What is Tron about?

The Financial Times Alphachat podcast had a go at reviewing Tron and Tron: Legacy.

I won’t discuss Tron: Legacy because I found it an odd pseudoreligious mishmash.

For the FT discussion of Tron, I think there were some interesting ideas, in particular Tron as a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, but I think that they missed two key elements of 80s culture, in particular 80s young male videogamer / computer user culture.  (Young male because that’s the reality of the culture at the time.)

The first is video arcade and videogame culture.  There is a history of young men, particularly of an intellectual bent, finding ways to escape the reality of their constrained lives.  In the 80s this would manifest in classical ways such as the escape into books, particularly science fiction and fantasy, either at home or by escaping to the library, but also in new ways, such as playing Dungeons & Dragons and in going to the arcade to play videogames (and eventually playing videogames at home, once home computers became more widely available).

Tron, as a 1982 movie, hits on exactly this arcade escape moment in culture.  Imagine the daily routine, where adults rush you to go to school, and then you sit in a desk in a row being lectured at by adults in school for hours, but afterschool, you get to go to the local arcade and for an hour or so you’re flying a spaceship, shooting lasers.  If you go to the arcade enough, you become very familiar with the games, and when playing them you kind of disappear into the game.  So at a certain point it becomes natural to wonder what it is really like inside the game.  These spaceships you fly around, do they have a crew?  What’s their life like?  What do they do when you’re not playing the game?

So on one level, that’s really all that Tron is about, the simple question of what it would be like to be inside a videogame.  This is not a new concept, it’s just Alice down the rabbit hole, but in a new context.

The second element of 80s culture is the very stark distinction between corporate computing and home computing.  In that era, the corporate computing world, the adult world, is full of men (almost entirely men) in identical blue suits, selling big mainframe computers to do stunningly boring things (mostly financial things).  It’s a centralized, corporate, conformist, colourless world.  Which is to say, many teenagers’ nightmare world.  Contrast this with hobbyist computing, a world of individual creativity, individual control, decentralised, colourful, fun.

So on another level, Tron is basically about young computer hobbyists versus a gigantic corporate central computer.

Seen in this light, the most direct modern analogue of Tron is not Tron: Legacy, but The Lego Movie.  It asks whether Lego is about centrally-designed, glued-together Lord Business adult world, or about a creative world for kids.

These two threads of videogame culture and hobby computer culture are the core of Tron, its master code.  You can see this digital DNA evolve in many different ways in the years afterwards.

For example the most direct descendant of Tron is the (excellent) ReBoot TV series, which takes place in a world where the inhabitants are periodically sucked into videogames.  A more recent movie incarnation would be Wreck-It Ralph, which is also about the life of videogame characters between the moments when their games are being played.  But we can also look to less direct inheritors, such as Run Lola Run (Lola rennt) which has the concept of rebooting (restarting) a series of events and playing them out differently, or taken to an extreme, the (in my opinion underrated) Edge of Tomorrow, where the character plays out the same events over and over again, trying to get to a final win, exactly as one does when trying to master a videogame.  Even the TV show Community had an episode about playing a video game.

And in perhaps the most complete expression of escaping into the virtual world, Ready Player One is basically a book-length fan tribute to videogaming and being inside of videogames.

I was reminded of the ways that young people escape into videogames by the Guardian article No Man’s Sky is Elite for the 21st century. Pointless? Maybe – but also sublime.

On another more literary thread, there are movies about escaping into or falling into a fantasy world, such as The NeverEnding Story, and movies about what is going on with characters in fiction when we’re not watching them, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The theme of creative youth vs. stodgy adults is of course a very extensive one, but the most direct follow-on to Tron in this case would be WarGames, where a young Matthew Broderick uses his personal computer and hacks into the giant nuclear-controlling mainframe WOPR.  It has the additional theme of the real-world consequences of virtual actions, where the digital game world accidentally threatens the planet, and raises the very real question of whether we use technology and games to avoid thinking about real consequences of our decisions and actions.

It’s important as well to realise that this particular cultural moment, where power shifted from centralized mainframe computing to disconnected personal computers, was transitory and perhaps part of an ongoing back-and-forth between centralization and decentralization.  For a few decades the personal computer reigned supreme, and it was possible to understand and control the computer is very deep and personal ways.  But with the rise of Mac OS X, and in particular the iPhone and iPad, the user was pushed away from direct interaction with and control of the underlying machinery of the computer.  You no longer had to learn to code in order to do interesting things.  Steve Jobs famously had a giant hammer smash dull corporate computing in 1984, but ironically it seems he never wanted users to be programmers, he wanted them to interact with a beautiful surface with all of the coding hidden from them.  With mobile devices and the concomitant rise in cloud computing, in particular cloud giant services like Google and Facebook, the power was taken back from individuals and returned to centralized corporations.

It remains to be seen whether Minecraft (and to a lesser extent the Raspberry Pi) represent a return to a user-centric, user-controlled, user-created computer experience, or whether the corporate cloud will continue to dominate.  One of the great things to see is much more equal use of Minecraft between the genders, which hopefully is the start of a reverse of the 1980s When Women Stopped Coding moment.

Overall I would say that Tron is very richly woven into the tapestry of computer culture and youth rebellion and escape, and has informed the creation of many subsequent books, TV shows and movies (with many more examples than I have given here), in a way that Tron: Legacy really has not.

Do you have a favourite example of a story about life inside a book, videogame or other alternative world?