Zoilus by Carl Wilson

If Video Games Really Are the New Rock…

November 23rd, 2005

King Kong computer games, ‘then’ and now.

All the chatter about the new Xbox this week has me thinking about how gaming seems to have usurped much of the glamor and the centrality of music to youth culture. Not that young people don’t still care about music. But the great mercurial day-in-day-out conversational hype energy of middle-class-teen culture feels like it’s more intimately knotted up with the games they play than with the sounds they hear.

What strikes me as odd is that gaming is more analogous to sports than art. The excitement about finding a perspective on life or a point of identification - the personalized gnosis that seems key to the teenage music-listening experience - doesn’t transfer to gaming. Not that the medium can’t be artful and adventurous, and I’m sure users form attachments and affective communities related to it. But has anyone ever uttered over-earnestly that a game tells the truth about their lives or that they feel as if some gaming designer would really like them if they could just hang out and talk? (And if they do, why do they?)

It seems to represent a kind of shift into a post-expressive cultural mode - one that seems reflected in pop music as well. Listening to early rock and a lot of early rap, it’s remarkable how literally (often excessively) they deal with typical moments and feelings in teenage lives; as both forms develop they distance themselves from that agenda in favour of something with more grandeur. But when I look at 50 Cent, the experience of listening to those songs for the vast majority of young listeners seems to be more akin to inhabiting a video-game avatar, one that rather blankly but with great potency executes a series of moves that represent a vicarious acting-out but seldom even metaphorically refer back to an inner life (as even the most grandiose, Zeppelinesque rock usually has - or maybe not?).

The funny thing is how often I’ve decried “self-expression” as a crap value for music (or art in general) - my distaste for emo, which seems as a genre like a third-law-of-motion reaction to the anti-expressive trend, is well documented. But when I consider the notion of a gaming-dominated culture where the main translation of personal issues into art generally means their representation as an expressionless vicarious competitive struggle, I’m chilled. It seems to connect to a post-industrial economic model of self as brand and information in ways I find difficult to unpack.

I don’t intend any “the kids aren’t alright” alarmism here - there’s more to youth culture than its entertainments, and music-centrism has its own problems (music accents cliqueishness, it encourages a narcissistic self-romanticization that games don’t, and so on). But I haven’t heard much conversation about the borders between music and gaming cultures (except for bands doing game soundtracks or adopting 8-bit sounds or whatevs), so I offer these initial thoughts as a spur to better ones.

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  2. Craig D. says:

    Wow-This post is on some old Da Capo Best Music Writing shit here.

    Seriously, though, Carl, I especially appreciate your trying to come to terms with previously-held assumptions on the value (to you) of self-expression in thinking about this apparent shift (made me think about your well-picked bones with Phil Elvrum, in particular).

    As someone who’s too far gone in music-centric myth-complicity (nevermind the more-specific rockism worm-can) at this point, I’m wondering how much, if not healthier, then at least more productive in a way this newer paradigm could theoretically be as far as integrating oneself into today’s society…

    Thinking about Fiddy as a recent, freshly-pixellated icon in this context is also making me wonder about the role that aspirational nihilism might play in such a new tech’ed up mindset, although maybe that’s going too cleanly down the well-trodden post-Columbine blame-the-first-person-shooter path.

    (Tech? Nein.)

    Relating to that, though, I’m also thinking about how not only this New Assholism (I’ve GOT to get into a half-baked argument with Steve Kado and Matt Collins over this, insofar as Ninja High School being unwittingly complicit in/representative of that-?!), but the elusive diffuseness & orderlessness in both the anarchic and non-sequential senses of the wor(l)d makes playing anything remotely Grand Theft Auto-like an alienating prospect that makes me feel like a Grandpa.

  3. Canadian Bystander says:

    I think you’re being a little literal-minded in your implicit definition of “self-expression.” A revelation of inner life is not the only mode of self-expression. The only inner life that is relevant in art is that of the viewer/listener/reader etc. Engagement (of the artist with his art) is not the same as sincerity. I know you don’t believe that, but you implied it by making Fiddy some kind of antithesis to emo.

