Thursday, February 17, 2011

This Is Quite A Piece Of Work

Not mine, obviously.

I received an e-mail from Carlos Anllo about the Bulletstorm post last week, and his writing is so absolutely sublime that I'm sharing it with you. It's an entirely remarkable piece of writing.

I learned about the existence of Bulletstorm via your blog. After many years of gaming, done mostly on the PC, lately I have come to grow more and more disenchanted with the gaming industry as a whole and, more broadly, with the role it plays for ever-increasing numbers of people as it becomes one of today's main pastimes.

I appreciate your sobering comment on what constitutes "raw sewage" as opposed to raunchy humor. In fact, reading about the features of this particular game I get a very peculiar feeling. It´s like a temporary and fundamental disconnection with reality that has become increasingly prevalent as modern games aim apparently lower and lower in their quest to attract buyers. It's hard to describe - a kind of irreality, like I'm suddenly teleported to a Philip K. Dick-meets-Idiocracy future where the line between parody, social commentary and reality is effectively blurred.

(Amusingly, this is accentuated by the fact that Bulletstorm actually rewards you for targeting your enemies' privates, which of course is an amazingly clever and awesome feature - if your name is Frito Pendejo)

As a long time gamer who regularly uses computer games as a vehicle to promote creative thinking (using titles mostly from the edutainment and adventure market but also popular strategy heavies like Civ IV, Rome: Total War, etc), and is pushing for their insertion in schools in the form of an extra-curricular course, I find statements like the following, by one Hal Levy from one National Youth Rights Association, to be particularly outlandish:
Finally, Hal Levy of National Youth Rights Association says the game has been “praised for encouraging innovative thinking. Bulletstorm involves developing new moves and dispatching of enemies creatively.”
(Source: Wikipedia)

At times like this it is hard for me to imagine we're not being victims of a huge collective prank. Surely we're being had. Never mind the company line from EA, in its own right belonging to a different world governed by different rules, one where everything's fine and peachy, drilled habits and images conveyed through entertainment media do not have any discernable effect on the minds of consumers (kids and adults alike), and the blame can always be graciously laid somewhere else (And on the broader subjects of youth violence and the role our modern entertainment plays in desensitizing and creating addictive patterns, the knee-jerk, blindly partisan attitude adopted by too many gamers remind me instantly of Bob Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore").

But there are times when this general sense of outlandishness hits harder, and then it is Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World that I'm mostly reminded of. You'll recall that the dystopian future this brilliant man envisioned was not one where people lived crushed under the boot of a typical totalitarian regime a lá Orwell. His was a far more terrifiying picture: a future where no books were needed to be burnt, because no books were read anymore, where people would live among pleasure and luxuries, but mentally and emotionally emptied through their addiction to banality, paralized by their need of being perpetually entertained. People without an inner voice or any kind of meaningful concern beyond quenching their immediate thirst for escapism, conditioned irrevocably into a role of audience. An audience that can not even be insulted, for there is nothing left to react to an insult.

How many people, do you reckon, will see the words "Gang Bang" flash across their screens and not feel the least bit like they're being taken by idiots?

I hesitated to bring Huxley up because it can easily be interpreted as a cheap Godwin-like device whenever there's a hint of any doom-and-gloom reading, but the truth is that I'd be interested in what the author of Brave New World Revisited would have to say about our current world and how far we've come (or gone back) in our relation with mass entertainment. Or Bill Waterson, for that matter, now that kids have much, much more than a TV set to claim their time and attention. It's not hard, to me at least, to imagine Calvin's stance on the pervasiveness of stupid content in videogames.

And while my motivation for writing this was sparkled by your comment on the questionable content in Bulletstorm (and does "questionable" retain any meaning when talking about a game that prouds itself in including "blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language and use of alcohol"? There's that sense of irreality again), but it would be unfair to single out an instance in what I believe is an undeniable trend of dumbification not unlike the more spread (and largely accepted) affecting the typical Hollywood summer blockbuster. Earlier I suggested a collective prank; the truth is likely to be as mundane but not as funny. A couple of weeks ago there was news of a study that showed a correlation between kids that spent unreasonable amounts of time playing videogames (I think the study specifically mentioned 10+ hours a day) and generally poor performance in school, along with behavioral problems. Even when common sense would dictate that the link unearthed by the study falls within what can be considered an expected outcome, and even when the very same article explicity stated that this only applied to about a 10% of children subjected to such an extreme sensory overload, the "gaming community" reacted with the intensity and vitriol of a huge nerdrage burst against what was perceived as a vile indictment against their hobby. Suddenly, any attempt to put gaming under scrutiny like any other form of media was parsed by the unruly gaming bunch (and, dismayingly, many gaming "journalists") as a giant neon-flashing "Gaming is Evil" sign.

What are we doing if not replicating the same formal vices we so ardently denounce in others? What exactly has been learned here?

The National Software Association treaded predictable ground with their response -- "you have no proof" being the gist of it, thus emulating tobacco companies in their quest for the ultimate unaccountability.

With all these elements considered, and saving the obvious distances, what, then, is what makes the gaming industry and its stakeholders so self-indulgently deserving of the higher moral ground against Fox News, or any other outfit that makes it its business to regularly and brazenly appeal to the lowest common denominator while twisting facts and deflecting responsabilities, all with the help of a handy militia of screaming zealots apparently incapable of stomaching the slightest criticism, founded or not? How is this not a battle of agendas? You tell me.

I still play games every day, but if being a gamer means siding with such bullshit in the name of a pretended superiority built around having the notion of "fun" as the sole parameter of worth in critical entertainment analysis, then I'll be more than happy to renounce to the moniker as it further and justly conforms to the stereotype of gamers as deluded manchildren.

That is an incredibly eloquent, well-voiced piece of writing--it positively sings. I disagree with him in some cases--and so may you--but that makes it no less brilliant.

He also added this in an additional exchange of e-mails:
I hope it's understood that it's all because I love games, some of my fondest memories come from gaming alone or with friends, and these were enormously stimulating experiences on intellectual, emotional and visceral levels, so my frustration of seeing gaming so often reduced to simply the visceral, in the form of a very deliberate, condescending, studio-packaged crassness traded for a quick buck.

What irks me the most, I guess, is this kind of "omerta" pact in the gaming community at large that you're not to criticize games on any kind of ground beyond fun/mechanics, and anyone actually daring to apply some real-world ethics, logic, values or objections to a particular game is quickly shot down on the accusation of being "unable to discern reality from fantasy" among other delicacies, so it seems that we're to avoid this giant taboo of talking about, eh, human stuff in our games, and all too often I feel we're reduced to babbling about ordinary things like "satisfying combat", "large selection of weapons" and the latest technical feats of such or such engine. Which is all good and dandy in general and of course not all entertainment should be necessarily meaningful, but sometimes some lines are crossed that give you pause and you ask yourself "what am I doing?"

I appreciate and respect writing as a craft, and that, my friends, is craft.

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