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The Missing Monoculture

Television used to thrive on spectacle. Or, at least that’s what I remember from my days of growing up in the 90s (and that one episode of 30 Rock). People would huddle around their glowing boxes full of entertainment and news but, more importantly, major entertainment events: one-time milestones in the history of pop culture. Look at the finale of Seinfeld where ad time was valued at $1 million for a 30-second spot (consider that in 2012, the average Super Bowl commercial cost $3.5 million) and how the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy pulled in even more viewers than Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration the following morning. Who shot J.R.?

But that has mostly faded away. Spectacle is still important, sure, but it’s no longer synchronized around a single timetable like it used to be. With the advent of on-demand and the Internet, broadcast schedules have meant less now than they ever have before. Radio serials, television programming, all that now subsist on audience demand rather than network scheduling. What remains now are New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and the Super Bowl. And the Olympics, but come on, who isn’t going to watch that. It’s basically international sports war. But once again: an event. A moment.

That synchronicity is commonly referred to as the monoculture. We, as a society, basically agree upon for a set amount of time what is popular and what everyone will enjoy at any given moment. It’s a little like a hive mind, but it’s also just consensus and quality assurance. Feel free to follow the popular opinion or not, but when 98% of the world’s population finds something to be enjoyable, it’s hard to argue.

For instance, look at music. The monoculture still happens, just not as often. Recently, we’ve all seen the meteoric rise of Gangnam Style, but when was the last time the world managed to agree on across the board love, ironically enjoy, and on some level loathe the same song? Smells Like Teen Spirit? Thriller? As Salon writer Touré notes, we haven’t even managed to hate something in unison since disco in the 70s.

Part of the monoculture is that you feel like you’ve consumed something when you actually haven’t. You didn’t have to listen to those songs or see people in bell-bottoms to take part in those movements. You didn’t have to see Star Wars to feel the shift in cinema. Watching Seinfeld was not a prerequisite to talking about shrinkage. These weren’t just things happening around you; they were your daily life, whether you wanted it or not.

It’s a loss that is happening in video games, though, and for the same reasons. It’s not necessarily single-handedly the fault of technology and the Internet, but they certainly exacerbated things. You can be knee-deep in any segment of gaming (or music or movies or television) and still not have any idea what’s going on with the other end of the industry. The people that bought a Wii U and haven’t stopped playing Nintendo Land or ZombiU have probably never even heard of To The Moon or Proteus, two titles that were (and sometimes still are) all the people in my Twitter feed talk about.

It’s because things are no longer as finely delineated as they used to be. Just like how music is no longer just classical, jazz, and rock, gaming is no longer just FPS, platforming, and puzzles. Genres have blended in an infinite number ways, and each utterly unique result has found its own audience. Much as how YouTube has proven that no matter your interests, there will be people out there that share your passions. The walls between massive categorizations have shattered, and like under a spent piñata, people are scurrying about picking up their choice candies—and not necessarily every piece.

What would you call, for instance, Dear Esther? How would you describe that game to a crowd of industry folk even 10 years ago? Not only could you not explain it, but it wouldn’t even exist. The breadth of games available nowadays has expanded to such a degree that tapping into both ends of it would be like trying to bear hug the entire god damn universe. The Internet (and the subsequent avenues of Steam, Kickstarter, and even other, more independent and esoteric channels) has made every conceivable notion that falls far from the realm of sci-fi shooters and fantasy RPGs viable because the audience has expanded commensurately. As the fire hose gets bigger, so does the fire. The variety of people’s interests can never be quenched.

Is it for the better? I guess that’s the important question. Was it better when people had to huddle around cocktail and arcade cabinets at pizza parlors and bars? Is that loss of the grand monoculture worth the indie endeavors of these singular microcosms of phenomena? Who knows. It’s certainly an interesting question, but I’m not sure it’s a necessary one. The mere existence of such variety is proof that pop culture is not a zero-sum game; there is plenty of room in the pool for everybody.

So then maybe it’s not about how the monoculture is dead but rather finding out where it’s hiding. Niche interests have certainly made it less necessary for success in mainstream, triple-A products, but necessity isn’t needed for existence. Those niches certainly aren’t required for the moon to go around the sun, seeing as how they weren’t around so much when the monoculture reigned, and the diminished role of that social unity has proven the same for that. Maybe it’s just a dip into anarchy or it’s now an evolutionary step in pop tastes. Either way, it’s here, and I’m gonna go play some video games.

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