    Plus, passively consumed entities like Fiddy have been around a lot longer than the “inner life” artists. What did the Rat Pack ever have to say about the inner life - their own or that of their audience? It’s called showbiz!

    You also assume that the new gaming kids are overlapped with the old music kids, and I think that’s only true in a very limited way. In other words, the kids who are now hardcore gamers would never have otherwise become hardcore music heads. Fifteen years ago gamers would have been into remote-control cars.

  4. marco says:

    But wasn’t “final fantasy” itself originally a video game, and one that has spawned much musical creativity?

    On a more serious note, I would agree that first-person shooters are definitely more sports than art. But I can remember a few games that spoke to me on a deeper level — Zelda in particular made me feel extremely nostalgic for some idealized past.

  5. zoilus says:

    I mostly just want to let the brainstorming continue on this question - I don’t have a lot of answers, partly because I’m not much of a gamer.

    But wanted to say that I think Canadian Bystander misunderstands me: I’m not talking about sincerity on the artist’s part at all, but more about what the given content in the music (or game for that matter) might be and whether there’s an “in” for the assumed listenership there, for identification etc. I think the Rat Pack, who mostly sang love songs, after all, does provide that in, even though there’s the vicarious glamorization of big-city night life that wasn’t the lives of the listeners. But the crime-and-wealth-centred narratives of 50 and a lot of other hip-hop of the past decade is potentially aspirational for some of the hardcore rap audience, but nothing but voyeurism for much of the buying public. And then with 50 specifically you have this emotional mutedness that emphasizes that sense of distance, all of which puts me in mind of an avatar function.

    But what I’m questioning is how the “expressiveness” of the content acts as an entry point or projective image for the audience, not its origins in the real lives or feelings of the performers. I mean, the early rockers I mentioned weren’t actually in high school, but they sang about high school and related experiences a lot because of what it would mean to the listeners.

    But I guess in the absence of that level of calculation, “self”-expression has often served at least as another means to that end. When the term “post-expressive” came to mind, I thought: On an aesthetic-theory level, this is something I’ve kind of advocated. But whenever one’s ideals seem to be coming true, there are those pesky unintended consequences….

  6. Canadian Bystander says:

    It’s thinking you want to be “post” something, and then realizing, too late, that what you really wanted was for it simply to be done better, or smarter, or differently.

    (For example, maybe in five years I will miss all the drama-club bands like Arcade Fire…)

    I can see why you are singling out 50, but I’m sure Gene Simmons has some insight into the whole notion of being an avatar and providing a voyeuristic experience. KISS was a band that pre-defined itself, and thus pre-defined its fans, which I think was a first. To be a KISS fan was to define the self as brand.

    Plus they had their own game…

    I’m edging towards a ‘nothing new under the sun’ argument here, which I know will just make you mad, so I’ll stop…

    … Except to suggest that comic books have a role to play in this particular brainstorm. Is Superman “post-expressive?”

  7. john says:

    Carl, you talk about narcissistic self-romanticization as if that were a bad thing.

    Seriously, great post.

    I’m with you on the Rat Pack. And on the writer’s job of providing the listener with an entry point, either emotional or social-experiential; either “I love you / I’m heartbroken,” or, “school is dull, work is boring” — all those great Chuck Berry songs. (Really great.) In either case, there’s an emotional angle. The statement “Work is dull” reflects a definite emotional state.

    And I’m all for emotional content.

    As for whether the kids are alright — I left videogames behind after Space Invaders, but I dug Space Invaders (and, less so, Pong); Space Invaders preferable at least in part because it was something to do with my buds at the 7/11, not something to do with my family on the TV. And I always thought the alarmism about video games was funny, because most of the complaints against it could have been made about novels. “Cuts you off from real life, fantasy world, waste of time, off in your own head.” I always liked to imagine illiterate parents of the Gutenberg generation grumpificating about this “reading” fad. “Johnny spends all his time indoors, nose in a book. How unhealthy!”

