Yesterday I sat next to my spouse in a dark and surprisingly luxurious movie theater, watching a childrens' movie. Aside from a group of four late-teenaged boys across the aisle, we were the only adults in the room not shepherding a flock of kids into their seats. And when, about twenty minutes into the movie, a piece of graffiti reading "Aerith Lives!!" flashed briefly on screen, we—and that group of boys—were the only ones in the theater to laugh.
The graffiti, like a hundred other tiny moments of fan-service, appeared in Wreck-It Ralph, Disney's latest animated blockbuster. The film was number one at the box office this weekend, and even though reviews find it can't be all things to all people, the overall response has been generally positive.
For the record, I enjoyed the movie. I thought it was cute, and I appreciated all the nods and winks to the games I've known (and sometimes loved) through the years. But the part of Wreck-It Ralph that most lingered with me, and that has left me impressed a day later, is frankly that it exists at all.
The theater drained while the credits rolled, though we sat through them all. As I watched all the children who had made up the (enthusiastic) audience burble out into the lobby, the generational shift that Wreck-It Ralph so clearly tells became clear. When I saw Muppet movies with my parents in the 80s, each movie was laden with cultural references and allusions that went miles over my innocent little head. They laughed when I didn't; the films were as much a reflection on the cultural stew of the adults' world as it was anything else, and the fact that I enjoyed them was almost (though not quite) incidental.
So, too, with Wreck-It Ralph. The film doesn't just acknowledge games, as others do. Nor does it set them aside as some silly thing nerds do. Instead, it lives and breathes thirty years' worth of games and gaming culture, laying them on the table for the viewer as a world of what simply is. These games, it posits, are now as broad and acceptable a cultural allusion to the adults of 2012 as Rizzo the Rat's inspiration was to the adults of 1982.
Until very recently, the most memorable appearances of video games on the silver screen have been as something frightening, meddlesome harbingers of doom. Either that, or games have been something that only children or the socially inept devote their time to.
Reality is, of course, much more complicated. Collectively, we still fight the "are games art" and "are games a worthwhile use of time and money" fights over and over like clockwork—and yet, while the arguments cycle fruitlessly around and round, millions of new players have picked up an iPhone or logged into Facebook and found themselves getting hooked on systems and scores. The audience grows bigger and more diverse day by day, and the slow tide of mainstream culture turns to follow along with.
Through all of Wreck-It Ralph, the unstated assumption of the film was that this world of games is simply a language the audience speaks fluently, without question. Just as Toy Story didn't need to explain what thirty years' worth of toys were, or describe how children could play with them, neither did Wreck-It Ralph need to elaborate on the point and purpose of video games. The triumph of digital entertainment reads as a given, and its icons have joined the list of cultural touchstones that an average adult is likely simply to know.
Disney, and director Rich Moore, could safely release a multi-million dollar film about video games secure in the knowledge that adults would walk through theater doors and recognize the icons of their 20th century histories waiting for them on screen. A telltale red-topped mushroom is a symbol as recognizable to the audience as the mouse ears that represent Disney itself.
"I was worried it would be more condescending than it was," my husband said to me as we left the theater, and I knew exactly what he meant. So many little references could have been patronizing; so many scenes centering around games could have been delivered with a sneer rather than with a smile. Where the film could have talked down to a theater full of people—every age—who grew up loving games, instead it shared the joy with a nod and a wink. In the end, that's what makes the movie work.
From doody jokes to a pile of candy-colored mean girls villains, Wreck-It Ralph is indeed a movie for kids, for whom video games are simply part of life and always have been. But the world... the world Ralph and all the others move in is one for their parents, and the other adults in the room.
Generations of gamers have come of age during the forty-year history of video games. The games themselves have plenty growing yet to do, as does the community. But the fact of the matter is, games have well and truly arrived. Even while stereotypes will continue both in games and about gamers, the time has come when "gamer culture" is no longer counterculture but simply a new branch in the mainstream flow.