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Mar 12, 2012

A Matter of Life and Death: why youth is still the wrong way to talk about videogames

Perhaps the most interesting response to

Grim Fandango

Perhaps the most interesting response to my argument last week that videogames are not a young medium was the idea that youth, in this case, is not always intended as a negative thing.

This interesting argument was explained by a number of people who responded to the post, on twitter, via email, and in the comment section.

I have no small amount of sympathy for this argument. This is the other side of the coin to the youth-as-an-excuse argument that I have criticised. It is the opinion that the currently untapped potential of videogames is what makes the medium so exciting. Unlike other media forms, so the argument goes, the most interesting possibilities have not yet been exhausted for videogames. There is so much still left to explore.

There is, I think, an element of distaste for more ‘serious’ media that informs this idea. Symphonic music, ballet, and opera are all art forms that now stagger underneath the weight of their accumulated critical appreciation. All three forms have long histories of liveliness, of the uncouth and the wonderfully vulgar (take, for example, the lesser known Mozart composition, “Leck mich im Arsch”, and google translate at your peril), yet today these ‘heritage’ arts have a reputation as stuffy, parochial and institutionalised cultures, despite the efforts of an array of amazing composers and cultural bodies around the world. It is a tragedy that these forms are the way they are today, and it would be a tragedy if videogames ever found the same end.

This is not to say that I now agree that videogames are a young media form. That sentiment remains utterly nonsensical and useless. However, that videogames are capable of liveliness and energy at every tier is an important point worth remembering. It is not youth that makes videogames exciting but vitality. And, in contrast to the category of youth, vitality can be seen in any media form regardless of externally-imposed narratives of development.

On reflection, then, perhaps the biggest problem with the concept that videogames are a young medium, or are somehow inherently associated with young people, is that it is perpetual. There is no measuring stick that will ever put an end to this idea, no birthday for videogames to pass that will bestow a license of cultural legitimacy. Videogames are the Peter Pan medium, perpetually young and forever stagnant.

In fact, Peter Pan is a fairly useful figure for drawing out the central problem of this argument. The great contradiction of the figure of the puer aeternus is that although, like Peter Pan, he craves the independence and freedom symbolised by youth over all else, it is fundamentally fueled by a fear of change. At the end of J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan novel, Peter refuses an offer of adoption for fear that they will “catch him and make him a man.”

This has a mirror in Barrie’s life, as the Pan character is thought to have been based on his older brother, who died at the age of 14. Barrie (and his mother) supposedly sought solace in the idea that his brother would remain forever young in their minds. This has parallel in the way popular culture has memorialised figures like James Dean and River Phoenix.

Therefore, just as the forever-young archetype can only be achieved in reality through death, the forever-young media form must also be killed to remain youthful. This is, of course metaphorical, as media forms do not live as humans do. Media forms do not die in the same way as living beings; they merely cease to be reproduced in the same way. Small cultures still surround so-called ‘dead’ media forms (like 8-track tapes) around the world, creating, sharing and reusing media forms that have long since ceased to be commercially used.

Therefore, the most apt ‘death’ for a media form is not brought about through a lack of commercial reproduction but via cultural stagnation. For a media form to remain forever youthful is the purest form of death, a cultural and creative endpoint voluntarily repeated for time immemorial.

The uncritical reproduction of the idea that videogames are young is therefore the reproduction of stagnation and the death of the medium. There is always significant variation in creative cultures over time. Creative cultures of all shapes and forms are never static, but the repetition of such a weak understanding of a creative form hides variation with a blunt narrative.

When we say that videogames are young, we reinforce a leaden narrative that obscures a complex set of circumstances. Videogames are not a monolith. They are composed of a multitude of cultures, circumstances, people, and economic imperatives. Some of these are fluid, and have developed significantly from what they were even a few years ago. Some of these are lethargic, and have been content to remain unchanged over decades.

But to continue to reinforce the notion that videogames are young is to blot out this variation and to thumb your nose at complexity. It is to encourage stagnation. Maybe it is also to encourage death.

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