There's a funny byproduct of the Information Age: The bigger the digital buffet, the smaller the portions.
We make decisions on which webpage to look at from the 250,000 Google hits by skimming over 10 titles on the first page. YouTube has granulated visual entertainment into three-minute fragments, perfectly timed not to exceed the maximum attention span of the average sugar-high ADD sufferer. Mobile phones compress entire conversations into 160ish characters, encrypting the English language into a highly efficient phonetic syllabary. It's as though information has been decimalized
It's not a sea change so much as the natural outcome of the way we process information. For ages, books have had synopses on the inside leaf to help readers decide if they'll enjoy a 2000-page tome by reading just a few sentences. Two-minute previews can dramatically influence the success of feature-length films, while a 20-second TV commercial can sell a $50,000 car. If these mediums took the time and effort to deliver accurate and detailed information, we'd hear none of it.
That's why Lara Croft's boobs are so important to the games industry. Tomb Raider represented a new style of gaming, and helped cement the 3-D revolution in home consoles. Consumers needed a mental anchor to connect us to this new form of gaming. Instead, we got two.
Lara's upper body became a subject of mass discussion. Her bosom was her defining characteristic, exemplifying the character in a way that was easy to understand. There's a lot happening in Tomb Raider, but the network node created by Lara's heaving cleavage came to encompass the mass of information related to the prolific franchise.
This iconographic symbol of modern life is exactly the kind Richard Dawkins was talking about when he coined the term "meme," the cultural equivalent of a gene. A "meme" is an idea, thought or feeling that mutates and evolves as it passes between individuals and groups. It could be a supermarket jungle, or an insurgent plan to overthrow the government - a facet of modern life that, like a good rumor, goes in one ear and out many mouths.
When we gaze longingly at Lara's boobs, we can see how amply they fit into the "meme" category. They're prominent genes in the ever-evolving DNA of game development that provides the building blocks of modern entertainment. And whether you find her buxom physique inappropriate, you're supremely indifferent or you play hours of Tomb Raider simply to watch her perform feats of erotic gymnastics for your misguided pleasure, the important thing is that you're thinking about Lara's shirt baggage. You're connecting to a whole genre of gaming through a simple, pert and easily identifiable interface.
Core Design obviously didn't build the original Tomb Raider around Lara's cup size, and digital eroticism was still a fledgling industry in 1996; despite her statuesque polygons, it's unlikely the developers intended for Ms. Croft to become a sex symbol. Deny it if you like - refusing to acknowledge the weird fact that a digital avatar can become a sex symbol still works to evolve the meme - but it was a significant factor in the way information about Tomb Raider spread.
Internet memes not only mutate and evolve on their journey from one node to the next, but their status as rumors, untruths or inconsequential matters can change in an instant. If the importance of Lara's boobs began as a lie, a few circuits around the internet - in and out of a few million brains along the way - was all it took for it become truth, a vital reality that game developers and film producers have acknowledged and capitalized upon.