Artistic Merit: Video Games and Society at Large

The same day I published my blog post last week I came across an article on IGN which you can read here.  In short, the article was about the controversy surrounding the promotional artwork released fpr the upcoming video game Far Cry 4.  The artwork in question features a man dressed in flamboyantly pink attire with a smug look on his face.  His hand is resting on top of the head of another man dressed in dirty and somewhat ragged clothing.  The implication is obvious: the man in pink is subjugating the other man.  But the internet at large flew into a rage, because they understood it as a blond white man subjugating a native person (the blond man isn’t white by the way, as the creative director of the game has gone on record stating that).

The offending artwork.

The offending artwork.

The problem I have here is that I can’t shake the feeling that if this was artwork for anything besides a video game, it wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much flak.  If this was a movie poster, people would be applauding the portrayal of a man you are clearly supposed to hate.  The man in pink is obviously the villain in the piece, carrying himself with a haughty air.  But that didn’t stop people from condemning the piece, calling it racist and offensive.

I believe that this piece of art being made for a video game in particular is what made it such a target for people.  Because video games are just toys right?  They’re not allowed to address deep subject matter.  They’re solely made for entertainment.  They can’t be deep and thought-provoking, because they’re just childish little things.  What a load of crap.

There are plenty of games that can be just as deep and thought-provoking as a good movie or book, and some that are thought-provoking in ways that go beyond anything movies and books could even hope to touch.  Take the game Journey on the Playstation 3.  The game features you as a vague, robed individual wandering through a vast desert landscape.  But every once in a while, the game will connect you with another random player, who just shows up as another robed figure in the distance.  You can’t talk to each other or communicate in any way.  The only thing you can do is choose to help each other or ignore each other and continue on your separate ways.  Could a movie or a book evoke something even close to that?  I don’t think so.

Journey

Journey

But no one outside of gamers and the gaming media pay much attention to games of this type.  No, they’re more focused on Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, attacking games of their type as “offensive”, “insensitive”, and calling them “murder simulators”.  There exists a double-standard in the United States, where people demand that games prove themselves as a worthy form of expression, but are never actually allowed to.  Any time a game addresses subject matter that’s even a little bit controversial, they are defamed as trashy and unsophisticated.  Make a movie about a school shooting, and you’re  hailed as “visionary” and praised for challenging societal norms.  Make a game about it, and you’re a heartless monster.

And I know that there are people out there who have made controversial games simply for the sake of attention.  I don’t deny that.  The same thing happens with writing and filming.  People will write or film horribly inflammatory things just to get attention.  It happens.  But that’s a human fault, and not the fault of the form they are using.

Art isn’t always pleasant and agreeable.  Art pushes boundaries.  Art offends.  Art stirs controversy.  Art makes you uncomfortable, forces you to acknowledge situations and viewpoints that you may not understand or agree with.   If you want video games to truly be art, then you have to allow them to address subject matter that will make people feel uncomfortable or insecure.  You can’t ask for art to flourish while holding it back.

Until we stop using this double standard and stop holding games to a much stricter set of standards than other forms of media, video games will never be truly allowed to come into their own.  Games are still young as a form of media.  There are plenty of issues with games, much like books and movies when they were first starting out.  But if they can make a movie about people being tortured by a primitive tribe of cannibals (because all primitive tribes are crazy and cannibalistic of course), why can’t a video game even get close to talking about themes of subjugation?

Since there is basically no conclusive volume of evidence linking video games and detrimental behavior (crime has been going down in the last couple decades I might add), there isn’t really a good reason to be so strict with them.  We go through this same dance every time a new form of media takes hold in a society.  The newer generation flocks to it as something new and interesting, and the older generation questions its merits and asserts that it is harmful to the children.  We went through it with television.  We went through it with rock and roll music.  We went through it with rap.  It’s nothing new.

Honestly, in a couple of decades my generation will be the one in charge, which means that video games will most likely cease to be a target of political agendas and conservative concerns.  They will probably be allowed to flourish in their own ways just like any other form of expression.  They will have their own problems just like any other media form, and they will overcome those.  But like movies, not every video game needs to be deep and thought-provoking, or contribute to the artistic debate.  Not every game needs to push the boundaries and revolutionize the way we see them.

