entertaining product after all.