    (Not to equate literacy with videogames; just in this amusing possible parallel. There’s more to reading than escapism. Some people argue that games sharpen analytical and decision-making skills, with the demands for quick thinking and the multiple choices at any moment. Possibly. Wasn’t really there with Space Invaders.)

    Dawn of post-expressive popular music: the Beatles. Not all their stuff, but a substantial percentage. From “I thought that you would realize that if I ran away from you that you would want me to, but I got a big surprise,” to, “the movement you need is on your shoulder,” they had a lot of lyrics that provided no emotional entry point, at least to this Beatle-loving listener. (Lovely songs both, but lyrics shmyrics.) I don’t post a blanket complaint about non-denotative lyrics; I love “I am the walrus,” which is rich with emotional entryways. My complaint is against casual, throw-away, sloppy almost-sense. (Same complaint against Paul Simon. No way for me to imagine that anybody has a strong feeling about Kodachrome or Me & Julio, apart from the nice music.)

    Sorry to ramble — lots in there, Mr. Z. Thanks.

  8. Sean says:

    Is this a simpler articulation of what you are grappling with?

    [More] people are listening to [more] music which is not expressive of their own inner emotional lives.

    If so…

    This bugs me too, but I also react against it (”I love ‘Sk8er Boi’! wtf is wrong with that!”). After evaluating my feelings I kinda suspect that my initial reponse is a lingering rockism, and nothing much more. These are different kind of pleasures [music that makes you dance, music that resonates with your emotional life, music that makes you feel a disconnected other-person's joy/sorrow/anger/success, &c], and it’s not that one is better than the other (or even that it’s okay for people to enjoy one and not the other), just that each have their place. “Post-expressive” music does seem to be booming, but I think my reaction against it is similar to my reaction against house music — and neither seems justified except as mere preference.

    btw, post redesign (?), the comment ‘preview’ page looks funny.

    oh and dubious congratulations on being nominated for ‘Best Canadian Media Blog’


  9. Candian Bystander says:

    Still not sold on the idea of the Rat Pack not being too distant from their audience because they sang love songs. A lot of people sang love songs - people loved the Rat Pack specificaly because of the vicarious glamour and the goofy, masculine comraderie and the rest of it, not for the love songs.

    But here’s a thought - is 50 really more distant from the aspirations and feelings of his audience, white and black, than Chuck D? Did Chuck D spit rhymes about teen love? I would posit that 50’s a lot closer than Chuck ever was. Chuck D was a role model, an articulate man with a well-organized mind and a focus to his anger - does this sound like someone a teenager is going to closely identify with? 50 is smooth and smug and triumphalistic - more like a comic book character. He reflects what kids want to be; Chuck D reflects what they should be. (And Flav reflects more what they actually are - goofy and messed up and more clownish than cool.)

  10. Owen says:

    Hey Carl. I think you’re making some interesting points.

    It is tempting to examine games based on plot and larger social observations; this is the trap that many censorship groups fall into. Your suggestion that gaming is “teenagers inhabiting avatars” is apt, but there is much more to gaming than the competition and the super-self.

    For example, the game-as-art possibilities are enormous. Gaming stimulates the mind in ways other mediums do not, and the artistry is deeper than the artifice of “what the game is about”. Each genre of gaming has a specific language, a set of traditions that a game can either observe, improve upon or entirely ignore… exactly like music harmony.

    And the game-as-art view extends to game criticism as well. You should read the top 100 games at http://www.ign.com. (IGN is the Pitchfork of videogames… it has lofty journalistic aspirations, and similarly receives heavy criticism and enormous readership.)

    The art community tends not to pay any attention until the game becomes “meta-”. Cory Archangel (and others) are brilliant conceptualists in their own right, but have little or nothing to do with actual gaming theory.

    Also, Carl, you owe me a phone call.

  11. zoilus says:

    I think you and I are using diff. definitions of “distance,” Bystander - again, talking about the content and what might be called “the emotional mask” of the songs themselves. The actual music stars have seldom been *like* their audience and I don’t know that the audience would want them to be. There’s always some projective, aspirational element to the fan-star relationship.

