Culture, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. This is further described as being developed through the development of the intellect through training or education. By definition then, our culture is the cumulative total of all aspects of society that define who we are collectively as a nation, and as a global population. Culture cumulatively encompasses everything in society from the musical and artistic masterpieces to the literary works that define the way we live today to the more contemporary works such as cult-classics and temporary works which define a very particular age in our history based on current fads and trends.
Suicide, a word which carries many negative connotations, is well deserving of the responses it usually generates. By definition, suicide is the intentional taking of one’s own life. However, alternatively, suicide may also be used to describe the self-destruction of one’s own interests. Suicide is the intentional undoing of one’s goals and the destruction of any progress and achievements made. With this in mind, cultural suicide, an idea put forth by Jimmy Corrigan’s author, Chris Ware, is the intentional destruction and undoing of the collective intellectual works of art, behavior, beliefs and social institutions in society. Devaluing of art, moving toward complacency, undermining education, and removing social practices built over the years by our ancestry are all ways which culture can be considered to be devalued or destroyed in this sense. But suicide, is our nation or even our global society as a whole forging these destructive processes within the culture itself, leading to the inevitable devaluing of the institutions that formerly constructed high culture?
To begin to understand how culture can be suicidal, a case should be examined such as that presented in Chris Ware’s, Jimmy Corrigan, in which the common practices, technologies and industries which are the products of modern cultural changes have created a bleak and humdrum society. A prime example of this is presented in a set of postcards highlighting the peak interests in town with vibrant descriptions of the location written on the back of the cards. The word euphemism doesn’t even begin to describe the blurbs on the back of each card and the utter sarcasm is nothing short of laughable. One card in particular details the “history” of the town in which the noble people who colonized the land were viciously attacked by savage Indians who seemed to come from nowhere. The picture’s focus, as it describes, is the rock where a treaty was signed, thus ending the violence and returning peace to the town which would later be renamed after the vicious savages themselves. Unfortunately, as the postcard notes in the disclaimer, the rock is out of sight behind a Dairy Queen, a streetlight and a cutout house floating in a sea of concrete and electrical wires. What is the significance of these descriptions in both images and words and how does this portray our culture as being suicidal?
To expand on the understanding of cultural suicide now, Ware’s images and descriptions can be used to visualize the definition above. While this example focuses mostly on the destruction of education and beliefs, it is an excellent example of how society is deconstructing culture as it grows. Fast food chains, electricity, urban life, and the many other aspects of pop culture which now define a good portion of any of our lives in modern American society are suffocating out the history and even intellectual and educational ideals which led to the creation of these pillars of society. History, as portrayed in the image as the rock where the town’s famous treaty was signed, is no longer even visible through the jungle of the newer aspects of the modernized culture which was built over top. To further emphasize the destructive nature of the resulting amalgamated culture, Ware seems to point out that history itself may even be skewed and misinterpreted as information is obstructed by the newer facets of modern society.
While Ware has a very cynical and sarcastic view of the present, there is a very plausible truth which can be taken from these images. Examples may not be as extreme as blatantly destroying historical landmarks for the highly marketed landmarks of fast food chains, but we’re not all that far off. Aside from the obvious connection to the example such as fast food chains littering the streets of every town in this country, even some national parks and historical landmarks, other aspects of mainstream culture are continuing to work against our culture from within. In the past centuries, the advent of electricity, television, and eventually the personal computer has led to the creation of many helpful and noteworthy technologies, but it has also led to the creation of new forms of entertainment and media. One technology which has arguably boomed in the past few decades and worked its way to the top as one of the most influential cultural landmarks of our generation is the video game.
Video games, while not outwardly destructive, are a huge threat to today’s culture as we know it. In its humble origins as text based adventures on a computer screen which eventually led to interactive moving pixels that couldn’t touch the sides of the playing screen, video games have come a long way to become the destructive entity which rips at our culture from the inside. As the years progressed, the possibilities expanded in the realm of video game technology and new genres grew from the developing possibilities. Today, there are more than a dozen mainstream genres, each with its own following and fare share of cult like fan base. Of the many possibilities within the video game realm, let’s look at a small subset of two categories of games which I hold very dear to me – role playing games (RPGs) and shooters (FPS).
