By Paul O’Connor
In 2020, Skateboarding is a paid-up part of popular culture. If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, it would have made a debut as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo games. Despite this setback, its popularity has continued to grow throughout the year as many people have picked up boards as a way to occupy themselves throughout lockdown. The terminology of Ollie, Kickflip, and Shuvit are now well recognised in households across the world. In short, the subculture is part of mass popular culture and part of that legacy can be found in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater (THPS) videogame franchise. First released in the Autumn of 1999, the original game is being re-released with its sequel in a remastered reboot. As part of the marketing buzz surrounding the new game, a promotional documentary focussing on the legacy of the THPS was released on the 18thof August. Titled ‘Pretending I am Superman’, the documentary gives a nod to the compelling nature of skateboarding and provides insight into the ways it can be imagined as a transcendental, empowering, and quasi-religious practice.
The legacy of THPS is something I became distinctly aware of while performing research into skateboarding and religion. There are generational referents that people share when they discuss their skateboarding biographies. My skateboarding peers in their 40s often mention Michael J. Fox and the exhilarating skateboarding scenes in the 1985 film ‘Back to the Future’. For skateboarders aged thirty and younger, it is often THPS that inspired them to stand on a board for the first time in real life. Through the pixelated performance of the skateboarders in the video games, many got a taste for ludic potential of skateboarding itself. The title of the new documentary is analogous to the way in which skateboarders, like other athletes, are imagined as superhuman, overcoming fear and seemingly defying the laws of gravity. This nod to the superhuman is one that Steven Kotler describes in his book ‘The Rise of Superman’ which opens with the story of professional skateboarder Danny Way jumping over the Great Wall of China with a broken ankle. Kotler also wrote a spiritual quest about surfing in which he explores Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Skateboarders, like other lifestyle sports practitioners, have tested the realms of human potential and as a result led the way to a compelling video game franchise that played on the ambiguity between the possible and impossible.
Possibility models are inherently philosophical and expansive. As soon as we learn that something can be done, it becomes a tangible reality. This is the same logic of inclusion. When minorities and the marginalised are represented in media, they demonstrate the attainable. Not only did THPS showcase the potential of skateboarding’s athleticism, it also demonstrated that skateboarding was for everyone. The inclusion of Professional skateboarders like Kareem Campbell and Elissa Steamer reinforced the message that skateboarding can be for everyone, regardless of race and gender.
THPS magnified the celebrity of a handful of professional skateboarders that were included in the original games. Even the famed Rodney Mullen speaks about the way that he felt a pang of anxiety talking to his old friend Tony Hawk when he reached bizarre heights of fame following the release of the game. This dynamic helped pull skateboarding fully out of its subcultural niche and firmly into the world of sport celebrities and cultural heroes. Showcasing not just impressive physical feats but also an embodied lifestyle, THPS communicated a philosophy of play in urban space.
The fusion of skateboarding and video games provides an insight to the potency of popular culture and the ways in which it is imbued with myth, awe, and ritual. Skateboarding has its own saints and prophets, and skateboarders regularly use religious language to elevate and celebrate the exploits and achievements of their idols. Skateboarders also have a relationship with urban space that is difficult to parse from the esoteric practices of mystics, seers, and magicians. Observing skateboarders transform an office plaza into a space of spontaneous spectacle, disrupting the rhythms of workers and shoppers and remaking both space and time. What is often most mesmerising about the way skateboarders use urban space is their aloof demeanour. Yes, they are putting on a show, but they are really just pleasing themselves. This relationship to space is one where religion springs forth from ritual in motion. However, skateboarders are also invested in other religious practices from curb cults to religious iconography. Skateboarding culture is both resistant to and yet awash with sacred symbolism.
THPS intersects with the origin myth of skateboarding that has been recycled and repeated countless times that it has now become a mantra. The new documentary ‘Pretending I am Superman’ rightly adds to the origin myth arguing that the video game itself is now part of skateboarding folklore. Many of the original moves in THPS were outrageous and purely hypothetical, manoeuvres that seemingly could never be done. But in the 20 years since its first release many of the outlandish combinations of THPS can now be performed by skateboarders at your local skatepark. In terms of progression, it has acted like rocket fuel. It has been both a digital means of skateboard proselytization and training ground for new recruits. It provided a gateway to understand the complexity of often arcane skateboarding tricks and the logic behind them. It also helped create skateboarding fans, a peculiar phenomenon which had largely been absent before. Skateboard fans were always also skateboarders. Following the success of THPS and tied to the popularity of the X-Games, many people were consuming skateboarding while not practicing it themselves. More importantly, it allowed those presumed unable to skate, perhaps the elderly and the disabled, to do so. Yet, the possibility models are expansive and neither age nor able-bodiedness are a constraint on skateboarding. One need only look at Felipe Nunes to understand the versatility of the skateboard as both a toy and a philosophy.
Like other elements of popular culture, I argue that skateboarding has become a lifestyle religion. It represents a cultural disposition, a ritual process, and a consumptive individualised pastime. It can be committed to with body and soul, yet it is also freely dropped without judgement or repercussion. When we look at the bond between religion and popular culture, this is often what we see. It is the appeal of a meaningful and emotionally significant lifestyle that mirrors our identity and validates our subject position in society. Skateboarders, video gamers, vegans, and cosplayers can all be understood through this fusion of popular culture and belief. What we see through the example of THPS is how an already mediated culture exploded in popularity and possibility models through a videogame.
Paul O’Connor is a Sociologist and recently published the book ‘Skateboarding and Religion’. You can read more of Paul’s work at his blog everydayhybridity.