Video game culture during wilder vs. safer times
For me video games have never been a central part of what was going on culturally, but since they've grown so much in popularity that they've eclipsed music as the main thing that young people are fascinated by, I guess it's worth a quick look at how different the world of video games was in rising-crime times, using four of the recurring themes I've noted before as a guide.
First, games were a lot harder, and it had nothing to do with technical limitations. Rather, it reflected a demand-side desire for being put to a challenge and honing skills instead of waltzing through a game and not needing skills at all. You died easily and often in games up through the early '90s. Even by the mid-'90s, games like Super Metroid had all kinds of health refills that enemies dropped, plus rooms that totally refilled your health. Not to mention the direction that Castlevania games took with Symphony of the Night, where a save room is never more than a few screens away, and which totally refills your health. By now, these so-called realistic first-person shooter games allow you to recover your health automatically as long as you hide in a corner like a little girl and don't get shot any further.
How do I know this change is due to the wussification of audience demand, and not some technological improvement on the supply side? Because it doesn't take much to implement the "automatically heal shortly after being hurt" feature -- more than one health state (i.e., not just dead or alive, but degrees of alive), a means of hurting you (like enemy contact), a means of increasing health (like power-ups, as they used to be called), and an in-game timer (not necessarily shown on the screen).
Super Mario Bros., the first game that anyone played for the Nintendo way back in 1986, had all of these things. When you're big Mario or fire Mario, a hit from an enemy shrinks you back to little Mario, and there's a timer that could count 5 or 10 seconds after you got hit, and then the game could restore your status to big or fire Mario. Why didn't they? Because that wouldn't be a game anymore -- no more than if, five minutes after being scored on in football, the refs automatically took back those 6 or 7 points and "healed" the scored-on team to healthy status. This point generalizes to all older games with the necessary features (Legend of Zelda, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, etc. etc.), so clearly it was something that customers just did not want. They wanted a challenge.
When the world is getting more violent, you feel more of an impulse to better yourself, whereas during safer times you don't feel like the wimpier enemies out there are worth training so hard for. (See also the change in movies about dorks or outcasts -- before they struggled to improve themselves, like in Weird Science or The Karate Kid, whereas now they are content to stay dorks, like in American Pie and Harold and Kumar.)
Second, playing games was much more social -- well, it was social at all, as opposed to not at all. Again this is not due to technical differences, like the availability of games that you can play with someone else online. The key here is the mid and late '90s, after the culture became much safer and everyone secluded, but before online video games were at all common. Those were the dark ages for playing games with another person: arcades were just about dead by then, and you rarely went over to a friend's house just to play video games, at least compared to the early '90s and earlier. Since there was virtually no online game-playing at the time, it could not have caused a die-off in social interaction among game players. Rather, this was just one piece of the larger trend toward everyone locking themselves inside and hardly traveling to less familiar spaces, especially public ones like an arcade.
Third, playing games was a lot more cooperative, not merely social. A social interaction could be competitive, after all. Although there were a handful of player-vs.-player games during the Atari and Nintendo days, these were mostly sports rip-offs (Tecmo Bowl, Bases Loaded, Blades of Steel, etc.) that did not occupy a very large share of our hours playing games. And no games in the arcade were like that, aside from the despised Karate Champ. Instead, games where two or more people could play were cooperative -- all of you would team up in order to take on a common enemy, usually some criminal organization or race of aliens who threatened to take over your city or the world.
These are by far the ones that got the most attention, generated the most enthusiasm, and are most fondly remembered today -- Contra, Double Dragon (and its sequel), Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, X-Men, Simpsons, T2, and on and on. Granted, the feeling of togetherness lasted only as long as your common enemy did, so after the game was done, you went your separate ways and didn't care what happened to them. But that's still far more than can be said for today's social interactions among game players -- basically a bunch of 13 year-olds cursing each other out over the internet.
