Surely by now, you’ve heard of the crisis facing Ferguson, Missouri.
Some say this, some say that. It doesn’t really matter at this point. But what does matter is that the cat’s out of the bag; Pandora’s box is now open. The problem isn’t going to go away.
Even if the riots subside in the coming days, the public has been awakened in a large way to the even bigger issue of racism and violence in the modern world. Even when it hits home.
Specifically in America there are easy ways to point to obvious, clear examples of how racism informs our broader culture. Whether it be the achievement gap, income disparity, or — indeed — the clear and present danger of police brutality, it is hard to deny we do not live in a post-racial society.
Does this have anything to do with video games or the culture we profess to love?
I think it does.
Earlier this year I wrote an article about how games inform people of a sort of expendability amongst certain races. Titles such asBattlefield and Call of Duty were my primary examples.
In it, I argued that these titles have unfortunately used mass caricatures of other races, cultures, and political struggles in a way which allows the gamer to literally murder hundreds if not thousands of faceless enemies. And these enemies, I would wager, most often look very little like them.
Looking at this problem in itself, that might not be a big deal. We’ve always used our media to promote a sort of national identity and games since they were first popularized have used images of the ‘other’ to distinguish us versus them.
Might we ever reconsider that construct? It seems it would be useful to look at this from a more cosmopolitan perspective. Seeing that gaming is an international phenomenon, it might be better to suggest video games themselves took a more neutral perspective when we commit digital mass murder.
Black Ops: Tropes versus All Gamers
It’s pretty hard to think of examples where American video games were explicitly racist in the way we think of media racism. I can’t think of one — even at their most offensive — where you are some sort of Klansman lynching blacks, or a cop killing inner city citizens, or something else equally ridiculous.
But the problem might be a little more insidious.
Think of the latest Call of Duty game, wherein the first enemy is an anti-technology terrorist named Hades.
Hades, obviously, is an enemy. In the story he has committed global atrocities against innocent citizens by means of a multi-faceted international terror attack.
Striking many places simultaneously, he launched the world into a state of chaos which was ultimately repaired by the paramilitary corporation Atlas.
He is a Chechen nationalist and is inarguably driven by a sort of hatred against technological progress, mostly attributed to Western power structures.
But ask yourself a question: why is he Chechen? What’s useful about this in the story?
Call of Duty is a franchise that has the player move from place to place, all around the globe, and in this particular instance at a future state in time. Generally speaking, it is a geopolitical mishmash.
Yet one thing remains consistent in its most normal production. That agents typically associated as enemies in the West are usually cast as enemies in the game.
Again, that’s fine. I’m not upset with this per se.
I do, however, find it very interesting that Chechnya is the origin of Hades. The reason I find this so interesting is because Chechnya is a place so commonly associated with being a birthing place for international terrorism.
Indeed, this may just be the sage learnings of the creators of this story. They may know about the multi-decade struggle the Chechen people have gone through in order to assert parochial sovereignty. They may know about Doku Umarov and other leaders of the Chechen rebellion.
But I’m curious, is Chechnya still a place on September 13th, 2059 when Hades is killed that still embodies this crucial location to modern geopolitical events?
That’s unclear. What is clear is that’s where Hades comes from and he is the enemy at the gates, the one who throws the world into turmoil so that Atlas can come and rebuild.
Thinking of this in another way, I want to use the popular titling of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes versus Women.”
What kind of tropes are we using to build enemies in the digital space? Are they accurate? Are they helpful? Are they even fun to kill?
The Hunger Games and Our Leader, The Mockingjay
That last question might arouse some of you.
What does it mean to be fun to kill?
A counter-example to what I’m saying is the infamous Grand Theft Auto series. Often mischaracterized as a platform to kill cops, hookers, innocent pedestrians, and other social archetypes like this, it is one solid example where you really feel like a criminal and have fun fighting against or within the system.
It is fun to kill cops in GTA. It is fun to kill other people in GTA. It is, simply put, fun to kill in GTA.
Killing is one of those things which civilization has almost universally decried. Wherever you go, killing is generally frowned upon.
So why is it so fun to kill in games? Why is it so fun to watch killing in movies?
The content of that question has led detractors of American media to think games leads us to be more violent, less empathetic, and stimulates the behavior or at least cultivates the mindset of being psychotic.
In fact, it seems that while it’s true it might make our heart rates go up and does indeed stimulate us, it actually leads us to be less aggressive in reality. The jury is still out in full, as studies continue to check on the facts of violent stimulus, but it’s not certain that violent media leads to violent behavior.
Last weekend, the newest Hunger Games movie came out.