The RPG is a powerful and arguably addictive genre video games which involves and immerses the gamer in a new and exciting world, often more engaging than reality, with the general purpose of a quest or some sort of ultimate goal of accomplishment in the player’s alternate persona. As with Ware’s example of fast food and mass commercial culture covering up our history and devaluing landmarks, RPGs attain this type of destructive status in their own right. By disguising reality and creating a new life within a computer game, RPGs remove many societal institutions and create a new set of practices and beliefs within the game which work to enhance the story line. Ranging from anything such as a society which believes in the power and protection of a mystical set of elemental crystals to a society driven by vigilante warfare and magic guided by nine elder gods, RPGs can create any number of situations which mask cultural beliefs with the practices and beliefs that suit its own needs.
The RPG in some cases even goes beyond the level of creating an alternate reality with institutions and beliefs that mask existing cultural values. In the case of Massive Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs), for the small price of a monthly server subscription fee, gamers can immerse themselves in a fully interactive online world connected with other gamers with similar interests to join in quests and engage in what seems to be daily activities within the world of the game. The most prominent example of this being World of Warcraft, or WoW for short. WoW has grown so large in fact, that it has become, itself, a part of our culture. Many gamers and non-gamers alike will readily recognize the term “WoW” and have no trouble understanding the reference to the game. With recent statistics from the Warcraft servers proclaiming 10 million users, it’s no wonder how this definition has slipped into our vocabulary, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find it added to unabridged dictionaries in the near future as an alternate definition to “wow.” It’s simply mind-boggling that one video game could cause such recognition and become such an integral part of video game culture, and as a result, our culture as a whole.
RPGs such as WoW and other massive yet not online interactive games like the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy series are so involved that the games themselves take well over 60 hours or more to complete the main story or quest. The time demands of the typical RPG immerse gamers into the plot for great lengths of time, and if the designers did their jobs, will maintain the attention of the user until the story has been completed at least one time through. With these demands, it’s no surprise that video games have spurred recent studies to look into the psychological effects on gamers within the evolving video game culture. A recent pilot study by Douglas Gentile et al. published in Psychological Science in May 2009 begins to study the effects of such games on the gamers who actively play them. With RPGs such as WoW being only a small subset of the broader question at hand, the study suggests that nearly 1 in 10 gamers is addicted to video games. The study calls into concern that this “video game addiction” is causing social disorders, a drop in intellectual priority and a devaluing of cultural institutions which are being replaced by video game culture. That is to say that school performance is failing, money is consistently squandered and sometimes even stolen to purchase video games and other institutions of recreation, entertainment, and art are consistently ignored to satisfy the need to play. While this is not yet officially classified as a psychological disorder in medical literature, we may very soon find that time demanding RPGs and other games alike are doing more than devaluing other cultural values from within.
Returning to the other prime example of culturally self-destructive video games, FPS games attack a completely different aspect of culture. While RPGs create a new set of institutions and values from which the player engages in an alternate reality masking his own, the FPS often does the same but only to a small degree in most cases. The violence and degree of realism created in more recent games calls into serious question the moral judgment of the player to engage in shooting and killing other characters within a game. While these characters can often be manifested as alien species or demons from the darkest depths of hell on mars, the multiplayer aspect which comes with most FPS games puts two human players against each other in a fight to the death. In essence, the game is training the gamer that it’s alright to kill another person because it’s not actually real. Where must we draw the line though? How far can this devaluing of moral institutions and practices within our culture go before it begins to affect the decisions and outcomes our society lives by every day? This is not to say that a child playing FPS games is going to grow up to be a serial killer, or a heartless being with no concern for the societal values he was born and raised by. However, it does begin the blur the lines between right and wrong as well as socially acceptable and unacceptable, calling into question whether these video games are more helpful as a new cultural form of entertainment or destructive as a deterioration of values and institutions already upheld in the culture which creates them.
