"Get excited. Get disgusted. Get pissed off.” - Illbleed Trailer
I know you, Reader Of A Video Games Website. I feel your hurt. All December you've been ripping your eyebrows out, flinging your relatives' mince pies to the ground and gritting your teeth at Tescos with such intensity that they've had to discount whole shelves of single-serving christmas puddings because you've covered them with fine enamel dust. All because of a single as-yet-unfulfilled Christmas wish...
“How the fetal christ...” you scream, compulsively breaking and resetting your nose to the beat of Stop the Cavalry “am I supposed to even pretend to have any seasonal good cheer when the dumb Irish guy from the podcast who hates everything hasn't yet taken Dreamcast celebration month and made it all about him?”
Well from your lips to god's ears, Reader Of A Video Games Website. So heavy was this demand, so pressing and real, that we're going to go ahead and stuff that turkey right now.
Like most people of earth, I never owned a Dreamcast. Not because of the usual reasons like PS2 lust or baleful ignorance of happiness in the universe. No. My own non-ownership of a Dreamcast had distinct and grave purpose.
This month has been all about celebration of the console and the culture that surrounded it. The experience it created and, more importantly, the type of gamer it molded. Oddly my association with Dreamcast and its users was a wholly-negative one.
This much-loved granddad of a console spent my teen years blowing long and hard into my own person Dipshit Gamer dog whistle.
When I was eight I started to play the saxophone. I kept doing that until the age of 19 when I moved out into a high-theft area to study Journalism in college and left it behind, afraid it'd fall victim to some imagined cabal of high-level woodwind-instrument catburglars.
This forsaking of the saxophone co-incided with me taking up video games again, which I'd basically abandoned around age 11.
Unlike stand-up comedy or journalism, it's actually worth getting someone to teach you how to play the saxophone. So I took lessons. I was not alone. Myself, my friend and two guys from the year ahead of me all started getting instruction from a revered showband musician who probably wouldn't want this in his google results, especially now he's dead.
"The headlights hit the headstone and I hate it all over again.” - Amy Hempel
Not everyone was a fan. My inability to understand social codes was coming into full bloom around this time, much to everyone's chagrin. One of the easiest-to-spot chagrins belonged to one of the older guys taking saxophone lessons (relatively, he was 12 when he did the things I'm about to describe).
Dude hated saxophone lessons and took it out on me. Probably because a fat child wearing 4 watches and a jacket covered inside with badges who relished taking saxophone lessons is the most bullyable person imaginable for someone forced into failing to summon a sound out of a hollow brass typewriter every week.
So he fucking bullied me relentlessly. In fairness everyone was doing it while I was doing every possible thing to make it easy for them. It's a pity literally none of those people were around when I dedicated the years 15 to 21 to constantly saying horrific shit for no reason. Anyway this Dude's bullying centered around how I'd never had a girlfriend (I was 10), I was effeminate (yes) and how he owned better shit than me (he did).
This may sound standard,and that's because it was, but there was one time he layed into me that stuck. It was the end of the academic year, he was moving on to secondary school and was promised he'd be allowed to give up the saxophone. He'd also just attained an Official Girlfriend.
And he'd just got a Dreamcast.
I didn't have a PS2 or any prospect of getting one. I still had a Sega Genesis. I don't think I'd even heard of a Dreamcast. My parents operated on the One Console Later theory beloved of anyone possessing of common sense. A PS2 seemed like a magic device to me. Wholly unattainable.
"Shitbird. Shitbird. Shitbird. Shit.” - Don DeLillo
These three things formed a perfect voltron of smugness. He repeatedly made me feel uncomfortable to the point of nausea about the existence of sex or anything to do with attraction and kept asking me what I thought he was doing with his girlfriend. He ran around celebrating no longer having to play the saxophone and rubbing it in my teachers face, every angry contortion of which filled me with embarrassment. He claimed everyone who coveted a PS2 was “stupid and poor”.
I didn't get sports, was visibly wracked with social anxiety and had a Sega Genesis so he repeatedly told me I was gay. This panicked me cause I was honestly unsure at the time, was afraid he'd somehow find out and that everyone who routinely used it as an insult would find out and hate me. He was off to secondary school to become an adult with a girlfriend and a Dreamcast and I was just some fat, “womanly” kid who could't participate in the culture correctly.
So I said fuck videogames. I got a PSX, played it and never talked with anyone about it much. In fact I consciously tried to avoid the people discussing it once I actually did get to secondary school. I couldn't handle the sexual-themed bullying, the weird codified rules of console hierarchy and the whole money aspect which I'd been developing healthy guilt about via Crass records I didn't really understand.
This imagined squad of fucking smug Dreamcast fans and their cloying superiority got to me. Their games seemed harder to find, less spoken about. Instead of the magical impression that this seems to have made one everyone else participating in #DCember, this just cemented the impression in my head of Dreamcast fans as elitist, overgamer dipshits.
I got into music instead, something which had stratas upon stratas of weird bullshit that I could at least somehow understand. Of course that ended up with me having to spend years manfully pretending I liked Tool and Pearl Jam but that's another story.
My impression changed over the years of course. In my head this incident eventually became emblematic of all the reasons I never had to be interested in games again. One straight white middle-class idiot using “gay” as a slur against another straight white middle-class idiot because he didn't own the right circuit board? And the right circuit board is expensive and everything's broken anyway?
