Friday, January 25, 2013

We Are Different, And We Do things Differently

In the wake of Newtown, I'm noticing a weird trend, among those who write about videogames, to be Mature and Rational Adults. It's refreshing. Honestly, the self-righteous faux-martyrs of our little club are far more numerous, and annoying, than the pundits and congressmen they so stridently oppose. Leigh Alexander penned an alarmingly sensible essay here, and I suggest you go read it. I'll wait here.


Now then, I didn't spend the last few hours writing this up just to link to the blog of someone who's already famous, and in general, this trend has been a welcome one. The discussions of industry politics have also been enlightening, even where I disagreed. But then there's Robert Brockway's "The Truth about Guns and Video Games," which seems to demand a response by virtue of its sheer obnoxiousness. It's possible my response doesn't make much more sense, of course; perhaps this is how a certain subset of the population chooses to grieve in these situations. Regardless, there was so much to kvetch about that there was basically no way to avoid fisking it, it is. Not in its entirety, and noted where deletions have been made, but here it is.
The thing gamers absolutely hate to admit is that modern games probably do have some connection to gun violence. It's just a matter of correlation, not causation.
Go on.
Listen: You can't say games are causing the violence. Yes, we are playing increasingly graphic and violent video games, and yes, there is something kind of disturbing about that fact --
Is there? Because I've never been clear on it. Is there some reason videogames should be expected not to have violent texts? It seems to me that you could reach this opinion by way of the following assumptions:
  1. Fiction in general ought to be non-violent.
  2. The videogame medium presents violence in a way that is entirely unlike any other medium.
  3. The videogame medium is inherently suspect, and ought to be an object of concern if it fails to adhere to arbitrary content restrictions.
None of these are exactly intuitive to me.
but the far bigger issue here is a pretty basic one that I haven't seen anybody in mainstream media discussing:
Americans are, and always have been, an incredibly violent society.
You do live here, right? Because I hear this every fucking day. I hear it from liberals bemoaning our lack of gun control. I hear it from conservatives explaining why the lessons of other first world nations' struggles with violent crime are in no way applicable to the middle bit of the North American continent. I hear it when people try to explain away the fact that prisons in the United States hold 25% of all prisoners on planet Earth. I hear it when people insist that thirty years of coordinated violence against abortion providers are spontaneous outpourings of individual zealotry, and not the workings of a well-funded domestic terrorist group. I hear it whenever anyone suggests that trying to improve things is worse than useless.

So I hear it a lot.

[...] Everybody is standing there aghast, wondering which of our media caused all of this violent thinking; nobody's asking why we made them all in the first place. We're a nation of warriors, and most of us don't have a war.
In that case, we ought not be unique in that regard. We have comparatively relaxed standards for violence in mainstream commercial media, just as we have comparatively strict standards for sexual content in mainstream commercial media. But I assure you, with all the confidence my prose can inspire, that Americans produce enormous quantities of pornography, even though our networks won't air it. Media production is a transnational game these days, and citizens' participation in violent media production doesn't easily match up to either that nation's media restrictions or that nation's violent crime. It is perhaps a cheap shot to note that the primary developer of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the iconic violent videogame series for the better part of a decade, is Edinburgh's Rockstar North.
Ask anybody -- go down to Whole Foods and dive-tackle the most liberal-looking person you can find. [...] Put that sucker in a headlock and only release him if he answers the following question truthfully: What do you think of the troops? Just before he passes out, he'll choke out one word: heroes.
The troops are heroes. They protect our freedom. They're making the great sacrifices so we don't have to.
Ok, I'm just going to go out on a limb here and assume that you've never actually met a liberal, but surely you've heard them described in right-wing media? We loathe the troops. We spit on returning veterans, and then erased any historical record of this widespread behavior ever happening. Hell, Massachusetts liberal John Kerry volunteered for service in Vietnam, just so he could come home afterwards and accuse soldiers of war crimes.

