Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Lie Of Fiction, And Morality In Games

I've written a lot about "believability" in the last two years, and for a lot of different reasons: equal representation, immersion, mechanical variability, even the possibility of using interactive mediums for educational purposes. While I've written about a lot of different aspects of "believability" and what it means, there's one major thing that I feel is still important to address: the base concept. I'll put this as directly as possible.

1) Fiction Is A Lie

2) Immersion Requires Truth

3) Your Brain Cares About Fiction Because It Subconsciously Thinks It's True

These three statements are the foundation of why "believability" as a concept is important. It's why we care about "canon" or why we get invested in characters or why we get upset when things are "spoiled" or "ruined". Fiction is a lie, but it's a lie we care about. People can make up any story they want about Star Wars, inventing their own arcs and characters as they go along, but they still got upset when Lucas "ruined everything". Sure, Lucas' stuff had the special effects budget and all, but it's not more "real" than your version - it just has a bigger budget. Individual "fanons" or "headcanons" are just as real as Lucas' canon, in the sense that they're all lies that have been made up. And yet people get angry, because that's how the lie works: your brain sees it as a form of reality.

All the reasons we care about stories - all the pathos and drama and emotion - are related to the fact that at some level our brains treat these stories as being "not stories". In many cases this manifests in subconscious reactions, which is something I've emphasized in the past with regards to design. Things like realistic armor and weapons can make the impact of combat feel more "real" and therefore more dangerous, whereas cartoony designs make it feel less so. Tricking people's brains into accepting a false reality has many different facets - the way people behave, the way things develop, the way objects feel and look. Heck, it was about 90% of RedLetterMedia's review of Star Wars. People don't care about accuracy and consistency for no reason, they care about it because it's part of the emotional evocation process.

STAB WOUND DETECTED, INITIALIZE SCREAM.MP3
Let's take this in a different direction: "why do we care about villainy". People often defend doing bad things in games (or drawing pleasure from bad things in movies) because it doesn't hurt anyone. That's true. The ones and zeroes that have been assembled into "characters" are programmed to say things like "ow" and "stop it" when you attack them, but there's no consciousness there. Or, in a movie, the actor/actress is told to scream and cry, but they're not really being hurt. It's the simulation of pain and suffering, yes, but really there's nothing going on.

But then why do people enjoy it?

The simplest answer is that even though we know it's false, the simulacra of life are there to convince our brains that on some level it isn't. This is why we put so much effort into creating "humans" in games who scream and bleed even though the same job could be done by silent, untextured models like these guys. The reason we bother making the lie of fiction convincing is because that's how it hooks up to our brain and produces all those feelings and emotions. We know we can't be hurt by a work of fiction, yet there's an entire genre of games and movies designed to provoke horror and fear. We know fictional characters aren't real, yet works of fiction constantly attempt (and often succeed) to make us care about the characters and what happens to them.

"You're all the real bad guys" says Booker, gunning down another thousand citizens.
The duality of cruelty is that even though "it's not real" is invoked as a defense, if it was OVERTLY "not real" people wouldn't care about it as much. The simulation of cruelty and dominance and power is what gets people excited because it's plugging into a primal part of masculine identity. Masculinity wants to be stronger, it wants to be better, it wants more influence. The defining trait of masculinity is competitiveness and a desire for superiority; this is the core of "power fantasy" as a concept, and why works that play into that concept are so commonplace. People want to be Indiana Jones or James Bond or Batman not because they think it would be interesting and nuanced to be an archaeologist or a spy or a vigilante, they want to be those people because they KICK ASS and everyone thinks they're awesome. That's why they're "escapist": because in a competitive masculine-structured society, the greatest escape is being better than everyone else and not having to put up with their shit.

In Reservoir Dogs, one of the most memorable characters (in an admittedly small lineup) is Mr. Blonde. Mr. Blonde is in some ways the epitome of "power fantasy" and in other ways he's not. Most people were disgusted by Mr. Blonde's horrendous behavior, as was ostensibly intended. This includes Michael Madsen, the actor who played him, who almost couldn't complete this scene after the cop ad-libbed the line about having a family. It was so upsetting to him that even though he knew it was fake and nobody was getting hurt, he was still emotionally moved to the point that he almost couldn't continue the scene:

I dunno, you play somebody who’s psychopathic or who’s violent, you try to draw the line somewhere. I mean, I don’t really believe in killing children or women! You have to be…playing a bad guy’s one thing, but turning it too far in the wrong direction doesn’t make me happy. [src]

And yet there's plenty of people who see Mr. Blonde as the apex of masculinity, with good reason: he's calm, he's in control, he holds power over others. While everyone else is freaking out, Mr. Blonde is as cool as a cucumber, and isn't disgusted by things that normal people would be. By the standards of power fantasy, Mr. Blonde is the coolest dude ever. The fact that he's immoral might turn away some, but for others it makes him all the more enticing - he doesn't even give a shit what anyone thinks of him. He is a badass. And yet all the things that make him "badass" are supposed to be part of his depiction as a morally repugnant piece of shit.

