Action sport: the striking parallels between videogame and skate culture
“I consider skateboarding an art form, a lifestyle and a sport. ‘Action sport’ would be the least offensive categorisation.” – Tony Hawk.
I don’t know about you, but I could easily attribute that quote to my relationship with videogames. And I think we can all at least relate to Hawk’s need to find a ‘least offensive’ categorisation for his profession and past-time in the public domain. I was intending to write about how I was still playing Skate 3 (which I am, and you should play it, too) but the striking parallels between gaming and skating wouldn’t let me go.
Around 15 years ago skate culture enraptured me in the same way that videogame culture had some years before. It had its own language, attitude, t-shirts, symbols, equipment, clans. It also offered shots of adrenaline and a levelling up structure (from Roces boots to K2) that I could invest time, money and resources in. As a young skater – at first recreational inline skating was my thing before ‘graduating’ to aggressive inline and some very large bruises – I was absorbed by the science, speed and depth of this ‘action sport’. I failed miserably when I first started out skating ramps, parks and anything that would support my bodyweight and ego. I nose-dived vert ramps, slipped off half-pipes into groups of bystanders and flew over spines like a ballerina before landing like a sack of sentient beef dropped from a diving board. I failed, basically. And then I did what all skaters do: I got up. I went back to the start. I hit restart on my progress for that day, that session, that trick.
Skating, whether it be on a board or strapped into a pair of skates, is about freedom within strict systems and rules. You can perform liberating feats of mid-air daftness – from a simple kickflip to a full-blown Christ Air – but if you don’t manage your velocity, your balance, and stick that landing your face will be sanding a rough piece of concrete in no time.
It’s the same with videogames. You can take on armies of otherworldly foes, play as a super-powered President and jump on Goomba heads, but there are strict rules – of physics, of cause-and-effect – that must be obeyed and understood before you truly succeed. Both skating and gaming have parameters within which you can improvise, skate, create, destroy… and if you fail to operate within these rules and understand the equipment – whether it a controller or a set of wheels – you’ll be hitting restart very, very frequently.
Which brings me, finally, to EA’s Skate series. While many pinpoint Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as the point at which skate and videogame culture intersected most meaningfully and powerfully, I find Skate to be the more crucial franchise for demonstrating how similar and co-joined these two worlds and activities really are.
Tony Hawk’s captured the spirit of ’90s western skateboarding culture, for sure. It was subtitled Pro Skater but that was an illusion; a nod to its star’s status rather than being indicative of the game’s approach to trucks-and-tricks. A professional approach to adapting skateboarding wouldn’t come until 2007 with EA’s original Skate, a game that attempted to literally ‘keep it real’.
Skate and its sequels offer constant reminders of the parallels between skating and gaming. For a start, you largely manipulate the board – not the rider – with the control scheme. When you understand the controller, the sensitivity of the thumbsticks and the delicate pressure required for locomotion, you fully understand your board.
Skate also holds a mirror up to gaming with its attitude; its care-free personality set against a canvas of seriousness and hard lines. The setting of Skate 3 in particular, Port Carverton, is a precise, pristine playground. It’s made up largely of angular lines, perfect curvature; fine examples of architectural design and strict, sunny suburban living. Within these confines, however, you’re free. You can improvise and ollie, kick-flip and nollie. You can have fun. You can move above and beyond everyone else. You can weave in and out of cumbersome, eco-unfriendly cars. Breeze beyond, around and above the institutions and establishments of a contemporary town. Like a videogame, like a Katamari Damacy or a Mario 64, you’re free to express yourself within this rigidly defined world. This platform. This virtual stage.
And herein is one of the great lessons of Skate: that the often cold and precise world we operate in is a stage. It’s a setting and a backdrop, with rules and regulations, sure, but within these there’s massive potential for self-expression and exploration, just as there is within the clinical and coded nature of a game world. It’s how you navigate and interrogate this world that matters. It’s what you put in that determines what you get out.
When you dig a little deeper into the history of skateboarding you also learn how truly similar the two activities and industries of skating and gaming are. Skateboarding’s trajectory as an industry arguably kicked off around ten years ahead of videogames, with the establishment of skate parks in California during the mid-70s. Fast-forward to the 80s and you have the emergence of the professional, prize-hunting skateboarder and the rise of various brands built by some of the leading talents on the scene. These early board fiends were the equivalent of videogame ‘indies’; young males exploring the boundaries of their hobby while simultaneously redefining them. Board makers and masters like Christian Hosoi were skateboarding’s equivalent of a Nolan Bushnell or Peter Molyneux in their prime, and their ability to push and pioneer the boundaries of the sport has proved a lasting legacy.
Both skateboard culture and videogames share a common thread via their ‘outsider’ status within the culture and societies they emerged within, too. Both have been targeted – often unfairly, sometimes rightly – for subverting young men’s minds and stealing their precious time. Both have been denigrated as anti-establishment and both have endured the media storms and grown stronger (and often more popular) for it.
I began researching and writing this feature with the simple aim of telling you how wonderful EA’s Skate series is and instead – in a testament to the games’ power – my revisiting of the series lead me to discover and tell you not just how wonderful Skate is, but hopefully how wonderful and indelibly linked to gaming skateboard culture is, too. If that’s not high-praise and a reinforcement of EA’s old adage that “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game”, then I don’t know what is.