Granted, none of these things are true, but I find that American liberals' feelings about the military are pretty complicated. Individual soldiers may be noble patriots, hapless dupes, or kids pushed into a bad situation by endemic poverty. The brass might be soulless monsters, well-paid servants of big business, or a profession like any other, in which people with specialized technical knowledge try to solve complex, dynamic problems, with mixed results. The odd civilian massacre or gang-rape may reflect only the army's failure to sufficiently screen applicants for murderers and rapists, or it may reflect a more insidious tendency toward sadistic violence inherent in all hierarchical social structures. Many of us believe several of these things simultaneously, because we're like that. But I've never met any self-described liberal who would say those last three sentences without irony or qualification. Not one.
[...] But we as a society worship our soldiers as icons, the pinnacles of noble sacrifice, and what is their single identifying trait? Guns. Violence. We're not wrong to praise and respect our soldiers, but in idolizing them, of course we end up wanting to emulate them.
First of all, that's two single identifying traits. One of them is going to have to go. More to the point, there's a reason we refer to soldiers as "men in uniform" rather than "men with guns." Guns are freely available. Any asshole can have a gun, and "men with guns" and its variants are more likely to be applied to criminals. The uniform gets the synecdoche high-five for a highly sensible reason: under the laws of war, the guy in the uniform is legally the only guy you're allowed to kill. The uniform is a target. The difficulty in unpacking these symbols is owed, in part, to the fact that soldiers are not admired for the same reasons they're employed. The function of an army is power, violent coercion as collective action. Soldiers are valuable, in terms of statecraft, for their lethality, and their willingness to employ it impersonally. What is generally admired about soldiers is not their willingness to kill, but their willingness to die trying. Soldiers are venerated because war is scary, dangerous, and traumatic. We're finding, in the last few decades, that neither technological development nor military superiority can entirely alleviate these problems: the shortest, "cleanest" war is still going to ruin an awful lot of lives.

At risk of repetition, "good" is what you want other people to do.

