When I was about seven years old, I made a deal with my parents. If they would buy me a Nintendo, I would only play it on the weekends. Every Sunday, I told them, I would diligently roll up the controller cords and put the game cartridges back in their boxes. I would pack up the game system too, unhooking it from the family television and carefully storing it in its original box. I must have made a good case, because, a few weeks later, I unwrapped a brand-new Nintendo Entertainment System, complete with light gun, two controllers, and a copy of Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt. I rushed to hook up the NES, unspooling the power and video cables. Then, just as I was about to turn it on, I realized it was only Wednesday. I had three days to go before I could play. I sat on the floor, discontented but determined not to breach my agreement. After a few moments, I began to pack up the system. My dad stopped me. Today could be an exception, he said. Without hesitation, I pressed the power button.
I don’t think the NES ever made it back to its original box. The game system stayed out and stayed on. I played it with my little siblings and I played it with my friends. I sweated through all of the Mega Man games and grinded my way through each Dragon Warrior. As I got older the graphics and gameplay improved. The monsters were bigger and scarier, but that didn’t stop us from playing, bleary-eyed, until the sun came up the next morning. Nor were games limited to our couches and TVs. Dungeons were explored on card tables in friend’s basements, we taught our school computers to play Diablo, and weekend sleepovers were punctuated with marathons of Risk and Catan. We were a generation of kids coming of age through a new kind of imaginative play.
Perhaps because it was so new and so strange, the hobby attracted its share of fear. After the shootings at Columbine, my mother hid my Dungeons and Dragon’s manuals. I remember sneaking into my dad’s office to play Counter Strike and quickly turning off the screen when he came home early from work. Games were something to be ashamed of, maybe even something dangerous. But lost in the congressional hearings about the violence in video games was another story about how they were fostering new communities. The kinds of spaces that games were creating was collapsing time and space in ways that could be scarcely imagined a generation before. Our sense of the world was being formed at LAN parties and on Battle.net channels. We stayed up late creating custom maps and mods. We were learning to code and to think. We were building the worlds that were building us.

he development of games and the culture that surrounds them over the past thirty years will prove to be one of the most significant innovations in human cultural production. Barely two generations into this phenomenon, the game industries have begun to eclipse those of traditional media. In today’s fragmented media landscape, the release of a triple-A title offers one of the last mass experiences available. And, long after the final play of the Super Bowl or the closing statements in a presidential debates, players remain at play. These works are a new art that asks us to reconsider the nature of cultural production and our relationship to the things we create. Yet, so much of our conversation around these objects remains limited. People on the outside see nothing but violent tropes and sexist fantasies, and many on the inside do little to correct their assumptions.
So, let us begin with some claims. Games are art. As such, they have much to tell us about the world that created them and the people that play them. To play games is to exist in the world that created the game – brimming with all of its problems. Our world is beleaguered. Our games are beleaguered. Even if we play games to run from the pressures of daily life, the place we escape to is a reflection of those pressures. Escapism itself is a fantasy.
As critics, designers, and players, we are then faced with a simple choice. We can consider the media we consume. We can acknowledge their problems. We can theorize and deconstruct. We can push our games to be better and stretch the possibilities of a form. Or, we can pretend that games are mere entertainment, ready-made for thoughtless consumption and free of politics. We can pretend that the things that mattered so much to us don’t matter. We can pretend it was all for fun.
Fuck fun. That we still gleefully twist the controller through the air while racing in Mario Kart or burst into laughter when our team comes from behind is beside the point. Because “fun” – that subjective, fleeting experience – is the least of what games can offer to us as individuals and as a community. Our affective responses speak to the power of the medium and demand that we take it all the more seriously. Games deserve our conversation and our criticism.
Culture Bytes Back will be a place for that conversation. In the coming weeks and months, we will release podcasts and articles that represent our particular vision of game criticism, where art is not divorced from the culture that produced it, and where the mechanics of games are as integral as their narratives. Games are mixed mediums and should be treated as such. Video games leave room for the audience to passively experience and actively participate, and it is this experiential aspect that separates it from other types of art. While game criticism will always be inflected by an understanding of older forms such as literature and film, it also requires a methodology that addresses the particularities of video games.
My earliest memory of video games is fuzzy – one might even say, shrouded in Myst. I remember my father teaching me how to use Windows 95, and understanding that “DOS” and “boot” were, in some vague way, very important. I remember the strawberries (my favorite fruit at the time) I would obsessively plant in SimFarm, and the horses I would buy with the little money that remained (my zodiac sign is the horse, so how could I resist?). I remember the nightmarish snowman that would chase me down a slope as I skied into every obstacle. I remember trapping cats with blocks and crushing them into cheese. I remember Prince of Persia, and Castle Wolfenstein, and a purple and blue pixelated, platformer game that involved a guillotine I could never bypass (what is this game??). I remember a babysitter who let me play on his Diablo account, introducing me to a mysterious world of shambling skeletons (which I still hate) and red/blue orbs that determined my character’s fate.
I even remember my first, explicit request for a game that wasn’t donated by family friends. When I was 10, we were on our way to China to visit family and I spent the majority of the flight standing on my seat, watching the boy (teenager? young adult?) in front of me battle his Metapod. Over. And over. And over. I was hooked. For my birthday that year, my parents presented me with an atomic purple Gameboy – my dad mentioned he tried looking for a “gamegirl” – and one, precious, Pokémon Yellow cartridge. I would replay that game 3 times.
Growing up, video games – PC and otherwise – were just one of the elements that formed the backdrop of my life. I spent as much time playing through Merlin’s Quest as I did reading fantasy novels and watching The Magic School Bus. I liked books, television shows, and games; it was as simple as that. To me, the lack of external fanfare made all of my hobbies equally mundane. My parents emphasized schoolwork but otherwise left me alone, and my introversion meant my younger brother was my only co-op partner. It wasn’t until I left for college that I understood that many others viewed video games as the epicenter for a sub (or counter) culture, carrying its own particular weight and associations, many of which were condescending, and negative. By the time I was close to graduating, some of the more hysterical claims about “game brain” and antisocial behavior had been replaced by a new mainstream trend.
All of a sudden, games were everywhere, and gamers to play with too. I spent (spend) increasing hours immersed in this evolving digital landscape, sinking my free time into an always growing, always open, world.