We’ve all heard variations on the following popular refrains. Games need to grow up. Their subject matter is too often dumb and revels in the power fantasies of male adolescents. How is our beloved pastime to ever be given the serious consideration it deserves if developers – most of whom are intellectually mature, grown adults – can’t shake their fixations with zombies, dragons, boob physics and machine guns? When I look at the situation, I see the videogame industry perfectly mirroring the original rogue spirit of rock music.
It was rock, after all, that used to be the scapegoat of choice for any aberrant behaviour in youth. If a kid committed suicide or assaulted another person, it was Ozzy Osbourne or Judas Priest called to account. Now it’s the digital-media rockstars behind Grand Theft Auto taking the stand to testify. When a developer such as Tomonobu Itagaki takes the stage at E3 wearing sunglasses and tight leather pants, looking like a Japanese Steven Tyler, the coincidence shouldn’t be lost on anybody.
Led Zeppelin strip-mined the imagery of JRR Tolkien’s books decades before World Of Warcraft and Demon’s Souls ever got around to following suit. And it’s easy to imagine the busty dancers from Mötley Crüe’s ‘80s music videos having graduated into performing mo-cap duties for today’s notoriously top-heavy fighting-game vixens. The catharsis of watching Kurt Cobain smash his Fender Jag-Stang guitar and hurling the splintered remains into Dave Grohl’s drum set was rock’s version of what gamers feel in an exquisitely destructible virtual environment.
Rock music was deemed a threat by parents and authority figures precisely because it created a fantasy space which exalted a sense of unfenced freedom that chafed against the laws and sexual mores of civilised society. Even though ‘80s glam metal relentlessly objectified women, the long hair and heavily made-up faces of groups like the New York Dolls and Poison also subverted gender codes in a way that made the establishment squirm in its chair. Gaming is likewise all about freedom. Avatar creation kits allow for the same kind of experimentation undertaken by those glam rockers, not to mention the ability of male players to inhabit female virtual avatars.
Though the concepts of ‘childishness’ and ‘immaturity’ have come to have an implicitly derogatory bent, one of the beauties of childhood is that humanity’s primal wrinkles haven’t yet been ironed out. There’s still a sense of rebellion and adventure, of possibility and experimentation. I’m convinced that Star Wars and Lord of the Rings hold such incredible sway in games for this reason. Space is all about possibility, a futuristic wild west outside of the jurisdiction of earth’s rules. Space’s inky black uncharted expanse stokes the desire to explore. The battlefields of high-fantasy texts provide a sense of enticing barbarism that flies in the face of polite society, not to mention the experimentation and recombination of biological life represented by orcs, trolls, balrogs, and so on.
When we call for games to grow up and get their shit together – to button up their shirts and learn how to tie a Windsor knot, to deal with serious themes – what is it we hope to get out of the transaction? Maybe games become more palatable to the wider culture. But they also potentially become more tame, less woolly and subversive and hip-shooting and raw and interesting. They become the guys in Metallica shorn of their long hair, stripped of their hard-rock powers like some heavy-metal Samson myth. Yeah it’s a bit embarrassing to see Mick Jagger gyrating about on stage at his advanced age, with determined Peter Pan-ache, but it’s also inspiring to see somebody who never bothered to pack up the passion of young manhood. What is maturity, after all, but learning how to sit down and hush up?
The late rock critic Lester Bangs argued that the unchecked passion and – yes – dumbness of his favourite musical form was part of what made it so special. Rock’s drum pulse became the heartbeat of an entire counter-cultural youth movement. Eventually mainstream rock music grew up and lost its ramshackle edge, and the games industry will likely do the same, but consider the following two quotes from Mr. Bangs before you argue that this will be a wholly desirable outcome:
- "’Art’, ‘Bop’ and ‘rock and roll’ and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognise the fact that it's nothing but a wham-o toy to bash around as you please in the nursery, it's nothing but a goddam Bonusburger so just gobble the stupid thing and burp and go for the next one tomorrow; and don't worry about the fact that it's a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness as if that's gonna cause people to disregard it and do it in or let it dry up and die, because it is the strongest, most virulent, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could ever destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, a mistake, foolishness."
- "If the main reason we listen to music in the first place is to hear passion expressed – as I've believed all my life – then what good is this music going to prove to be? What does that say about us? What are we confirming in ourselves by doting on art that is emotionally neutral? And, simultaneously, what in ourselves might we be destroying or at least keeping down?"
It’s easy to imagine the above sentiments being scribbled with videogames specifically in mind. Bangs was a headcase, of course, his rock ‘n’ roll philosophy laid down during sleepless nights fuelled by cough syrup (and other chemicals besides). But there’s wisdom tucked inside his rambling scrawl, like sages crouched inside a flamboyant, hot-rodding Trojan horse. He liked his rock music messy and unkempt and free of rules. He believed that dumb art’s lack of pomp and decorum can make it a clearer conduit for the human id to cartwheel out of the creator’s brain and into the world. This past Monday marks the 30th anniversary of Bangs' untimely death. It’s too bad he never lived to witness the glorious absurdity of Super Mario Brothers or Shadows Of The Damned. Something tells me he’d be proud.