Past tense is evil

When talking about old video games and mature technology, it is quite common to use the past tense rather than the present one. People are more likely to say, for instance, that Uridium WAS a Commodore 64 game, than to state that it IS one.

In most cases, of course, this supposed mistake can be explained by the subjectiveness of the point of view. The C-64 hardware and software have obviously disappeared from the speakers' subjective world and are now something that belong entirely to their past.

Objectively speaking, however, stating that "Uridium was a Commodore 64 game" is just as wrong as saying that "George W. Bush was an American man". The statement about Dubya will not become valid until he either dies or changes his gender or nationality, and likewise, the statement about Uridium will not become valid until it is no longer possible to reconstruct the binary sequence that constitutes the Commodore 64 version of the game.

Yes, yes, but isn't this whole topic just meaningless nitpicking? How is the choice of temporal form supposed to matter so much?

Well, it is a known fact that language shapes the world, and a different choice of words promotes a different set of ideas and values. In my personal opinion, referring to a still-existing cultural artifact in the past tense promotes some quite ugly ideas, such as cultural disposability, planned obscolescence, pre-dictated consumption patterns and a general narrow-mindedness.

So, unless you deliberately want to promote these despisable and dangerous values of the dirty imperialists, you should definitely avoid referring to Uridium in the past tense.

Finding the sinners

Now that we have declared the sin, we need to find some sinners to bash and/or evangelize.

The first place where I looked into for sinful use of the past tense was, of course, the good old Wikipedia, the supposed mecca of objective and neutral knowledge.

In Wikipedia, I expected to find a lot of inconsistent use of temporal forms as well as many articles completely written in the past tense. However, I was positively surprised that it actually seems to prefer the present tense, at least for the more popular titles. For example, the Commodore 64 and Spectrum articles discuss the actual hardware platforms nearly uniformly in the present tense. There are still some problems, however, such as the VIC-20 article which uses the temporal forms inconsistently, but the overall state of the articles isn't nearly as bad as I expected.

Much more of this "past tense sin" can be found, surprisingly, on sites operated by people who actually play the old games, sometimes even with the original hardware. These people, some of which are clueless enough to refer to disk and tape images as "ROMs", often use the past tense even when referring to their favorite platforms they still use. I call these people "retro-morons".

The retro-morons

As I have already mentioned in an earlier post, "retro" is a swearword. Reading an old book does not make me a "retrobooker", or watching an old movie doesn't make me a "retrofilmer". Still, playing an old video game is supposed to make me a "retrogamer". In my opinion, the mere existence of such a category just reflects how immature the computing culture still is compared to many other forms of culture.

By using the past tense, retro-morons not only admit that they consider themselves reliving the past, but also promote the kind of thinking where objects are bound to their respective "golden ages", that is, the periods of time when they have been commercially exploited. Whenever the commercial lifeline of a product ends (after the magical finger-snap of some dirty capitalist pig), it moves from the "present tense world" into some kind of a "past tense" or "retro" world. In this strange imaginary world, the time is frozen still. No new things are possible with the "obsolete" technology anymore, no more fresh aspects can be found in anyone's creations. There's no creativity left, only endless collection, recollection and preservation.

The optimist in me hopes to see the "retro-moron" phenomenon as a temporary intermediate stage, a step towards the maturization of computing and gaming culture. In the future, I hope, old games and hardware platforms will become an integral part of our cultural heritage without being exclusively associated to certain periods of history. Just like it is possible to read a book written in the fifties without being a "fifties freak" or something, it will be possible for ordinary people to play an "eighties game" or to use an "eighties computer" without dwelling in the eighties nostalgia at all.

There's still much work to do before this stage can be reached, however. So, fire up your Interweb browser and start the holy crusade!