On ZZT and “ZZT”

Writing about ZZT feels perfunctory. Having only heard about the game a month ago, its importance was to me invisible. Being a ASCII-based computer game released in 1991, present in videogame’s market tested pedagogy, it’s not the kind of game that gets to be remembered. There’s undeniably an essence of iconoclasm to ZZT; I think it resembles a bunch of things, but akin to scenes and art movements, it was a time and a place. It’s not going to be reproduced. In that sense I can’t introduce ZZT, because I can’t hold it in place. I can’t capture what I never knew or saw.

Those who were imprinted by the allure of making ZZT games seem to follow and be followed by artistic pursuit. I see a self-explanatory, self-justified thing. It was a design language people could see and feel demonstrated. An immediate understanding that a videogame was made by a person. The ZZT community was, paraphrasing words that aren’t mine, mostly a bunch of frustrated teens, that through a specific and arcane practice were able to exercise control and interpret their lives. The specificity was kind of special and secret, and it was kind of lonely and isolating. In the late 90s, who was seriously into ASCII videogames, among the advent of 3D?

What people play, and why they play it, doesn’t line up with the boring narrative enthusiast press has etched into our spaces. I missed out on communities like ZZT, or later rpgmaker, or later tigsource et al, because for a long time I was convinced videogames were way too difficult to make, and I was nowhere near smart enough to make them (I’m now adamant anyone can make a videogame). But, growing up poor, games outside of the peddled mainstream were windows of hope and life. I frequented home of the underdogs and sister sites like it, playing whatever old pc games that caught my eye, constantly enamored by their pixel art, while keeping up with sonic fangames. 

I see similar arrangements of artists and people popping up around intense fandoms, or in ad-hoc communities of youth existing on gamejolt. Different circumstances, but their spirit is like what the ZZT community was. A cursed blessing, the internet, where outsiders can still thrive and find themselves. Underpinning these communities that are separate from commercial videogame spaces are (underscore italics) communities. No matter the mess or drama, people are finding themselves and helping each other, in intense and intimate ways. They do this in places more specific, anonymous, and dedicated than general social media. It might not make sense to outsiders looking in, but it’s the most real and powerful thing to the people participating.

They did it for the love of creating their own insane, brilliant worlds. There was no sexual conquest, money, or prestige involved. No incentive. They just wanted to make games to make their small, tightly knit group of friends smile and laugh. And the sweet, sweet catharsis… ! I think that’s what it was all about … It’s hard to think about now, but we poured our blood, soul and guts into those ASCII games. And that was the most beautiful thing possible for us at the time.

draco, quoted in “ZZT” by Anna Anthropy

I read “ZZT (Boss Fight Books #3)” on recommendation by friend of the site John Thyer and found it echoed my experiences growing up in online communities. I’ve seen many independently express a similar feeling of what it means to be a generation raised by the internet. There’s an emptiness within and without; people turn to the virtual when they’re unfulfilled outside it. Though some of it is just being a teen, and I might be projecting, but after adolescence, there’s a gradual understanding of how important these spaces were for growing and surviving. That there are certain ways people come to learn things that may be different from the norm and it’s not shameful. These communities are still thriving, not through ZZT, but various other things, though they’re being subsumed by corporate ran general purpose social media. Like all things that decline in purpose, so it goes.

I don’t know how I feel honestly, I don’t know the totality, but I spent a lot of time in Super Smash Bros. Brawl communities around the same time as the age gap described for ZZT teens. It was a place where things I did matter. I could make friends based on a common interest. There was an immediate correlation to the work I put in and improvement I felt. That work could also translate to understanding and admiration, in some way. A bunch of people working toward the same silly thing. It’s silly to me now. Given anyone out of a crowd and they’d think ASCII games are silly too. At the time though there was nothing more important.

But it’s about more than that, and I think the book gets at this: almost everyone who makes queer games right now, or even anyone who makes your typical pixel-art roguelike platformer with 1.5 new mechanics — is quite young. The vast majority of us are in our teens and twenties. Much like the ZZT community, we are all still growing up together, figuring out who we are, performing new identities, occasionally screwing-up big-time, trying to make ends meet, and learning how to heal.

We are young and on the internet. Anna dedicated her book to the “children of the glow” in reference to the young people who grew up with the proto-internet, but it just as easily applies to all of us right now.

– Robert Yang, “I’m young and love to be young”: on ZZT, by Anna Anthropy

I’ve been thinking of this in limiting terms. These groups were for teens, but now those teens are somewhere else. Now summer never ends. I’m part of an online community again. Making games, talking about them, thinking about them. It’s more ad-hoc, obviously, and hopefully less fueled by teenage fighting and rivalry. What I mean is I’d like to see game development looked at as a nurturing thing. Expel mock-corporate attitudes, stop trying to become like a “creative” silicon valley.

There has always been a genuine exuberance for game development and creativity itself, but it existed underneath the kind of power that acting as a corporation or business owner offered to thirsting white nerds. The cold candor of marketing and analytics… makes them feel more important? Allows them to emulate the corporations they admire? Feels comfortable because they previously worked in a culture like it? I’m just making stuff up now. I don’t actually know why it’s has been and continues to be dominant culture in videogames, on account of it being something I don’t understand.

I see it being casually, unconsciously rejected too. It’s not impossible to make a living without being explicitly an entrepreneur (because it is close to impossible without grants or connections). And it’s being discovered, simply, that taking game development “seriously” and having the right attitude, making the right moves, isn’t at all a recipe of success. In fact, it may be something that is instantly dated. So what are game developers in it for? What are we chasing?

I’m going to avoid speaking for people but I see collective support and common interest. People are banding together for the opportunities it provides for people to live and grow. That’s an enduring echo I see from desperate communities passed on from ZZT. Could we organize? Aim these communities? I don’t know. I think sustainability can be ensured by working together. Our sector could set an example for others. At least, it’s something to keep in mind, to soften relations, to think in terms of solidarity instead of rivalry.

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This game is Edible Vomit released in 1999 (eight years after the original release of ZZT, by the aforementioned draco). Surreal, wild, impressionist, scraping boundaries in its creative vacuum. I’m not meaning to imply that videogames are catching up. I mean to say they were always there. It wasn’t cool, it was maybe too niche to find, but it was there. As videogames drift into the ephemeral, as they shamble up to their potential of being challenging, esoteric, and otherworldly, in so many ways, games made on ZZT show that we we’ve been here. I hope to pay that forward.

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