Millennials. Generation X. Generation Jones. Generation Splat. What’s that, you say? Well, a splat is an asterisk or a wildcard used in a computer search string to represent “whatever.” If I want to search for all the Laura(s) in a database, I would search for Laura*.
Now let’s make a link to something seemingly tangential: Gaming. The gaming community expanded the meaning of splat to a metaphor and popularized it with the slang term “splat book.” A splat book refers to the specialized books that publishers release about subcategories used for creating roleplaying characters. To illustrate, the White Wolf company publishes an ongoing series of books about different kinds or clans of vampires for the World of Darkness vampire game system called Vampire: The Masquerade. Another example would be Wizards of the Coast‘s (publishers of Dungeons and Dragons) individual books about fighters or clerics. As typical of geekdom’s self-referential irony, gamers acknowledge the hypocrisy of buying these splat books even while purchasing them. The books sell because they provide a player character with some sort of super powers unavailable in the core rulebook, but they are also mere marketing ploys with more filler than content. Note: This explanation is paraphrase from Wikipedia (i.e., it’s plagiarized) because I’m too lazy to be unique and thoughtful.
How do we get from gaming to generational distinctions? Well, we now welcome a new category of generation, a narrow cohort group on the cusp of Xers and Boomer. It’s called “Generation Jones” because its members yearn for something better. Obama is the most frequently cited representative, and this generation had its fifteen minutes of fame during his first presidential race.
And so, we’ve reduced the concept of named generations to absurdity. Unlike gaming splat books, generation naming seems to propagate without self-reflection. Even though I resonate deeply with both the Generation X and Jones cohorts, I still recognize the never-ending splatness of these distinctions. People love to point out how “Gen X” was only a fiction created by Madison Avenue advertisers, a sell, a mere marketing ploy. True, Generation X was popularized and reified by marketing, and many X-ers recognize that the cohort experience Douglas Coupland described in his book rang true. People identify generational stereotypes and over-generalizations, but no one seems to notice the splatness of it all.
So what constitutes a named generation and why do we keep calling them into existence?
People like to think they live in the most important, most significant era of all time, and so their time and generation must be named.
Temporal or chronological birthdays or years aren’t what actually separates generations though. Whether people embrace a generational experience or dismiss it, the distinctions and divisions themselves are kept in constant deconstructive motion. Look at the breaks between, say, second and third wave feminists, or LGBT and queer activists.
The drive to account for our experiences, this perpetual motion, is why people argue over which generation they claim for themselves. We are rife with the significance of the present. Since we all suffer from the unique significance of a group, which is oxymoronic at best, we are forced to multiply generational categories.
Let’s move back to gaming because it’s a good metaphor for how Gen Xers and Millenials experience life. Following some of those old-school sociologists like Goffman, we might even say that gaming has replaced drama as a theory for explaining what we do in the world. I am generating the best character ever for this all-important game, and so I require the most powerful traits possible for my success. My character must be exceptional and special (after all, exceptionalism is the post 9-11 ideology for the decade), and so I will buy whatever Generation Splat book I can get my hands on to win experience points and treasure, all the while knowing that the campaign is both a fiction and deeply serious. Most important, my character is a special snowflake, but if I mess it up, I can always have a do-over by reinventing myself.
It’s all a sick and twinkish way to look at the world, I realize, but I’m a whiny player. So deal with it.