Quick, what's the one thing everyone knows about Grand Theft Auto? Keep hold of the answer - we'll be back for it in a moment.
I was never sure how to order this post, or what exactly to include in it. So it's been festering in Dashboard for weeks now. Partly it was sparked off by reading criticisms of Iron Man, which blurred between entirely valid digs at the film's racism and sexism, and a less definable discomfort with the entire genre it's part of. See WOCPhD's brilliant post, where she seems to have lost sight of the fact that she's reviewing an adaptation of a 1963 pulp comic book.
That's pulp, where what is right and just comes way second to what's considered entertaining. That's 1963, the past, where a lot of our current media franchises come from - whether it's those comic book adaptations, or Narnia, or James Bond. Not that the newer franchises are a lot better, but (as I said when it came up on Punkass) characters like Pepper make way more sense in that context. The whole wonderboy-hero, powerful enough to do everything we wish to do, except for those boring things his ever-capable sidekick(s) do(es), makes more sense in that vein of pulp than in the current one. This hero-character is always at the top of the world. Why do we identify with him, when he's got nothing in common with reality at all?
Because we want to. Because we're wishing for his absolute power, and we are vividly interested in what the consequences that power might bring. We play sandbox games for similar reasons - a wish for the absolute ability to choose - and that raises discomforts of its own.
(It's always 'he'. Unless the red one is writing it, it's always 'he'.)
There is something Aishwarya said in the Iron Man thread at Daisy's place; "I really, really wish I could just watch movies where things blow up (because movies where things blow up are excellent) without being constantly alienated by this sort of thing. :("
That alienation is one of the major sources of the criticism of Iron Man; that when we leave ourselves behind and go to places where we have infinite power, and can blow up whatever we like, we're almost always asked to identify with white, heterosexual upper-class men. We want to be Bruce Wayne or James Bond. We wish for their momentum, possessions, power, and their challenges. Why do they all have to look the same?
An aside; Cleolinda is talking about a whole other sort of wishing, in a post about a book series that's aimed at teenage girls. I liked this:
Wish fulfillment: I really cannot stress how important this element is, because I think it's also the reason that Harry Potter grabbed the cultural imagination. You're not a neglected orphan sleeping in a cupboard! You're a wizard! You're the bestest wizard of all and you're also great at sports and you had rich, wizardly parents who loved you so much they died for you (but you've still got their money) and also, we brought you birthday cake! And then you, through Harry, are plunged into this fantastically detailed wizard world. I mean, shit, I'm sold. And I think most things that really grab people are going to tap that "I want to be that person and live in that world" vein. I want to be Elizabeth Swann, I want to be Lyra Belacqua, I want to be the Pevensie kids.
She's talking about the same instinct that makes us love those boys who can do anything they want...and yet everything she says about this sort of wish fulfilment turns me off. I don't much like any of the books and films she's referring to. Some of these are in a middle ground - but I seem to be banging my head against the fact that the wishes I like are usually aimed at (we might even say assumed at) a male audience, and Cleolinda is talking about teenage girls, and women who remember being a teenage girl.
A while ago, Trinity wrote about our discomfort with power and excess in an unrelated context - kink!:
Think about standard criticisms of the rich and opulent. Whether they're criticisms of the nobility, of the bourgeoisie, or other criticisms of the rich and powerful. The idea that these people are decadent, that they wallow in excess, drown themselves in pleasure.
That kind of excess is actually a big turn on for me. The idea of going further and doing more, overflowing with energy, desire, and intensity. It's something I began to have a very hard time with when I got into feminist circles that were also socialist or influenced by socialism.
Because the central idea of that kind of political movement is that some people have too much and some people don't have enough. If that's the material situation of people in the world, and I seek to be committed to some kind of distributive justice that least makes the first step to equalizing some of that, how can I get into bed and touch myself while imagining, sometimes literally, that I'm lord over other people?
While not primarily sexual, wish fulfilment stories seem to hit a similar wall in the liberal press; you can't be fantasising about that, that's too much, too violent, too greedy, too unfair. So onto Cate's GTA article at Shameless:
But the object of the game is still to shoot people and win gang wars, right? I find it hard to fathom why so many intelligent people insist on defending this game, whose major appeal I once heard summarized as, “you can sleep with a prostitute and then shoot her so you don’t have to pay.”
What, is Shameless not so shameless after all? :O Certainly Cate is saying that a virtual world's functionality should contain hard-coded moral limits, rather than simple moral consequences. It is not enough that nothing real can be harmed or lost in the space, or that your virtual self suffers virtual consequences for performing proscribed actions; instead she asks that a line be drawn, and certain evils be rendered impossible. (Something like this exists in Sims 2 - you can't kill a baby or a toddler, can only have sex with adults and elders, and character's genital areas are obscured by pixels. These restrictions have been ripped up by a legion of fanmodders, which demonstrates how practical that approach is, though when choosing nominal imaginary limits, practicality is hardly the point. Worth remembering that it was modders who caused GTA3's Hot Coffee debacle. Ultimately neither lawmakers nor creators can censor the use of game software - it's the users who determine how it is played).
Our species of cyborgs has been wrestling with this problem, of defining our virtual limits, since A Rape In Cyberspace or before.
Dibbell's story touched on one point that has been gaining ground recently; should virtual crimes be subject to real-world consequences? The answer he watched arise from LambdaMOO was a no - those who commit virtual crimes should face justice within the intimacy of the wronged community. Then as now, the internet usually gives its wrongdoers a sentence of exile.
Regina Lynn, writing about a more recent virtual rape, also thinks not. Meanwhile, DailyBits has a list of unexpected real-world spillovers from virtual events; MMO addict deaths and in-game funerals, virtual thefts and real arrests, and a story about a Gunbound player from Brazil that I can barely get my head around.
Last week I read a Cif Arts piece in defence of James Bond that talked about how uncomfortably realistic violence is part of the thrill, when it comes to boy-heroes...and added a few words about consumption and luxury:
Thanks to the cartoon violence of the films it's also easy to forget just how effective the sadism in the novels can be. Fleming's books are creepy and chilling and this graphic cruelty, combined with painstakingly accurate descriptions of high-living, fine eating and the pleasures of quality consumer goods must make Bond a direct ancestor to characters like Patrick Bateman and the unnamed protagonist of Fight Club as much as the promiscuous father of so many lesser pulp-thriller spies. It certainly merits him a place in the canon.
So violence is an intrinsic part of this wishing-ground. Graphic violence, ultimate consumption, extreme adventures - and as the article hints, unlimited access to sex. Sometimes the hero is simply a tireless playboy, but many of these stories include legions of imaginary sex workers.
To my shame, it was only a week ago - and thanks to Chris - that I read the mighty OH JOHN RINGO NO review, which charts an odyssey of violent and misogynistic wish fulfilment. From Hradzka's description, every woman in the series is a sex worker, or described as a potential sex worker; within the fantasy space, all women are perceived as being available for sexual purchase.
Hradzka also mentions a whole aspect to this wish fulfilment thing that I'd never much thought of before:
Once you get past GHOST's initial spleen-venting, the PALADIN OF SHADOWS series falls into a much-maligned, much-loved genre which, for lack of a better name, I call "Man Builds Stuff and Gets Lots of Pussy." This is, quite frankly, what got me reading the series: I am not much for stories of a guy just killing terrorists and getting laid a lot; but let him start building a small kingdom while killing terrorists and getting laid a lot, and I am there. I confess that have a soft spot for these kinds of stories. I suspect that *lots* of men do: even if we don't build things ourselves, we like to *read about* guys building things: castles, weapons, companies, societies. It's really very soothing; it combines the pleasures of fiction with a those of a do-it-yourself manual. The same impulses may explain why a lot of male writers aren't content to have their hero just carrying, say, a 1911 as his sidearm; they have to tell you what make, model, whether it's got an internal or external extractor, what aftermarket parts he's tuned it up with, and who he bought them from, until you know all about his Kimber's Ed Brown slide stop and Wolff springs.
(Curiously, the sex-related parts do not require details of every thrust; if the chapter fades to black with the hero hopping into bed with two nubile wenches, honor is satisfied. John Ringo, alas, often carries honor considerably farther.)
I'd never put a name to that before, but building stuff is definitely a genre I like. I enjoyed this aspect of both Iron Man and Batman Begins...not to mention Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, a game in which you have to procure yourself an entire army. (I can think of only one Woman Builds Stuff story - A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. While I enjoyed the Woman Builds Stuff part of the book, it seemed rushed and unconvincing compared to the rest of it).
On CiF, Charlie Brooker unwraps the problem, and finds a new one wrapped inside:
The one thing everyone knows about Grand Theft Auto is that you can kill prostitutes in it. That's because it's a "sandbox" game in which you can kill anyone you like. Or you can not kill them. Or you can simply drive around slowly, obeying the traffic lights. If you break the law and the in-game police spot you, they'll hunt you down and nab you. Murdering innocent people is neither a) encouraged, b) free of consequence, or c) any more realistic than a Tex Avery cartoon.
...in other words, the problem is not that you can kill prostitutes, but that prostitutes are a singled-out class of people, neatly prepackaged as a unit by our culture in spite of their great diversity of circumstances, and the killing of this class of people IRL is common and so easy to get away with because of this - so when a game also presents sex workers as a class of people, and just happens to let you kill whoever you like, guess who people get most excited about shooting.
I should add; Brooker's point c) is under dispute. The Slate game review...which is entitled 'It's Not Just About Killing Hookers Any More'...says it's simply not true:
There's a difference this time: The violence is no longer cartoonish. Shoot an innocent bystander, and you see his face contort in agony. He'll clutch at the wound and begin to stagger away, desperately seeking safety. After just scratching the surface of the game—I played for part of a day; it could take 60 hours to complete the whole thing—I felt unnerved. What makes Grand Theft Auto IV so compelling is that, unlike so many video games, it made me reflect on all of the disturbing things I had done.
