Gamerbait

The mainstream is the game stream

The logic of the internet is bait. Twitter serves us clickbait. TikTok serves us gaybait. And now, Spotify and Instagram serve us gamerbait. Unlike catfishing and trolling, bait isn’t malicious per se. It’s not explicitly a scam—it’s strategic ambiguity. Social media optimized headlines reframe content in the most salacious manner possible. Noah Beck isn’t queer, but his content is homoerotic. The brands and musicians cashing in on the gamerbait goldrush aren’t part of gaming culture proper, though they’re not not part of gaming culture. (At least at this point in time.) Gamerbait like everything online is not exactly true, but not exactly false. 
The term first crossed my desk when Mat Dryhurst tweeted:
The word is sticky, by which I mean it makes you ask, WTF is that? Only two articles turned up on Google. One from 2016 in The Guardian covering MoMA’s Pokémon Go engagement strategy, was a very literal take on the term ‘gamer bait’—framing the word as an attempt to lure teens into a museum under the guise of playing an AR video game. (This reminded me of a failed pitch from that year: a Berghain booker and I tried to convince a Berlin gallerist to throw a Pokémon-themed foam party for Art Basel: Miami Beach, complete with Magikarp go-go dancers. Sadly, he thought Pokémon were a fad.) The other was a Wired article detailing how gamer collectives had pivoted to selling athleisure merch. Both were pieces of gamerbait, but neither saw the whole.
Poptimism, I was familiar with. Coined in 2004 by music journalist Kelefa Sanneh in The New York Times, it defended treating productions from the music industrial complex with the same deference traditionally reserved for rock auteurs. (Hard to remember now, but snobbery and elitism were once very chic.) The first part of Mat’s tweet made perfect sense: Poptimism was a necessary corrective. Insisting that because Beyoncé’s incredible popularity precludes her from being an artist is smoothbrained pretension at its worst. The corollary that developed in Poptimism’s wake however is equally incoherent.
Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s good.
Poptimism was due to have its bubble burst. Not because as this entertaining video demonstrates, every The Weeknd song uses the same four notes. Not because no one watches the Grammy’s anymore. (Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert on Fortnite will likely have more viewers than this year’s show.) But because the most important social space for Zoomers isn’t the disco like it was for Boomers or the grunge bar like it was for Gen X or the DIY venue like it was for Millennials—it’s the Twitch stream, it’s the Discord server, it’s the video game.
For previous generations, music was the medium that moved the masses (to shop). In the 90s, House of Style was crucial in exposing a mainstream audience to fashion and securing its ongoing transition from elite and niche to mass and pop. In the 20s, consumer spectacle thrives on new terrain: the simulation. MTV isn’t the tentpole of youth culture, Fortnite is. If you’re skeptical, when’s the last time you heard about Rock the Vote? When AOC targets 18-24 year old voters, she streams herself playing Among Us on Twitch.
This isn’t to say Zoomers don’t like music—they do. They would just prefer it in-app. Think: Lil Nas X’s recent performance on Roblox or Grimes, SOPHIE, and Shygirl dropping new music in Cyberpunk 2077’s hyperpop soundtrack. The glitches and warps of the genre feel native to this landscape. Electronic music developed in tandem to gaming from the 70s to the present, with gaming itself reaching mass saturation in the raver 90s. Mario Cart music or happy hardcore? It can be hard to tell.

In 2020, the candy raver look has re-emerged as a bass note in broader early 2000s nostalgia. Search #ravecore on TikTok and you’ll find rainbow beads, Hello Kitty everything. It’s all very Fruits (2001)the street style book detailing Harajuku looks at the turn of the millennium. Aesthetically, the glitchcore Zoom parties of Alt TikTok, like Subculture in Los Angeles are on the edge of what can be thought of as mainstream gamerbait. Like music, gaming is an ecosystem that comes in mass and underground flavors. Thus, an underground party like Subculture is sometimes sponsored by more niche auteur games, such as HoloVista—an iOS role-playing app, which bills itself as a ‘mixed reality mind bender.’
Mixed reality seems like an apt distinction between cyberpunk endeavors to bring gaming aesthetics into real life and gamerbait’s emergence as a new mass rubric for youth culture. Do you dress like an elf and go to a cyber rave? Or do you stick to athleisure basics IRL and reserve elf aesthetics for your avatar? Cyberpunk and gamerbait share an interest in anime, cosplay, LED lights, Japan, avatars, and streaming.
But while one tries to make IRL aesthetics more closely align with science fiction and fantasy, the other is more than happy to live a life of digital dualism. They buy merch from famous gamer collectives like 100 Thieves, expensive rigs from Alienware and pricey gear from SteelSeries to up their performance, stan virtuosic players like former male model Nate Hill from FaZe Clan, and watch them compete at the Worlds Championship in Shanghai.
Cyberpunk remains concerned with narrative, while gamerbait fetishizes performance.
E-sports have been coming to a slow boil for quite some time. In 2020, gaming revenue has already outstripped pro-sports revenue. (It’s more than the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB combined.) For people over 30—like me—our awareness of this massive shift is pinged with the periodic mad rush to acquire a new gaming console. This year there have already been two stampedes. One last spring for the new Nintendo Switch and an on-going one right now for PS-5.
There simply isn’t any other category that inspires the same hyper-ventilation and hysteria a new gaming system does. 
When you look around, you start to spot it everywhere, in high-brow, low-brow, and middle-brow iterations. Yesterday, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Colombian singer Karol G styled herself like the holographic Japanese anime star Hatsune Miku, Pokémon got a 25th anniversary shout-out and blue-haired Goku debuted as a giant balloon.
Baauer—best known for his 2012 viral EDM song “Harlem Shake”—won a 2021 Best Dance Album Grammy nomination for Planet’s Mad. It was released this spring with a pseudo-apocalyptic CGI movie on YouTube that looks like a 40 minute video game narrative interstitial.
And of course, Balenciaga will be releasing their own video game on December 6th— Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. Set in 2031, it will be playable on browsers and debut the house’s SS21 collection.
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