Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Seat at the Table

(WARNING: heavily charged political content ahead. Videogame talk toward the end.)

In its November 29 issue, TIME magazine ran a profile of Senator Jim DeMint, R-SC, anointing this Tea Party champion leader of the "Rebel Brigade."

The article - a four-page feature by Michael Crowley and Jay Newton-Small, including the artfully dour full-page portrait of an austere-looking DeMint - is fairly representative of establishment media's fascination with the Tea Party upstarts, attempting to place its subject in the context of a broader social movement that's obviously having a large impact on the political climate. It's a longish feature for a news magazine, pondering the implications of DeMint's growing influence and his crusade against earmarks ("the gateway drug to socialism," as he calls them) for the Republican Party and even the White House.

The piece is solidly written. Except for the part where they take this guy at all seriously.

I'm not talking about the Senator's outright McCarthyish proclamations, like the one above. That's par for the course in today's GOP, and mostly simple anti-Obama posturing at bottom. No, it's this passage, which appears in parentheses in the fourth-to-last paragraph of this ~2,500 - 3,000-word article:

(And while he has recently downplayed social issues, DeMint is as conservative as they come in that regard. Witness his view that gay people or sexually attractive single women should be barred from teaching in public schools.)

Again: this man is a United States Senator.

If you can even begin to unpack the incredibly dense homophobia and misogyny in the Senator's belief, you ought to be awarded an honorary degree in abnormal psychology.

At the risk of breaking Godwin's Law, let's try a quick thought experiment. Replace the word "gay" in the above passage with the word "black." What year would you assume it was? As a corollary question, what color hood would you assume the speaker was wearing?

And as much as I'm sure the proprietors of Am I Hot or Not websites would love fat government contracts, I'm not sure All Sluts Left Behind would be a viably enforceable piece of education legislation.

Let me stress again: the above passage appeared parenthetically about 85-90% of the way through the article.

Reading this piece was like chatting politely with a mildly disagreeable, if civil, acquaintance at a party - only to have him tell you, an hour into your conversation, that stuffing live kittens into the garbage disposal is his favorite pastime. It's unlikely you would seriously consider his views on health care reform or deficit reduction after that little nugget of insight.

When you believe and say crazy fucking hateful things, you do not deserve a seat at the table. This is how adult societies operate.

In America, land of iconoclasts, we elect you to national office instead.

You could chalk up the problem here to Tea Party wackjobbery or irresponsible journalism or an immature political culture whose level of discourse is currently at sub-3rd grade standards. On some level you'd be right on all counts. But I think the issue is deeper.

There is an inexplicable, almost pathological need in American culture, and especially in politics, to resolve the inevitable and frequent cognitive dissonance with a minimum of critical thought. It is enough to believe. The details are trivial.

"Okay, maybe Senator X's views on gay marriage aren't, quote, 'politically correct'," one might say, speaking in the passive-aggressive code of the righteous. "That doesn't mean he doesn't have good ideas on tax policy." It does not enter this hypothetical voter's head that someone who proudly, publicly, and repeatedly spouts baldly illogical and hateful horseshit about one issue has thereby compromised his integrity on all others. (While we're at it, let's agree there is a marked difference between hateful horseshit and dumb crap politicians say all the time.)

The problem becomes trickier when, in the particular synecdoche of party affiliations, one individual's aberrations become representative of an entire group. Senator X is a bigot; therefore bigotry is a hallmark of Senator X's party.

If the preposterous Schwarzenegger vs. EMA Supreme Court case has shown us anything, it's that videogames still don't have a seat at the table. And despite the many indignant cries to the contrary, maybe it's our own damn fault.

I don't have personal experience with many games that present outwardly hateful messages in and of themselves, without the intervention of 12-year-old Future Klan Grand Wizards on Xbox Live. Games have definite issues with gender equality, diversity, jingoism, and maturity amid other concerns; but as far as outward bigotry goes, seems to me there's an awful lot more of that in the movies, on TV, and in political speeches than in videogames. I can think of many games I'd say have "problematic treatments of sexuality," for example, but few that overtly encourage or legitimize bigotry on the level of a Jim DeMint. As a whole, and despite the massive amount of growing they have yet to do, videogames are actually a fairly progressive medium, I suspect. The problem is that nobody outside our little circle realizes this.

