Early on in Emogame (2002) you have to fight New Found Glory. And good. Even in an aggressively amateur flash animation the Floridian pop-punk quintet comes off as bunch of assholes. The garish adolescence of their early aughts skate wear, and their try-hard attempts to hit on under-aged high schoolers will do that.
Not like my avatar—Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional—whose Sensitive Guy uniform of tight-band-shirt-and-skinny-jeans is code for the emo singer/songwriter. Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory are derived from the same musical raw materials but diametric opposites, bound to clash musically, aesthetically, and in this case, violently. And so New Found Glory takes to a fleet of pogo sticks, and I defeat them by activating my special ability: a carpet bomb of explosions emanating from Carrabba’s enormous, magical ovaries.
Developed by artist Jason Oda, Emogame spread throughout the internet in 2002 as a simultaneous celebration and murderous takedown of the emo subculture. The side-scrolling shooter—sort of a DIY Flash version of Contra(1987)—is at times unplayable in its crude design, full of on-the-nose observations about Hot Topic and selling out and references to the TRL generation, all mired by cavalier amounts of degradation toward women and LGBTQ people.
the primary theater for emo was online
It is, in short, a mainline hit of some serious 2002 internet, both endearing in its clumsiness and carelessly bigoted, like coming across a diary entry when high-school kids still called things “gay” with little regard for the implications and even less threat of being called out. But, as an artifact, Emogame also represents something larger, for a former emo kid, but also for the internet at large. It marks a time when the birth of subcultures, particularly musical subcultures, began happening not in geographical locations, but in digital space—a sea change that would continue until the internet became a subculture unto itself.
14 years ago, the emergence of household broadband allowed for more casual creation and consumption of digital media, yet early consensus-generating aggregators like Digg and Myspace were still years away. Back then, high-speed connectivity was a railroad line through an otherwise wild frontier, where personal creations sprang from unknown digital regions and spread via means inefficient by today’s standards. This was the golden age of Flash animation, like Star Wars Gangsta Rap and Homestar Runner—an era that perhaps concluded with Salad Fingers, which was really weird but disseminated largely through a new site called YouTube.
Also in 2002, emo music was just about to reach a fever pitch. A sort of dark mirror of pop-punk’s mainstream success, bands like The Get Up Kids, Dashboard Confessional, and Saves the Day sang earnestly about unrequited love, isolation, and broken friendship, creating around them a scene of performed antisocialism. Speaking in stereotypes, pop-punk was all skating, fart jokes, and getting too drunk at house parties, while emo kids sat outside on the hoods of their cars smoking cigarettes and designing significant tattoos.
What’s interesting about emo as a subculture is its birthplace can’t be easily pinned to a specific geographical location. Jazz came from New Orleans. Hardcore punk is associated with Washington D.C. Grunge with Seattle. Pop-punk with California. Hip-hop with New York. Even hair metal—a less seminal genre that could be more closely associated with emo in its trajectory—emerged from the Sunset Strip in LA. While clusters of emo bands hail from the Midwest, parts of the East Coast, and California, the primary theater for emo was online.
I was an emo kid. I had the correct CD collection and clothes. I was in a band. I went to shows and hung out with other emo kids in Southern California. But everything I knew about how to be an emo kid I gleaned from the internet. I researched bathroom selfies, a relatively new phenomenon, of boys with blacker, flat-ironed hair, and cooler parents who let them get horrendous facial piercings. I made note of the bands on their shirts, the song lyrics in block quotes. These people were from all over the country, maybe even alone in their emoness, knitting this new connective tissue between disconnected pockets of digital space: music message boards, personal sites built with crude HTML, Livejournal.
The music itself aside, emo as a pejorative began to mean extreme superficiality mixed with introversion, alternative in spirit and yet in need of attention. So, of course, it in every way lent itself to an early 2000s internet, just beginning to form as a social network. And it was on these early networks—likely sent directly to me and not shared en masse, since that sort of efficiency didn’t yet exist—where I probably heard about Emogame.
In the game, a squad of emo front men reluctantly assemble to rescue genre darlings The Get Up Kids from a psychopathic and sexually enraged Steven Tyler. Each member is equipped with a special power specific to his music and must fight through Dave Matthews and his army of preppy bros, Rivers Cuomo from Weezer and his army of teenage girls at Hot Topic, MTV Zombies, and disgraced sellouts Jimmy Eat World in their helicopter made of gold. Click on an NPC and read a text box of them reciting some obvious knock against emo (real “emotions are for women”) kind of stuff. Or score big on a “name that song” test mid-game and have your life fully restored.
The simultaneous self-loathing and self-congratulating, the observations made about popular culture—even when broad—felt specific to me. It was invigorating and totally new to play through such a clear rendering of this shared experience of being emo on the internet, and too see that through this experience we all look and act ridiculous.
commenting on internet behavior on the internet was cutting edge stuff
Myspace went live a little over a year after Emogame debuted. This was essentially an industrial revolution with regard to social media and is the subject of smarter and more in-depth writing than here. But it’s worth mentioning because just over a year later, Myspace the Movie (2005) started making the rounds.
The rough personal project by aspiring filmmaker David Lehre is an assemblage of four short sketches about four Myspace stereotypes—from the way a person takes angled photos to hide how they really look, to how the tiniest social media interactions can be murderous to a relationship. Today, these jokes are “What’s the deal with airplane food?” sort of obvious, and the whole movie is a cringy watch in general. But, at the time, commenting on internet behavior on the internet was cutting edge stuff. The video went viral before that term was coined. Lehre even made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Both creations are two important checkpoints in the broadband era of internet subcultures. Emogame marked a shift from the subcultures in physical space to subcultures in digital space; the distillation of cultural cues born online but enacted in the analog world. Myspace the Movie, then, was the distillation of the subculture of digital space, one that transcended niche, consumed broadly on its ascent to an early iteration of internet mainstream. The former feels like a throwback, while the latter spouts the sort of meta-commentary that is totally inescapable today. Yet they were created just three years apart.
This is not to say the Manifest Destiny of broadband internet squashed the concept of digital subculture. On the contrary, of course. Google a random assemblage of words and you’ll find a subreddit dedicated to defending that random assemblage’s existence. But all subreddits belong to Reddit. Our subcultures, numerous as they may be, remain largely actualized through a handful of efficient and interconnected platforms.
What is lost, then, is the sense of actual space in digital space. It’s that feeling when you’ve followed a Wikipedia article to an external website to a video, when you’re too deep down a rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve taken a wrong turn, suddenly you’re in Dark YouTube, flanked by videos with 80 views showing things inexplicable and grotesque. These are the moments that remind us that the internet is, despite the inevitability of progress, still indescribably vast.