In Tales of the Early Internet, Mashable explores online life through 2007 — back before social media and the smartphone changed everything.
Everyone remembers their favorite browser games, whether it was some cursed obscurity now lost to the void of internet history or a wildly popular time-waster that later evolved into a multi-million dollar franchise (like Doom, Trials, Super Meat Boy, or Bejeweled, to name a few).
For many millennials, the golden age of browser games from the early 2000s defined our formative online experiences.
The arrival of tools like Flash allowed folks without much technical know-how to make everything from beautifully animated personal games to interactive oddities, democratizing a medium previously controlled by big corporations into an explosion of unregulated amateur creative expression. Suddenly, anyone (including a whole lot of young people) could publish a game — no matter how weird, unconventional, rudimentary, or controversial — with the potential to reach millions.
Nostalgia for the massive library of bizarre home-grown browser games of this era remains so visceral that, in the lead up to the end of Flash in December 2020, countless odes have been written lamenting the insurmountable loss of not only digital history but our childhoods.
The browser game embodied our generation’s first stumbling steps into unmitigated online freedom and independence, with all the simultaneous gifts and nightmares that come with it. Long before the social media platforms of Web 2.0 normalized the concept of “content creators,” web browser games allowed millennials to carve out a space for ourselves on websites like Newgrounds and Kongregate, where we got to define the rules instead of conceding to the more corporate restrictions of platforms like Yahoo Games.
SEE ALSO: Beautifully bizarre art game ‘Everything is going to be OK’ is about how not OK everything is
As web browser games took over schoolyards and college campuses around the world, they became a digital forbidden fruit, requiring young people to innovate workarounds to administrative firewalls (and winning). They served as our first virtual rebellions and microphones.
Despite the death of Flash, the early web browser game spirit lives on, both through the internet it influenced and the millennials who played them.
The web we shaped through browser games
“Flash games grew out of this scene of a bunch of obscene websites that were just very punk, very counterculture… It was unlike anything else on the internet. You could literally do and say whatever you wanted,” said Edmund McMillen, the celebrated creator of Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac who got his start on Newgrounds as a 19-year-old. “It was pure chaos. And that was as much of its appeal as it was its downfall.”
To a degree, it was like the early web equivalent of shooting off tweets or making TikToks, only with games instead of short-form messages and videos.
“You could basically prototype it in a few days, throw it up online, and see if people liked it. I mean, there was a tremendous amount of garbage. But so many people were making so many games and taking so many risks that you were bound to hit on something good eventually.”
Image: edmund mcmillen
The community built around this rapid-fire prototyping essentially cast votes for what worked and what didn’t, like the modern-day upvote or likes on social platforms. These sites were some of the first to implement gamified ranking systems as a tool for organizing the piles of garbage that inevitably come with opening up content creation to anyone on the internet.
“Early interactive web work based in Flash was this creative vortex,” said Nathalie Lawhead, who started designing browser games like BlueSuburbia in high school and to this day still makes bonafide Flash games as well as downloadable titles that are loving homages to browser game aesthetics. “The fact that it had this very low bar for sharing where you didn’t need to download anything meant that ideas could spread really fast and easily.”
Christoph Klimmt, a media studies professor at Hanover University in Germany who researched the enjoyment of browser games, called them an early example of participatory media culture. It showed how the internet transformed us from passive consumers of mass-produced entertainment into creators of entertainment ourselves. Also, “browser games motivated people to found and maintain communities around certain games,” by using “communication features that we then saw skyrocket later with social media.”
At its heart, the golden age of browser games was the first time many millennials found a sense of belonging in a virtual space. Browser game communities encapsulated early web culture, as millions of young people found a platform to publicly express themselves and connect through digital creation.
“It was definitely about getting to see, or almost getting to talk to somebody through abstract poetry,” said McMillen. He noticed how designers often looked similar to how they drew, because, “you can’t help but put a piece of yourself in it.”
For Lawhead, it gave her a sense of creative freedom the real world did not afford young girls, allowing her to assume an anonymous artistic persona.
“I didn’t have to wait for permission from galleries or publications to give me a space. I could just take up space and put my work out there,” she said. “Nobody knew it was just some teenager that was making this stuff… That’s kinda what Flash empowered ‘nobodies’ to do.”
In mainstream corporate settings, games like Lawhead’s would’ve been disregarded as too experimental and esoteric, or work like McMillen’s too stupid or offensive (his words, not ours). “But, you know, on the internet, you’re just alongside a bunch of other freaks doing freaky things,” he said.
Image: Courtesy of nathalie lawhead
Making video games more accessible to everyone was the backbone of browser games’ revolutionary golden age of play, too.
Flash didn’t just make game design more approachable to a wider swath of independent creatives. Its technical limitations also forced them to innovate new modes of play that inadvertently attracted audiences outside the typical gamer. Flash wasn’t good at running genres like the first-person shooters, which dominated PC and console games, Klimmt said. So instead of reflex-based competitive games grounded in dexterity, browser games innovated strategy, genres with challenges based in gaining knowledge gathered for complex problem and puzzle-solving.