Sometimes, a game can just be fun.

And that’s all for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post.  Until then, have a great week everybody.

Author’s Note: Both of the pictures used were taken from IGN,

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s in a Story? The Importance of Narrative Fiction.

Considering how often I like to talk about stories (particularly in video games and the like), I thought I’d take some time to examine why such things even exist.  Why are stories so important to us?  Back at the dawn of our existence, sitting around a campfire, we shared stories of the hunt with our fellow humans.  What is their purpose?  Why do we seem to need them?

Recently some outrage occurred on the internet (big shock right).  It was announced that for the new Star Wars movie they were throwing out most of the expanded universe (essentially stories that exist in some form beyond the movies).  This got some hardcore fans really upset, with some making the comment that they quote “wasted twenty years” reading those books, as if one person or company’s re-evaluation of canonical material immediately invalidates another’s enjoyment of it.  If you enjoyed reading those books, you didn’t waste your time is how I see it.  But it made me wonder, why were people so up in arms about it?  What power do these stories hold, and why are they so important to the people who read them?

We’re going into existential territory this week, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

Escapism

The most obvious reason for the intrinsic value of stories is escapism.  The grind of everyday life can get to us, as it often does.  Sometimes, we need to immerse ourselves in a world not guided by complex social and societal factors, where money isn’t always a constant concern, and where events and people are larger than life.  We want the comfort of a place scripted beforehand, where the events are carefully crafted and constructed by a writer for the enjoyment of the audience.  Nothing goes wrong without intention.  The randomness of the real world does not apply.

Dragons, fairies, heroes and villains, all tropes of a fantasy world that doesn’t abide by the rules of the world we live in.  Whenever we read these books, watch these movies, or play these games, we are visiting an impossible realm of magical proportions.  No one who went and saw Lord of the Rings in theaters thought to themselves “yeah, that’s an accurate depiction of life”.  Realism isn’t usually a primary concern with such things.  The entire point of it is to be fantastic, because that’s what people are drawn to.

The climax of the game Max Payne 3 involves the titular hero taking on an army of private military goons in a Brazilian airport.  Is it realistic?  Oh no.  Is it epic?  Oh yeah.

The climax of the video game Max Payne 3 involves the titular hero taking on an army of private military goons at a Brazilian airport. Is it realistic? Oh no. Is it epic? Oh yeah.

When I fire up a game like Dark Fall or Alan Wake, I don’t go into it analyzing it by real world mechanics.  I don’t question the plausibility of ghosts and the supernatural.  I enjoy the ride, let myself be taken away by the fantastic elements present in the games.  It’s not about how realistic it is, it’s about how enjoyable it is as a form of entertainment.  Sometimes I feel like people forget that, and start over-analyzing all the little details.  Because in the end, no piece of narrative fiction is truly realistic because it’s always scripted in the same ways and never changes, unlike real life (unless you want to get into solipsism in which case, for the love of god, don’t).

Mirror Mirror

Escapism helps explain most of our fascination with stories, but what about those other stories, the ones with characters that aren’t perfectly heroic or morally good?  What about those stories with characters you don’t care for, characters whose actions can cause you to despise them?  Where do their stories fit in, and why are we so fascinated with them?  Why is Walter White’s slow descent into evil in Breaking Bad such a fascinating experience for us?

It has to do with something I like to call the Mirror Effect.  There’s a genre of literature called satire, where the follies and evils of humankind were made to be larger than life and more ridiculous for the sake of pointing them out to the audience.  The story’s purpose in that sense was moralistic, to point out our flaws so that we can better ourselves.  Essentially, it put a mirror up to our society so that we could see in full view the things we ignore or just plain don’t notice in our culture that are considered detrimental by the author.  Satires were especially big during Shakespeare’s era, with many playwrights leaving social commentary peppered throughout their works.

But it’s not just satire that falls under this effect.  Many works that aren’t satires have left their comments on our societal ills.  The 2009 movie District 9 is a clear example, with the story of humans oppressing and mistreating extra-terrestrial refugees a dead ringer for rampant racism that is still present in our modern day.  Stories classified under the horror genre are good at this as well, exposing our very human faults and our capacities for great evil, greater than some of us can even imagine.