A simple game of cops and robbers.
Would Michael Madsen play Mr. Blonde for fun? If there was a Mr. Blonde simulator, would Michael Madsen enjoy playing it just to enjoy himself (as opposed to "for purposes of telling a story")? Most likely he wouldn't. He states that "playing a bad guy's one thing", which suggests that the reason he's normally okay with it is BECAUSE he's certain that the character is being represented as a repugnant villain and not a good guy. Yet even despite this, despite knowing that this character would be hated and despised, he still almost couldn't stand it. Madsen played the role because it was part of the story, but he found the character to be repugnant - he didn't consider playing the role "escapist".

What's interesting to me is that his logic is almost the opposite of the earlier statement of cruelty in games being okay. Madsen justifies playing a bad guy BECAUSE it is a "bad guy"; not because it's fun or cool, but because he thinks it's important that characters like this are shown to be awful, villainous people. By contrast, the "cruelty is okay" logic suggests that you can do whatever you want to do in fiction without being criticized for it, no matter what sort of acts you're emulating or carrying out or how it's depicted. As long as you don't do it in real life, nobody's allowed to criticize you. Yet Madsen is disgusted by these actions even when he knows it's not real, because instead of being kept separate from reality, it acts as a mirror for it.

Games and movies are allowed to depict awful things because they're not real and nobody's getting hurt, but at the same time there's still a level of "expected response". James Bond in the 1960s was an overt misogynist who would kiss women against their will; that wouldn't fly today, and it'd seem creepy and weird to most audiences. A game that allowed the player to do the same without consequence would seem pretty suspect, too. Yet there's plenty of games and movies where murdering hundreds of people - justifiably or otherwise - is treated as being normal and expected, and doesn't compromise the moral integrity of the murderer. Wei Shen still gets to be a cool undercover cop in Sleeping Dogs even when he's driving at 75mph down the sidewalk. Nobody calls him out on being a sociopath. Nathan Drake gets to quip and snark after every kill (and enemies eagerly continue to charge directly at him rather than running away), and he's still clearly meant to be likable. Two of the only protagonists that are actually treated like awful people for doing these sorts of things are Kane and Lynch, and their game received an overall negative response largely because of that characterization.

Do violent video games cause people to murder in real life? I don't think so. I don't think they CAUSE it. Are they RELATED? Sure. The same desires fuel both fake-murder and real-murder; desire for power, for supremacy, for apex masculinity. Obviously it's better to have fake-murder than real-murder, but that misses out on an important issue, which is that there are ways for people to be absolute pieces of shit without actually killing people. Maybe video games don't cause real-life violence. Do they factor into harassment, or misogyny, or rape threats? Does the culture that thrives on the victory of the strong over the weak - of the badass motherfucker over the pussy faggot - REALLY have nothing to do with these things? When people are saying things like "sexism is integral to the fighting game community", or physically threatening people who criticize their culture, or taking films like Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen to heart...is this completely unrelated to the violent media that these cultures are centering around?

Ask yourself this: what separates a game or a movie from propaganda? Does anything? Would you care so much about "being badass" if it hadn't been rigorously established as an ideal by the culture you've been immersed in since your birth? As much as people are willing to give leeway to people's morality in the past, they sure don't apply much thought to it in the present. Nothing's changed. You're still a product of your culture, if you allow yourself to be. Question why you think these things are acceptable.

Honestly I should've just posted this picture and that's it, that's the entire article.

25 comments:

  1. "What's interesting to me is that his logic is almost the opposite of the earlier statement of cruelty in games being okay."

    Great statement. Too many times I've seen people resort to "argument" such "It just a game so dealt with it". It is become more ironic because those are the kind of people who felt insulted when Ebert said that games can't be art. If the masses still feel right about what Kevin Levine said that Infinite needs it violence, then its true that Video Game still have a long way to go in becoming a respectable medium.

    Also in being "badass". Like you said, many people like to see someone being "badass" doing everything they want without anyone object to it, even when that said character kill 4 men simultenaously in cold blood. That fun of seeing "badass" is detracted from escapism. Escapism is fun, why would you want to care about reality when you can escape?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Honestly I don't think gamers even know what they want when they think of "games as art" or why they want it. I think gamers really want to be allowed to do whatever they want without being reproached for it.

      Delete
  2. Sigh.

    J.Shea, it really would help your arguments if you were able to stop wildly generalising about artworks and the audiences that consume them.

