I have a very distinct memory from 1997, watching an advertisement on TV. It had to be MTV, as that was one of two stations I consistently watched back then, other being Comedy Central, snuck deliberately in-between when I would get home from school and when my mom got home from work. It was showing this great drama, all in curious 3-D graphics, which was particularly unheard of at the time and my attention was rapt. There was a train, a tower, a hero with a giant sword, a woman in a pink and white dress. At the end, big yellow letters read Final Fantasy VII. It sounded like a film I would definitely want to go and see when it came out in theaters, so I filed away the name and carried on with my day. It wasn’t until some years later in college that it was clarified by a gamer friend of mine that it was actually a videogame. And not only that, but a long-running series of videogames that all of my friends had played for a long time and loved to pieces. Suddenly a piece of popular culture had risen up from the ground that I had not known about, as if it had receded for a time, hidden behind a thick fog.
Imagine being someone who’s never played Pokemon or Legend of Zelda, Dark Souls, any Metal Gear Solid or Sonic the Hedgehog. Would you be lost? Who would you be in game culture? Ironically, I am that person. In a world where embracing the past is the way to participate in present gaming culture, I find myself still very much a step behind, learning as I go, and ultimately outside of the circle of many of my peers. Many of the things that gaming culture holds up as the touchstones of what it means to be a gamer, still remain shrouded to me as someone who never got to play them as a child (or even as an adult).
In some ways I feel like curious oddity, like a princess kept locked in a tower for years. In actuality, I just had a very non-gaming childhood, for no particular reason. Sure, I have memories of gaming from when I was little—trading the controller around with kids at a babysitter’s house playing Super Mario 3, the arcade cabinet at the diner. But it wasn’t something that became part of my life in a serious way. One of my favorite games of all time, Myst, was recommended to me by an adult friend of the family who had gotten hooked on it. After that, another decade passed before gaming became a serious part of my life again.
Coming back later in life, not only as a hobby but a part of the “culture” was rough as it was all new—a lot of people involved were relying on a kinship based on experiences I had never had. What was worse is that it interacted very heavily with gatekeeping based around classism and misogyny; was I the fake gamer girl that everyone whispered about? I only really played one game at the time, World of Warcraft, and that wasn’t a “real” game as far as many people were concerned. It also was a community rife with disbelief that women gamed at all, so within and without, I didn’t really feel like a gamer at all. On top of the ever-growing sexism, was just the pure fact that Warcraft was one of the few games I could afford. The early and mid-2000s were a time of financial distress for many of us and I only had a basic computer to work with. The price of the basic box as well as the subscription was a far cry in terms of investment that people were sinking into consoles. I could happily play the one game I was interested in every day and still be entertained, all for the low price of 15 dollars a month. To a poor woman in her 20s struggling, it was all the gaming I really needed.
Gaming is a strange beast, though; unlike TV or books, gaming has had an associated culture and language of culture that has built up so firmly around being a continuous and voluminous participant in it across the span of one’s life. For this reason, and given that most of people of my generation are old enough now to be the main content producers for the gaming industry (whether journalism or development) so much of that culture is firmly embedded in nostalgia. So much of what we know as “videogames” relies so much on having fond memories of playing them as a child. It has informed our tastes, our learned skills and what things can be re-made, rebooted or generally rehashed to us. The reboot trend isn’t limited to games, certainly, but gaming has capitalized on it so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine what the industry would look like if it didn’t allow itself to market to life-long participants who’ve been in the culture for a long time.
The problem with nostalgia though is that you can only go back to the well so often before you recognize that it wasn’t always great. What made some things seem less mediocre is because you were a child. It’s hard to borrow from the past entirely for the future of gaming, laying tracks only three feet ahead, all from three feet behind you. And if you’re someone like me, all it does is serve to alienate a growing population of people who were not a part of what you built your empire upon. If gaming wants to continue, it needs to embrace looking at the present. It needs to grow big enough to embrace everyone’s entrance point into the culture. I don’t begrudge people who are able to look back and have fond memories of gaming in their youth. After all, this is what gave rise to many of the game developers and writers that we know so well today, but I wish the industry as the whole supported creating new horizons and experiences, less capitalizing on franchises and re-hashes of things that were touchstones well over 20 years ago.
Though it hasn’t been a problem outright, I can get a sense of confusion from other gamers when they make a reference I don’t catch or mention that I haven’t played some very popular game over the years. The desire to appear as in the know as others has driven me to absorb some of the basics of gaming culture; it’s a familiar tactic to many nerd women, even those who have a niche that they could go on about forever. Learning just enough to get by is essential in this community more than most, but there’s still large gaps that I spent a long time trying to hide. It’s a background feeling of awkwardness that’s been present over the years, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to be open about and enjoy it as a learning experience rather than feel like an orphan banging on the window outside of a warmly lit house. After all—if all games are open to me with the experiences and wisdom I’ve gained as an adult, shouldn’t I take advantage of that? If anything, it also allows me to seek out experiences within gaming that aren’t just the standards with fresh eyes, but find the new things that would interest someone exactly like me. Year after year, especially 2016, we have seen new games innovate and cater to people who aren’t necessarily going to need to know a 30 year history of gaming to enjoy. I want to be someone who embraces these things and gives crucial feedback as a segment of the audience who often gets overlooked.
In my growth as both a person, a culture consumer and now as a writer and a critic, I’ve definitely felt the need to round out my palette and broaden my horizons when it’s come to gaming. Having a huge gap of that history missing to me, reinforced by how gaming has laid its own foundations, has been a bit of a hindrance, but I’m a fast learner. Just because I have no fond memories of opening up a Super Nintendo at Christmas doesn’t necessarily mean I’m less of a voice or a gamer by any means. Embracing that I don’t know has only helped me figure out what I do know and want to discover when it comes to videogames, whether it be picking up an indie title by first-time developers or going back to an old favorite everyone thinks I’d like. I may not have played most of the Final Fantasygames out there, but I definitely enjoyed the movie version.
And that’s perfectly fine.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic and curmudgeon who lives with in the Midwest. She self-publishes at her blog Apple Cider Mage, and can be found on Twitter at @appleciderwitch.