The story of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs isn’t just about the main character’s descent into madness and quest for redemption. It’s also about the fear of ourselves, of what we are capable of as a species.

In Walter White’s case, it is a tale of greed and pride gone too far, of vanity that destroys.  At the beginning of Breaking Bad, Walter has a chance to solve his issues without going into the drug trade.  However, for reasons of pride, he chooses to make meth instead of accept charity from people he dislikes.  Walter slowly and surely transforms into a monster, and by the end of Breaking Bad‘s five season run, he has alienated himself from everyone he cares about, and the fault lies directly with him.  But we still understand his choices despite the absolute terror he becomes, because his choices are so flawed but so human at the same time.

The power of narrative fiction to reveal certain truths present within ourselves and our society cannot and should not be denied.  But they can only go so far.  Stories aren’t some mystical magic spell.  They can’t just fix our problems just by existing.  What they can do is point them out to us.  Fiction can be like a signpost, pointing the way to our problems so that we can build our way to the solutions.

Closing Thoughts

In the end though, I think it mostly comes down to entertainment.  Stories are there for us to enjoy.  We like seeing this portrayals of over the top heroes just as much as we like watching the flawed anti-heroes.  We like watching stuff explode and people struggle with issues that are both believable and ridiculous.  We like watching the drama unfold, because it is thrilling for us.

I feel like the people who complain all the time about certain things not being realistic in a movie or television show or whatever are missing the point.  Who cares if that car wouldn’t explode like that in real life?  Who cares if that explosion wouldn’t be that big realistically?  Who cares if that object wouldn’t float that way in space?  It’s entertainment, pure and simple.  If you find yourself spending more time focusing on such tiny details, then I’d say you’re missing the point.  You can think that way if you want, but I feel like you’re just depriving yourself of a good experience over something incredibly inconsequential.

It started with tales around a stone age campfire, progressed through myths and fables, and has since become a multi-billion dollar industry of storytelling, for better or worse.  Storytelling comes as naturally to humans as breathing and walking.  It is fundamental.  It is powerful.  And it is here to stay.

We all have our different ways of enjoying stories, but we enjoy stories nonetheless.  Regardless of our own personal preferences and inclinations, we can all agree on the fact that our love for fictional narratives runs deep down into our history.  We can complain about the state of Hollywood, that the movie industry has become a place for phonies.  We can complain that the video games industry has become too focused on money and budgets.  But the fact remains that despite all that, we will continue to look for new stories to enjoy.  We will continue to indulge our lust for escapism, our almost voyeuristic interest in the lives of fictional people.  Because that is who we are.  We are storytellers.  We are creative.  We are artists.  We are human.

And that’s all for this week.  To access next week’s post, run down a long hallway, narrowly escaping an explosion by diving out a window at the other end.  Until then, have a great week.  See you next Wednesday.

The picture from the video game Max Payne 3 was taken from the Steam store page here.

 

 

 

 

Social Change: The Gay Rights Movement and Why it Matters

For those of you who know me well, my stance on the gay marriage issue is well-known.  It’s one of the few issues I have a hard and clear stance on.  In most things, I like to be somewhat open-ended with my viewpoint, but in this one particular case I staunchly support the gay rights movement despite not being gay myself.  I don’t budge and I don’t second guess myself when it comes to this issue.

Despite it being an ongoing issue, it actually hasn’t been in the media much lately.  Aside from the Arizona law a few months back (which was ceremoniously shut down thankfully), there hasn’t been much in the way of news surrounding the issue.  That’s why I am writing this post, to keep the issue fresh in people’s minds.  We cannot forget that the issue exists, or else we will slide backwards.

So today I’m going to explore my own viewpoint on it.  But before I start, I want to reiterate the fact that what follows is simply my opinion on the matter.

