Sometimes I pine after the early days of the Internet, when it was sparse and secret. At some hulking beast of a machine, discordant, jangling modem noise would welcome your entrance to an alternate universe of text trees and mysterious screen names, a place of webrings and crude, blinking ‘under construction’ signposts. It felt like counterculture – it was private, a society with its own vocabulary.
A certain pride and pleasure came with Internet literacy in the early days. Other people were bound to the routines of their visible lives, but you knew people on the other side of the world and referred to them by mysterious handles. You could fearlessly strip and dissect a machine, fingering dust from fan blades, slotting this wire into that one. Not because you were particularly adept with hardware, but because you taught yourself to do anything – anything – you had to do to make the system work so you could go online.
It wasn’t sophisticated. Ease of use was not a thing. But what mattered was online was a place to go, a place only for those who knew its landscape and its passphrases. These days, of course, the Internet isn’t a world, but an omnipresent part of the world that’s accessible to everyone. I’ve been weeks without a proper phone number and not missed it much, because my friends are on Facebook, my family emails, my work is on websites, and I get links to news, ideas and information through the constant social media stream.
None of us could really live without it, and it’s good, but there was a certain something special and holy in the old days of our secret society that I sometimes long for. You could disappear into Internet culture and be someone else, and have experiences that were not possible in the physical world.
That’s the case with games, too. So many of them came to us crude and clumsy and asked us to take them at face value, and we did because we had no choice. They required persistence and stubbornness – cartridges grew love-worn over years as we wrung out every last secret. To play them, you and your friends stole away into tiny school labs, friends’ basements, and pulled clusters of chairs up around boxy screens.
There was a beauty and privacy to this time that a lot of people who have grown up with games miss. Without the Internet, without the mainstreaming of interactive entertainment, finding your people out there in the world was a quest in its own right. The kid on the school bus reading over a Dungeons & Dragons campaign might be one of yours. The girl with the Nintendo notebook might be one of yours. Maybe the lonesome-looking classmate with the great big glasses would like to come over and play adventure games with you.
Game culture became more than a celebration of games; it was a private language that united outcasts and protected the escapists, the downtrodden, and those with wishes and ideas that were hard to manifest in the reality we’d been given. These days, I’m often critical of the insularity of ‘gamer culture’ – the role of games in the world has grown large now, and as adults acquainted with the potential of the medium, it’s time to evolve and become welcoming. That you grew up with creative technology no longer makes you a victim; instead it makes you powerful.
Still, the urge to protect a secret language is understandable. Which is why it’s so odd that today’s gamers – many of whom are also game creators – focus their most passionate protective efforts not on games any longer, but on brands and franchises. Alongside the Wild West of independent creation blossoming across new and open platforms, why do forums, fandoms and, more importantly, professional development cultures continue to prize companies and franchises that lead the march on the mainstreaming and dilution of their beloved medium?
Why will self-identified proud gamers disqualify a mysterious Twine game found in a quiet corner of the web, but leap up to reject all criticism of Microsoft’s newest home television console initiative? Do developers desperate to protect ‘the old ways’ realise their insularity is no longer protecting them, but speeding their journey to broad baseline consumption?
So much of the resistance to diversity initiatives and experimental game creation comes from the idea that games are sacred, and that they must not change. The shelter of old must remain intact at all costs. But if to you game creation is a beloved archival language, why not look to the unfamiliar, the mysterious? The new and unheard-of designers, personal games, and all the other vast corners of our medium that still need to be loved in secret, mapped and charted? Those are your people. Remember?
While Microsoft talks about sports and war, seek out the great sages of the browser, the uncanny geniuses still building ASCII worlds. To defend your secret language, to protect your downtrodden, turn to the creators that need your protection. Gaming franchises on retail shelves don’t need you to be their cultural warrior. You can still escape into the universes nobody else sees.
Illustration: Marsh Davies