Things started going downhill in '91-'92 when Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat became smash hits and nearly single-handedly destroyed the cooperative mode of game-playing. These games pit one player against the other in a fighting match, a genre that was to become dominant during the rest of the '90s. By 1997, GoldenEye turned the first-person shooter genre into one primarily based on player-vs.-player gameplay, rather than teaming up to fight a common enemy, as it could have easily gone if these games had been introduced in the 1980s. (I'm sure a video game version of Red Dawn would've been better than the movie.) I know that these games do allow for teaming up of players, but overwhelmingly they are played in me-against-you form.
Tellingly, there's an arcade game that looks superficially like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but that came out in 1990 before the violence level hit its peak -- Pit-Fighter. It digitized live actors for its visuals, just like Mortal Kombat, and it involves nothing more complicated than beating the shit out of others, while a crowd cheers you on. However, unlike the direction that developed during the '90s, here if there are two or more people playing, it's them vs. a set of common enemies. (And since 1990 was still part of the '80s, there are no butt-kicking babes as there would be in later fighting games, just a couple of psycho metal chicks.)
Rising-crime times cause people to band together to take on the common threat that looks more and more like it won't go away on its own, and that is too strong for an individual to scare away. So there's a stronger feeling of community. Falling-crime times cause people to loosen those ties, since there's no longer a need for them. So there's a stronger culture of one-upsmanship, like Stuff White People Like.
Fourth, and related to the previous two, video game players were more altruistic toward each other, especially strangers. When violence is soaring, you not only have to band together to take it on, but be prepared to give things up in order to better your team-mates, not as though you were just a bunch of mercenaries. The real test of altruism is giving up something to benefit strangers, and of course that mostly took place in arcades, which died off when people stopped trusting strangers. I'm not an online game player, but from what I've observed of my brother, online game players aren't sending each other money through PayPal or something so that all involved can keep playing together. I know that YouTube celebrities get sent random gifts from their fans, but that's not what I mean -- first, because hardly anyone is that famous, and second because that's a hierarchical form of the groupies giving to the stars, not equals on a team giving up something to benefit the others.
During those cooperative games, sometimes you would have brought more quarters with you than your partner. So, even if they were as good or better than you skill-wise, they still might be kept from playing further just because of lower wealth at the outset. Well, that's not right, you thought, so you gave them a quarter and maybe another and maybe another still, just to keep them in the game with you. Sure, you got some small benefit to yourself from that -- namely, someone to help you get through the rest of the game -- but it was a net cost to you and net benefit to them.
In fact, I remember at least two times in elementary school when I purposefully brought five dollars or more in quarters to an arcade so that I could recruit someone to help me finally beat a game that I (or anyone else) could never beat alone. "Hey man, I got ten bucks in quarters -- five for me, five for you -- you wanna try to beat Final Fight?" That was a total stranger, a boy about my age. Another time I recruited some friends and acquaintances during recess to go beat Ninja Turtles at the bowling alley after school got out, and that would've been impossible if you tried by yourself. That time it was more like $20 split four ways, since that game allowed four people to play simultaneously.
It was very costly for a kid to do, and I didn't get a huge benefit from doing it, which is why I only did this twice (that I remember). But in those days you were more willing to take a hit so that others could join in and have fun, especially if you wound up kicking ass on some game that had forever thwarted your isolated attempts to beat it. I didn't make a big show about it or lord it over them, played down their thanks, and never expected anything in return, let alone ask for it. It was one of those rank-leveling things you have to do if you want a small team to help you out like that; it has to be egalitarian.
Most histories of video games are narrowly focused either on the technological changes or the rise and fall of various businesses. I haven't seen many social histories -- or even one, that I can think of anyway. Probably because the typical video game addict is the doesn't-relate-to-people systematizer, making the technology and market share data more appealing to them. Still, anyone born between about 1975 and 1984 lived through most of these major changes in the social aspects of video games, and could likely write a good history just off the top of their head. Something more extensive and in-depth than what I've done here, where I've only stuck to the aspects that relate to my larger interest in how social life and culture changes when the violence level is rising or falling.