by Jessica Mulligan
The phrase twenty years has been on my mind a lot lately, in two contexts: the last twenty and the next twenty.
At age 45, Im not only starting to understand all those references in books and movies about the little aches and pains one experiences in middle age; Im also somewhat older than both the average video/computer game enthusiast and the average game developer. Depending on whether they use primarily consoles or the PC, gamers tend to be about age 12 to 35. Developers on all platforms tend be about age 21 to 35, not including those of us in senior management, who tend to be either a little bit older than 35, or right in that age range but with long experience. Richard Garriott of NCSoft and Brian Fargo of Interplay come to mind for that last, both having entered the industry as teenagers in the early 1980s.
For those of us who have been making games since the early and mid-80s, were watching a phenomenon: our kids are growing up. Many of that collective group are now in their teens or even twenties. And when you stop and think about it, the generation they represent is the first one to truly grow up with computer, video and online games.
Now, I dont know about you, but I consider that a watershed event every bit as important as the first generation of young people that grew up with automobiles. The availability of relatively inexpensive cars to a majority of the citizens changed Americas culture like no invention before it, but in ways Henry Ford and his buddies never imagined. Sure, they figured it would pump up the economy as people used them to go farther to find work and shop and as autos began to be used to move goods farther and faster. And all of that certainly happened.
What those worthies didnt imagine, however, were the collateral effects on America culture, such as how the automobile would forever change the mating rituals of American teenagers, or how the core nature of the nuclear family would slowly begin to die with Americans new mobility to go elsewhere to find jobs during tough times, leaving the family behind. Or even choosing to exercise the new mobility to postpone the family life for years or decades. It may be hard to imagine today, but before readily available cars and before President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the mid-1950s, most people born in the US did not live in cities on the coasts and tended to live out their lives fairly close to where they grew up. The car and good roads to drive them on changed all that (among other factors, to be sure). Ford was often quoted as saying that what was good for Ford Motor Company was good for America; traditional family man that he was, I wonder if he ever realized or contemplated his role in the pummeling of that same culture?
Perhaps it is time we in the game industry and the home technology industry as a whole - stopped and reflected on possible collateral cultural effects, too. Take one small, but important facet of society: Learning what it takes to be thought of as a good person.
Think back to twenty years ago, when The Marx Brothers were more famous than The Mario Brothers, computers were something you constructed a building around and role-playing games were just coming into their own. Card and board games were it; Chess, Risk, bridge, pinochle, Battleship, poker, Life, Mille Bourne, Old Maid, Scrabble; if you were a gamer, these were the type of games you played. New games didnt come out all that often, maybe a couple interesting ones a year, if you were lucky. If you wanted to play a game, you had to find other gamers locally and then had to schedule a time and place to gather for a session. And if you were a fanatical gamer, finding other fanatics who werent complete and utter dorks wasnt all that easy (right, like we werent all considered dorks by the school jocks and soches). And you did have to watch what you said and how you acted; these were your friends, but that didnt mean the random insult or laughing at the wrong moment couldnt result in a bloody nose or bloused eye. There were probably millions of us dorks out there, but we were fragmented as a community, separated by distance and an inability to communicate effectively.
A mere twenty years later, weve already gone from two to four friends gathered around a table, past that same group gathered in front of the TV with joysticks, to millions gathering online. With the Internet, modems and PCs, its pretty easy to find people to game with these days. But instead of gathering with known entities face-to-face in small groups, we can now gather singly and anonymously in front of glowing phosphor screens. We may still have local dorky friends to game with, but we also know a lot of other people around the world, even if only for one or two game sessions. And because of the functional anonymity that is part of todays online universe, we no longer have to worry about getting a black eye for the random insult, because its rather tough to reach through a phone line and smack someone.
And boy-o-boy, do people, especially young gamers, take advantage of that; theyll make insults to people online that would never be said to a persons face, because it would start a fight instantly. All the bigotry and racial slurs kids learn at home or from friends, all the rude behavior and lack of consideration for the feelings of others, all the gay-bashing and play-acting out violent crimes on peoples anatomy, it comes in buckets. If you enter into a game chat room, your chances of seeing an exchange of these insults is pretty high. It isnt exclusively the province of kids; there are plenty adults taking advantage of the new situation to do all the acting-out they couldnt do as a kid. But it is far more prevalent where kids hang out online.
This is a major change to our culture. Most kids have a tendency to learn early that those kind of things arent acceptable in public to most people and will eventually get them nothing more than a thorough clock-cleaning or avoidance. Get into the habit of calling people fags to their faces, for instance, and one day some gay person (or a straight person scared by the whole concept) would shove the word down your throat and past your liver. Or youd notice that adults tended to shun your parents or give them disapproving looks when you acted out in public, which resulted in punishment. Or youd realize that the opposite sex didnt like to hang out with someone who acted like you in public and that age is a time when kids are starting to find out how nice it is to hang out with the opposite sex. Twenty years ago, youd eventually change your behavior and either became a better person or at least hide your proclivities so you wouldnt have to spend Saturday night alone. The net result was the same; by around age 13 or 14, most of us learned not to be a complete jerk in public. With your small inner circle of friends, maybe; around other people, no.
Nowadays, kids learn that same lesson and simply move it online. The inner circle has gone from three or four people locally to millions worldwide. One has to wonder what this is going to do to the culture. Maybe, probably, nothing; for all that anyone can be a jerk at times, I think almost all of us eventually learn we tend to be happier ourselves when we treat others with respect, no matter the situation or means of communication. So perhaps this will have no real effect, or maybe itll take kids a couple extra years to get past what is probably just a stage all kids go through. Maybe it will even act as therapy; perhaps people will get all that exploration of limits out of their system online, get rid of some demons that might haunt them as adults and end up being better people for it. I certainly hope so.
On the other hand, we just dont know. The technology is still too new and the effects on our society as a whole cant yet be accurately gauged. It may mean that kids wont get past that stage until they have been out of the house and on their own for while and what will happen to society and our culture if people dont get past the stage until their early 20s? It is possible that it means significant numbers of them will never get past it. Will our culture become ruder? Will we become more tolerant of intolerance?
I dont know. None of us will for another ten or twenty years, when the effects of the technology have had time to work on more than one generation. Its probably just one of those idle fears, but what if it isnt? This, and other questions about the effects on online technology, are ones we need to start looking at and thinking about, at least on an intellectual level, so we can be prepared. Not to change the way or types of games that are developed, which would require government intervention and is something we must prohibit at all costs. No, just so we can be prepared as a society for a weather change. Most societies throughout history have never prepared themselves for the potential culture changes of technology, and that has sometimes caused major upheavals, even wars. There is no reason we cant be the first to be prepared and avoid the worst of the unpleasantness.
Of course, attitudes might have changed dramatically ten years from now. With all the hoo-rah today about violence in games, one wonders
The Scene: Ten years from now at the Smith House, Anytown, USA, Wednesday, 4pm. Mrs. Smith approaches the closed door of her son Bobbys room.
Mrs. Smith: (Knock, knock.) "Bobby! Are you there?"
Later that evening, as Mr. And Mrs. Smith prepare for bed:
Mr. Smith: "So, did you have that talk with Bobby?"