The Grand Theft Auto games, for example, are often vilified as the worst examples of virtual degeneracy. Nevermind that such vilifications always entirely neglect to examine the messages behind the degeneracy, or even consider that there might be messages there. When Mom sees Junior blast away half of Liberty City as Niko Bellic, she doesn't stop to think about what Niko's narrative arc could be teaching her son about the futility of revenge or the need to move beyond one's past. She just says, no seat at the table for this filth.

I'm not arguing that Mom is necessarily wrong in this scenario; Junior may not be sophisticated enough to pick up on GTA's messages. GTA's messages may be poorly-conveyed or poorly-crafted. Any given game may, in fact, be crap. Many are. But the majority of games, I'd argue, do not promote hatefulness in and of themselves; like the dumb crap politicians say all the time, they may be stupid or vapid, but they're not usually explicitly hateful. Gears of War is macho and gory as hell, but I don't find anything particularly hateful about it. It's because Mom equates violence or gore with hatefulness - without understanding or examining the functions and motivations for the violence or gore, or the broader context of the genre conventions, developer tendencies, etc. - that games don't have a seat at the table.

Again, it's silly to argue all parents, or gamers for that matter, should become videogame critics. But those of us who do care deeply about games, creator and player alike, should have some responsibility for helping others understand why the games we love might be stupid, but are not hateful.


  1. As someone who's very politically conservative and somewhat socially conservative, I find DeMint's views a bit extreme even for myself. That said, there's a great deal of risk in dismissing something someone says because of one segment of their ideology.

    For instance, one could just as easily argue (from my social perspective) that support of gay marriage is aberrant. Does that mean that person has nothing interesting to say about game design. Of course not.

    Not trying to argue about the DeMint issue in particular--I don't have enough context to judge one way or another--but I dispute the premise.

  2. David,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post. I think you and I are on a different wavelength here.

    Let me try to elaborate on my premise. You say, "there's a great deal of risk in dismissing something someone says because of one segment of their ideology." I entirely agree. Except when that segment of their ideology is hateful, illogical, and dangerous. Hateful thinking and language reveals intellectual and moral laxity that calls into question every other view that individual holds. This is especially problematic for powerful public figures who have a direct impact on public policy, and by extension, people's lives. I hope we can at least agree on that.

    If I'm reading your comment right, you are also implying there's some doubt about my assertion that statements like Senator DeMint's are indeed "hateful." There's an awful lot I could say in response, but I think it might be better if I just suggest you visit to learn more about the very real impact of such ideology, especially when it is institutionalized and legitimized by our government, on people's lives.

    I hope you will continue to read and consider this blog, despite my potentially aberrant views.

  3. "There is an inexplicable, almost pathological need in American culture, and especially in politics, to resolve the inevitable and frequent cognitive dissonance with a minimum of critical thought. It is enough to believe. The details are trivial."

    Well said. It is pathological, deep-seated, and crippling to our culture and to the rest of the world.

    Also, who exactly are these moms who are looking at game violence and assuming it is hate violence? Is there a particular case or example you have in mind?

  4. Actually, yeah. On a recent visit home from college, my brother brought his Xbox to fire up a little Gears on Dad's new flatscreen. My mom - who is not at all a hot-tempered person - was apparently so disgusted she ripped the power cord out of the wall. In her mind the violence itself was a hateful thing; there was no difference between my brother chainsawing a Locust's face in this sci-fi action movie setting, and doing actual violence to a real person.

    I don't think it was necessarily the case that Mom believed the violence was hate violence, but more that she found the act itself so repugnant she couldn't even wait for my brother to power off the console. Since we were kids, she's never liked us enacting violence in videogames; she doesn't like violent action movies, but it's a lot easier for her to swallow us going to Rambo 12 than controlling a character committing acts of violence. I think she's always been worried the desire to simulate violence on screen was really reflective of a desire to commit violence in reality. And in my experience, she's not the only parent out there making that connection.

  5. She should play Gears of War herself and find out just how silly it is. :)

    It was hard for my mom to take violence seriously after she played GTA and found out how cartoony it is when you actually play it. I've also thought of using Lord of the Rings (which she loves) as a gateway to get her to watch Dead Alive, but I dunno if that would work as well.