Boys and their toys

By and

Last month, Esquire magazine published a pair of articles that combine to say something truly unsettling about American culture: Our “problem with boys” is infiltrating the artistic fabric of Americana, threatening to make us all into a bunch of predictable, bland, USA Today-reading monochromes.

I’m a little worried.

The articles in reference are Tom Chiarella’s trend piece about America’s current “Boy Problem” and Chuck Klosterman’s open-ended question of why we don’t have any real video game critics (not reviewers).

Chiarella’s point is essentially that the American “Boy Problem” (that boys are falling behind their female peers in academia, the professional world and a variety of other social spheres, without guidance or recognition to offer them hope) is actually a manifestation of America’s “Man Problem.” The “Man Problem” article speculates that men have not stepped up in the last 20 years to provide adequate support to male youth, lending to a generation of young men and boys who never really socialize past their adolescence.

It’s a good point. We see its statistical evidence everywhere.

Klosterman’s argument is that, while video games generate an industrial economy in the billions of dollars and are inarguably one of, if not the most, substantial contemporary art forms (our generation’s rock music, as he puts it), there is no real criticism of video games beyond the general “this game is fun/not fun, you should buy/not buy it for these reasons.” Where is our cultural barometer of gaming? Where is video games’ Lester Bangs?

Separately, the points are engaging. Together, they are telling: The trouble with boys is actually the trouble with parental culture’s view of its children in general.

Simply put, we’re missing the boat when it comes to capitalizing on the talents of a creative and boisterous subset of the population (boys, and folks who act boyishly). If this trend continues, we might find ourselves five years hence with nothing but rehashed and recycled sub-cultural movements. We might be without any fresh, new cool.

This sad fact isn’t to disparage or comparatively single out women and the progress they’ve made in the last 30 years-in fact, it’s to recognize the vast cultural improvements we saw when women were more fully enfolded into the societal fabric. It’s also to use this gender model to help understand what is at stake if we continue to fail to offer boys environments in which they can excel-if we fail to take advantage of the artistic/social mediums created by, and for, boyish types.

Just look at the cultural renaissance afforded by the ongoing women’s movement. Now look at boys and their toys-if we can support them, we might see progressive leaps; if we can’t, we might miss a major moment in American developmental history.

To bring it all back to the world of video games, think of it this way: Over the past 10 years, video game technology has morphed from a banal, superficial “gaming” experience into a fully immersive, experiential, personal choice-dependant technological powerhouse. Games allow their players to do everything from raise an online empire, complete with autonomous, human-controlled citizens, to make actual, physical money as part of an online economy that increases its population daily. These days, video games do not so much present players with foregone conclusions or scenarios, but rather have developed the one crucial component all great art has in common: the active participation of the viewer/player in allowing its universe to unfold.

In other words, you are not controlling the game, you are engaging it. The difference is everything-it’s the difference between entertainment and interaction, passivity and activity. Video games, much like comic books and graphic novels (full sensory forms, where one frame interacts with all the others to present a mercurial and cohesive view of the page) move-they are no longer about the “plot” of the game, but the way the game moves you, how it feels.

Realize that the dynamic evolution of video games has been the result of a predominantly boyish sub-cultural mindset, independent of the support of the dominant parent culture. Now realize that video games-and boyishness in general-can’t go on without some level of popular, intellectual recognition.

Without support, boyishness and its byproducts might just get distracted from its imperative social work and go play the games it produces for itself. This would be disastrous and truly reckless if it were to happen. All of culture would suffer.

It is up to popular Americana to grab boyishness by its disheveled hair and provide it with opportunities to exercise its scattered brainpower. If we don’t, we will lose sight of one of the more significant and disenfranchised subset populations visible in a great while.

And we’ll never get the societal power-up we desperately need to revolutionize the stagnating popular creative character of our country.

Game over.