"I wish I were a battle-hardened soldier," thinks the frustrated barista, as disgruntled customers whip room temperature coffee in his face -- not because he wants to shoot people, necessarily, but because soldiers hold the highest societal value to us. His life would have more meaning if he were in the heat of battle instead of crying in a Starbucks bathroom on his breaks.
I've worked in retail before, and in my experience, the ability to commit mass murder is the only sensible reason to fantasize about being a soldier whilst at work. At no point, amid being yelled at by customers over unfair textbook buyback price schedules, did I think to myself, "This would be a lot better if I were in great physical danger, had surrendered a significant portion of my civil rights, and faced jail time or execution if I stop showing up." Which is a needlessly snarky way of saying that this is a very immature way of thinking of war. It sounds very much like the kind of sentiment I would have entertained in my early teens. Looking back, it had less to do with societal value and more with a childish infatuation with death, from either side of the weapon.
We place almost as much value on our doctors, and they, too, save lives, but when it comes time for fantasy, who do we cast ourselves as? When that asshole in front of you in line at the movie theater starts shoving people around, do you imagine knocking his lights out, or rushing up to tend to the victims? Hey, maybe you fantasize about both -- but what's the order? We're punchers first and healers second.
To be fair, it's hard to heal them before you punch them.
Because, like it or not, that's our subconscious archetype of the word "hero": somebody who solves problems with righteous violence.
That isn't our subconscious archetype. That's the literal definition of the word. The etymology goes back a ways, through a few different languages, but "hero" has meant "skilled practitioner of the military arts" for much longer than it has meant anything else. It's since taken on connotations less martial, though sadly no more venereal. This sort of things happens a lot. Two thousand-odd years in, Christianity is still trying to work out a way to synthesize the lamb of God with the Davidic warrior king. This is a philosophical problem, and it's not just older than the assault rifle, it's older than the fucking longbow.
That's what video games are: They are emulators for the systemic violence inherent in our culture. They allow us to hurt a lot of people, to feel that we are effective problem solvers and prolific distributors of sacred punches, all without actually harming anybody.
Even if we restrict the field to action games, this is still a pretty bold claim to make. It's not wrong, but it implies that the near-infinite functions of a game can be reduced to one, and I'm not sure why they ought to be reduced to this one in particular.
Yes, that's pretty fucking sick.
Is it? Really?
But so are human beings in general. Video games are just a symptom, not a cause. The cause is that basic, nasty little idea: "Heroes hurt bad guys."
That's the problem.
That's the idea that gets twisted. Who the villains and the heroes are is a malleable concept: Everybody's the protagonist in the story in their head, or at least the relatable antihero. If they're not Die Hard, butchering terrorists for freedom, then they're the Count of Monte Cristo, doing awful things but for perfectly valid reasons. The roles are flexible, but the way they deal with one another is not.
The identities of the heroes and villains are only malleable from a third-person perspective. Outside of an "objective" frame, they're as immalleable as can be. The second-person is the villain. The first-person, in retaliation, becomes a hero. The fact that this kind of heroism necessitates an a priori villain is, in fact, a problematic thing, and it weighs heavily on the structure of our fiction. It has a lot to tell us about how people looking for an excuse to dominate and oppress might find one, but I think it's a fundamentally different issue than why domination and oppression might be worth doing in the first place.
It's violence. And violence escalates. Somebody shoves you, so you throw a punch. When your back is turned, they throw a rock. You retaliate with a board; they come back with a knife. You come back with a gun, and they -- oh hey! Looks like that confrontation is over. You don't come back anymore when the gun comes out. So confrontations are most easily solved with violence, violence escalates, and right now, guns are at the top of the escalator - all waiting to shoot folks in a nice neat little assembly line.
This is actually pretty sensible, and comes close to something important before veering off into self-congratulatory apologia. He's describing an arms race of sorts, non-fictional processes that do, in fact, happen. Usually between nations or nation-states, or competing species. Usually taking place over generations, or millions of years. Real interpersonal violence rarely plays out so neatly. Similarly, the concept of proportionate response--I'll retaliate with this severity, and no more--can really only be done in the abstract. Human beings are not physiologically equipped to feel "this much fear and no more." So, while we can re-read Graham Allison and ask whether arms races make war more or less likely, we should also be able to agree that this doesn't make any sense at the individual level. Interpersonal violence is inherently unpredictable. The memes described above are not a useful description of how hostile individuals interact with each other, but they are a very useful description of the tropes by which we traditionally dramatize those interactions in fiction.
The solution seems obvious: Why don't we just ban guns? Shit, that was easy. Right?
It's been suggested, yeah.
Well, no:
Guns are only the easiest of the final solutions. Bombs are harder, more technical, and less certain. But ban guns, and you'll find bombs will have taken their place.
Probably not in the same numbers, though. I usually see this argument start with the opposite claim: that bombs are easy to build, and any idiot can do it. And it's true, but for the following caveats:
  1. Any idiot can find instructions to build bombs very easily, but instructions are not a bomb. I can give you a competent explanation of how fission bombs are built, but I still can't build a neutron gun at home.
  2. Bombs are inherently single-use devices, so the only way to know if it's going to work when you want it to is to prototype and test. This is, empirically, a surprisingly effective sort of deterrent. Even evil people generally don't like to do more work than they have to, especially when the work is inherently dangerous. And then there are the evil people who don't mind putting in the extra hours, but aren't that good at math, or aren't quite as dextrous as they'd believed prior to being killed in explosions.