    When it comes to Chuck D., obviously he’s not supposed to be similar to the listener - he’s supposed to be someone to look up to. He’s the leader, you’re the follower. But there’s plenty of entry points for identification there - P.E. being all about ripping the masks off hypocritical society, rebelling against authority, kicking out the jams and taking back what’s yours. Time-honoured teenage subjects - rebel without a cause, plus cause - with a late-eighties identity-politics twist.

    But I don’t want to go too far arguing music has changed in this way, as the bigger point was about the effect of the diminished interest in music in favour of games. What Owen’s talking about is the more intriguing counterargument. As a non-gamer it’s difficult for me to judge, but I’m curious what others think.

    I don’t buy the notion that gamers aren’t people who would have been into music in the past. I’m not talking about hardcore gamers or hardcore music fans - I’m talking about the average fan, the vast majority of the under-30 population, and I do think that games take up a lot of the mental space music (and movies etc.) might once have occupied. (And a lot of the Internet diversions that aren’t games have, I think, deep-structural similarities to games.)

    I’m not claiming games are a scourge, I just think that if you acknowledge them as a dominant force, it’s worth talking about how they alter the climate - always the consequence of taking culture seriously.

  12. zoilus says:

    By the way, the comic-book comparison is good, Bystander, and so is the KISS one. Easy to see those things as predecessors of both gaming and gangsta. I’d add prog/metal of the sword-and-sorcery variety to the list, but not all metal - death metal is certainly more in the expressive camp, despite the hell/satan stuff.

  13. DW says:

    This may be nothing but knee-jerk skepticism on my part, but here goes:

    >> I do think that games take up a lot of the mental space music (and movies etc.) might once have occupied.

    This “feels” true (speaking as a late-30s non-gamer myself), but it seems hard to quantify or support. Do “kids today” REALLY care less about music, or expect different things from it, even if they are more into video games than kids used to be?

    It’s logical to assume that there’s X amount of mental space designated for “pop culture,” but does it really work like that? Maybe you could argue that there are only X dollars available for cultural consumption, and therefore that sales stats would tell us something, but in the post-Napster era I’m not even sure that’s true.

    >> I’m not talking about hardcore gamers or hardcore music fans - I’m talking about the average fan, the vast majority of the under-30 population,

    This also seems amorphous to me. What defines an “average fan”? When I was 20 the “average music fans,” the vast majority of the student population, were the people who hit the student pub every weekend to listen to acoustic covers of Space Oddity and Comfortably Numb. To me, it seems more interesting & worthwhile to talk about what music means to the people who take it most seriously.

    I fear I’m sounding cranky, and I don’t mean to. Like I said, probably just knee-jerk skepticism. But I guess I need some convincing that exposure to one cultural form (video games) would necessarily have any effect on one’s interaction with another (music).

    And about the whole comic book thing vis a vis relatability, points of entry, etc…. Talk to any comic book geek (at least of a 1970s and early 1980s vintage — I haven’t kept up with superhero comics since then and can’t speak to what they’re like now) and they’ll tell you that Marvel comics were vastly superior to and more sophisticated than DC comics. This is because the DC characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) were usually just blank slates, essentially do-gooder videogame avatars, whereas the genius of Marvel was to saddle their characters (Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil, etc.) with real-world problems, neuroses, and vanities.

    I’m not a fan of emo or anything, but it does make for better narrative, I guess. And I suppose I’m not a fan of emo because I don’t look to music for narrative at all — I’d be curious as to whether others do.

    The other genius of Marvel (and now I’m totally getting off-topic) was in realizing that if a 16-year-old gets bitten by a radioactive spider, develops weird powers, and decides to be a superhero, he’s not going to call himself “Spider-Boy,” he’s going to call himself “Spider-MAN.” All the teenage DC characters had names like “Lightning Lad” or “Elemental Boy” or whatever. But what teenager in ther world would choose to self-identify as a child?