What God Says

The most common thing I’ve heard when it comes to the gay rights debate is that God says this, God says that, the Bible states this, the Bible proclaims that, so on and so forth.  Putting aside the fact that the church and the state are separate entities in this country for a moment, the argument founded under religious principles is inherently flawed.  First off, there wasn’t even a word in Hebrew for “homosexual” at the time much of the Bible was written.  Secondly, most of the time the Bible even refers to something akin to homosexuality it is referring to, at least to my knowledge, male pleasure seekers (read: prostitutes).  So to base your argument around words meant to describe male prostitutes means you are essentially lumping all gay people into one category, and as we all should know, no one likes that.

To label all homosexuals as prostitutes is obviously plain judgmental, but that seems to be what people are doing when they use arguments from the Bible.  Whenever they say “God hates gays” or “homosexuality is a sin” or anything like that, they are essentially saying that all gay people are male prostitutes (apparently lesbians aren’t a thing according to the Bible, sorry ladies).  Now I must admit, I have never read the Bible in its entirety, but I’ve been exposed to enough passages from it to make a reasonable interpretation on its stance on homosexuality.  And as far as I can tell, it has very little to say.

And besides, who in their right mind really believes that God could be that petty?  A being so powerful he created an entire universe, but so narrow-minded that he can’t handle the idea of two same-sex people making googly eyes at each other.  It seems so ridiculous, but that’s how certain Christians view him.  Which is to say nothing of the fact that the Bible has been translated hundreds, if not thousands of times.  So we also have to consider that any references to homosexuality may have been tailored to do so by certain societal forces.

Of course, all of this is really a moot point because of the separation of church and state in this country.  Because yes, marriage is not a uniquely Christian concept.  Marriage has existed all throughout history, even in ages that predate Christianity.

The Secular Factor

But the opposition to gay marriage isn’t uniquely a religious program.  Religion is a major part of it, but there are secular arguments against it.  These arguments are no less important than those based upon faith, and are just as dangerously narrow-minded.

One of the most common ones I hear is that gay marriage is “unnatural”.  Not only is this incredibly presumptuous, but it’s also completely flawed.  We can’t start making distinctions between what is “natural” and what is “unnatural”, because on some level we are all a part of nature.  We can’t escape it, despite how often humanity has tried.  We can make gods, we can presume ourselves to be of divine significance, we can give ourselves purpose.  But regardless, we exist along with everything else on the planet.  We are not separate, we are one with the world at large.

And besides, homosexuality in nature is actually a thing.  Around the turn of the century, homosexuality had been observed in nearly 1,500 species of animals.  So this “sin against nature” actually occurs within nature itself.  Can nature be unnatural?  I’d love to see someone try to make that argument.

I must admit that the scientific evidence surrounding homosexuality in animals is a little confusing.  For example, homosexuality in animals seems to be choice driven at times, or at least driven by an environmental condition where there is a shortage or even absence of opposite-sex partners.  But in humans, it seems to be hard-coded from the start.  And to those who would argue that it’s not I ask only this: who would choose to be a social pariah?  Who would choose to be ostracized by their peers, or disowned by their parents because of their sexual identity?  Who would choose to be a target of bullying and oppression?  Who, I ask.  Who?  Besides a social masochist, I don’t think anyone would.

I’m willing to bet that there are a decent amount of people who wish there was a switch they could flip to not be gay, so that they could avoid all the social backlash.  We live in a country where despite our progressive appearance, we continually harbor prejudiced feelings towards those who are different.  If you look, you will see.  We fear those we don’t understand, and in our minds they are all against us.

“Why can’t they wait?”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a statement like this:

“Well why are they pushing gay marriage so hard?  Can’t they wait until we settle our other issues first?”

No, they can’t.  Because where does it end?  America has always had problems, and it will most likely continue to have problems for as long as it exists.  The fact is that if we tell people to wait until we deal with other issues or until the climate cools down or whatever colorful euphemism you prefer, then we might as well be telling them to not bother at all.  It’s like when you tell someone you don’t particularly care for that you just don’t feel like hanging out tonight because you’ve got other plans.  It might be what you say, but chances are that both of you know exactly what it really means.

You can’t just stop social change once it starts.  That’s not how it works.  When someone or a group of people are unsatisfied with their quality of life, you can’t just tell them to hold on a bit longer because they’ve BEEN holding on for a long time.  They’re sick of it and they want change.  And they won’t stop just because someone better off than them thinks it’s too “controversial” or “unimportant” to deal with at this present time.  Such a course of action is nothing but a stopgap measure.  It’s a way to keep tensions down while not addressing the real issues.  And if they’re been waiting for the better part of two decades at least, then why should they have to wait any longer?