...and David Wong, in Seven Commandments All Videogames Should Obey (a followup to another wonderful article, A Gamer's Manifesto), devotes an entire page to saying it shouldn't be true:
If we shoot a zombie in the arm, we want his arm to blow off. If we shoot him in the knee, we want him to limp. And if we shoot him in the head, we want his head to explode. We want our bullets to create wounds.
Sword-fighting games like Oblivion are worse. You can slash the bad guy in the face with your blade and it does nothing. The enemy looks perfectly normal until he finally falls over dead, as if he had a heart attack from the excitement. Why give us a sword if we can't decapitate people? Don't tell us the system can't handle it, we were blowing off zombie limbs in House of the Dead a decade ago.
It's not about our blood thirst (well, not just about that), it's about making us feel like we're accomplishing something as we work our way through hordes of cookie-cutter bad guys. Oh, hey, you know what else we hate?
Filling the game with hordes of cookie-cutter bad guys.
This is another one of those problems that are exacerbated by new-gen graphics. Now that we can do photo-realistic faces, it's suddenly very weird that we're killing hundreds of identical clones.
How hard would it be to randomize facial features and skin tones? That's what we want, to feel like we're killing hundreds of different people. Not a bunch of clones or twins. We want to know, deep down, that there are hundreds of grieving mothers out there, lamenting the terror of our dreaded blade.
And I agree with him, I agree with Slate - we need the effects of our actions to look realistic, and the media queasies have repeatedly demonstrated the reason for this.
The first time I read an article about violence in videogames was almost ten years ago. It was in a library newspaper - probably the Times - and it mentioned several games, but was illustrated with one of Nomura's promotional images for Final Fantasy VII; a game that uses violence, questions it, and at one point devolves into an argument between Cait and Barrett about whether any of the violent things they've been doing are remotely justified.
That was the moment I first realised that I was never going to read anything of value about videogames in a printed newspaper, ever. Why shut up and go away when you can challenge and explore instead?
This is why my least favourite scene in Iron Man was the one that steamrolled over #6 of David Wong's Ultimate War Sim demand list:
Speaking of innocents, I want a war sim where native townsfolk stand shoulder-to-shoulder on every inch of the map and not a single bomb can be dropped without blowing 200 of them into chunks. Forget about the abandoned building wallpaper in games like the Red Alert series. I want to have to choose between sending marines door-to-door to be killed in the streets or leveling the block from afar, Nuns and all. I want to have to choose between 40 dead troops or 400 dead children, and be damned to hell by chubby pundits from the safety of their studios regardless of which way I go.
See, Wong is a gamer kid with a good grip on reality. There exist other gamer kids who think reality is like Iron Man, where magical white people who waltz into other people's countries have the magical power to distinguish between nice, innocent brown people and evil brown people (there are no other kinds, just innocent or evil), remove the latter with pinpoint precision, and go home after a day well saved. These other gamer kids are called the US government.
It's the people who don't want their imaginary violence to be realistic that I worry about. The people who want the details glossed over, who want to make out that it's not as bad as it really is, who want to conceal the fact that it's the least powerful who always suffer first and most.
One last link: Catherine Bennett on GTA. Oh dear god, you must read this:
With a violent and nasty movie, or corrupting literature, the thing is simple. You merely have to buy a ticket for, say, No Country for Old Men, or There Will be Blood, and watch it, with a keen eye for anything that might be violent or nasty. With books, you simply open, then read a copy of The Catcher in the Rye or, to go back a bit, Lady Chatterley's Lover or a bit further, one of those 18th-century courtship novels whose potential to enervate young virgins was discernible, apparently, within just a few minutes of scholarly inspection.
How different for the mature student of Grand Theft Auto IV, who discovers that acquisition of the game, an Xbox 360 and a working television will not be nearly enough to expose the sickening extent of its moral bankruptcy. For that, you need time, skill, dedication and, I suspect, youth. In fact, it would probably be cheaper, and easier, for any averagely underqualified adult who craves the excitement of casual violence in a context of social indifference to make your way to somewhere like Borough Market and snarl: 'Out of the way, bitch' at every double buggy.
In fact, if a new book on gaming, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games, is to be believed, there may exist hardly anyone in sound mind who might not, from time to stressful time, benefit from an hour or two of moderately violent gaming. The authors, two Harvard psychiatrists, Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K Olson, were told by many young players that they played violent games to 'relax' or to 'get my anger out'. Should we not, as a matter of urgency, implore Gordon Brown to escape into GTA IV over the bank holiday? Or would the experience make an already vulnerable and solitary Prime Minister more likely to aim his car, à la Niko, at cyclists such as David Cameron?