Thursday, 27 August 2015

(SATIRE/ANALYSIS) One year on: How the death of videogamers led to a resurgence in puppetry

(Ethical disclosure: This article was jointly typed on a shared keyboard by a pair of sock puppets)

It is one year ago almost to the day when experts, writing in a series of coordinated journal articles, expressed their unanimous opinion that videogamers were poised on the brink of mass extinction. With them would die a string of violent first person shooters, homoerotic point-and-click adventures inspired by the works of the French novelist - Jean Genet, and phallocentric railway simulators. Rising up to replace this antiquated old guard would be a cottage industry that would release low-budget, poorly-coded indie games. These would attract a new generation of gamers who would be irresistibly drawn to activities such as virtual jam making, or maid simulators like the award winning Villain, what hast thou done? in which players take on the role of a housekeeper who must gather evidence against her employer - a sexist university professor who is teaching his class from the Shakespearean rape manual Titus Andronicus.

While many cultural commentators were content to dance on the graves of gamers who were often portrayed by the media as sub-human, basement-dwelling troglodytes, others in the business world were hard at work speculating on what this loose global community of 300 or so individuals who were known pursue the niche hobby of videogaming would spend their money on now.

Among them was the billionaire venture capitalist Randy James:

You have this very insular group of a few hundred people who, between them, have financially supported an industry that, at the time, was turning over $50 billion a year worldwide. The question on everybody's lips was: What are these people interested in besides videogames?”

The answer, when it came, caught everybody off-guard. In November, 2014, a keen observer of the financial markets might have noticed shares in beleaguered sock manufacturing companies experiencing a sudden rise in value. By late December this trend could no longer be ignored as former gamers flocked in their tens and twenties to embrace the archaic folk-art of sock puppetry – a mode of entertainment last popular during the reign of King Henry VIII, before it was banned following the dissolution of the Catholic Church in England, during the late 1530s.

Paul Brolan - a Professor of Marionette Studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory - was one of the first to write about the resurgence of interest in sock puppetry:

It was entirely unprecedented. This is a generation who have probably never been taken by their parents, or by a pretentious girlfriend or boyfriend, to see live puppet theatre. Few will have watched Walt Disney's Pinnocchio on DVD. The majority aren't old enough to have been mentally scarred for life by drunken scenes of domestic violence, child abuse and a puppet-eating crocodile that characterised the typical British Punch and Judy Show before this unruly seaside tradition was given a PC makeover.”

Lynda Cole of the social justice think tank The Ball Pit believes that the transition from videogaming to sock puppetry was driven by loneliness and a need for acceptance:

Videogamers are not popular or likeable individuals. On the whole they tend to lead isolated subterranean existences. With the aid of a pair of socks on both hands and another two on the feet, a lonely gamer is suddenly at the centre of a circle of four friends. Five if they're male.”

Cole went on to read out a list of names and addresses of former videogamers, adding “while I don't advocate violence I wouldn't lose sleep if any of the people on this list were brutally murdered in their homes.”

Former gamer, Kyle Reach, believes the attraction of sock puppetry to gamers lies in reconnecting with a tradition that is thousands of years old and has been passed down through the generations:

It turns out that my grandfather had all these old sock puppets dating back to his time in 'Nam. I didn't know what they were and had been using them as a masturbation aid since I was 13. Sock puppets were subject to the military draft and were used to fill out the ranks of the army. There were even some units that consisted entirely of sock puppets.”

Reach, who currently owns over 170 sock puppets (the average according to a recent online survey is 166), explains that he enjoys the sense of community that he gets from interacting with other aficionados of the ancient folk art:

There's a real sense of mutual respect between the different traditions of sock puppetry. Japanese sock puppetry for example is very distinct from the way that we do things here in America but, despite our differences, we all recognise each other as part of the same global brotherhood.”

With the popularity of sock puppets surging throughout early 2015, the European Sock Council reported an 8 month spike in sales that finally levelled out in mid-July 2015 in response to a steep rise in cotton prices.

In tandem with the success of the legitimate sock trade there is also a thriving black market for stolen socks with police reports of sock theft standing at a 30 year high, only slightly below the levels seen during since the sock manufacturers strike of 1985.

The tragedy of left sock, Nigel Garner, who was snatched from a washing line in front of his partner by suspected sock puppet traffickers, has become a depressingly familiar occurrence in all nations where socks are commonly worn.

A more disturbing development is the practice of kidnapping and blinding children's teddy bears in order to provide button eyes for the sock puppet industry where demand is racing far ahead of current supply chains.

Geoffrey Glynne, Chief Inspector of Henley on Thames Police, said:

With the exception of shampoo manufacture, I can't think of another industry that owes so much of its success to the tears of children. Thousand of teddy bear companions have been snatched from the arms of babes and brutally blinded. Those who survive the experience require months of rehabilitation before they can resume normal bedtime duties.”

Despite the snowballing demand for sock puppets, some commentators are already warning that the bubble might be about to burst. Last week a series of apparently coordinated articles appearing on sock puppet websites warned of a waning interest resulting from consumer fatigue.

One of these news stories stated: “Sock puppets don't have to be your audience. Sock puppetry is dead”, although it was later revealed that all nine articles had been written by the same sock puppet as part of a calculated hit piece.

It seems that as long as there are people out there like Ralph - a troubled young hoodlum who lives in one of the yellow houses down by the docks, and who has declared himself a “Sock Puppeteer 4 Life”, this millennia-old folk tradition has a bright future ahead of it and the potential to act as a powerful force for social mobility:

Christian Yates of The United League for Sock Improvement said:

For centuries socks have been a downtrodden underclass. In 2015 we finally rose up in pairs and ascended the legs and bodies of our oppressors who are now wearing us on their hands! I call that progress.”

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