Do you think Martin Luther King Jr. ever considered the possibility of “waiting for a bit longer”?  No way.  He even addressed the idea in the famous letter he wrote while in Birmingham Jail.  He couldn’t stop the masses from demanding equal rights even if he wanted to.  You can’t stop social change once it starts.  It’s an unstoppable force, and there is no immovable object in sight.

Closing Thoughts

All throughout history social change has been opposed by one group or another.  Inevitably, these groups lose the fight because they are the products of a dying age.  They are clinging on to their old ideas of “the way things used to be”.  But change is inevitable.  In much the same way as the leaves change color and fall every year, so too will new generations of Americans bring new ideas to the table.  Their ideas might not always be great, but they’ll come about just the same.  We can’t live our lives if we keep our heels dug in the past.  Eventually, we have to move forward.

And that’s why I care so much about this issue.  I want things to change.  I’m not satisfied with the way things are going, and I probably won’t ever really be satisfied.  There will always be something to debate, something to change.  If history has proven anything, it’s that humans are constantly in a state of flux, trying out new things and new ideas.

The people who are against gay marriage are on the wrong side of history.  Change is coming, there is no doubt about that.  The only thing we can do is speed it up or slow it down, but eventually it will reach its destination.  The only real choice to make is which side you want to be on.  Change isn’t always unstoppable, but when it comes to basic human rights, it is essential.  To fly in the face of such a thing is to fly in the face of common human decency, and I do not say that lightly.  I very rarely take such a hard stance on things, but there is no budging for me.  If you are going to deny someone their human rights, then I will deny your humanity.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  I really do care about this issue a lot.  It’s one of the few things that I get really fired up about, so again, thanks for reading.  Next week’s post probably won’t be as dramatic or intense.

Tune in next Wednesday at noon for a new post.  Until then, have a wonderful week everybody!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem with Gamers

Those of you who read my blog know that I like to talk about video games a lot.  It’s kind of a thing.  It’s a significant part of my life and what I do in my off time when I’m not working or writing.  But there happens to be a major issue as I see with the gaming community in general, and I feel it’s a subject that is worth mentioning on here.

A long time ago, when I first started playing games online, I was not a super outgoing person.  I’m still not, in a lot of ways.  I’m quiet, usually choosing not to say much unless I feel like I have something of substance to add to a conversation.  But when I started playing online, I barely talked to people.  And today, I still hardly talk to people online.  So what changed?  Well, I started not chatting with people in games more not because I was shy, but because a vast majority of gamers, regardless of what gaming system you’re playing on, are generally not nice people.

The amount of hatred and anger I’ve run into while playing games online is just absolutely astounding.  I’m not saying that all online gamers are like that, but a fair number of them are.  The misogyny and racism present in the communities of  games like Call of Duty and Halo is just insane.  I cannot believe how often I’ve heard racial slurs used online.  Sadly enough, I’ve probably learned most of them from playing games online.  But why are so many people like that in games?  What makes them act out that way?  Part of the problem has to do with the nature of the internet as a whole.

The Anonymity Factor

When you’re playing a game online, you craft an online persona for yourself.  Whether you play on Xbox Live, Steam, or some other service, you have to come up with a name for yourself.  Some places (like Steam) have entire profile pages for you to customize.  But there’s no incentive for putting your real life face out there, so very few people did.  If people’s names were actually like their online personas, we’d have a lot of people named along  the “xXSWAGYOLOXx” category.

It's hard to believe that such a pro-America game fosters so much racism in it's online community.  Oh wait, no it's not!  (Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2)

It’s hard to believe that such a pro-America game fosters so much racism in its online community. Oh wait, no it’s not! (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2)

In the end, what this means is that there is no punishment for being mean.  People can do whatever and say whatever they want, and the biggest consequence they get is having their profile banned for X amount of time, sometimes indefinitely if their offenses become too frequent.  But even that’s not a great deterrent, because most people will just create another account to use.  Barring a straight ban of their IP address (basically the address for your specific internet connection), I don’t see a way of stopping that.  There’s virtually no accountability in the internet world, and that is one of its greatest assets and biggest flaws.

