Friday, April 4, 2014

Way Past Cool

I’ve written previously about why involvement in gaming culture is important and worked through an example of how video games can help us explain political concepts to the youth of America. Now let’s talk about how the video game industry can teach us how to fight the culture war directly.

The gaming world operates very much like our political system. Thanks to new technologies, the whole industry goes through cycles where consumers “re-elect” the existing brands/franchises or hop on board with the inevitable newcomers.  Instead of political parties and ballot boxes, rabid fans will line up along battle lines and try to drag moderates into their camps, and their vehemence makes hardcore Democrats and Republicans look like posers. After all, nothing quite compares with the stream of obscenities that can come from a 9 year-old that disagrees with your opinion of the latest Call of Duty game.  So if you want to learn about swaying entrenched supporters, there are few better places to look for examples.

For instance, just as progressives dominate today’s political landscape, back in the late 1980s Nintendo dominated the gaming one. After the video game crash of 1983, Nintendo had soared to total supremacy with what was then called the Famicom, or as it’s better known here, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). With it they reigned over the gaming world virtually uncontested until right about 1990. Then along came Sega.

Sega was a traditional coin-operated arcade game company that was nearly wiped out in the crash. They went through a few buyouts and management changes after that, and when they finally recovered, they jumped into the console market with the Sega Master System. It was largely a flop, but it did give them enough of a foothold to instigate a battle with Nintendo that would end up defining a generation of gamers. The ensuing 16-bit “election cycle” between the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) would become known as the first “console war”, and it was a fight in which Nintendo started with every advantage.

How did Sega keep from being squashed outright? Sega “did what Nintendon’t”they attacked Nintendo with a marketing campaign that cast Nintendo’s consoles as inferior hardware only little kids played.  Meanwhile, they built a brand for themselves as the place the cool, mature gamers went to play. Even their new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, was designed to be everything Nintendo’s wasn’t.

While Mario leisurely romped along to save the princess over at Nintendo, Sonic tore off at blistering speed on a quest to ruin his bad guy Robotnik’s day.  Mario was happy go lucky and kind of goofy; Sonic had an attitude, cracking wise and tapping his foot with impatience to get moving.  On TV they did the Mario whereas Sonic was the fastest thing alive.

Sega understood that taking on a market leader requires distinguishing your product from theirs in a way that is simple and that resonates in everything you do. The GOP on the other hand thinks appealing to people outside the “base” means looking like a cheap knock off.  They believe appeal has to do with policy and votes and “tactics”, when in reality it’s about branding and marketing.  Put the right face on what you’re selling, and people will buy it.

Sega was all about being the newest, fastest, most badass thing around, and we would do well to imitate that strategy.  That means our mascot can’t be an old, white, rich, male, career politician like the John McCains and Mitt Romneys that go out there to rep for the GOP now.  Lock those guys in a closet and find the hottest young businesswomen and men you can instead.  I hate identity politics as much as the next guy, but the fact is you’re not going to convince anyone of anything if they stop listening because the person delivering the message fits a stereotype that makes them uninteresting or worse, untrustworthy.

Sega went right at Nintendo, and we need to send those new folks into enemy territory to do battle with the loudest opponents they can find. Dare to have the campaign events in the bluest districts in the country, and don’t fear the Jon Stewarts. Instead go on their shows and give their arguments the old “that’s so cute you still believe that”-style response you would for any five year-old’s naiveté about the world, because liberalism is for toddlers.

Toddlers can wander in and out of a “big tent”, but they can’t meander into the hottest nightclub in town.  Nothing attracts people faster than telling them they can’t get in someplace, especially when a few gorgeous famous faces walk in with ease.  If you can make admission convey a sense of adulthood too, young people will line up around the block. Once that happens, even Sonic the Hedgehog will stop by long enough to toss off a trademark “way past cool.”

And that’s really all what it all boils down to, isn’t it?  It’s time to be way past cool.


  1. "how video games can help us explain political concepts to the youth of America" - dude, they're the absolute WORST at that. Just look at BioShock: Infinite.

    1. Please see my actual post on that. That is not the means to which I was referring, though I'm sure there's an argument to be made from that direction too.

  2. Nintendo still makes consoles and tons of Mario games, whereas Sega left after the Dreamcast and can't make a good Sonic game to save its 'life'. Nintendo has been producing those safe, uncool-but-steady gaming systems for a while now.

    But what if we're Atari?


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