Computer games are said to shape the minds of young people. Manhunt was banned from shops worldwide for it gratuitous, yet realistic violence. Grand Theft Auto allowed you to have sex with a prostitute and then rob her and games like World of Warcraft are so immersive that people begin to live out their in-game personas in real-life. Occasionally with devastating consequences.
Whatever the games contain, their influence is hard to quantify. Just like Elvis Presley’s music being blamed for sexualising a nation, we must wonder whether it was an era he ushered in or was he just at the vanguard of a cultural revolution? So how did Tony Hawk come to influence people through a game?
The first game in the franchise was released in 1999 and was instantly a success both critically and with the audience. Skateboarding was popular in America thanks to the early boom reigning from the West Coast. For people living elsewhere in the world, it was a less popular and accessible.
For a young lad growing up in the UK, it seemed like a culture that was worlds apart from our council estates where fighting and football were the norm. Skateboarders were labelled as ‘goths’ for the chucky shoes and baggy jeans worn in the 90s. Being branded a ‘goth’ was not a good thing for people in such places. Somehow, people on both sides of the divide were united by one thing - the computer-game.
It took going to the nearest major city to see skateboarding in a fully realised environment. As most skaters will know, when you first see skateboarding in real life you want to know how the magic is made. The Tony Hawk franchise was a keyhole for those outside of the world’s major cities to look through and see what was going on elsewhere.
Remember, this is long before the Internet was what it is now. Skateboarding existed all over the world but the scene was closed off and had a ‘if you know, you know’ attitude. For people outside of the cultural capitals, there was no real way in before THPS.
As the franchise progressed, subsequent editions became ever more surreal. Being able to make your avatar’s head explode, put in cheat codes for lower gravity and missions completely unrelated to skateboarding began to make skateboarding more intriguing to those who would never have looked at it in the first place.
Very quickly it went from being a clandestine scene to a thing that everyone knew at least something about.
The good thing about this was rather than getting chased with golf clubs through your local high street, you were more likely to be told to, ‘do a kickflip’. If you didn’t land it first time like the games they played, you’d be quick to find out that ‘you’re shit’. And that was that, no more trouble, just interest.
Jackass and the idea of sponsorship became a big deal for a lot of young skateboarders. It was no longer a way of interacting with your urban environment and having fun with your friends. We were being fed an idealised American model of the sport that seemed to be more about being larger than life than being real and having fun. It was more like entertainment than lifestyle. This was at odds with the classic skate films watched on repeat like ‘P.J. Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible Life’ that made skateboarding seem to be your whole life, not just a part of it.
The answer to this in the computer game stakes was the Skate franchise by EA Games. This game featured controls that were more realistic and the physics system made huge scoring multipliers an afterthought. Essentially, you had to look at your surroundings with a creative eye, just like in real life.
At this point, skateboarders found on the street or in concrete parks were wising up and had an eye for style way ahead of their years. This goes for much more than clothing. Look at the way independent skate teams edited their films and used music. It's through brands like Palace and Supreme that the culture lives on, albeit in a mainstream context.
The kinds of guys who wore helmets covered in stickers and had all the latest gear were personified by the Tony Hawk franchise, along with those who tagged along with skateboarders because it had become ‘cool’. Their image of skateboarding was akin to Instagram model's portrayal of beauty. The idea they chased simply didn't exist.
Skateboarding has a unique culture and the thing that allowed it to grow was beginning to kill it off. The most recent addition to the THPS franchise is number 5. It has been panned critically and commercially. Whilst the video game is not a mirror of the sport, it is a reflection of the mindsets of those involved.
People have grown up now and reject that ‘flashy’ approach to skateboarding. The most recent Skate game was released in 2010 and received much more favourable reviews. Almost all comments on the EA Instagram page, regardless of what they post are ‘Skate 4’. It now has a cult appeal. Skateboarders want their sport back.
The people have spoken and the game now has to make sure it doesn’t go down the route of becoming an entertainment piece like THPS, but should look at what is relevant in skating at the moment. When you look at teams like Palace and Supreme you can see that the skaters ooze style. They interpret their environments in a way that is unique. They value making a statement with a skateboard on much more than how high you can do a trick.
This is skateboarding at the moment. It could be seen as a more ‘European’ way of skateboarding, which favours style over clinical 'performances'.
Websites like The Berrics are viewed by many with scorn for looking at the sport as more of a popularity contest that eschews skaters with ‘personality’ and takes it to the realm of elitism. Skateboarding competitions have been around since day one, granted. Competitions, however, have never been branded to the degree they are now (Nike Street League). The guys making waves like P-Rod, Ryan Sheckler and Nyjah Houston have more in common with your high school quarterback than what skateboarding used to represent. It was a massive 'fuck you' where guys like Ali Boulala and Dustin Dollin stole the show with their anti-establishment state-of-mind.
Professional skateboarder Marc Johnson said that "Skateboarding is something you get into because you don’t want to play by the rules, but look at us now, it’s nothing but rules – you can’t do this, this trick is not cool..etc"
The kind of skateboarding propagated by THPS is this competition driven approach where everything can be sold and bought. In Europe the pirate flag is still flying but the American cyborg skater is closing in on them, one perfectly landed and branded Oreoflip at a time.
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