It's a bit of a one-off, though. Moving on.
People love to point out that most other First World nations have a near blanket ban on guns, and their murder rates are so far below America's that you need to lean way back from the chart just to see both of our relative positions.
But that's supposing that America is like other First World nations. We're not. Break those murder statistics down and you'll see that the vast majority of them are gun crimes, but not all. Americans murder with everything -- with cars, with knives, with frozen fish -- whatever's at hand, we'll kill a motherfucker with it, because he needed killing and we're a nation of go-getters.
I'm curious which particular stats are being cited here, but as far as I know it's more or less true. However, without the gun crimes, the difference between the U.S. and the Brand X nation-state is a lot smaller. And, unless I'm mistaken, about what you'd expect from a country with our relative deprivation and lack of a social safety net. As discussed earlier, it's a hell of a lot more complicated than gun control, but it's not fundamentally different than any other violent crime issue. (As there are no numbers in this paragraph, you may, if you like, assume I am mistaken and move on.)
So if the problem isn't our video games or our media, but rather the stories and the roles we idolize, how do we address something so abstract? Well, we can start by consciously thinking about the ways that we teach children moral lessons. No more conventional heroes -- no more knights slaying dragons with swords, or gunslingers dueling at high noon, or martial artists split-kicking time-ninjas in their underwear. Our heroes need to start solving problems with polite but firm discussion and careful planning.
No, our heroes can keep murdering each other, because the murder is half the reason we want heroes in the first place. (We're making some headway on how we feel about heroic rape and heroic child slavery, though, so progress is being made.) We should probably do a better job of explaining that these are works of fiction, and owe their popularity to their ability to provide compelling mediated experiences. I think it would help a lot more to spend some time talking about how non-fictional people solve problems, as well as what the historical outcomes tend to be when people forget that they don't live in a goddamned Michael Bay movie. But he's setting up a joke here, and we'll let him finish.
All right then, I guess we as gamers have only one recourse: We stop denying our role in the larger problem of gun violence altogether.
As citizens, sure. I think that's what why we're all doing these hang-wringing blog posts. As members of a community that seems to produce more than its share of entitled sociopaths, sure, and I hope fans of hard sci-fi and libertarian politics will do the same. But as members of a community that produces media...I'm not sure there's any responsibility left once you've exhausted the first two.
Nobody's buying it anyway.
Really? Because even the politicians can barely manage to pay lip service to the media effects paradigm these days. I mean, there's Conservapedia, and you. And the NRA. But I think LaPierre made it quite clear that, for some reason, only violent media from the early 1990s has a causal relationship with gun violence.
You can spout studies and statistics all you want, and your debate partner will turn around and see a 10-year-old in his living room mowing down a village full of Arabs with a technically accurate machine gun, proudly rattling off the virtues of its fire rate and reload times.
Admittedly, this does sound pretty disturbing. Primarily because it sounds like Robert Brockway has actually met the kid from Looper.
Gamers look ridiculous when we flail about, trying to deny that a fourth grader who understands the benefits of burst fire and knows to hold his breath while sniping is a bit disconcerting.
Are we actually worried that this fourth-grader is going to grow up and become part of a team that engages multiple armed assailants at distances between 200 and 300 meters? Because that's the situation in which understanding the benefits of burst fire is actually going to matter. Ironically, one of my persistent issues with FPSs is that the mode of play is fundamentally ill-equipped to handle anything but Daleks. FPSs are built around iron-sight aiming at a distance--although not so much distance that friction or gravity come into play. the Metal Gear Solid series, while certainly running uncomfortably close to pure gun fetishism in some of the cut-scenes, seems to drill into you pretty quickly that weapons are tools suited to specific situations, and that the avatar is the protagonist, not the weapon. I'm not sure whether or not it's a coincidence that MGS is also famous for crafting puzzles with multiple solutions of varying lethality. I can only say that, after cutting my teeth on the FPS boom in the 90s, it's so refreshing to play games where a machinegun actually feels like overkill. But that's neither here nor there.
Our collective response, as gamers, to the accusation that video games have some connection to real violence should not be: "Nuh uh!"
That would be fantastic. I'm easily seventy or eighty years old these days, and this isn't my first moral panic. I've seen this movie before. Hell, after Columbine, I was in that movie for a while. But "Nuh uh," while perhaps not the best we can do, also isn't inaccurate. The vague talk of a "connection" between a technical process, an artistic medium, and mass murder, isn't particularly harmful, beyond the point that it's a waste of time. It's nonsense, in the sense that it says nothing of substance. What videogames--particularly videogame narratives--share common cause with isn't the problem of persistent gun violence in the United States, but cultural traditions concerning the management of violence, terror, and death. Some aspects of these traditions, like the tendency toward hero(-killer) worship, are as much physiological as they are cultural, and we aren't the only primate species with complicated, hierarchical social relationships. The issues Brockway is talking about here are older than homo sapiens. American gun violence isn't. Neither are any of the other political issues to which it relates.
We need to cop to it, and start thinking of ways to mitigate the consequences.
I'll keep at it. I hope you do, as well.

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