    Firstly, you being unable to draw a distinction between the entire panoply of videogame potential (RPGs/platformers/puzzle games/text-based adventures, etc) and certain videogame genres (shooters), is willfully close-minded, and needlessly reductive. So ALL videogames fail because a game like Call of Duty has photo-realistic graphics and ragdoll physics? Are you really not past that kind of vague scapegoating?

    Secondly, if you are an audience member watching Reservoir Dogs and wanting to emulate Mr. Blonde - to be like him rather than fear and be repulsed by him - then I think its fair to say that you are doing it wrong.

    Not every fiction is about becoming the guy on screen. Watching Hannibal Lecter and seeing Anthony Hopkins give him a strange, charming frisson was not about trying to indoctrinate viewers into becoming serial killers; watching Alan Rickman's suave villainy in Die Hard was not trying to convince everyone to terrorise buildings and grow delicately groomed beards.

    Trying to project the 'masculine fantasies' of a select viewership, who apparently watch Batman and Bond films solely to imagine themselves as the guys up on screen, as evidence for the debasement of an entire medium (two mediums, I guess, since you've tried to rope in games now), is - again - alarmingly reductive. You may as well start arguing against all fiction, films and games, because viewers who might support murder, fraud, prostitution, double-parking, the wearing of cravats, or genocide, can all find examples where their personal belief system is depicted (even if ironically) in Art.

    In fact, your own example exhibits how ludicrous this argument is.

    In your example of Mr. Blonde you note that the majority of viewers were rightly repulsed by his actions (the actor himself was disturbed), but because SOME people, SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW, might mistake this behaviour as 'cool', it should be perceived as dangerous - perhaps even censored?

    We should live in fear of expression because we cannot control precisely how every viewer will interpret Art in their own mind?

    This is madness.

    Indeed, what you are advocating - a kind of cautionary censorship that extends across all mediums because SOME members of the audience might misinterpret elements of the fantasy - is precisely what Plato suggested in The Republic two thousand years ago. Hesiod's and Homer's epics were too violent, and depicted immoral actions that some people might misinterpret as admirable, he said, so they should be abolished, not permitted to be either seen or expressed.

    Whole genres, whole forms, whole mediums, wiped out, because - according to Plato - people could not be trusted with Art - they lacked the capacity to discern for themselves the vulgarity of certain actions depicted in fiction.

    It was... extraordinarily extreme. A totalitarian nanny-state that condescendingly (and necessarily) denied individuals the right to govern their own tastes and engagements with Art.

    (comment continues...)

    ReplyDelete
  3. (drayfish comment cont.)

    And although you couch your comments in the handwringing 'Won't somebody think of the children' catch-cries of all moralistic responses, this is at its heart what you are embracing too.

    Were you attempting to start a discussion about the dangers of certain forms of immersion, or particular kinds of depiction or presentation, then there might be some validity to SOME of the points you are making. But much as I have seen you do elsewhere in your statements, you are falling back into cliches and presumptions (is there a LINK between movies, games and violence? ...Is there?!) in order to try and expand your own presumptive personal opinion out to offer sweeping, utterly unjustified absolutes.

    Sadly, you are clearly not interested in a genuine debate about the potential dangers of emulation and desensitisation, because you are solely talking in asinine absolutes (ALL videogames do this; ALL movies deal in 'power fantasies' like this; games don't show moral complexity... they just don't...) And ultimately, that kind of rote presumption is just as unhelpful as throwing one's hands in the air and saying, 'Ah, who cares, let videogames do whatever they want...'

    There is a meaningful middle ground in all such debates such as these, and I am saddened to see that you so frequently avoid it for cheap reactionary declarations in which you can cluck your tongue and leer at works of Art you find personally disappointing.

    I offer you some quotes from voices such as yours that likewise left no room for discussion or debate in their admonishment of new Art forms:

    "Many adults think that the crimes described in COMIC BOOKS are so far removed from the child's life that for children they are merely something imaginative or fantastic. But we have found this to be a great error. Comic books and life are connected. A bank robbery is easily translated into the rifling of a candy store. Delinquencies formerly restricted to adults are increasingly committed by young people and children ... All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, were inveterate comic-book readers This kind of thing is not good mental nourishment for children!"

    - Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, 1954

    "Without the poison instilled [by NOVELS] into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice... It is no uncommon thing for a young lady who has attended her dearest friend to the altar, a few months after a marriage which perhaps, but for her, had been a happy one, to fix her affections on her friend's husband, and by artful blandishments allure him to herself. Be not staggered, moral reader, at the recital! Such serpents are really in existence."

    - "Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity", a pamphlet published in 1802

    "Maybe VIDEO GAMES don't cause real-life violence. Do they factor into harassment, or misogyny, or rape threats? Does the culture that thrives on the victory of the strong over the weak - of the badass motherfucker over the pussy faggot - REALLY have nothing to do with these things? When people are saying things like "sexism is integral to the fighting game community", or physically threatening people who criticize their culture, or taking films like Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen to heart...is this completely unrelated to the violent media that these cultures are centering around?"