The problem is, of course, that that comparison still mostly holds true. The Dreamcast may represent all of gaming's best qualities to many, for me it was the centerpiece to everything reprehensible about the culture. The very qualities that have become more and more apparent and pernicious as gaming has moved towards the mainstream and have garnered much disbelieving press. Strong criticism has come from within the industry and there seems to be a huge increase in thoughtful, perspective-heavy coverage (you're on one right now), though these sites are tellingly characterised by frustrated guilt.
While Dreamcast represented hope and possibility to everyone else you've read this month, it heralded the gaming culture becoming more popular and with it, its status as a moral and emotional void for frustrated white dudes
That's not the end.
Years later, when I was 17 and Nameless Antagonist was 18, something happened. Specifically he was walked-in-on while giving a blowjob to another dude in the bathroom of his powerfully-traditional school and shortly after came out to almost-universal contempt from his classmates. I wasn't in the same school as him but I knew what where he went was like and I made my own assumptions.
I ran into him once roughly a year after that'd happened. I don't know what I expected, maybe the same directionless anger, maybe cut with a little more paranoia this time. The person I met, even 12 months later, still conveyed a sense of palpable relief. He seemed to be living less angrily, being less guarded with his movements and talking about whatever he wanted with complete lack of self-consciousness.
I'm not suggesting being outed in an aggressively-backward all-boys school was some cathartic, transformative moment. It had to be a nightmare. I'm just happy it galvinised him into letting acres of shit go and becoming whoever he'd wanted to be all along.
He'd become at ease with themselves, someone delighting in their own interests and with the resolve to be visibly in love with their life and the possibilities that life affords. Someone who, despite it was going to be difficult as shit and require a lot of hard work, had given themselves the freedom to dedicate themselves to joy. Someone who'd visibly said “fuck it”in an aggressively anti-”fuck it” environment.
He was even playing the saxophone again and apparently really enjoying it.
“Art is not in some far-off place.” - Lydia Davis
That kind of change is a deal many-magnitudes bigger than games consoles or any kind of entertainment. Life often is. So why put this shit on you when you were expecting to read a teary-eyed reminiscence of the Blues Brothers 2000 3D platformer?
Because if games matter, and you think they do, this must be reckoned with. There's a tendency in some quarters of games journalism, among those who otherwise tout themselves as “enlightened”, to deny any link between how people act about games and how they act for real. They'll dismiss death threats to someone cause of their gender as “comment-board bullshit.” They'll regard the overwhelming homophobia and racism in online gaming as merely a sign of gaming's popularity, rather than examining among whom that popularity is being fomented.
Being someone who is passionate about games and not a massive arsehole is sadly still an achievement. Look at the temple of shit that is N4G. It shouldn't stop there though for many it seems to.
It's a fact crazy people blame video games for horrific acts. Mortal Kombat was used as a scapegoat recently despite no record of any of the recent increasingly-terrifying spate of crazy white spree-shooters bellowing “get over here!” or “impressive!” at any point during their crimes. And yes, it's possible to start a Mortal Kombat match and end it with friendship, something significantly less likely than firing a gun at someone.
It's also a fact that video games make a hilarious amount of money in a way that dwarves most of entertainment industry. Acting like a tortured outsider isn't really cutting it anymore. You can't just stamp your foot and act like no one takes your tiny little hobby seriously when it's the world's biggest entertainment industry. If you only engage crazy people and don't develop a more sophisticated critique of your own culture, then you prove everyone's point.
You can't constantly advocate for games being affecting pieces of art and then deny they have any effect on people. They almost certainly don't cause murders but it's okay to examine their impact further. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to take it seriously.
Imagine being a normal human and witnessing the first reactions many games journalists had to the recent spree-shootings on twitter. How would you view an industry whose top chin-strokers instant reaction to dead kids is to kick off a mutual-masturbation in-joke fest celebrating not being the cause, indignantly tweeting about how Toejam and Earl never put a gun in your hand like the smuggest of internet atheists? You'd probably decided they hadn't much of worth to contribute anyway.
“You deserve it.” - Future.
This is immediately what came to mind when I was asked if I had anything for #DCember, presumably with the hope I'd have a story about a drug deal conducted solely in Shenmue dialogue or living with a girl with a House of The Dead back tattoo.
I was reminded of that my weird relationship with the Dreamcast and how surprised I'd been when getting back into games that it often inspired love among the very best critics and the most passionate, genuine games fans. I imagined writing about the affecting, wonderful experiences people had with their Dreamcast games and how sad it is those people never tend to never take off rose-tinted glasses.
When real games writing talent tackles hard questions about the culture around gaming, people like Anna Anthropy, Michael Abbott, Leigh Alexander or even Tim Rogers (oh yes), that's properly exciting. Not only that, it's necessary. Skilled nostalgists are becoming increasingly commonplace but there's still cause to risk being labelled pretentious for trying to take games cultures as seriously as it repeatedly stamps its foot and demands to be. Being labelled “art” isn't code for “universal praise”. It means better, more difficult questions.
But that horrible dude, that living embodiment of everything wrecked and terrible about gaming culture? The thing is he got over it. It wasn't easy, in fact it was a pretty fucking traumatic and required a lot of confrontation of issues more important than gaming to get there. But he got over it. And when he did, the relief and transformation was powerful. He had perspective.
So maybe instead of denial and weird defensiveness, the games community can start dealing with some of the problems endemic in the system head on. It's already happening with people like Robert Florence's stand against the sub-adolescent concept of ethics games writing seems to have and #1reasonwhy.
These had their adolescent responses, but growing pains hurt. This is just the beginning.
That dude grew into a real Dreamcast owner. Maybe games can grow into the “act like a human being” ethos that seemed to go so well with the Dreamcast too.
Sean used to play the saxophone.