A video game doesn’t have to consider how you view yourself to be relatable: it only has to empower you to be as you want to be viewed. In other words, Duke Nukem was made to identify with angry young boys and to be relatable to their self-impression. They didn’t have to be Duke: they could identify with the desire to be him. This is an important distinction in a century in which people can aspire to new identifications. There has been a major power shift of identity in video games, and I think we should talk about it.
The collapse of Atari and the Western games market signaled the death of something much more significant: the idea that video games were technology. The rise of Nintendo brought a new kind of marketing that made video games toys. And toys, unless they’re pink, are traditionally only for XYs.
Super Mario Bros. is a game for bros. It views the world from four feet above the ground and through an imitation of testosterone: saving your pink girlfriend with your righthand dude. The adolescent boy was the obsession of the early gaming industry in general – his fantasies, his desires, his games. The Super Nintendo was right on time for these boys to be working out: how many early 90s games featured shirtless super-saviors the likes of Contra and Conan and Golden Axe? Even Tomb Raider, which some view as a bold representative step, is still conditioned by gender for the pleasure of young men, just of a different age bracket.
But by 2000, the first generation of gamers, the ones raised by Nintendo, had become adults. Games were still being made based on their desires, but chock it up to adulthood, to 9/11, to anything: our desires had changed. What we wanted, what the Internet and the War on Terror and the rise of the realistic FPS ultimately represented, was agency. The desire for the power to solve the problems of our own lives.
Mainstream games in the 2000s started profiting from discontent – they seemed to know their audience had reached tax-paying age. The rise of the realistic military shooter through Call of Duty represents a restless gamer base, one that desires to approach the problems of the world with an empowering simplicity. Bad guys are real, but they can be shot from your living room.
And then we welcomed the true mainstream rise of character creation, or, the idea that you can identify with someone so long as you relate to them already. This is agency again, coming out as play-pretend. Empowerment used to be about becoming a person that you might really be someday; now it’s about inserting your self into that adventure. It’s about acting on dreams you used to have. It’s about pretending to fix a world.
This is all speculative of course, all reverse credit given to broad observations of trends. A comprehensive guide to gaming evolution would require finer teeth than mine. But gamers were children, they were marketed out of adolescence, and they are adults with a different view of the world. And gender roles are normalizing too, revealing a gamer base that is represented about equally among the sexes.
I don’t know much about the physical evolution of video games, but I can see its humanizing emotional development. I can see Painkiller become The Last of Us. And I can see two gaming identities that have surfaced out of the chaos of growing up that now define the industry like two personalities inhabiting the same mind: the persona of a small child lost in a world of terrifying adversity, and the persona of a father.
The former is how we imagine children to feel in a world which scares us, now that we’re grown up into it. It is how we remember ourselves. Let’s talk about that some other time.
The father is now who AAA players empathize and struggle with: enacting as him might be a way to become closer to him. The father has become the singular mythic symbol of the mainstream (while the Indie scene is that child lost in two-dimensional pastel worlds of hurt and shadow).
How many do I have to name? Red Dead Redemption, Silent Hill, Heavy Rain, Splinter Cell. Taken in order, every Bioshock game is like an evolution of the father performance. Kratos used to be a masculine rage machine, then a terrible dad, and now an understandable one. The Last of Us could not be more about inhabiting a protective, fatherly presence. Even Grand Theft Auto, where love might least likely be found, gave players of its fifth entry a criminal and a murderer like always. But he’s a dad. A certain epilogue from a recent game series-ender should come to mind. In Dishonored you play a grungy assassin in a post-punk apocalyptic industrial revolution whose mission could be anything, but it’s to rescue a little girl that looks up to you. Fallout 4 is about being an idiot of the wastes, popping people’s heads off and looting bodies. But if you ask the story, it’s about saving your kid. Look at Metal Gear Solid, one of the only franchises on both sides of the transition. Can’t you see the dad life creeping into our Solid Snake?
The father persona could represent many developments in the emotions of gamers. But here are a few things I’m fairly certain about.
First, the trend towards dad types is a result of gamers’ changing expectations and not a cause. The industry didn’t just decide to make almost every action hero either a dad or a scruffy dad-looking guy: we promoted the change with our attitude. Games have always been shaped by expectations and not the reverse.
Second, the gamer base reaching dad age has at least something to do with it. This is that pure identification thing again. Just like men in their teens identified with Bill Rizer, men in their forties are identifying with Joel and Ethan and Nathan. Neither the players nor the avatars have to be actual dads for it to work.
Third, the rise of the female gamer has at least partially lowered the outrageous testosterone levels of gaming protagonists. Duke Nukem was way out of favor when he made his big comeback next to Geralt (The Witcher) and Ethan Mars. In order for the action hero’s plight to be read across gender lines, romantic love has been mostly replaced with familial love, rage has been tempered into passion. Anyone can relate to the quest to save their child, as opposed to their princess. And most people, no matter their gender, want to be closer to a great dad.
And that might be the main thing really. The gaming industry has always been about escapism, but perhaps more than ever we are escaping into better ideas of ourselves and into people we wish we had in our life. The emotions have become broader and finer as the chins have gotten scruffier. I don’t know where this is taking us, if we’ll start inhabiting some badass gaming moms, if in another 25 years all game protagonists will be action grandpas, or if Freud would have anything to say about all this.
But I do know that in direct proportion to claims that video games have lost their teeth, I say that they’ve found their heart. We owe it to no one’s dad particularly, but to our idea of him. So thanks, dad. I enjoy becoming you.