    - You, drawing a number of nebulous, complex issues from subjects that deserve exploration, and dumping them into a subjective screed, 2013.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just gonna dump off a few things here because, really, I think I'm gonna cover all my bases:

      1) I never said anything about "all movies" or even "all games". Or "all" anything. Actually, no, I'll amend that: I DID say that all fiction relies on emotional attachment, but I think that's a myriad enough descriptor that I can get away with it even if it excludes a few intentional fourth-wall-breakers. Heck, even when talking about violence, I didn't say ALL violence - just bloody, awful violence portrayed as fun and consequence-free.

      2) Your point about comparing me to these older things? Yeah, uh, I'm pretty sure there's a shitload of articles I could call out that say how people ARE affected by the things they read. I could compare "Seduction of the Innocent" with the fact that, according to the author's own admission, Wonder Woman was intentionally designed to make BDSM and submission look appealing. I'll throw you a Wikipedia link if you're too lazy to look it up yourself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Moulton_Marston#Themes

      3) Seriously, can you even disprove Seduction of the Innocent, or did you just hear on a nerd site that it's "totally ridiculous"? Do you really believe media and behavior are entirely separate? Do you have studies? Again, just gonna throw this out there: propaganda. Advertisement. Seems pretty clear that people are affected by words and images and ideas, which is why - for example - CIGARETTE COMPANIES are no longer allowed to ADVERTISE to CHILDREN. But why wouldn't they? I mean clearly those kids are capable of making their own decisions and not the products of the culture presented to them.

      4)Please find the part of this article where I advocated censorship and didn't just ask individuals to examine the reasons that they find violence to be exciting and fun? I mean I know you've got a high horse to ride in on but I mean I'll be earnest here: if there's a choice between "freedom of expression" and helping people, I'm going to help people every time. "People shouldn't be chastised for fetishizing violence" turns into "Well, people shouldn't be chastised for making racist jokes" or "Honestly I think rape jokes are fine even if they do support a rape-shaming culture and empower the people who commit rape". If you really, REALLY want to pretend that either of those things are okay in order to support VIDEO GAMES, I think that makes my point more effectively than...well, than this entire article does.

      5) Seriously though, how did you take "I didn't like Reservoir Dogs" out of this article? Reservoir Dogs was great. It actually looks at violence as a serious thing and not as a game. It disgusted people. It HORRIFIED people. Mr. Orange bleeds out in the back of a car and spends the entire goddamn movie terrified and horrified by what he's done and what's happened to him. It has a realistic message about violence instead of a contrived, drawn-out, inapplicable one. The point I was making is that in many other films and games, like for example Grand Theft Auto, Mr. Blonde WOULD be seen as a valid protagonist - in Reservoir Dogs, he's clearly portrayed as an awful person.

      6) I mean literally, just so we're clear here: you're objecting to an article where the entire point is "hey, maybe we should think about why we like murdering people so much". It doesn't say anything about "all games" or "all movies" or "all violent games" or "all violent movies". It says things about "many parts of media". And your entire premise of objection is the idea that (a) I'm censoring things and (b) I'm applying this criticism equally to two entire mediums. Do you think I can't read my OWN ARTICLE and see where you're wrong on these?

      Delete
    2. And seriously: read the actual article before you reply, you fucking dipshit. And read this one too: http://www.upsettingrapeculture.com/rapeculture.html

      Delete
    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    4. About Seduction of the Innocent: Apparently a professor named Carol Tilly recently discovered that Fredric Wertham manipulated and falsified the evidence he used to make his case.
      http://io9.com/5985199/how-one-mans-lies-almost-destroyed-the-comics-industry
      http://boingboing.net/2013/03/04/comic-books-real-life-superv.html
      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/books/flaws-found-in-fredric-werthams-comic-book-studies.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0

      Delete
    5. If "Rape Culture" is to be involved, only she can help you people in this situation:
      http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GirlWritesWhat

      Delete
  4. I argued:

    'There is a meaningful middle ground in all such debates such as these, and I am saddened to see that you so frequently avoid it for cheap reactionary declarations in which you can cluck your tongue and leer at works of Art you find personally disappointing.'

    You replied:

    'And seriously: read the actual article before you reply, you fucking dipshit.'

    Legitimately, I am sorry to have enraged you, J.Shea. I was attempting to point out the need to avoid lumping whole genres and mediums into simplistic categorisations and dismiss them out of hand (which I maintain you have and are doing - yes, I read the article again). It was not, however, my intent to have this discussion devolve into petty snarling insult.

    It's a shame, because I think you have some valid points to make under the needless generalisations.

