It was a bit over a year ago that I declared the teens the gaming decade. But below those trends sits a surprising set of parallels between hacker culture and play culture.
Hacking and gaming have both been cultures sitting largely on the edge of society, away from the mainstream until relatively recently. While the communities themselves grew substantially into groups of millions of people, the mainstream of society looked to them as mainly fringe elements, with no real impact on the world at large. But slowly, bit by bit, both groups started seeping into the fabric of our society, the product of both demographic and technological changes.
While hacker culture is much older, the roots of both hacker and player culture can be found along the same ancestral route, with roots going back to MIT’s celebrated Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) where play and hacking initially collided around model trains. Model trains have long been seen as toys but this group proved that toys can be a model for discovery and modification that can lead to new technologies being envisioned and birthed.
The kind of exploration and modification that came out of the TMRC created some of the basic tenet for both hacking and gaming cultures where playing around and hacking around have worked as interchangeable terms for the type of playful exploration that has led to huge technological breakthroughs. On one side, hackers worked on developing new approaches to hooking up networks, creating new hardware, developing and distributing applications, and even running companies; on the other side, gamers discovered a new creative medium allowing to reintroduce play at the center of their lives, first through the use of computer games as a form of entertainment that sits next to music and movies and then getting into the education world, with not only software methods but also approaches that show the true value of play as an educational tool beyond pure software.
The reason hackers and players have been growing on such parallel tracks is that below each of their approaches sits a much more fundamental elements that most of society seems to have been driving away: the idea that experimentation and exploration for he sake of satisfying one’s curiosity has value. However because much of this experimentation is done by amateurs (per its original sense, people who love what they’re doing, from the latin amor, to love) the mainstream has tended to look at these efforts as not worthy because they could not result in immediate financial wins.
To hack or to play has long been seen as a waste of time by the mainstream because it is seen as the domain of slackers and diletantes, and presented as such in traditional media. Because those subcultures did not conform to a proper mold of what “should be done,” they were marginalized (see the concept of the overweight gamer or the dirty smelly hacker) until the point where they could no longer be ignored. At that point, the marginalization was replaced by some deep-seated suspicion about motives and some fear of the what these cultures could do to the established order of things.
The work hacker itself has been weighted down in the mainstream with so much negative connotation that it has required a substantial amount of effort by the tech community to present it as something different: to many people outside the technology world, hackers are still seen as the crackers that break into computer and telephone networks with nefarious plans. The mainstream sadly still looks at hacking as an illegal activity focused solely on breaking the security of large corporations and government organizations in order to steal what’s sitting on those corporate or government computers.
A lot of this image is due to one of hacking’s worst enemy pushing the message again and again through its available product: Hollywood, feeling threatened by the technology industry and the radical changes to its established business models new technologies can enabled, has been working hard to paint a picture of technology as mostly evil. This is not a new phenomenon as new technology has always been regarded with some level of suspicion, even going back to the early days of electricity, when the Frankenstein monster was brought to life through electrical sparks.
Meanwhile, the gamers themselves have had to deal with Hollywood which has had a love/hate relationship with the concept of electronic gaming. On the one hand, movie studios keep trying to develop film properties based on game character and game properties based on movie characters; on the other hand, the same industry likes to use the gaming industry as a convenient scapegoat whenever something violent happens.
The average household is exposed to hours upon hours of violent acts in movies and TV shows but it seems that if there is a shooting or other violent act on a school or college campus, these have had less impact than the hours the perpetrators may have spent in violent videogames. Yes, there are violent videogames but I suspect that they are no more or less responsible than violent TV or movie programming.
Once again, what is happening here is that Hollywood is trying to paint an image to the mainstream that a competitor (for videogames increasingly compete for attention with movies and TV) is evil and should be stopped.
But in the last few year, that image has eroded. The rise of games aimed at a more mainstream audience and delivered in easier to use fashions (mobile devices, tablets, the Wii, Microsoft Kinect) have made gaming a more mainstream activity and have reintroduced the concept of play at the center of people’s life: an increasing number of people steal away minutes from boring meetings by throwing in moves in word with friends or pass the time waiting in line at the DMV with some other video game.
Meanwhile, the concept of play as important to our society has been gaining growing currency. Over the last few years, playing has increasingly been seen as essential to every facet of a successful life and trends like gamification have tried to address by tacking on point and reward systems to tasks (At Keepskor, we decided to take a different approach because our view is that points are not the point of play: play is the point of play), bringing the concept of playing further in the corporate world.
At the same time, since the 2008 crisis, society’s faith in existing institutions has been shaken up. This has resulted in an increasing amount of people looking for alternatives to the current model and discovering that the hacker community has been working on figuring out some of those issues for decades. The result has been a growing acceptance of hacker’s approach as there is increasing evidence of its success. When Mark Zuckerberg, in Facebook’s public offering filing, talked about the Hacker Way, his statement was not so much a revolutionary one as an acknowledgment that this movement was ready for the mainstream.
Ideas like iterative development and the type of exploration that comes out of hackatons as slowly entering the corporate world.
Because both groups had developed mostly outside of the mainstream, they have developed their own societies, complete with hangouts and codified social mores. As the mainstream accepts them, there will be a tension between culture purity and merging into the wider culture.
That tension is healthy as it will slowly bring elements of both the hacker and gamer culture into the mainstream. Along the way, however, there will be a challenge as to which elements ought to be brought in and which will be discarded. There will also be a rise in the number of sub-cultures that will re-form as a result of the mainstreaming.
This decade is indeed the decade of play but it is a decade it will have to share with being the decade of hacking. And that marriage will make our society substantially better overall.