Local Dad Confronted with Vastness of Modern Culture, Recoils in Fear

So, this happened:

It’s not a big deal, really, but there’s actually enough videos like this that I feel we need to have a talk. If you’re not familiar with the Portal series, that’s okay, you’re probably not writing about, but if you are you probably know (and might say something to the effect) that the games are being held up as a triumph of clever design and well-built aesthetics over cheap thrills and familiar settings, and that they are, in fact, targeted to adults. To put this into perspective, calling Portal 2 a kid’s educational game is like calling Clerks a Disney Channel Original movie. That comparison actually took me thirty minutes to come up with; my roommate told me that “mixing up Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series with Family Circus” and “confusing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with Kids Bop 5” were a little too obscure.

My point is that our culture has gotten huge, and that niches have been worn into valleys with the increased flow of information. For example, I can immerse myself in a culture where jokes from Portal have been so overused that any mention of “cakes” and “lies” turns into an irritating, cicada-like buzz, and I can actually lead a full and rewarding media-life without leaving it. I’d have daily news outlets, weekly lectures, even a professional sport with its own leagues, coverage, and commentary. I wouldn’t even have a hard time finding company, as long as my patience for Nintendo nostalgia holds out.

This means that when someone on the news makes a mistake about a celebrated game, it feels less like the message from the larger culture telling me to go outside and more like an embarrassingly spelled missive from a foreign people, but that doesn’t really mean that these sorts of mistakes aren’t worrisome. How games and the internet are characterized still has a social impact, and much of the old media seems to see the artifacts associated with the various nerd cultures as either the inconsequential japes of primitives, or something not-unlike witchcraft. On one hand we have a father mistaking a puzzle game fueled by dark comedy for something fun and educational for his kid because it lacks the blood, gore, and language necessary to qualify for a “Mature” rating. On the other we have newsfolk handling any game tangentially related to a school shooting as if it was something that fell off a wagon driven by mysterious gypsies, and handling a hacked MySpace page like a warning hex from a cell of ethereal terrorists.

There’s some reason for these misunderstandings. Games take a relatively longer time to fully experience than movies or TV shows and require you to actively engage with the piece rather than just watching, and the internet really is a vast and mysterious place. But these difficulties don’t really do away with the question of whether or not we can reliably claim cultural literacy anymore, even within the oft-discussed and more often assumed American white middle-class.

To talk about, say, whether or not game makers should qualify for government grants, you’re going to have be at least a little familiar with some of the bigger companies, studios, designers and games associated with the “games as art” discussion, a history which reaches all the way back to the creator of Missile Command and includes hours of “research.” To talk about the whole hacker terrorist thing, it would help to know how internet communities in general work. None of this is terribly well-documented outside of blogs and forums, which are notoriously unreliable, and most of those repositories of internet history are tucked in places you can’t find without searching for days along link-trails.

What we’re left with is a cultural landscape that demands caution and careful research. The normative assumptions that facilitated cultural critics in a time when the next big thing was put on display in venues like movie theaters or TV sets and people of particular interests had to meet physically to discuss things just don’t cut it anymore. I talk a lot about the section of internet culture that I’ve invested myself in but I couldn’t really tell you what the furries are up to or give you more than a cursory overview of what being a serious con-goer or cosplayer is like, let alone the more tiny and obscure subcultures that orbit around particular fetishes or fandoms or TV series-inspired lifestyles. Hell, I haven’t even dipped my toe into the part of the internet that requires a hidden IP address to access, but it’s supposed to be pretty big.