Ms. Dark, I Presume
The Xbox 360 is the first bona fide product of the New Gaming Age. It’s the first gaming device created since the world awoke to the realization that gaming would usurp all other forms of entertainment as a cultural barometer. Beautiful People helped sell the 360 on MTV. Spielberg is designing games now. Peter Jackson actually had a hand in King Kong‘s design, and he’s kicking around the idea of abandoning movies forever, just to make games. This is the Great Media War’s Lexington and Concord. And by God, the industry is damn proud of it.

It’s really not hard to see. An untrained eye can take a look at King Kong and see where we’re headed. But King Kong isn’t what’s going to really cement gaming’s toehold on the hearts and minds of Western culture. If we want to get into Microsoft’s head, see where they’re going, we need not look at the 50-foot ape, but at the 5’9″ redhead packing heat.

Joanna Dark is nothing less than a star from the future.

We’ve been given a heroine, the first icon of this new age, as suave as Sean Connery and as revolutionary as Thomas Paine. Joanna, when she’s optioned into a Star Wars-sized franchise, will be the industry’s first true leap into the newest American generation’s pop culture. Movie stars will clamor to play her, and people other than Uwe Boll will vie for the rights to direct the film series. When your daughter dresses up as her on Halloween and your son wants her face on his lunchbox, you’ll be able to tell them about the time it wasn’t socially acceptable to talk to non-gamers about your marathon Perfect Dark parties.

And they’ll ask, “Daddy, what’s a gamer?” Because our culture will no longer be classified, because it’s the only culture your children will ever know.

Try that on for a second – a world without gamers, because everyone is a gamer. No longer relegated to a socially awkward niche, gaming will rise to prominence over other entertainment media, overtaking its boring, non-interactive predecessors in market and mind share.

It’s why the next generation consoles are being touted as home media devices. It’s the easiest way to slip games into the other things Americans do for fun. Oh, you’re going to watch Taxi Driver on DVD? Cool, the 360 can do that. Did you know there’s another DeNiro flick on TCM? Why don’t you TiVo it on your PS3’s hard drive? Oh yeah, there’s a game coming out, too. Guess what can play that.

They tried this approach with the home theater PC, but it didn’t work, chiefly because people used to remotes and dropping DVDs into trays aren’t going to put up with having to install multiple programs, just to be able to watch movies and record TV shows. While “computer people” – just like “car people” – take extreme pride in doing the impossible, be it rebuilding an engine from scratch or setting up a 15-hard-drive RAID, most people prefer it when things just work.

Enter the Xbox 360, the kinder, gentler version of the home theater PC. Now, your mom can enjoy the Taxi Driver/Robert DeNiro smorgasbord of digestible entertainment, just by using her old friend the remote control, and maybe by picking up a controller. And if you happen to own a Nintendo Revolution, she won’t even have to adapt to a Wavebird.

Imagine that, fighting Mom for some face time with your favorite game character, who just so happens to be her favorite movie character. This hobby is never going to be the same again.

If regular games aren’t enough, wait until Mom and Dad find the casual games hiding in Microsoft’s online store. If they’re not quite Old Grandma Hardcore yet, they can pay $6 and download Gauntlet from Microsoft’s online store and smack 8-bit monsters with a sword until they have to go to your little sister’s dance recital. Bejeweled 2 is $10. As soon as office drones discover they can play at home in front of their TVs, the entire cube farm is going to collapse upon itself.

And just like that, a bastion of geek escapism is being dragged to the mainstream, and the people doing the dragging understand who’s resisting them. It’s you.

The very act of separating yourself from pop culture makes you an enemy to the Cause, the grand design to elevate games beyond something geeks do for fun. In fact, by terming yourself other than a vanilla “consumer,” you’re harder to marry to other forms of entertainment than everyone else.

You’re not a consumer, you’re a gamer. You’re discerning. You’re done with entertainment you don’t dictate; even TV with commercials slow you down. In the time it took you to watch a Depends commercial, you could have hit Amazon and ordered the full season DVD of the show you’re watching.

What’s more, you’re pretty much immune to commercials. Members of the advertising industry are keenly aware of this. They’ve taken steps in the past to get into your head in new ways. They can, and will, succeed in the future. They do so by preying on the more basic human revelries. Everyone loves a conspiracy, so ilovebees was born. Everyone loves sex; meet Joanna Dark. Everyone loves the idea of one small, inexpensive device performing the duties of multiple appliances; sounds like a tune the 360 and PS3 can hum.

What’s funny about advertising appliances, though, is they really do provide a service to the customer. The 360 is just damn handy, if it happens to be what you’re looking for. It’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s small and unassuming, and it’ll do stuff with media the Jetsons never dreamed of. When it gets HD-DVD support, it’ll be even more amazing.

Oh, and it plays games, too.

Goodbye, Gamer
The time for the gamer is rapidly winding down. Our future of glitz and glamour and social acceptance is now the present. And you’ve been so busy looking ahead, you didn’t notice everyone else caught up. You’re not a gamer anymore. Or, if you are, everyone is. You’re stuck in terminology that’s rapidly becoming outdated. That’s right, you’ve come full-circle (360 degrees, in fact), and all your “gamer” moniker is doing is slowing down your progression toward hip, toward cool, toward defining the next version of “cool” or “hip.”

