The Sopranos finale, 9-11 and the rise of casual games. It sounds like a dissertation but it’s really just an observation, something you notice, not when you’re paying attention but when you’re not. It’s human nature to make connections and look for patterns, and there’s one here. The world is a lot different than it was six years ago, the term that comes to mind is sea change, so it’s no accident that we’ve latched onto light, happy, mindless games.
The Sopranos. You’re tired of hearing about it and I don’t blame you, I’m tired of hearing about it too, but I’m not tired of thinking about it, and that’s a clear sign that this thing, this cultural phenomenon revolving around a family whose nucleolus happens to be a New Jersey mob boss, is truly a work of art. Art compels us to think, not just about the art itself but about ourselves in relation to the art. Are we a product of what we watch and play? Or are we its creators?
My old art history professor would be proud that I could still, after twenty years, pull a thought like that out of my aging head. Yet I believe that the show itself pulled it out. The Sopranos drew things out of me that have been dormant for a long, long time. A drama like this, a hand-crafted, carefully plotted, exquisitely patient and well-written show like The Sopranos, which is a drama about two kinds of families, has of course dredged up memories of my own upbringing in New York. But that’s my melodrama and not yours. What is our melodrama, is what The Sopranos says about us as people, as a culture and as Americans in the wake of 9/11. But hold on. Don’t click away. This isn’t an op-ed piece in the Times. This is not a liberal rant. This is a forum for the wonderfully escapist world of casual games and I promise you that I will tie these worlds together. Soon.
If you’ve read my column before then you know I’m a Soprano’s fan and unless you live in a tar-paper shack in the hollows of West Virginia you now know that the show is done, the saga is over, and that Anthony Soprano was last seen alive and physically unharmed comfortably shoving onion rings into his maw in a cozy New Jersey diner. Theories and interpretations of the finale itself rival the complexity and imagination of the Da Vinci Code, so chatter has been high of late on message boards and fan sites debating the final shot of the series – an artfully frustrating cut to silent black. A lot of people are talking about the edit itself and what it means in relation to the cryptic events that directly preceded it, but very few people are talking about the sum of all the edits, all the shots, all the lines, images and songs that composed that fictional universe, that mirror-world. What does the whole say about the sum of its parts? And in that vein, what do our games say about us?
It hit me like a bolt of lightning a few days ago. It occurred to me that the popularity of the Sopranos, as well as the popularity of easily downloadable personal computer games not only seemed to coincide with each other, but also with what I see as a post-9/11 malaise-induced retreat into escapism. Both of these mediums – television and digital gaming – are unarguably escapes, and I cannot help but dredge up yet another line that was burned into my head during my college days. The medium is the message. This often misunderstood aphorism, coined by Marshall Mcluhan in 1964, asserts, in part, that the way we consume content (words, images, music, visual narratives, games) is not only part of the content itself, but in many ways, supersedes it. A medium is any extension of the human mind or body. A message is a change in behavior or thought (be it actual or desired change) delivered by a medium. It’s the effect produced by the content. It’s the medium that changes our consciousness, and isn’t it odd, isn’t it fascinating, that gaming as a mass market medium has taken off and become a huge business during the scariest, most troubling and uncertain times since the Cuban Missile Crisis?
What is a casual game? AT it’s core a casual game is a respite, a break, a diversion, like a novel, crossword puzzle, TV show, or song. These are all casual fborms of entertainment that can briefly immerse you into an alternate consciousness. For a little while the kids don’t exist. For fifteen minutes you’re not stressing about your mortgage payment. For a few precious moments you’re not worrying about your credit rating or soccer practice or how many people are dying in Darfur. And that’s important. It’s a key to sanity in today’s media maniacal world in which your homepage has now become a de facto newsroom where the wire feeds of yesteryear update themselves with alarming frequency and reach, so that no news item, no story, no headline escapes us, and every body hears every thing in real time without a moment to digest or process the seemingly bottomless vortex of violence, death, doom, celebrity and sniping gossip that passes for news and entertainment today. How do we deal with that? One answer is games.
The Sopranos -Tony, Carmela, Meadow and AJ – lived in perpetual denial. As their world begins to crumble, as they come closer to facing prison, death or even worse, bankruptcy and banishment to some witness protection program, they spin an ever tighter cocoon around themselves and escape into a fantasy world all their own, the same kind of cocoon that we, as a nation of mega-consumers of both entertainment and material goods are spinning around ourselves every day. I’m sure you don’t want to hear this, nobody would, you’re here to read about falling gems not falling bombs. You’re here to see what’s new in the world of upwardly mobile waitresses, not the world of desperate African mothers. But this is not an indictment of you as gamers, or of us as game developers and sellers.
Find a niche and fill it is the keystone of the free and open marketplace, which is an important part of a democracy. This business and its customers are certainly not culpable for the woes of the world. So please, no flames. Read what I am saying. I am making a personal observation about the state of the world and how it contributed to that niche I just mentioned, that need to duck under the blankets and pretend, just for a little while, that we’re safe and happy and still capable of having innocent, child-like fun. I do not suggest that you stop playing games. Games are good. Games are safety valves that help to relieve the increasing pressure of our everyday lives, and we need them. So play on Mcduff, but be wary.
The title of the Soprano’s finale was Made in America. How painfully appropriate. They were rich, spoiled and self-indulgent. Materially, they had everything they wanted, yet they lived every day of their lives on the edge of some unseen doom. How do you live with that? Games can’t help the Sopranos. During two of the last three episodes, Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb loomed like an anthem in the background of several scenes. That’s Tony’s theme song. I have become, comfortably numb. And to some degree it’s our song too. If you’re reading this, it’s because you play games, make games or sell them and that is both part of, and a reaction to, the numbness that many of us feel in the wake of these past six years. It’s not easy to watch the news. It’s not easy to turn away from the names of soldiers who die every day so we can keep playing Peggle. But sometimes you have to. Sometimes you need a break from it all. It’s heavy and sad and games are happy and bright.
Casual games are a wonderful drug, a nice little buzz. They don’t hurt anybody. No one gets addicted. No one shoots up a school after an all-night frenzied marathon of Chocolatier. I’d argue that played in moderation, casual games are exactly what we need for a little on-the-spot numbness, like a shot of Novocain after a terrible day at work or a tough day managing a house full of kids. Let them play games, I say. But now that this business is big, and we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe we should give a little something back. I’d like to see somebody donate part of their profits to a charity or to the families of soldiers who’ve sacrificed for what they believe is a just cause, or to Iraqi families or Katrina victims. Because right now, I got to tell you, I’m not so comfortable, and I’m no longer numb.