    Best of luck.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Drayfish,

      You ignored the actual article and made a comment LONGER THAN THE ARTICLE YOU WERE REPLYING TO that had absolutely no relation to the article itself.

      I had to sit there and point out EVERY INSTANCE of you being totally fucking irrelevant.

      You now respond that you're upset that I called you a fucking dipshit for making me WASTE MY FUCKING TIME addressing your fucking strawman. And you don't have the goddamn common courtesy to address anything else.

      Fuck you,
      James Shea

      Delete
    2. Dear James,

      It is a shame you've now confirmed everything I suspected of both you and each of the arguments I have seen you make over the past few months. I hope you continue to enjoy patronising gamers for their immaturity and poor impulse control.

      After all, you are clearly the best person to judge.

      Best,

      drayfish

      Delete
  5. Drayfish, did you miss Shea's lengthy response that completely dismantled your post? The generalisations you're referring to do not exist.

    Your response is simply not applicable to the original post. It looks very much like you just skimmed it, and quickly decided it was the same the same "games are corrupting our children!" argument made by concerned conservative middle class women in USA. It's not. It is in fact talk about the role violence plays in video-games in a nuanced manner.

    And you know what? Perhaps some anger, what you refer to as "petty snarling insult", is appropriate when someone comes in with an incoherent 2-post long muddying of the waters and interrupts what could be an important discussion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rune,

      Shea's post talks about 'violence' in 'videogames' as if such a discussion were applicable in all cases - as if the application, presentation, and thematic ramifications of violent acts in every game were a constant that could be swapped out and spoken of as a whole. (Even through in contrast, everyone would agree that the consequences of violence in Reservoir Dogs or Taxi Driver are quite different from a Michael Bay film...)

      It argues that games (and many movies) peddle in 'masculine fantasies', and that this fetishises bad behaviour in the pursuit of looking and acting cool (as if this were true of the majority of audience members and not just a highly misguided few).

      Now, perhaps this article was an invitation for each individual player to explore their own personal inclination toward excessive violence in certain specific game-texts (exactly why there is such dehumanisation and bombastic excess in Call of Duty games, etc), but then I would ask: who is the audience for that statement?

      The particular player who requires that kind of introverted exploration (the guys who want to feel 'bad-ass', like THEY are Bond or Batman, rather than watching them move through a complex character-based narrative) will not bother looking in an article such as this for food for thought.

      So the article is for people like us - you and me and anyone else reading along.

      I would argue that anyone who would take the time to read such an opinion piece is already attuned to such concerns about these media, and mindful of their implications. Indeed, they have been alert to this all the way back through film, comic books, novels, plays, poems, way back to Odysseus slaughtering the suitors in a scene of horror that eclipses anything you will see in a modern videogame.

      But rather than speak to readers alert to these complications and contradictions, the article relies upon generalisations ('becoming desensitised to violence is bad...', 'wanting to imagine yourself as a serial killer is bad...', 'videogames that allow people to kill indiscriminately and feel good is bad...') and tries to balloon them out into statements that reflect upon the entire medium, pulling almost directly from Plato's arguments about the dangers of emulation (which sent me off on that whole censorship riff).

      And as I said in my original post, what people already alert to these issues do not need is someone preaching to the choir, and muddying the waters with rote oversimplifications: trying to pretend that the purpose of violence in all such games is about reducing it to a tacit endorsement of such behaviour in the 'real' world; that it is an invitation for humanity to lower its moral fortitude and let the chaotic rabble have at it; that simply by allowing the imaginative dramatic license of playing a videogame you have furthered the antisocial agenda that risks bringing all morality crashing down.

      There is far, far more nuance to such a discussion, and simplifying it to a cause-and-effect dichotomy in which videogames obviously operate as propaganda, where they clearly give rise to sexism, brutality, and a callous disregard for morals, strikes me as being just as reductive as saying, 'Don't worry about it, it's cool, videogames are just entertainment that doesn't mean anything...'

      Delete
    2. (Also, I would argue that calling someone a 'fucking dipshit' because the don't agree with you, while opining that people are becoming too close-minded and aggressive in critical discourse is a little less than 'appropriate'.)

      Delete
    3. Drayfish,

      "But rather than speak to readers alert to these complications and contradictions, the article relies upon generalisations ('becoming desensitised to violence is bad...', 'wanting to imagine yourself as a serial killer is bad...', 'videogames that allow people to kill indiscriminately and feel good is bad...')"

      Please source this in the article. The word desensititisation literally does not occur in the article. Neither do the words "serial killer". Simply put, it looks to me like you're criticizing an article which does not exist.

      Why can't we have a discussion about violence in video-games? Such a discussion does not necessitate claiming all video-game violence is the same - which is why the article actually discusses many specific examples as a way of driving its point.


