I’ve written Culture Clash for the IGDA website for over eight years now. I’ve always meant to start posting my monthly columns here as well, but never got around to until now. As time permits I’ll post the older ones and back-date them, so give me a couple days, then be sure to check out the Culture Clash category archive here at Tap to read more.
This one’s about… hell, click the button and you’ll see.
The Beauty of a Living Thing
By Matthew Sakey
January 22, 2011
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
For the past few weeks those of us living in the United States have been caught up in the events of January 8, 2011, when a gunman opened fire in a Tucson, Arizona parking lot, killing six people and critically injuring more than a dozen others. Among the injured was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head at near point-blank range. By the time you read this (and well after I write it) the news cycle will have moved on and we’ll receive only token updates about Representative Giffords’ recovery, and the much slower and more painful recoveries (if such is possible) of those whose families, friends, or loved ones were killed during the rampage.
For a while after the shootings the usual “Why?” poultice was applied to the national wound. People ask why in the wake of a tragedy because they can then come up with outlandish explanations for inherently unexplainable things, and in so doing give themselves comfort. To my surprise I haven’t heard much effort to blame video games for shooter Jared Loughner’s rampage – given that he was a twenty-something male and was known to have played games, you’d think Jack Thompson at least would be all a-twitter. But the whys of it actually skipped that and settled on our uncivil national dialogue and the use of crosshairs in political ads.
16 days later a suicide bomber killed 35 and injured 180 at Domodedovo International Airport outside Moscow. It took less than a day for state-sponsored media to link the event to Modern Warfare 2’s infamous “No Russian” mission.
It seems dismissive after all that why-ing to settle on the obvious truth: in the case of Tucson, a man with an apparently serious mental illness either lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong or lost the ability to care, and targeted innocent people. In the case of Domodedovo, a militant terrorist organization appears to have been behind it, and terrorist militants are not motivated by games. Loughner was insane and intended to keep killing until something stopped him; the airport bomber was likely radicalized and/or brainwashed. Games do not drive people insane, and I’m doubtful of their ability to brainwash. Whatever power games may have in that department certainly doesn’t measure up to the tried and true brainwashing displayed throughout history from radical governments, religions and personalities.
“No Russian” is an experience more notable for its pointlessness than its shock value. It was a very clumsy attempt to put culpability at the forefront of a narrative play experience, and either Infinity Ward or Activision were so frightened of actually being brutal that the brutality of the sequence is nonexistent. There is no reflection on your actions, and it comes off more as bad torture porn than some big thematic to-do.
For a long time video games have used killing as a method of progress and almost never asked the player to reflect on the violence. That has changed recently, as more and more games give a serious effort to make the effect, not the action, of violence the point. “No Russian” is worthless in this regard, but other games are not. Heavy Rain, obviously; death and a protagonist’s attempts to live in the wake of it are the core of the game. Despite some faults Heavy Rain did things no other game has since. Shadow of the Colossus, even more obviously; in that you’re asked to kill for entirely selfish reasons and watch the death throes of frightened and hurting creatures. Indies such as Immortal Defense often explore death quite vividly, or the consequences of being a killer. Life is rarely precious in video games, and a new experimental trend toward making it so has resulted in some very interesting emergent opportunities and experiences.
Carl Sagan once eloquently pointed out: “the beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.” While he meant it as uplifting, it could also be taken as reminder that all those atoms in you, in me, in all of us, they’re just in a short-term partnership and will soon go on to other adventures. It could be taken as an argument that life isn’t precious at all. And the fact is games (which are also not beautiful because of their zeroes and ones, but for the way those zeroes and ones are arranged) have made impressive strides in just a few years in presenting scenarios where the player is asked to think about and take responsibility for the act of killing. This is something that the two men responsible for the tragedies in Tucson and Domodedovo did not take.
Jack Thompson’s always quick to say that killers are gamers, but the real truth is that killers are usually young men. There aren’t many young men who haven’t played video games, so the comparison is as apt as saying that killers tend to eat cereal for breakfast, or killers usually wear socks. And while I’d concede that a violent medium such as gaming could conceivably influence an already unhinged mind, so could any violent medium. Moreover, an artistic medium that examines, with growing courage and frankness, what it means to take a life may well be of positive impact.
The fact that we have a few games, some indie, some AAA, exploring meanings like this is a sign that the industry is not suffering the creative stagnation of which it’s sometimes accused. Baby steps. People who lived in caves drew paintings of themselves killing mastodons because they wanted to capture the cool stuff they could pull off with an atlatl, because violence is part of our nature, because it was something they knew. I’m sure it wasn’t until much later that people started doing cave paintings reflecting on whether it was right to kill mastodons. And while I’m sure we can all agree that not every game needs to include a turgid meditation on the value of life, that some games are doing it suggests there’s even more lavish exploration to come.
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