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November 29, 2005

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race

Nintendo is the reddest sun in our hearts*

*a play on an old Maoist slogan.

Last year at some point I noted a particularly nice turn of phrase by the writer at Broken Saints: "This is the sound of four lines dropping." It's the kind of clever reference to Tetris that evokes both the concept (oh, how sweet it was to engineer those four-minus-one-block lines) and the peculiar honk of a Gameboy. You have to have a certain level of cultural penetration to make a reference like that. Most gamers probably get it, and according to Nielsen an increasing amount of non-fanatics are seeing games as a common cultural experience, similar to books, television, and movies (via Brinstar).

What nobody seems to be asking is: a common cultural experience for who? The Nielsen study conveniently breaks it down by gender and race, and tells us which groups have greater potential for video game purchases, conveniently sidestepping the class issue. See, with console prices going up even in the cheaper realm of handhelds (the DS is $5 to $10 more per game than the GBA, and don't get me started on the PSP), I'm beginning to wonder if this hobby isn't becoming a cultural experience for the rich, leaving the poor behind.

Most modern culture, at a basic level, has a cost of entry. You have to buy a TV to watch anything from Seinfeld to PBS. DVDs are extra money, and so are movie tickets. Libraries are basically free, but you have to pay transportation costs to get there. It's not fashionable to discuss the digital divide in this country, but (as I've pointed out before) minorities and the poor have far lower access to computers and the Internet--and my inner Socialist notes that those facilities in particular grant great opportunities for leaving poverty. The gap between rich and poor is wider as the technology grows more current and more powerful.

Can you be a member of the wider mainstream culture without taking part in these media artifacts? To some extent, yes. Having access to several information streams can even compensate for a lack in others: I don't watch much TV, but I catch up on shows I like via Netflix, or read about them at Television Without Pity. If you're missing too many streams, however, you may end up a bit culturally out of sync. I'd propose that being able to connect with your work cohort culturally at a certain level is a significant factor (among others) in advancement through white-collar employment. You need to have a common cultural ground to communicate with others, to understand their position, and to appeal to them.

In a country with a shrinking middle class, I worry about the non-material factors separating the rich from the poor. Videogames may not be a primary cultural experience yet, but they are increasingly useful as metaphors and as an introduction to other technological interfaces. In the same way that the expense of compilers and documentation creates a high proportion of White, upper-class software developers, a rising cost of videogames may begin to prune the population of gamers as well. If the more thoughtful community is really going to treat gaming as a cultural artifact, an art form, and a force for good, we need to pay attention to which audiences can afford that good--and which ones are being left out in the cold.

Future - Present - Past