Silicon Insider: Video Gaming

It won't be long now — say 10 years — before the Gamers rule the Zeitgeist.

I remember, as a boy in Mountain View, then Sunnyvale, Calif., right smack in the middle of what would become Silicon Valley, having certain hobbies and favorites that bordered on fanaticism. For example, I read Mad magazine until I gravitated to National Lampoon. I knew the models, engine displacement and options of every Detroit muscle car (my favorite was the GTO) and eventually had a girlfriend who drove a '67 Firebird 400 convertible.

At different times in my childhood, I had pictures of Rat Fink, the Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix on my school binder, and I knew the dirty lyrics to "Louie Louie." I variously wore surfer clothes, Beatle boots and paisley shirts with white collars. I saw Traffic at Winterland and Frank Zappa and the Mothers at some place I don't quite remember. I wandered around Haight-Ashbury, danced to the Doobies in a Santa Cruz Mountains biker bar, and I was supposed to go to Altamont, but bailed at the last moment when I heard about the traffic jam.

In other words, I'm just another dreary Baby Boomer, one born early enough to have been a proto-hippie, but late enough to have caught the beginning of Yuppiedom.

If you are younger than me (which the actuarial tables say you most likely are) you've have heard this Boomer crap until you are ready to puke … even as you go out and buy the latest Beatles collection. And I don't blame you.

Except for the music, I was never really that impressed by my generation, which largely managed to convert a historically unique advantage in prosperity, education and numbers into a narcissistic blight on American history. It will take 50 more years for America to get over the damage wrought by the Baby Boomers … and, hey, sorry.

The New Generation

But that's not my reason for writing this. Rather, consider those cultural signifiers listed above. My parents, busy building a life and dealing with all of the social cross-currents that emerged as the '50s turned into the '60s and '70s, barely registered any of these events. That was just odd stuff their kid did or wore or hummed.

Asked back then to predict the future they likely would have seen a continuation of the present, circa 1960: better business suits and fedoras made out of the latest miracle fabrics, bigger color TVs, faster trains and planes, and longer cars with fancier dashboards. What they couldn't have guessed — and one my 83-year-old mother still doesn't quite accept — is that this essentially silly and puerile sub-world of rock 'n' roll, cars and pop style would become the dominant cultural life of American society.

Even my old man, who was infinitely more open to new ideas and technologies than I am, who even took me to the Wescon computer show to see the unveiling of the first Apple I, never fully believed that any of this — from heavy metal to Microsoft Windows — was anything more than a vastly entertaining sideshow.

Having been both a soldier and a spy, he had a far deeper understanding of the complexities of human nature than most of us — yet I know he would be stunned to see an America (and increasingly the world) dominated by nostalgia for the trifles of my Boomer childhood.

What got me thinking about this was thumbing through my 8-year-old's copy of Electronic Gaming Monthly (not a plug: he gets PC Gamer and GMR, too). My youngest is a game fanatic. When he's not playing, he's devising and designing his own games, complete with age warning labels ("It's called 'Marines in Space', Daddy, rated M for violence, blood and gore, and extreme language. Player experience may vary"). He may be a little jock, but when it came to summer daycamp, off he went with a bunch of nerds for a week at a Lego and Game Design program.

The New Insiders

For a boomer like me, reading a magazine like Electronic Gaming Monthly is more than a little disorienting. First there is the graphics overload — every article and ad seems to be screaming at you in an explosion of fonts and screenshots. Then there is the sophomoric writing and humor, the kind of nudge-nudge, let's-see-what-we-can-get-away-with college newspaper prose beloved by 20-year-olds, but like a dental drill to adults.

Most of all, there is that insider's combination of catchphrases, assumption of common knowledge about the field, and exhausting attention to minutiae that separates veteran insiders from ignorant arrivistes. It is the oldest magazine trick of them all (nobody did it better than the early Rolling Stone) and still the most effective.

It would be easy to dismiss a fanboy mag like Electronic Gaming Monthly as trivial. But make no mistake: this is a very real, successful and important magazine. For one thing, it's owned by ever-ruthless Ziff-Davis, which doesn't stick with losers for long. As for the staff: I ran one of the largest technology magazines in the world, and I didn't have nearly the masthead of these guys. Watching my sons tear through the latest issue, I know EGM has found the best way into their brain stems.

But not into mine. I can't tell you how many times my youngest has asked if I'd like to play one of his endless library of games. I always politely refuse — as much as I admire their graphics, their creative story lines, even their amoral anarchy (ever watched Grand Theft Auto?), I am just not interested in playing games.

Most adults aren't, I suspect, probably because the game of life is infinitely more challenging, funny, sexy and terrifying — and even the best computer game is a poor simulation. And because of that, we tend to dismiss the gaming world as some sort of silly subculture inhabited by slightly twisted teenaged boys and antisocial college kids; a place we might occasionally visit as a lark but would never take seriously.

But what if we are wrong — as wrong as my parents were about the '60s sub-culture? What if the yearlong delay of Halo 2 is as much a cultural tragedy to this generation as the death of Jim Morrison was to mine? What if SuperMario Brothers is Shindig and CounterStrike is Woodstock?

And what if the future, which we still see as the Triumph of the PC, is in fact the Revenge of the Video Game Machines?

Culture of Gamers

Absurd? About 10 months ago I noted in this column that TV Nielsen ratings had collapsed for 17-to-25-year-olds — a slump I suggested came from the kids playing online games instead. And consider these statistics I gleaned from the pages of EGM:

Twenty-percent of all U.S. households have a Playstation 2.

Twenty-four countries play online games through Xbox.

Nintendo expects to sell 20 million GameCubes in this console cycle.

GameBoy Advance makes up 25 percent of all gaming sales.

These are the kinds of numbers once associated with Laugh-In, Sgt. Pepper's, Schwinn Stingrays and Beach Blanket Bingo. What we are talking about here is the raw material of the Zeitgeist of 2015.

By 2015, the Boomers will be in retirement villages or awaiting their gold watches. The poor, benighted X-Gens, now middle-aged and still unhappy, will be trying and failing one last time to get everyone to be nostalgic for slackerhood, ecstasy and Kurt Cobain. And the Gamer Generation will be dancing in the wings for their moment in the cultural limelight.

They will arrive with TV shows and movies about LAN parties and Castle Wolfenstein and The Legend of Zelda. There will be fads for old Nintendo and Atari games, including Golden Oldie game sites on the Web — the Internet itself having transformed into a movie/TV/global gaming site. And parents will bore their kids with long recitations of top scores in Half-Life and Madden NFL — even as the kids watch their favorite Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons.

Old GameBoy Advance machines will command thousands on eBay, especially if it bears the autograph of one of its designers. Bars and restaurants will take on the motifs of video game arcades. Art film theaters (if they still exist) will hold Dragonball Z festivals, even as it is turned into a big budget, live action Hollywood film. And each night, 50 million people from around the world will compete for fame and fortune in a single global online game.

Sound nuts? Ever think you would tune in to a television series called American Chopper? Or watch this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees on the evening news? Or make Elvis' "That's Alright Mama" No. 1 again in 2004?

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised.