The more I watch the streamers, especially the Vtubers, the more I've become aware of how broad the loss of faith in civilization and ever-marching progress has become. They are entirely online people, they are far more tech-hopeful than normies, they all live in cities, and as part of the entertainment sector, they're all left / progressive / etc.
They, and their audiences who watch them in droves, ought to be the most utopian and evangelist about civilization, urbanization, and the continual forward march of progress, whatever it means to them.
And yet the video game culture as a whole, including them, has decisively abandoned urban utopianism -- roughly since the 2008 Depression from which 90% of the country never recovered, and the lucky 10% only got to continue their consumption through trillion-dollar hand-outs from the central bank (quantitative easing).
By the same time, the complete failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also ended the average American's faith in an ever-expanding empire. And in a hyper-competitive endeavor like control over territory, what does not expand, contracts. As of roughly 2010, it's been over for us, and we've gradually come to accept it, and adapt to it.
Since then, the trend across the board has been to RETVRN to some earlier paradise -- how much earlier, and how far away from urban civilization, may depend on the streamer and their audience. But nobody can appeal to urbanism these days and get popular. They can't even ignore it, they have to outright appeal to the relatively more wholesome, cozy, and fertile past, as we seek to psychologically escape from the degenerate, hostile, sterile present.
This is a recapitulation of the pattern in European empires that were bloated, stagnating, and about to enter precipitous decline and collapse, around the late 19th and early 20th century. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Arts & Crafts movement, primitivist Post-Impressionism, and so on and so forth. The American empire was still expanding at that point, so although we did partake of Gilded Age libertarian degeneracy, it was nowhere near the levels of fin-de-siecle European empires. But now that our imperial lifespan has entered that autumnal stage, we will also behave that way -- in its good and bad ways.
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What was the video game zeitgeist like as recently as the 1990s and early 2000s? That was the self-declared End of History, when the only other imperial rival to America -- Russia -- had started to contract and implode. Everything for us here in the sole empire left in the whole world, would only get better and better -- and there was no doubt about it. Not a hesitancy, not a guarded optimism. It was the era of the information superhighway, unrivaled humanitarian intervention, the dawn of the new millennium, etc etc etc.
Expressing this zeitgeist was the trend in video games of urban growth and imperial expansion, epitomized by three hugely popular series -- SimCity (~1990), Civilization ('91), and Age of Empires ('97). There was nothing that could go wrong with mega-cities and their empires, it was just pure entertainment, excitement, and unalloyed fun.
However, these series ran into a stagnant phase over the course of the 2000s. Age of Empires' last original game (AoE III) came out in 2005, and AoE IV was stalled until 2021 -- and was a rehash of the Middle Age empires from earlier games, part of the sequel / reboot / remake disease of the 2010s and after. Consensus among fans (and rough sales figures) is that Civ V was the peak of the series, from 2010, not the most recent entry, VI, from 2016. The SimCity series peaked after the 2003 release of SC4, and the reboot of the series 10 years later, also called SimCity, was a disaster and killed the franchise off for good.
Did any new series take their place during the 2010s? No. Only one major new game was launched, Cities: Skylines, in 2015. That is not even an ongoing series like the previous three, but a standalone game. There is simply no interest left in cities -- whether among creators or consumers, and whether in the managerial side of zoning, building, collecting taxes, etc., or the aesthetic side of high density, concrete and glass, skyscraper scale, and the like.
Of course, video games did not exist really before the 1980s, but there were other media that expressed the consensus that urbanization and territorial expansion would only ever go further than the present. Mostly they thought of that in good ways, like the 1960s cartoon the Jetsons, but even the dystopian visions like 2001: A Space Odyssey assumed that our society's material basis would only get more and more sophisticated going forward.
The 2000s put an end to that view of the future. Between the bursting of the dot-com stock market bubble in the early 2000s, and the neverending Depression of the late 2000s -- as well as 9/11 and the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- nobody could seriously come out of that decade thinking that futurism, expansionism, and urbanism were going to be the next big thing, ever again. Some hung on, to some extent, for a little while, but overall the 2010s were a period of adapting to, or at least prepping for, the start of imperial collapse.
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What were the trends in video game culture over that decade, and into this one, if not futurism and urbanism? Why, RETVRNING, of course. And it's not merely a matter of leaving crime-ridden cities for safe suburbs -- that had already been under way during the falling-crime period of the '90s and after. This new zeitgeist was about abandoning modern industrial society altogether, and going back at least to an economy dominated by agriculture, and at most pre-industrial artisanal manufacturing.
Spore, from 2008, was a bridge between the two zeitgeists, simulating the evolution of organisms from their most primitive forms, up to tribal societies, civilization, and interstellar expansion.
The 2010s saw the explosion of the genre of farming simulators -- who wants to simulate a sterile, decadent city, when you can simulate a wholesome cozy farm and a close-knit community instead? People in a collapsing empire, that's who. The standout game in this genre is Stardew Valley from 2016, building on the success of the earlier Harvest Moon series. The farming craze has even spilled over into vehicle-riding simulators, like the hugely popular Lawn Mowing Simulator (from 2021).
By far, though, the game that epitomizes the RETVRN zeitgeist is Minecraft, originally released in 2011 but still dominating the streaming schedules of the most popular channels right now. (The keeper of nature herself, Fauna from Hololive, will be playing it this evening, in fact.) There are no factories, assembly lines, modern supply chains, or anything like that. Subsistence is derived from cultivated crops and herding livestock.
Manufacturing materials and methods are all pre-industrial (wood, stone, iron but not really steel, hammers, ovens, etc.). No synthetics, no "chemicals", no mass-producing molds and engines.
And not only is there no large-scale empire, there is evidently not even a nation or kingdom. Presumably there could be a king somewhere to whom these people owe allegiance and taxes, but you would never know it. Nor are you preyed on by other empires -- at most, bands of a handful of pillagers, zombies, and so on. Not a large, organized, hierarchical army.
The players in Minecraft construct their own worlds, so it's not that the game developers forced them into a non-urban environment. Hypothetically, players could build up cities -- as big as they can get in a pre-industrial economy, but that can still be huge. And yet they have all opted to not turn this game into pre-industrial SimCity. At most, they form small villages where the players all know each other and interact over the long-term.
And those are not small towns, like we might find today with paved streets, including a Main Street, shops abounding, and special service places like a hospital or whatever. They are rural and remote, much like the back-to-nature utopian communes of the stagnant European empires of the 19th century. (Ours fared much better in America because they were not a retreat, but an expansion and settling of undeveloped land, back when such a thing existed here.)
If you can't find a plot of land IRL to set up your commune, just do so in a video game simulation -- the point is psychological relief, and simulations can do a decent job, if they're designed well and have a large user base to provide the semblance of community and belonging.
For those who don't have a large team to play with online, they focus mainly on building their own standalone structure, whether a home, castle, treehouse, or whatever. But not a city. Not even an urban home that is transplanted to an outlying area, but a rural cottage or manor, fitting the rural estate they're living on, surrounded by grass and trees and critters.
What's most striking is that these simulators are not made and consumed as though they were fantasy, like Medieval knights slaying dragons, or Druids conjuring up nature spirits during the summer solstice. They are meant to simulate quotidian, mundane reality in these pre-industrial, non-urban environments -- with only fantastical flourishes and stylization, not in the substance of the core.
As our economy, government, empire, and legacy culture industries continue their contraction and implosion, this will continue to be the trend, in video games and elsewhere.