It’s not the best in the series and it is basically just tiding us over for the grand finale. But it interestingly focuses on the problem of violence, media propagation, and political forces which use these two things to their benefit.
I’m not going to spoil the story, but at a certain point Katniss—the Girl on Fire—makes it clear she has stepped outside the system and is now an enemy of the state.
When asked the question if she is here to fight with the masses of District 13, she replies, “I am. I will.”
It’s a lot of fun to see a hero like Katniss killing oppressive forces who are clearly on the wrong side of history, oppressing vast groups of people and maintaining imperial control. It’s easy to get caught up in the message of such a movie and feel that you, too, would fight with them.
If Ferguson is any indication, it’s hard to say.
One thing I think is easy to say, however, is that if you understand or can relate to the struggle in The Hunger Games but can’t understand or relate to the problem in Ferguson, you might want to think twice.
Back to GTA, the question lingers— what are we really doing when we are killing people in games?
Obviously, it’s not real. The characters in GTA aren’t actually there. No one is being harmed; no one is being killed.
But I wonder if we can ever actually appreciate the images for what they are. In Call of Duty, for example, it’s hard to imagine that we really ever would. Instead, it’s a lot more fun to mow down infidels as faceless, nameless enemies. Is that a bad thing?
Our Right to Purge: Better Games, Better Gamers
It leads me to wonder further if games could simply do better.
The art of killing is something our media has explored for a very long time and I don’t expect it to stop anytime soon.
Actually, I wouldn’t want it to.
Death is a reality often left unsaid or at least discussed with a measure of reservation. It’s almost like we enjoy pretending it won’t happen to us. Even though it’s the one looming certainty of every human life.
The film The Purge and its sequel Anarchy explored the vital issue of death and murder in a very interesting way. In it, it was suggested that human beings have propensity for murder or violence; in order to quell this, one night during the year all crime including murder is legal.
As a result, the newly revitalized America was going through a golden age.
But what was lingering under the surface is that during these events, the purge itself worked to eradicate poverty and the poor or undesirables systematically. People would by and large kill the most vulnerable and, as a result, those poor fellows wouldn’t be alive to drag down the national statistics.
Is there anything we can gleam from that narrative? I think there is.
My hope in the future is that we continue to allow media to explore the problem of violence, but also seriously couple that with the causes of violence. Causes like hate, racism, nationalism, and the grossly misunderstood problem of inequality.
Rather than having games provide us enemies like Hades who may or may not be predisposed to hate the West, hate technology, and hate other things we treasure or hold dear, I’d rather see us explore it at a deeper level.
Advanced Warfighter, actually, did a good job at this. While Hades is indeed an antagonist in the game, he is secondary. The true villain is Atlas CEO, voiced and acted strongly by movie star Kevin Spacey.
While it didn’t quite go to the level it could have, it helped expose the reality that much global violence comes from the prospect of those who profit from it. Warmongers and racketeers.
Even with this, it’s not enough. We can do a lot better than that.
In the future, it would be nice to see gaming take a step up. Instead of murdering droves of faceless enemies who are typically not white and not American, it would be cool to see plotlines that delve deeper and suggest the realities of the cause of war, racism, and violence overall.
Tropes that make Muslims terrorists, Chinese into sneaky hackers, Russians into drunks or power-lusting maniacs, and other things such as this only make gaming a part of the problem. They don’t offer an alternative vision of reality that, in my opinion, is more true and more real.
I’m not going to take it as far as a lot of people worried or concerned about tropes versus gamers and say we ought to ban or censor games for hateful content. Instead, I want to encourage developers and fans to make or ask for something better.
These types of games are a burden and hurt our culture, making us stupid.
Finally, the problem of Ferguson speaks to some of these issues I’m trying to highlight. It’s amazing to see how the media portrays a group of black men as a vile, ignorant, family of black guerillas . In reality, they’re people. They’re no different than you or me.
It’s about justice. It’s about a right-relationship to the good.
It’s about what’s true. It’s about what’s real.
Don’t judge what you don’t understand; don’t pretend to know experience that you cannot relate to.
Try to sympathize; try to empathize. Try to see the other, whether they are in a game, a movie, or on your television news station as the image and likeness of a human being too.
And try to understand, as best as you can, that even though all lives matter we need to repeat a simple fact: black lives matter. While it may seem obvious, it is not. This is precisely why we need to say it over and over again until you believe it too. That is the problem in a nut shell. Black lives matter.
Though killing can be fun in games, it is not fun in real life.
Images of people are important in shaping our perception of humanity and cultures in general. Instead of purging what’s true and real, let’s purge what’s not.
It’s our right to purge.