Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mage, Cultural Irrelevancy, and the New Despair

The other day someone who liked Genius: The Transgression asked me what Mage: The Ascension books were worth reading. White Wolf (what's left of it) is coming out with a 20th anniversary Mage just like they did with Vampire and Werewolf, trying to recapture the magic. Some of the designers seem aware of the problem with Mage: The Ascension: it's a New Age game about mysticism and technology-as-the-enemy, heir to Carlos Castaneda and the LSD-enlightenment movements of the 60s and 70s, and right now the Nerd World could not be further from that. Right now everything is steampunk and ray guns and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the anti-scientific thinking Mage pushes is about as hip as liberalism after the Iran Hostage Crisis or conservatism after Hurricane Katrina.

I watched as the 90s became the 2000s and geekdom shifted away from the pagan/postmodern thinking that helped produce Mage into the (often equally shallow, but still diametrically opposed) "hurray for science" attitude that continues to persist, despite economic and ecological calamity. Now Mage's themes look more dated than the Captain Planet ecofascism that litters Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Meanwhile, Marvel movies sweep up the box office because 1962 and 2014 are similar in a lot of ways. The same gee-whiz attitude unites the present day and the years when Kirby and co. were creating the Marvel universe; the early 90s might as well be the Cretaceous.

There are ways out of the 20th anniversary game's conundrum, though. I would emphasize the empowerment offered by Mage. Phil Brucato, one of the chief architects of Ascension, has spoken several times about Mage's empowering elements, and I think that message, more than the mysticism, is what still resonates. This is especially the case as more people from traditionally disadvantaged groups get online and realize that they are not as powerless or alone as society told them they were. Tumblr--much-maligned, frequently-ridiculous Tumblr--probably feels like a Mage-style Awakening to the historically disenfranchised people who get on there and realize their concerns and opinions are real and shared by thousands of others. Translating the energy of that discovery into Mage is a better idea than digging around in the detritus of postmodern philosophy and New Age.


I wonder if the pendulum of geek culture can swing back. It's hard to imagine, in the middle of it! No more steampunk, no more bacon science robots, no more happy Pinterest garden projects--at least, not as anything but a cultural relic. But culture shifts fast.

The rise of New Age coincides with the failure of the Space Age. I'm not sure if that's a coincidence or a cause, but the timing is conspicuous, and we have another failure on the horizon: the second dotcom bust. No one can look at the death spiral of Yahoo!, the frenzied world of pointless app creation, the corrosion of Google, and see anything but disaster on the horizon. When the whole farce comes crashing down--harder than the first dotcom bust, maybe harder than any collapse we've seen since the gutting of American manufacturing or the slow death of American unions--we will see more than enough despair to fuel a furious reaction against the science-fetishism that characterized the early 60s and that characterizes our current age. Maybe, the collapse of Silicon Valley will be enough to end this age of do-it-yourself tinkering and can-do spirit. Maybe in a few years, we can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas again and look west, and see another high-water mark, where the wave broke and rolled back once more.