Culture Trips

Video games have replaced music as the most important aspect of youth culture | Culture

It would be incorrect to say video games went mainstream in 2020. They’ve been mainstream for decades. But their place in pop culture feels far more central – to gamers and non-gamers alike – than ever before. In part, this is due to desperate marketers hunting for eyeballs in a Covid landscape of cancelled events. Coachella wasn’t happening, but Animal Crossing was open was for business. Politicians eager to “Rock the Vote” looked to video games to reach young voters. (See: Joe and Kamala’s virtual HQ and AOC streaming herself playing Among Us.) The time-honored tradition of older politicians trying to seem young and hip at a music venue has been replaced by older politicians trying to seem young and hip playing a video game. Yes, quarantine was part of this. But, like so many trends during the pandemic, Covid didn’t spark this particular trajectory so much as intensify it. Long before the lockdowns, video games had triumphed as the most popular form of entertainment among young people.

The writing was on the wall in November 2019. When Morning Consult, a consumer intelligence firm, reported that the controversial YouTube star PewDiePie had the same name recognition as – and higher favorability than – super-athlete LeBron James among Gen-Z American men it was headline news. Who’s PewDiePie?! confused millennials wondered. (He’s a Swedish YouTuber who reviews video games. Teens like to watch videos of him playing.) The shift was corroborated last spring, when Adweek reported that the gaming industry’s revenue (at $139bn a year) had outstripped the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL combined. By this December, lockdown life further fattened the industry. The global gaming industry is set to take in $180bn for 2020 – a 20% increase in revenue, and more than sports and movies worldwide.

The most fetishized products of 2020 were gaming platforms: the Nintendo Switch in the spring and the PlayStation 5 this fall. It wasn’t the usual suspects lining up to score a console either. With bars and clubs closed, even the actor and legendary party girl Lindsay Lohan was excited to pose next to her comped PS5. There’s a familiar rhythm to the release of a must-have consumer product: days of excited internet chatter in anticipation of a launch followed by days of frustrated anguish as limited supply stymies surging demand. This once belonged to the iPhone, but now belongs to the gaming rigs.

Being in the spotlight comes with downsides, too. The highly anticipated blockbuster event of the year was Cyberpunk 2077. Starring Keanu Reeves and featuring an avant-garde soundtrack with songs by Grimes, Sophie and A$AP Rocky, the sci-fi roleplaying game cost a staggering $317m to develop. Video games now come within striking distance of the largest Hollywood production budgets. (For those wondering: the most expensive movie ever made was Avatar, in 2009, at $478m.) Despite all the hype and all the cash, the game flopped, prompting complaints about seizure-inducing graphics, poor performance on older consoles, and culturally insensitive content. As with last year’s disastrous Cats movie, oddly rendered genitalia create problems for even the best-laid marketing plan. With refunds issued and fixes promised by developer CD Projekt Red, it will be interesting to see if post-launch patches work for video games. (They clearly failed in film, with regard to Cats.) Yet despite everything, even with refunds, the game sold 13m copies.

Across music and fashion, cultural leaders have taken note and begun producing gamerbait: cultural products inspired by the aesthetic ecosystem of the gaming world. On the fashion front, Balenciaga released their Fall 2021 collection in the form of a video game. Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow allows users to explore a city as a store, with various non-player characters styled in the brand’s newest looks. Like video games themselves, the aesthetics borrow heavily from science fiction and fantasy. Plate-armor shoes and boots are now available for custom order. On the music front, Travis Scott and Lil Nas X delivered blockbuster performances on the soundtracks of the video games Fortnite and Roblox, respectively. With Scott’s Astroworld concert bringing in 12m viewers, he had nearly double the audience of the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs).

We’re in the midst of a cultural shift. As Trevor McFedries, the co-founder of Brud (the studio behind the world’s most famous CGI influencer, Lil Miquela), tweeted last month: “Gaming is replacing music as the lynchpin of emergent social scenes and it makes everyone 30+ I talk to really uncomfortable.” Where rock and hip hop were once crucibles of style, cyberpunk and fantasy gaming genres inspire a new generation. Where music venues were once the places youth movements found their most exciting form – Boomers in rock clubs, Gen Xers in grunge bars, Millennials in DIY warehouses – Gen Z meets up with friends online. It’s unclear to me if my twentysomething brother has ever been to a concert, but every night he does what most kids his age do: he goes online, games and gossips with his friends. It’s easy to forget: video games are designed as social experiences. A PlayStation is a kind of phone, too. And my brother is not alone. In a study by the entertainment brand Whistle, 68% of Gen-Z men said gaming was an important part of their identity, 91% said they played video games regularly and 74% said video games helped them stay connected with their friends.

While the gaming industry booms, the music industry struggles with multiple overlapping crises: streaming platforms pay artists disastrously low royalties, venues scrap to make rent in rapidly gentrifying cities from London to Los Angeles, and Covid bars artists from making any money whatsoever from live performances. But gaming’s wins can’t be chalked up to the difficulties in other culture industries alone. It’s difficult not to look the graphics of the latest video games like The Witcher, Call of Duty, or Control and see some of the most compelling imagery of our age. As much as it may disturb many people, if music was the most important form of youth culture in the 20th century, video games seem slated to be the most important in the 21st.

  • Sean Monahan is a writer and trend forecaster based in Los Angeles. He co-founded K-Hole, the trend forecasting group best-known for coining the term normcore. He releases a weekly trends newsletter at

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