    Where that fits into all this, I have no idea. Probably nowhere. Sorry about that.

  14. scott says:

    >>>”All the chatter about the new Xbox this week has me thinking about how gaming seems to have usurped much of the glamor and the centrality of music to youth culture.”

    I would argue, Carl, with the idea that music-or any other one thing in particular, incl. video games-has even been “central” to youth culture for at least a few decades. It’s a battlefield of competing technologies and ideas and temptations out there, with mere shifting of priorities and moments (of various artifacts) rather than full-on cultural takeover by any one thing. Music people (people who define themselves largely by the music they listen to-or don’t listen to)-myself included-often forget that the culture *doesn’t* revolve around their great passion (though there are milestone points of public-private convergence, for sure). (The people who forget or ignore this, by the way, often turn out to be the best critics, because they truly believe the world needs to know!) This is not to suggest that music isn’t one of the Big Things, but rather, that it’s not, and hasn’t been for a while, the Biggest Thing-culturally speaking. MTV I think is kind of symbolic of this (”music television” = hardly any shows at all about music) (glib example, granted), but the fragmentation occurred well before that. So I guess I don’t see video games as “usurping” anything, really, just budding in along with dozens of other things for space and basking in the glow of some here-and-now spotlight.

    A key book on the subject, if you’re interested: R. Meltzer’s *Gulcher*, the 1972 followup to his (1968) *Aesthetics of Rock*. In the former, he essentially claims that rock and roll contained the universe-that everything was (ultimately) subsumed into rock and roll (speaking of the Rat Pack, he has a great bit in there about how it was impossible in ‘68 or whatever to NOT hear Sinatra-a well known rock hater-as “rock and roll”). In *Gulcher*, rock and roll exists on equal footing with bottle cap collecting, boxing, comics, and much else.

    Sorry if I’m straying way off topic here as well.

  15. zoilus says:

    I appreciate the sceptical posts, because my thesis was such a tentative one - any follow-through would involve discussion with the people I’m treating anthropologically here - which is funny because to some degree they’re actually a good number of my friends, as well as people younger than them. Obviously gaming culture and music culture aren’t mutually exclusive sets - there’s a question of pop culture simply expanding, and certainly there’s plenty of reason to think music still matters hella much. The first iteration of a question is always going to be more binary than the answer(s).

    Scott’s post reminds me of a thesis I started kicking around recently about how pre/post/punk culture wasn’t really just a musical thing but a big pile of “trash aesthetic” hobbyism crashing together - TV, B-movies, cars, science fiction, conspiracy theory, comix, etc. - which you could argue was already a divorce from 1960s music-central youth culture: Datapanik in the Year Zero.

    My next thought belongs in a blog post rather than comments chatter.

  16. JKelly says:

    Stumbled across this salient soundbite from Killol Bhuta, brand manager for Ford Motor Company: “What rock and roll was to the youth of the Sixties, gaming is to the youth of today.”

    Having put up that quote in favour of your argument, however, I will now argue that it is, in fact, bunk.

    First of all, I think there’s a strange definition of “youth” at play here, since the average age of video game players is 29. There was a time when that might be construed as adult culture…

    But, in any case, if there is X amount of space in a (young) person’s mind for certain types of entertainments/art, video games surely take it from the space previously devoted to movies and television. An 2004 Entertainment Software Association survey confirms this. The survey “found that 52% of people who have increased their game-play time have done so at the expense of watching TV, while 47% go to the movies less in favor of playing games,” according to a USA Today article. (The box office slump — specifically in big video-game-esque blockbusters — could be seen as an effect of this.)

    As far as I’m concerned, music plays a bigger role in the “youth culture” — if there is such a thing — now than it did a decade ago, with more music easily available than ever before and harddrives and iPods and mySpace chock full of it. Thanks to media fragmentation and the slow death of programmed media, however, music will never seem as central as it did in the days of the Beatles, when everybody loved the same band.

    Anyway, music is always a part of video games (and movies and television shows) in a way video games could never be a part of music. They’re friends, not enemies, and music has the upper hand.

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