How Sites Like Newgrounds Raised a Generation of Skeptics

Newgrounds.com taught me to think critically about the world around me.

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Nov 1 2016, 7:55pm

There are generally two experiences everyone remembers vividly: their first sexual experience and their first encounter with the internet. For anyone who discovered Newgrounds.com as a kid, they often occurred simultaneously.

In its heyday, during the internet boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, Newgrounds hosted thousands of active users and served as a platform for user-submitted, original creative content. A year before YouTube launched in 2004, Gary Brolsma uploaded the now-famous "Numa Numa" to Newgrounds, signifying the first shift towards internet-generated, shareable content that has become a part of our everyday lives.

Shortly before Y2K, Netscape 5.0 was installed in my home. My internet exposure had previously been limited to the classroom or a neighbor's computer. Knowledge of the website known as "Newgrounds" had swept through my school yard, and I wasted no time accessing it.

Due to games like "Dad n' Me," a poorly animated game that involves massacring characters with a chainsaw, and "Britney Spears dress up doll," where users undressed a photoshopped figure with Britney Spears's head attached (there were many games dedicated to degrading the reigning pop princess), we were swiftly prohibited by parents and teachers from visiting the forbidden the site.

Naturally this made the site all the more exciting. We were confused and hormonal—a volatile mix—drawn to its controversial allure. There we found violence, nudity, and community. It served as a welcome to the wonderful world of the web. We found a place to experience new and innovative content that was as warped as our prepubescent minds. It was this uncensored, unadulterated content that would make Newgrounds so successful. For the kids, it represented an escape from the ordinary reality of our daily lives. As we grew into adolescence, it reaffirmed a shared view that was, predictably, in opposition to our parent's standards of decency.

The site, founded in 1995, was the brainchild of founder and CEO Tom Fulp.

"A lot of the motivation behind Newgrounds came from growing up in a pre-web world, in particular, a world where no one saw what you made if you grew up in a small town and weren't part of 'the industry,'" he said.

He recounts an experience in grade school school creating a book report video, only to have the teacher deem it obscene. "The video was laced with skits containing violence and drug humor. My teacher regretted showing it and gave me a C."

"[I] think it's a big part of why the internet was so exciting to me and why I didn't want to filter the experience," he continued. "The world is full of gatekeepers and the web was the [first] place where anyone could share ANYTHING with everyone else."

Today, the site is still live and largely resembles the original layout: loud, busy, and confusing as hell. I went digging to find my favorite game, "Saved By Your Balls," a perverted parody of Saved by the Bell that involves drug dealing and completing sexual favors in order to pay to repair your father's car. (My tastes have changed very little.) When I was a confused, lonely pre-teen, I found solace on Newgrounds. It allowed me to process my frustrations and find community amongst people who shared my sense of humor. Now I understand the larger implications of the site. It wasn't just a smut factory, it was the graffiti of the internet: a nuisance to some, revolutionary to others.

The site was a breeding ground for dissent and rebellion, using creative means to capture the cultural climate and completely subvert it. It was a place that exercised the fundamentals of raw artistry by challenging the status quo, making viewers uncomfortable, and refusing any and all forms of censorship. "COKEHEAD," for example, had users playing a smacked out George W. Bush while trying to snort as much coke as possible as a means of political strategy. It generated astute observations from users like Anarchy_Balsac, who wrote: "i think even bush himself laughs about the [cocaine] jokes. so i wouldn't pay too much attention to those who get offended. who cares if he did it anyway? drugs should be legal."

But Newgrounds was more than provocative content. It mirrored cultural shifts and was a window into the future. Like the meme culture of today, the games often parodied what was popular or culturally significant. After September 11, the site was flooded with games like "OSAMAGOTCHI" that took aim at Osama bin Laden. Alternatively, "CELEB TERROR ALERT" allowed players to play as bin Laden whose mission is to kill various political figures also proved popular. In hindsight, I can see that Newgrounds served an unusual function. Through its emphasis on satire, it shaped my critical thinking skills and willingness to question conventional logic. At a time when "terror"—and the propaganda that surrounded it—seemed an omniscient force and resulted in shared, suffocating anxiety and fear, Newgrounds took aim and made it funny.

Games like these highlight the creative liberties creators were allowed to take and the humorous spin they placed on disturbing subjects. The different takes on the same issue spoke to a larger paradigm underlying the content: irreverence toward everything conventional. Creators used clever and innovative methods to address larger global issues and trends, and while it often seemed juvenile, it was bold and refreshing.

Newgrounds marked the end for parental oversight and the beginning of a rogue internet culture that continues to embody many of the values originally envisioned by Fulp. The refusal to be censored remains strong, while threats to net neutrality continuously loom. More than ever, sites like Newgrounds are necessary to counter the conventions of the day. Breaking down narratives is an essential function of the internet where so much information is readily available. Being able to think critically about what is happening is both a skill and art, and Newgrounds had the capacity to foster both.

The argument that millennials are desensitized may be misattributed to their ability to question or completely dismiss what's in front of them. It's hard to bullshit a generation of people raised by sites like Newgrounds, a place devoted to recognizing bullshit and turning it into content.

Follow Lisa Power on Twitter.

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