      "The particular player who requires that kind of introverted exploration (the guys who want to feel 'bad-ass', like THEY are Bond or Batman, rather than watching them move through a complex character-based narrative) will not bother looking in an article such as this for food for thought."

      This is such an odd criticism of the article. The audience consists mostly of people who don't need to read it? Putting aside for the moment how questionable of a claim that is, why does it even matter? Whether or not the people this article addresses will ever read it surely does not affect the strength of the argument.

      And really, I'm not nearly arrogant enough to claim that I view all game characters as entirely separate entities, detachedly analysising their character development while thoughtfully stroking my chin and mumbling "Yes... quite."

      The fact of the matter is that I do empathize with characters in games. And the more strongly I do it, the better I tend to consider the game. To use an example: I recently played Tomb Raider, and on some level, I *was* Lara Croft. I shivered with her in the cold, and I feared with her, for the life of her friends and herself. And every part of the game that strengthened my ability to identify with Lara made the game better - the campfire monologues, the video recordings. And conversely, the worst parts of the game were the ones that detached me from Lara as a character - the "Rambo screams", her superhuman ability to withstand long, hard drops, and her unwillingness to put on a damn sweater. So when this character who I identify with quite strongly murders hundreds of people throughout the game, am I totally unaffected by that? I don't know, probably not.

      (cont.)

      Delete
    4. Of course, at this point we've moved completely away from the point of the original article. The article isn't about desensitization, it's about the depiction of violence in media, specifically video-games. Lara Croft is written to be a character we like. A good person put into a horrible situation. She wants to help her friends, and is willing to sacrifice much to do so. And yet, she guns people down without a second thought. After the first, gruelling kill, she essentially has no compunctions about killing people. Sure, it's handwaved as self defence, in the sense that these are hostiles. But is it really? The game has stealth system, which rewards extra experience points for kills made without anyone noticing. At this point, I've got Lara sneaking up and ramming her climbing axe into the throat of some guy who was just enjoying a smoke. 30 extra XP. This guy didn't have a chance to give up. He hadn't even made a hostile move yet. For all we know, he's just playing along with the other bad guys waiting for a chance to jump ship. Now he's dead. Lara doesn't bat an eye. She doesn't make a sound as I sit her down on top of his corpse and have her aim an arrow into the face of the next dude as he walks around a corner further up the hallway.

      Can you name one character in literature, TV or film who murders so ruthlessly and frequently, with such detachment, who isn't meant to bed a bad guy? Because Lara is the good one. She's the one we're meant to empathize with.


      "And as I said in my original post, what people already alert to these issues do not need is someone preaching to the choir, and muddying the waters with rote oversimplifications: trying to pretend that the purpose of violence in all such games is about reducing it to a tacit endorsement of such behaviour in the 'real' world; that it is an invitation for humanity to lower its moral fortitude and let the chaotic rabble have at it; that simply by allowing the imaginative dramatic license of playing a videogame you have furthered the antisocial agenda that risks bringing all morality crashing down."

      Again, what on earth are you talking about? What generalisations in the original article are you referring to? The article simply does not make the claims you say it does, and it makes this whole discussion kind of weird. I cannot honestly believe you're arguing in good faith, when you so consistently misrepresent the article we're discussing.

      "There is far, far more nuance to such a discussion, and simplifying it to a cause-and-effect dichotomy in which videogames obviously operate as propaganda, where they clearly give rise to sexism, brutality, and a callous disregard for morals, strikes me as being just as reductive as saying, 'Don't worry about it, it's cool, videogames are just entertainment that doesn't mean anything...'"

      This is completely true. It's just that the article never does that. At all. It doesn't even come close, and it baffles me that you're arguing against this phantom.

      Delete
    5. Rune these are really good posts, thank you for having the patience to address a person that I don't.

      Delete
  6. Hi Rune,

    Sorry, I thought it was clear what generalisations I was referring to, but to avoid confusion, I'll just quote the article directly:

    "Do violent video games cause people to murder in real life? I don't think so. I don't think they CAUSE it. Are they RELATED? Sure. The same desires fuel both fake-murder and real-murder; desire for power, for supremacy, for apex masculinity. Obviously it's better to have fake-murder than real-murder, but that misses out on an important issue, which is that there are ways for people to be absolute pieces of shit without actually killing people. Maybe video games don't cause real-life violence. Do they factor into harassment, or misogyny, or rape threats? Does the culture that thrives on the victory of the strong over the weak - of the badass motherfucker over the pussy faggot - REALLY have nothing to do with these things? When people are saying things like "sexism is integral to the fighting game community", or physically threatening people who criticize their culture, or taking films like Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen to heart...is this completely unrelated to the violent media that these cultures are centering around?"

    The vile extremism of sexist, violent, homophobic, swaggering douchebaggery exhibited by certain members of the videogame community are seen as natural expressions of a medium that encourages such gratuitous, antisocial desire. Games allow for (again, apparently even encourages, Shea argues) the free expression of humanities most base excesses.

