Are violent videogames bad for kids? It's an old question with a new twist. Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would consider whether a California law banning the sale of violent games to minors is unconstitutional.
As the New York Times and others weigh in, it's worth stepping back and asking a question: What defines a generation? The music. The films. The politics. Yeah, all that. But, these days, you can’t really know a generation without also understanding – and playing - their videogames. As Marshall McLuhan once put it, “The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.”
Of course, videogames have been deeply meaningful to generations before. They're how the brightest young minds of the future – from Microsoft to Facebook – cut their teeth, and play with new technology: the young engineers who played text-only games in computer labs in the 1960s, the suburban kids weaned on the Atari 2600 in the 70s, the arcade gamers of the golden age of the 1980s. As personal computers began infiltrating our homes over the next decade or so, diligent braniacs began coding and distributing their own games in legion.
Little did we know the seismic shift at play. Videogames had largely been the province of corporations like Nintendo and elusive programming “priests,” as some called the lucky few. But with the proliferation of Apple IIs and Commodore 64s and other personal computers, you didn’t have be like Jeff Bridges and materialize inside Tron to get inside a game. All you had to do was learn the code. By the mid-1990s game programmers were pioneering the business, culture, and lifestyle that defined the coming revolution online.
As videogame programmer John Carmack told me while I was researching my book, Masters of Doom, “in the information age, the barriers just aren’t there. The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it.”
Pizza, Coke, and PCs became the fuel of the Gamer Generation, as they took over the new world of the Internet just after the turn of the millennium. How fitting that the first decade of this explosive new time could be rendered in binary – the 00s. After 40 odd years as outsiders, gamers finally became the Players in the realist sense. The heroes of the Zeroes were them, the solitary whiz kids and dynamic duos – the Google guys, the YouTube guys, the Twitter guys – who disrupted so much of what we took for granted: information, knowledge, communication, entertainment.
The coders took their giant pixilated cleaver to the ground, and split the generation gap wider than ever before with a sizzle and zap. On one side were the geeks, gamers, hackers, Instant Messengers, texters – the digital natives, as sociologists and marketers termed the strange new species. On the other side of the chasm stood most everyone else – the parents and pundits and politicians, the Player Haters.
Both legions eyed each other dubiously, if not fearfully. The Players saw a generation who denied, ignored, and misconstrued them and new power they held so dear: the incredible instantaneous ability to get almost anything you wanted online the instant you wanted it. The Haters saw trouble, and plenty of it – pirates, predators, plagiarists, a ruthless and anonymous mob. The Supreme Court's decision won't end the meta-game between the Players and the Haters, but it sure will make it a lot more interesting.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.