Tina K. Russell

September 20, 2009

I Wanna Start a Fight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Tina Russell @ 12:40 pm

How ought we to respond to fulminations against videogames by people who don’t play them? A great many, of course, may be safely ignored. But when an interesting writer decides to take a passing kick at games, it can be worth digging for the grain of truth in the stereotypical criticism. A case in point: recently, I was reading an article by the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, published in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza last spring, which after a meditative beginning about language and exile suddenly targets videogames, along with TV and cinema – they all purvey, he argues, a kind of Manichean pornography. I quote at length to give the flavour of Bauman’s rhetoric:

‘Surely, compared with the refined artistry of cinema, television, Nintendo or PlayStation, the everyday life in the barracks of the concentration camps or the communist bloc must seem like some abortive creations produced by provincial amateurs and manufacturers of cheap kitsch. These lucky beasts [the kids of today] have known almost from the day they were born that monstrous things are the creation of monsters and sordid things are created by scoundrels, and that monsters and scoundrels therefore have to be exterminated before they get a chance to exterminate us, and that, since those who are being exterminated are the spawn of the devil it must follow that those who subdue them are nothing but angels? So as they sit at their computers with their faces ablush, trying to defeat the electronic monsters at their own wicked game, to respond to their trickery with their own, even more refined, tricks and mow them down in their multitudes before they start mowing down ours, it does not in the least offend their own high opinion of themselves. After all, these electronic monsters ambushed them out of pure cruelty whereas they, on their part, were only trying to save themselves, and while they were at it the rest of the world, from the brutes. Humanity is divided into executioners and their victims, and once the latter finally exterminate the last of the former, we can safely store brutality in one of the deposits of memory (or forgetting) and slam the door behind it’.

via Survival Horror Syndrome | Edge Online.

It’s hard for me to admit, but much of my craving to play videogames is often a desire to pick up a controller and start beating up enemies. It’s so cathartic to flip from your normal life and play a fantasy where you’re a spry young warrior mashing through monster after monster, with no real consequence other than the gratitude and prestige brought by your heroics. “Enemies” (in the videogame sense of endless minion baddies) are such a useful trope that it’s hard to cast them off, even when you know that too many games use them as a crutch.

Of course, what I like most about Bauman’s argument is his reminder that good people can do bad things. Part of why videogames have mined World War II so relentlessly is that it seems like a time when good was good and evil was evil; in the same comforting vein of Pong’s famed instruction “avoid missing ball for high score,” a certain wartime nostalgia creeps into the implied instruction of “point gun at Nazi, shoot.” What do we do when our big enemies these days are decentralized and omnipresent, from Internet-enabled terrorists to flu seasons to killer-bee scares to online predators to Wall Street wheeler-dealers? In the real world, we’re slowly pulling out of Iraq and slowly pulling into Afghanistan, a war we entered with strong public consensus in favor but that now sparks a debate on whether or not we should stay, on whether or not doing good for Afghanistan by staying is even possible. It’s a long way from “if he’s a Nazi, shoot him.”

See also Raph Koster’s “The Evil We Pretend to Do.”

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