    Even though these statements are posed as a series of rhetorical questions, the central premise, that there is a causal link between videogame violence and antisocial behaviour, is at the heart of the article, is treated as incontrovertible truth, and immediately dictates the nature of every response that follows it, shaping, rather than inviting discussion.

    (cont.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. (drayfish cont.)

    As for heroes throughout history who have periodically performed abject slaughter and been celebrated, I've already mentioned Odysseus - but one might as well throw in the entire pantheon of Greek and Roman heroes. Include also all of the knights of antiquity - your Lancelots, your Gawains. James Bond has already been cited here, but why not throw in all manner of John McClanes and Jason Bournes. Aragon cuts a swath through The Lord of the Rings (alongside everyone else in that book), and Indiana Jones has seen and inflicted some horror in his time. And yet all of them are still deemed chivalric, noble, 'good' men.

    But this - like it was in Shea's argument - is a misleading tangential pathway to wander down. The heroes in comic books do not behave the way that heroes in films do, because they belong to the conventions of a different medium. The heroes of film do not behave in the same way that they do in a novel. Even from genre to genre: dump Odysseus into a tense courtroom drama and his sealing all the doors and chopping people into wet chunks is not going to fly.

    And that is because the structure of their individual texts, and the needs of their distinct fictions require separate engagements with the text, and unique audience/narrative relationships. Trying to compare the structure and practices of one genre to another as if they were directly relatable is a logical fallacy, and needlessly reduces an argument that requires thoughtful, reasoned analysis, to a reactionary presumption.

    As your own account of Tomb Raider shows, there are many different ways that a videogame text can portray the infliction of violence, fundamentally altering the effect that it has upon the character within the game, and the player experiencing it at a remove. (It's for precisely this reason that bombastic Marcus Fenix is not going to kick open a door in Heavy Rain and start mowing people down.)

    The question of how each game juggles this, what effect it has upon the player, and what it invites them to ruminate upon what they have seen, are all crucial questions that must be explored (exactly as they are in fiction, film, comics, etc) - but just as one finds in these other mediums, the moment a critic starts trying to balloon this out into sweeping statements about the effect all such depictions must be having upon the culture at large they do an injustice to the argument, oversimplifying complex issues that deserve more than rote hand-wringing.

    You end up with statements like this:

    "Ask yourself this: what separates a game or a movie from propaganda? Does anything? Would you care so much about "being badass" if it hadn't been rigorously established as an ideal by the culture you've been immersed in since your birth? As much as people are willing to give leeway to people's morality in the past, they sure don't apply much thought to it in the present. Nothing's changed. You're still a product of your culture, if you allow yourself to be. Question why you think these things are acceptable."

    It is a summation that merely takes as-read that you have, and are, ignorantly overlooking the damaging effect that these games absolutely are having upon your morality. And that premise - and all of the presumptive generalisation it requires - is one I would hope more observant, mindful readers would reject.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd just like to interject here and ask something: why do you point out "the heroes of antiquity" as if they are not also the products of masculine cultures? As if they are not also propaganda?

      "I hope more observant, mindful readers would reject" [the idea that you should think more about the media you take in]

      Just leave, Drayfish.

      Delete
  8. You're just taking the piss now, right?

    I ask you to point me to the places where generalisations are made, and you quite about half the article? Please be way, *way* more specific if you want me to actually consider your argument.


    "It is a summation that merely takes as-read that you have, and are, ignorantly overlooking the damaging effect that these games absolutely are having upon your morality. And that premise - and all of the presumptive generalisation it requires - is one I would hope more observant, mindful readers would reject."

    How so? Do you think that being aware of something makes you immune to it? That seems quite unlikely, considering how much money is spent each year on advertisements.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I answered your question, I provided examples, and expanded upon their obvious implications.

    If your only response is that I'm 'taking the piss' without actually bothering to addressing a single thing that I said (or apparently even read it) then I think we're at the 'I respectfully disagree' (or 'I can't be bothered to try') point of the conversation.

    Which is fine by me. As you seem to likewise believe I've spent enough time talking about this.

    I had thought from your Tomb Raider critique that you were alert to these issues of mimetic presentations of violence in media; but if you really needed a post in which someone had to inform you that violent things can happen in games, without bothering to put in context how, why, or to what effect those actions are being presented in individual cases, and thereby reducing that whole panoply of possibility to 'glorified bad-assery', then I'm glad you found what you obviously required.