Browser games are credited with inventing genres like the tower defense game, which later evolved into titles like Clash of Clans. Other casual mobile games like Angry Birds were almost exact copies of 2009’s Crush the Castle. Klimmt also pointed to them as innovators of persistent game worlds, where a virtual environment continues to evolve when the player isn’t there, which became an eventual mainstay of casual simulators like Farmville.
Demographic research indicates women and girls often prefer simulation, puzzle, and strategy games over shooters. So it’s no wonder why, years later, women became the driving force behind the mobile game renaissance, with many of the most popular iPhone titles using the genres that browser games originated.
The browser format also let you play anywhere at any time, not only removing the cost of expensive PCs and consoles but also lending itself to modes of play more easily embedded into people’s everyday lives.
“You could just go to a page and play it. The bar is really low when the idea of ‘play’ is actually integrated into the web experience,” said Lawhead.
Games, no longer segregated to designated machines or software, instead lived on our central portal into the online world, alongside your email inbox or Ask Jeeves search.
“It was so instant, all these millions of games just a click away,” said McMillen. “You’d just open up a tab and in seconds you’d be experiencing a new game. It had that instant gratification appeal.”
Years later, the instant gratification of the browser as an idol time-waster would be replaced by the quick dopamine hits of social media platforms. It’s by no mistake that all those platforms used gamification to capitalize on as much of our attention as possible, too, applying the reward systems of game design to human interaction.
Because browser games could be played anywhere at any time, Klimmt said, they were one of the first to integrate online experiences with everyday offline life.
“Browser games expanded the range of situations and locations in which gaming was possible,” he said. “They could accompany you throughout the day. Switching between an ongoing video game world and one’s real sphere became a really dynamic experience.”
Later, this kind of blended reality would become standard in the always-online world of ubiquitous smartphones.
The growing pains of being the first online youth generation
Ultimately, by lowering nearly every barrier to entry that still holds modern video games back now, browser games elevated the medium to a level of universal appeal, creative diversity, individuality, and mainstream relevance the likes of which gaming had never seen before (or since, really).
But browser game communities were by no means havens of equality and diversity. Like the social media platforms that evolved from them, the browser game’s selective democratization was an early warning that unregulated online expression is a double-edged sword.
“The early scene was not welcoming to women at all,” said Lawhead.
She often even published her games under a male-presenting pseudonym. When BlueSuburbia started to get a lot of high praise (and even its own dedicated fan sites), she revealed herself to be a woman. “Conversations shifted from viewing it as a breakthrough art piece to it being weird, pretentious, or petty… The fact that it was made by a woman made it a target of harassment and invalidated it.”
it’s wild to see stuff like this because there were SO MANY women that spearheaded this technology and were part of the movement to drive it forward, including at Macromedia, but we are literally never mentioned.
here’s a thread, do read (you owe us that): https://t.co/uyR1V4i571
— Nathalie Lawhead (@alienmelon) July 22, 2020
The high ideals of places like Newgrounds, with its slogan of “Everything, By Everyone,” failed to account for how a dominant group’s unregulated freedom online effectively silences and excludes people from gender, sexual, racial, and ethnic minorities.
Lawhead personally experienced the unequal distribution of the browser game community’s “democratizing” spirit many times back then and even now. She and other women creators like the renowned Anna Anthropy (who initially released Dy4ia on Newgrounds, a game inspired by her experiences with gender dysphoria as a trans woman) are all but written out of browser game history, left out of every single retrospective on the best and most influential games that I found.
To its credit, though, when Anthropy released Dy4ia on Newgrounds in 2012 to purposefully confront its community with an “Other,” she was pleasantly surprised by how well-received it was. Minorities were also far from the only targets of harassment. Toxicity was so embedded into the culture of browser game communities that even McMillen remembers most of the comments on anything he published being some variety of calling him a “fat fag” (though he, in fact, has never identified as homosexual).
The piles of dogshit garbage that populated these sites weren’t merely low-quality games.
From Club a Seal to McMillen’s own Dead Baby Dress Up, edgy, transgressive, shock value humor of early web culture defined browser games, leading to increasingly out of control norm-breaking one-ups-manship. The most notorious of these turned real-life tragedies into lolz, like school shooter simulators Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and V-Tech Rampage. Some garnered enough popularity to earn accolades in community competitions. They also sparked cycles of moral panics from the media and conservative politicians, who saw them as a perfect scapegoat to blame the steady rise of mass shootings on.
Through web browser games, people learned that saying or doing the worst possible thing was a great shortcut to viral attention, a lesson still used by today’s trolls. But to McMillen, this darker side of the browser game community was a natural growing pain of the first generation of internet youth culture. Both then and now, McMillen believes that the worst of the early browser game communities had a right to exist without censorship, even though he doesn’t agree with being salaciously controversial for the sake of salacious controversy.