Funny how that happened, huh? But don’t act too surprised; we’re not the first group to have the mainstream sneak up on us. Look back just 15 years. Those were good times if you lived anywhere near the Pacific Northwest. Then, some dumb band with an attractive, left-handed front man had to find a good studio, clean up the distortion a bit, and star in one of the best music videos ever. After Nirvana, grunge was never the same. Music was never the same. Our Nevermind isn’t far away. When it comes to preparation, you have two options.

The first is to reject the new blood. But let’s be honest, folks. The gaming community could stand a refreshing dip in the gene pool. We’ve got some pretty gnarly stereotypes to live down, ranging from the mostly harmless otaku/fanboy, to the disturbing basement-dwelling 40-year-old virgin who plays EverQuest into the night, to the cop-killing sociopath who uses computer games to hone his kitten-flaying skills. But we’re not that, and this is our time to show the world what we are.

Our second – and really our only – option is to embrace the influx of newbies. Make your message boards homey, make them want to stay. Be nice to them on Xbox Live. Own them, but do it gracefully. The more people we invite into what we do, the better our chances of shedding predetermined stereotypes. And who knows, the flood of converts might bring the ratio of male to female gamers closer to 1:1, which will give us all the chance to create newbies of our own.

Abandoning the “gamer” nomenclature is all it takes to enter gaming nirvana. Thrice deny your history, and you’re in. Spike your hair like Cloud and wear your pants like CJ. Then, you’ll be one of the movers and shakers within pop culture’s hive mind, dictating cool on any number of must-have gadgets that followed you from the esoteric realm of gamer to a mainstream dominated by people like you. People who knew what cool was long before it was cool. The question is, is that what you want?

Can you give up the culture? Or, more appropriately, can you give it over? Sure, it’s a great concept. Being at the forefront of an entire nation’s entertainment pulse is an experience most American gamers haven’t experienced, unless they’ve spent time in Japan. But can you stomach Cloud and Tifa sharing wall space with the Backstreet Boys?

What happens the first time you see a 13-year-old girl proclaim the new Zelda to be “ohmigod, the best ever!” when everyone knows Ocarina of Time is the pinnacle of the series, and forever will be? Or, God forbid, she’ll find Vin Deisel’s Agent 47 to be truly representative of the character, and “like, totally hot!” Heed my warning and prepare yourselves, you futureheads, because the vapidity of the teenybopper will soon be upon us. But look on the bright side: When that girl is 18, she’ll probably want to sleep with you, because you-plus-five-years will be even cooler.

However, she’s still part of the problem. She’ll probably say Final Fantasy XX is better than Final Fantasy VII. She’s representative of the Middle, those who subscribe to pop culture, but don’t truly know it. Pop culture tends to be fickle, and people like our 13-year-old are the reason why. How many things are “the best ever” for six months, until the next iteration of the “best ever” comes along and blows the original out of the water?

Coffee House LAN Parties
But there is a light at the end of the pop culture tunnel. Since the status-quo’s inception, countercultures have thrived, mashing a thumb into the mainstream’s eye. That’s where those of us unable to cope with “best evers!” can go to hide. We’ll get to play our indie games, but they’ll be even better. But how, in this time when the mainstream is threatening to strip us of the culture we’ve spawned, can independently developed games really thrive? As much as everyone likes to snipe the mainstream for its homogenous, money-chasing agenda, it can help people on the fringe.

First, more money floating around an industry means more will (and I hate to say this) “trickle down” to people at the bottom of the food chain; a few of those big budget producer types do remember their roots. The Weinsteins throw money at avant-garde directors when no one else is willing to finance them. SOE, god love ’em, buys MMOGs only a mother could love and gives them a place to clean up and try again. It’s not exactly philanthropic, but big guys will subsidize little guys because when the little guys win awards, they thank the big guys in front of everyone.

Secondly, it gives us something to scoff at, to ridicule, to point at as an example of what not to do. Honestly, we’re already there. Most of us were building Katamaris months before the big gaming press got wise. We look at Katamari Damacy and Uplink and Fate and wonder why EA can’t get on the ball, and when it’s obvious they never will, we laugh at the people who walk into Gamestop on Madden‘s release day. Madden is just too mass market to be good, right? We’ve shifted to “indie rocker” out of divisive instinct. And you know what? Indie rockers are pretty cool. Indie gamers will be, too.

Hey! There’s our new niche. Rather than hiding in basements and having same-sex LAN parties, we’ll gather in non-Starbucks coffee houses wearing black leather and Mario t-shirts, using our XPS laptops’ WiFi to chat in IRC with a group of people on the other side of the country doing the exact same thing. We’ll prattle on about the philosophy of the next Matrix game while telling the groupies at the next table how, like, close we are to the house band, man. There will be DS2’s in every pocket, and mobile game playing phones will ring out the underwater theme from the first Mario Bros. when someone gets a phone call.

It’ll be grand.

Where We’ll Be
No matter how successfully the 360 and its future inceptions draw us into the mainstream, there will still be purists in the culture willing to preserve whatever history we’ve written for ourselves. Perhaps they’ll just be the next human generation of punks, kids who borrow their gamer parents’ machines of antiquity to play Fallout or Myst or any of those other throwbacks to times when games were games rife with a cultural ethos that long since evaporated from big budget titles. They’ll be the first historians of the gaming age.

Our relics are in the shape of 5.25″ floppies and aggressive message boards. Only after our children’s inspection into our past will we ever be truly aware of what legacy we left behind, and what that legacy did to shape how the world has fun.

Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.

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