As with several other people here, I’m straddling the worlds of academia and criticism.
One of the problems I’ve seen in the game community and in certainly in criticism is a split between what it means for academia to be intertwined with games criticism. On one hand, academia has a lot to offer. Lots of smart people have been studying things for a very long time. In some cases, like with narrative structure, we’ve literally been studying things for thousands of years. It’s a shame to throw all of that away.
On the other hand, academia is rifled with politics, as is anything else. We’ve been studying things for thousands of years, but so many people have been excluded from that conversation that it’s difficult to say “humanity” has been collectively working on these problems.
And I see a split currently between those with certain types of knowledge wanting to offer it to various communities, and those who have been excluded from that conversation being understandably skeptical.
With posts within our small community calling for schism and various other political and personal in-fighting and credibility questions arising in our field, I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts as they are, my knowledge as I currently understand it, so that we might collectively examine how to move forward as a community.
I don’t claim to have any answers, but I don’t think that should stop anyone from asking the questions.
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to meet a man named Neil LaChappelle while giving a seminar on using hypertext tools. Neil was developing an app to encourage the growth of cultural scenes.
He believed deeply in something that Brian Eno coined as Scenius, that is the idea that huge cultural shifts or moments of creativity were not born from the genius, this cultural myth that we’re fed from a young age. Rather, genius actually comes from groups. Some of these are very famous like the Bloomsbury group, but often they’re less obvious. Advancement comes from communities, and these communities form the basis of scenes.
In the course of developing his app, Neil had done a lot of research on how scenes grow and what their life cycle generally entails.
What surprised me was that this life cycle was incredibly predictable, and was seen across cultural moments. Everything from the punk rock movement to various sports and pop culture fandoms to literary and artistic movements, all followed roughly the same pattern. I’d like to share this pattern with you so that we might think about where we currently are within the life cycle and where we think we can go from here.
In the beginning, there is a spark of nebulous cohesion, people bonding over a shared value or idea. Often, this is nothing more than a reaction to a shared problem.
As more people join the cause, the group’s goals start to coalesce. The group recognizes common traits or interests as points of shared identity.
Eventually, a budding scene comes together around a central figure, place, or event, with those common interests now serving as the focus of “cred” to show that one belongs to that scene. Many people begin to use cred as validation of an identity that is becoming deeply intertwined with the scene’s goals or ideals. Think for example about how many people really consider being a gamer, or a Red Sox fan deeply integral to their sense of self. After the Red Sox won the world series in 2004 after an 86 year losing streak there were people who literally said “I can die happy now.” People take these identities very seriously and an attack on the scene can be seen as a very personal attack. Fans die every year at assaults at sporting events for this reason.
With the stabilization around a central focus, the scene expands, becomes more public, and more appealing to outsiders. People like to jump on the bandwagon and be a part of something positive.
As the scene becomes flooded with new members, many original members cling to the idea of cred and see the increased popularity of the culture with disdain. Think, for example, about the implications of being called a “poser” or “fair-weather fan.” We think of these as negative terms. Likewise, people who have constructed their identity on cred see an influx of new members as detrimental to their sense of self.
The culture becoming increasingly “mainstream” is generally a source for contention between members, and the increasing number of members leads to new ideologies within the group. Some gamers, for example see the “casual” and “hardcore” distinction, as a point of great contention. One camp believes that more players and new voices is ultimately a good thing for games, and one camp sees those new voices as lacking the cred on which they have built their identities. This disparity creates tension that increases as more and more people join the scene.
According to LaChappelle, at this point, the scene may disintegrate and disperse, or a section might break off and establish a counter-culture. I would argue there is also a group that rides out the popularity, hoping the new members will eventually lose interest and go away, as happens in sports fandoms and the like.
So from this model, it seems as though we’re doomed to schism. But I would rather take a more positive view and emphasize that subcultures do not have to be entirely separate.
I believe community does not have to exist in a vacuum.
It seems perfectly reasonable to me that a cluster of people might exist within a larger group without being cut off from that group. On a flight to the east coast, I’m able to bond with other college football fans even though we root for opposing teams and have different levels of investment within those teams. I’m able to watch Harry Potter with my little sister even though she’d rather be watching sexy vampires. Scenes can be intersectional.
So I’ll leave time for questions and discussion, because as I said at the start of the talk, I don’t have the answers, but I don’t think that should stop us from asking the questions:
Where are we in this life cycle? Budding? Fracturing? And more importantly:
Where do we go from here?