    Personally, I find there is more to explore in this debate than simply patronisingly nodding in agreement at how the uneducated rabble just don't 'get' what they are doing to themselves. As I've already pointed out, that was a cheap cliche over two thousand years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm late to the party but I gotta say... I kind of see where drayfish is coming from. Especially in the last few responses. This post seems to oversimplify the idea of why villainous behavior is appreciated in any form of entertainment. Are there SOME people who find SOME villains committing SOME particular types of crimes compelling merely because those people like those villains committing those crimes? Yes. But does everyone enjoy villains, and villainy for the same reasons? Like drayfish said earlier with Hannibal Lecter-- his character wasn't designed for people to want to enjoy his murderous, cannibalistic tendencies so much that they wanted to become homicidal cannibals themselves.

    To bring things back to games, "Payday 2" has you playing as a bank robber who can needlessly slaughter people. Most people won't play the game that way, because the overall goal is to pull off a successful heist, and shooting people will bring the hand of the law down far harder than if you were to try to stealthily access the vault. And yet, the desires that affect gamers to make them want to play "Payday 2" are probably shared across games like "Call of Duty" and "Uncharted", which are decidedly more homicide focused. That "being the best" desire is just spurred into pulling off the heist the fastest, or with the fewest complications. Essentially, you play a villain who has the ability to do absolutely terrible things, but people DON'T do terrible things like shoot up hostages (at least according to those I've consulted).

    But the biggest factor in drayfish's arguments (I swear to God I'm not a dupe) that I was dissatisfied to see glossed over is the fact that all the stuff we're discussing has different context associated with it. In "Tomb Raider", you're killing people that have already demonstrated a willingness to kill you. Suggesting that we "hand wave" that context is honestly more problematic to me, because I personally (and tons of other people I've come across that play games) DON'T go out of my way to murder civilians in games where that's an option. Even if I wouldn't be punished by my score a la "Sleeping Dogs" or simply ejected from the experience as in some "Call of Duty" games. Indeed, when Nathan Drake "slaughters hundreds of people", he's doing so in order to prevent himself and his loved ones from getting killed. Is it disturbing that he can crack jokes? Yep, but then that could also be a coping mechanism. The point is that within the context of the narrative there is little reason to dislike Nathan for his actions. As an aside, I personally play Uncharted in the stupidest way-- I beat all three games by shooting at enemies only at the knees or arms or other extremities. As though it would be realistic to expect that they could receive medical help before bleeding out from six shots in the foot.

    And that leads me to the final point I want to make, one about the very idea of realism as expressed in this post. Specifically the idea that the "reality" we conjure for our fiction is anything like the reality that we understand for ourselves. This quote is what I'm getting at:

    "Nathan Drake gets to quip and snark after every kill (and enemies eagerly continue to charge directly at him rather than running away), and he's still clearly meant to be likable."

    ReplyDelete
  11. In real life, if you yelled a one liner over gunfire, and casually ducked out of cover to blow a guys brains out (or knees, if you play like me) then the enemies would ABSOLUTELY run the hell away. Indeed, if you could just truck through wave after wave of trained militia men, thieves, and whatever other kind of professional-turned-hitman Drake comes across in his ventures, you would really be missing your calling as a stuntman. But that's why, despite Nathan Drake LOOKING like he's real, with the clothes that get dirty and the realistic facial features and muscle movements, but we know at a similar level that he's simply not. And while all the visuals are very realistic, the mechanisms of the game simply aren't. We don't separate ourselves from the murder of people, because we recognize at this same subconscious/conscious level that they aren't even close to people. If you were to replace every mook mowed down by Drake with the polygonal bad guy in "Super Smash Brothers", the game would not be any less fun. Because the enjoyment and competitiveness isn't attached to a sense of cruelty to another entity, but in outmaneuvering that entity within the confines of the game. That's why people like to play chess, or enjoy detective fiction (in which the murders that do occur are relatively sterile, and the end goal is to arrive at the truth before the fictional crime solver).

    Now you might ask (or, more likely, you won't care to ask): Now if you believe that, then why don't you kill with headshots in "Uncharted?" If you were interested, I'd tell you that I feel its more compatible with the character. I don't think a real human being would hold the lives of people trying to kill them in such high regard that they would only ever aim for wounding shots, even if they were confident in their ability to pull them off. But Nathan Drake is not a regular guy. It's the same reason I have no compunctions about head shots in "Call of Duty", where the soldier's mindset would be to kill enemies because they will kill you first, and you're just as vulnerable. Or the reason why I was happy to take full body shots as Kane and Lynch. Because those guys are assholes.

    I don't think most people are as devoted to getting into game characters' heads as I am, but I'm confident that most people that enjoy virtual murder do so for reasons other than wanting to indulge themselves in unwarranted cruelty. Most probably they want to test their visual acuity, reaction time, leadership abilities, or any number of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with violence (even if violence is the medium which propagates these tests).

    I hope this wasn't too terrible to read (unlikely, given all the parentheses... Oh dammnit, I did it again, didn't I?) and that you got what I was saying.

    ReplyDelete