Video game culture spreads far beyond that of the addictive, alternate reality which so many young and developing gamers immerse themselves in each year. Video games have become as much a part of mainstream culture as film and music even. Film premiers no longer even come close to the level of devotion and commitment of some gamers on release night. A movie with a cult following will get hundreds of thousands of viewers at opening night midnight showings and untold publicity at the various premiers attended by the stars of the show. Release night on the other hand is a far greater sight to behold. Gamers line up on sidewalks for blocks in a line to drop $60 on one of a limited number of games in the release-day shipment. Some fans can be seen fully garbed like their favorite game character. The person in the front of the line who’s camped out for two days prior to the release is hailed as a god amongst men, and jealousy, rather than pity, is the feeling that circulates the rest of the line. All this commotion is over the chance to merely purchase a video game before anyone else. For the bigger game releases, media coverage of the event intensifies the experience as the first few customers are interviewed. Students often even admit at this point that they plan to skip class until the game has been beaten. From afar, the whole situation seems utterly absurd, but to a cult following gamer, this is the day which has been awaited for the 3 years from game announcement to release.
Larger game releases such as that of Halo 3, the final installment of the FPS trilogy chronicling the epic war between humanity and a collective of alien races, even put on festivities and various publicity stunts for the release to create a truly unique experience in gaming history. Gamers who purchased the game on opening night at Toys R Us in New York City were entertained throughout the evening by acrobatic feats performed by stuntmen dressed as characters from the game. The climax of the evening came when the first gamers were to receive their copy of the game from Master Chief himself and the lines opened storewide to allow others to join in this unique opportunity to simply purchase the game before anyone else. The level of fan devotion at these events is almost unparalleled by any other form of entertainment existing in this modern electronics-based culture we’ve developed. With the increasing popularity of events like this and the incredible cult followings which many games are beginning to develop, it should come as no surprise that video game culture is becoming more mainstream, leaving little room for less appreciated forms of art and entertainment to the new gamer generation.
The question remains, if video games are becoming a mainstream part of our culture, how are they self-destructive and suicidal toward that culture? For gaming culture to become integrated as a daily part of everyday life, it appears that something else is neglected or set aside to facilitate the societal devotion. As a result of video games becoming an integral part of culture, older established art forms are becoming neglected and pushed aside to make room for the hours of devoted playing of video games. If you were to ask any avid gamer the last time he visited a museum or watched a symphony perform in the cultural district, the response is almost guaranteed to be never or too long ago to remember. The theories of Gresham’s Law and whether high culture will be replaced by pop-culture is a completely different argument in and of itself, but concept applies. For video games to become more influential in the end, other cultural elements will be sacrificed to facilitate the addition. As in Ware’s interpretation of cultural suicide, the shift to mass media driven video game culture is beginning to appear as much of a mask to the rest of society and culture as the concrete jungle of fast food and power lines in Jimmy Corrigan.
With video game and electronic stores popping up all over the place, it would be hard not to run into one simply walking around any major city, town, or suburb. In recent years, video game commercials have expanded their audience from gaming specific channels such as G4 to airing commercials during primetime football games on all the major networks. Magazines and advertisements promoting video games and related forms of entertainment are all around us. There has been such an increase in the cultural influence of video games in the past decade that there are now journals which review nothing but the influence of video games on our culture. Studies ranging from the application of a certain symbol in a particular game to the overall growth of gamer culture over the years since the creation of the first computerized games are conducted by psychologists and sociologists alike to measure the effects of such a widespread phenomenon. Game consoles which were once marketed as toys for a younger generation have become as much a part of the older generations as well. An extreme example of this is the implementation of the Nintendo Wii console in many retirement homes and assisted living centers as a feasible alternative to going out and golfing or bowling at the old bowling alley down the road. Will this massive expansion of virtual existence within the depths of a video game develop beyond a simple escape from reality as in an RPG and become an actual replacement for the daily activities we engage in every day? Only time will hold the answers to these and other questions which may come to dominate the field of video game technology and its cultural influences. The look of our suicidal culture may not be as dreary and gray as that which Ware depicts, but it’s certainly heading for a change in which at least some aspects of culture must be figuratively killed to make way for the dominating factors of tomorrow.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan. New York: Pantheon, 2003.
American Heritage Dictionary online
Gentile et al. Psychological Science. 20:4 May 2009. from Health Day News.
Games and Culture. 4:2 2009.