Identity Crisis: Suburbia, Consumerism, and Videogames

There is no greater way to damage culture than by bringing children up in suburbs.

American suburbia is built upon a dream sold to us by politicians and corporations; a house, a dog, a loving wife, two children, and a happy life of production until you retire and live out your days in a house boat sipping wine. It's the greatest lie we ever told ourselves, and it doesn't just damage us, it damages culture as a whole.

Worst of all, it damages the medium we all love: games.

Suburbia's Lack of Culture

America, as a fundamentally multi-cultural nation, has a bit of difficulty figuring out its own culture. After all, our nation is quite young; only 200 years old, as compared to the centuries or millennia of other cultures.

This is exacerbated by suburbia. In rural societies, culture turns inward and incestuous, breeding new cultures from isolation and necessity. In urban societies, culture turns outward and inclusive, breeding new cultures through the absorption of other societies' values. In suburbia, though, you receive neither; everybody is just isolated enough to not really take in the cultural values of others, but just connected enough to not allow development in isolation. The only exception to this rule is if the suburbs in question have a dominant cultural force, such as Irish or Chinese or Indian families.

This lack of culture can also be blamed partly on the toxic notion of "white culture." There is no such thing as white culture, because the whites in America have no common frame of reference. There are cultures which exist along that spectrum - German, French, Spanish, and so on - but there can be no "white culture" because whites have no real commonality. Compare this to American black culture, which developed as a cohesive whole because of the shared experience of persecution and enslavement.

So without regional culture and without racial culture, suburban kids inevitably turn to hobbyist cultures, such as comics, books, art, shows, films, and games.

Internet Culture

All this is enabled in part by the internet, which breeds many, many new cultures.

On the internet, sites and movements and chatrooms operate according to their own sets of cultural rules. They are the Information Age equivalent of geographical regions; areas where people congregate, share ideas, and come to a consensus. If you listen to people that frequent storied or popular sites, this is even more clear; Something Awful, for example, has its own sardonic brand of culture.

Of course, the internet also offers an accessible place for fans to congregate and discuss things. Furries, trekkies, foodies, gamers, and so on have the opportunity to discuss things with one another and build wider cultural values through the dissemination and debating of new ideas.

The Rise of Consumerism

Unfortunately, fandom also gives rise to that grotesque beast: consumerism.

When you have no real life culture to speak of, and you focus your online identity around the consumption of a particular brand of goods, it's easy to fall into the consumerist trap. Consuming becomes your culture, because it's the one anchor point in your life; without a meaningful expression of creativity or ritual, you drift to the ritual of purchase, consume, repeat.

This is especially jarring when it comes into contact with an actual culture. To a consumerist culture, artistic or cultural artifacts exist because they have value to the consumer. It's a pseudo-religion, a worship of trade and markets and dollars. The consumer culture begins to drain the life from its victim; this continues until the victimized culture either safeguards itself against consumerist parasitism or matures to the point that it is no longer a desirable target.

Consumerist culture does not preoccupy itself with beauty, or symbolic value, or emotional resonance. It concerns itself with exploitation, with production, with sales. It has no impetus to create works of art; indeed, consumerist culture is antithetical to actual culture. It supposes that an economic system - capitalism - is also a cultural one, and that we should judge art based on its monetary worth. If you care about art whatsoever, this is one of the worst possible views you can have.

Gamers and Pseudo-Rational Market Worship

This, of course, brings us to "hardcore gamers," quite possibly the most noxiously toxic consumerist culture of all.

To a hardcore gamer, a game exists to be consumed; it was created to be sold, beaten, and discarded. Games are a discrete product without value outside of its market pull. That's why so many hardcore gamers crow about games making a lot of money without realizing just how shallow such statements look.

This also means that they believe that games, like other consumables such as foodstuff or houseware, can be ranked "objectively" according to quality. Where you might rate a chair for how it supports your lower back, a hardcore gamer might rate a game on its "fun factor." Obviously, this is a patently ridiculous stance. Games can not be objectively judged because they have no actual function outside of artistic engagement. You can't judge a game "objectively" on how fun it is because fun is a subjective measure by definition. Conversely, you can objectively measure the durability of a microwave by determining how long it takes to break down.

This consumer culture was, as all consumer culture is, promoted and exploited by corporate advertisers. The cultural definition of a gamer - a pasty, obsessed nerd that plays games alone and hoards them like they will be the most valuable currency after the nukes drop - is, in part, shaped by advertisement that directly targets such a demographic. The gaming industry - which routinely exploits its own workforce and burns them out after only a few years - perpetuates this negative stereotype by catering to and promoting it above all others.

When challenged on it, and told that gaming is evolving to include everybody, hardcore gamers threw a fit. They read articles like "Gamers Are Dead" and flew into an apoplectic rage. But why?

Consumer Entitlement

Because they are no longer the center of attention.

This much is evident through the continued whining of various spurned gamers with an axe to grind. One of the most common threads running through the hate movement known as #GamerGate is that consumers are to be respected; they have the money, you have the goods, so you should cater to their whims. Look at how many people cry out about "consumer slander" and talk about how "the consumer is the most important person in the equation."

Of course, this ignores a few important caveats:

  • Most businesses are perfectly fine throwing out or ignoring a customer who is actively abusing them. The price in sanity and the damage done to the business' reputation by catering to a crowd of belligerents is too much.
  • Games are an artistic medium. To the art form as a whole, consumers are actually the least important. Developers are the most important, and critics come in second. Consumers don't even rank in terms of their importance to the medium.
  • Consumption is not a virtue, it is a vice. Consuming something does not make you suddenly more intelligent, entitled to better treatment despite your attitude, or otherwise better. As a consumer, you are not creative, and your voice is meaningless.

Attempting to bludgeon artists into following your whims by threatening to not buy their goods is the ultimate temper tantrum. It devalues the art and the artist, and makes you appear like the consumer version of the much-hated "network executive." Instead of complaining about how your needs aren't being met, simply walk away and find an artist or critic that meets those needs.

Breaking Free of Consumerism

The most freeing feeling in the world is when you finally cast off the hubristic notion that you mean something as a consumer. It allows you to approach the world from a new angle, and perhaps even contribute to the overall creativity of the medium. It enables you to truly engage with art - even games that you wouldn't normally consider art, like Diablo or Call of Duty - and appreciate games as the collected artistic works of various people, rather than as products that exist for your continued media gorging.

With no identity, no culture, and no sense of being, those that live in the suburbs inevitably drift into this culture of consumerism. This doesn't have to be your culture though. Cast off the shackles of free market worship and embrace artistic relativism and critical thought.

You'll enjoy it far more.

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