“But in those early days, where anything goes, where you saw that open angst — maybe it was a cry for help from a lot of those people,” he said. “If people are given the ability to say and do whatever they want, and a lot of them use that to say and do a lot of terrible things, well that’s, you know, an open window into society and what might be wrong with it.”
It’s important to note though that the greatest personal threat McMillen faced from the vitriolic bigotry of browser game communities were slurs against a sexual orientation he didn’t identify with. It’s easier to defend the ideals of unregulated free speech when it’s an abstract principle rather than used to target the racial, gender, religious, or ethnic identity that renders you more vulnerable to real-world violence.
Throughout all of human history (and even in animal psychology), play has helped the young learn societal rules and even process trauma. Maybe there’s a more empathetic reading of why predominantly young white men on the internet were playing school shooter simulators at a time when more and more young white men were doing that IRL. Adults weren’t offering very good explanations for why it was happening, so maybe turning to an awful simulator served as a way to process the new phenomenon.
By now, many psychology experts agree that video games were not a significant contributor to the rise of mass shootings, with more guns being a clearer cut reason.
Certainly, Klimmt said, the hysteric public fear over web games causing real-world violence was unjustified, disproportionate to the relatively small reach of the niche community. But it was a harbinger of what evolved into more serious web-based threats on larger social platforms.
“It taught us that open participatory systems used by many content producers always come with a small group of dark sheep,” he said. The internet edge lords of yesterday’s web browser games are retrospectively quaint to the harassment campaigns of Gamergate and terrorist acts of young men explicitly inspired by incel and white supremacist internet groups.
“Yes, these early spaces had their problems… But it’s nothing compared to the absolutely devastating effects of what spaces like Facebook have now had on our democracy,” said Lawhead. “The problem was never unregulated freedom. The problem was taking advantage of us by building platforms that ‘maximize’ our worst tendencies because clicks translate to advertising money.”
What we lost, can’t get back, and need to grow out of
In today’s internet, there’s no going back to the Wild West of the browser game’s golden age, in ways both good and bad.
The toxicity from early browser game communities, Lawhead said, has been mostly rectified on their modern equivalents, Gamejolt and Itch.io, through curation and stricter codes of conduct. There, you can find an equally endless supply of amateur games that are intimate, innovative, or just shitposts — all alongside each other and many free to download.
But almost all are software-based.
While people criticize Flash for being slow and unsecure, Lawhead still laments the loss of its accessibility as a design tool and browsers as a play portal. The modern issues with Flash don’t come from the tool itself, but the corporatization of the internet pushing invasive online advertising and banner ads.
“It wasn’t Flash that ‘got bad.’ It was the direction of the internet,” she said. “Modern standards changed from building it for everybody to building it only for larger companies.”
On a more material level, what killed the golden age of browser games was Web 2.0. Social media platforms and mobile gaming (Apple notoriously refused to support Flash) used more predatory monetization models while porting those once rebellious independent games onto corporate platforms. Browser games were monetized before on Newgrounds and Kongregate, too, but through less exploitative sponsorship models.
The arrival of the App Store and Facebook games in 2008 decimated browser gaming audiences. In-app purchases launched in 2009, baking manipulative free-to-play and freemium monetization into their husks.
Capitalizing on the greatness of browser games turned a once-unprecedented artists’ community into yet another rat race, McMillen said. The early days carried the kind of non-competitive camaraderie of open source communities, with creators building on and riffing off each other.
“But once the really big money comes in, everything kind of falls apart.”
McMillen doesn’t see the same level of intimacy and risk-taking from early browser games in the current indie gaming scene that evolved from it (though he admittedly doesn’t frequent the new platforms nor considers himself part of the community). Today’s indies are being folded into those corporations and consoles browser games had railed against, necessitating more concern over marketability, mass appeal, and genre convention. Indie games are expected to meet higher technical standards, too, which means bigger teams, often resulting in less personal work.
“I liked being able to see the person through the work. And a lot of that has been pushed to the side in order to make more money,” McMillen said.
As far as he’s concerned, there’s no going back to what it used to be. But he’s sure there’s some new digital space that older crowds like us don’t even know about, where youths are letting loose their crazy, unfettered creativity. “And 15 to 20 years from now, someone will be interviewing somebody about that scene.”
The internet is simply a different beast than what it was in the early 2000s. Tech monopolies have commodified the youthful impulse to create and rebel, filtering it through platforms built on a corporation’s terms rather than those built on the youth’s terms.
“It really feels like losing a loved one,” Lawhead said of the death of Flash and browser games. “If things keep going in the direction of not challenging these monopolies we will lose spaces like Itch.io too. Technology is a democracy that we have to fight for. Just the fact that someone is an independent dev, putting their stuff out there — that’s what keeps the dream alive.”