Scroll down the page on a Youtube video, and you’ll likely find some amount of hateful speech somewhere.  I remember a music video for a parody song on Youtube where the comment section somehow became a breeding ground for white supremacists to spread their ignorant crap.  How that happened I have no idea, considering the song had absolutely NOTHING to do with race in any way.  But it shows just how often this stuff can crop up on the internet.

Imagine if an alien race came to Earth, and for some completely illogical reason, were only able to tap into the internet and judged us solely on the way we carry ourselves online.  You know what would happen?  Humanity would be obliterated faster than you can say “take me to your leader”.

It’s absolutely jaw-dropping how much hatred gamers can spew at each other online, and frankly I find it easier just to mute people so I don’t have to listen to them rather than try to reason with them.  I’m just lucky I’m a man rather than a woman.  The amount of misogyny present within the gaming community is absurd (NPR has an online story about that, which you can read here).  It’s a shame that it takes a man talking about it before someone will actually listen.  But the bigotry is only one half of the story.

What We Deserve

What surprises me even more is just how entitled we gamers tend to think we are.  Once a few years back someone sent me a link to an online forum where someone was complaining about the game Alan Wake.  He had a picture taken from the game, and he had zoomed in super far to examine the pixels (what every picture is fundamentally made up of).  Apparently, he was upset because the game’s resolution wasn’t exactly what it was supposed to be, not that you ever would have noticed without the super-close up he did.  But anyways, he goes off on some rant, calling the game trash and the developers hacks, so on and so forth.  Never mind the engaging tale of a writer searching for his missing wife because THE PIXELS AREN’T PIXELY ENOUGH!  STOP THE PRESSES, THIS IS IMPORTANT NEWS!!

Alan Wake, betraying gamers since 2010.

Alan Wake, betraying gamers since 2010.

 

We tend to think we deserve more than we do.  We treat the people who create our games like absolute trash, and we don’t treat each other any better.  We think that we’ve somehow earned the right to steal games from developers, and then complain when they did something we didn’t like (which I’ve actually seen happen once when a person posted a video on Youtube featuring footage from a game that wasn’t out yet).  We think we’ve earned the right to carry ourselves in whatever way we want without consequence.

And then we wonder why it’s hard to get new people to play the games we like to play.

Solutions

This is a problem that doesn’t have an easy fix.  In fact, it may not even have a fix.  People are going to continue to say what they want to say, and think what they want to think, regardless of what happens.  And I must admit, I’ve grown rather nihilistic about the whole situation, choosing to play only with close friends most of the time.  I have enough stress in my life without having to go online and hear all the nasty things people sling around at each other, all over something that’s meant to entertain.

Video games are just an outlet.  They do not define the person that plays them.  In much the same way that video games do not cause violence (a viewpoint I will defend to the last), games and the internet do not intrinsically cause people to become sexist, racist, and self-centered jerks.  They only allow a place where people can go to mouth off about whatever they want without any repercussions.  The real issue lies in the people themselves.  In order to make a more friendly environment for us to game in, we have to acknowledge our faults and our inner demons.

This is the only way to stop people from acting out like that.  We can place stiffer punishments on people who pirate games.  We can verbally browbeat people who complain profusely about minor and insignificant things (like PIXELS, FREAKING PIXELS).   We can create mechanisms in games to prevent racist and misogynistic talk.  But until we fix the social issues of our time, we’d only be treating a symptom of a larger problem.

An issue of this magnitude requires the participation of much more than just one person or a group of people.  We all have to set an example for others to follow.  We all have to live a life free from hatred and bigotry, not just for our sake but for the sake of future generations.  We have to stop assuming that we’re entitled to everything.  Only then will the issue be truly solved.  But to get from here to there?  That’s an answer I don’t have, but I will do my part to find it, not just as a fellow video gamer but as a fellow human being.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Next week’s post will have two hundred percent more pixels.  Until then, have a great week everybody.

Author’s Note: All game pictures were taken from their respective Steam store pages.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Alan Wake