Tuesday, December 28, 2010

GOTY Reason #3: Shifting Perspective

Good mysteries and good horror stories have at least one feature in common: they keep the audience off-balance.

Psycho is the easy example. When the main character can be killed off halfway through the film, the audience is being sent a clear signal - all bets are off. What you thought this film was about? Guess what: Not what it's really about. Or whom it's really about.

This act of shifting narrative focus, when done well, is remarkably effective in engaging the audience. It takes the viewer out of his comfort zone. It forces him to reevaluate his assumptions - about characters, plot events, themes, sometimes even genre. It makes him think critically about the messages he's being sent and asks him to consider how he's being conditioned to respond.

Deadly Premonition is heavily invested in making the player ask questions about what he's experiencing. These obviously start with the player's avatar, York. Namely, why is he so weird? How come he's so oddly nonchalant about these horrible, supernatural goings-on? And who the hell is "Zach," anyways? (At least, who does York think Zach is?) And the biggest question: what does it mean that I, the player, "am" Zach?

York encounters ethereal versions of the Ingram twins in the Red Room.

As I mentioned previously, the fact that York is an unreliable narrator calls into doubt whether any of what we're experiencing is real. Like David Lynch films, the game trades heavily in the symbolic. The combat sequences, which generally take place in the supernatural "Other World," may or may not be figments of York's imagination. Add to that the surreal Red Room and White Room sequences that precede each new chapter, and it's clear the game is demanding a different kind of approach than players are typically used to.

Alan Wake suffers, I think, from too closely approximating a conventional third-person action game; its most successful sequences, to me, were the weirder ones, like the bit near the end with the objects made out of words from Alan's typewriter. Deadly Premonition, on the other hand, only makes at best a half-assed attempt to approximate a conventional action or horror game; viewed as such, it is an abject failure, deserving of the bad reviews. But I don't think it's really interested in doing that. Instead, I think it's appropriating certain action game conventions (and intentionally subverting others) to unsettle the player so that his emotional and intellectual responses are continually off-balance. [And again, and I hope you can see this is not me being an "apologist" but merely acknowledging the obvious, it royally cocks up a lot of those conventions - which have become conventions not necessarily because they're "safe," but because they work.]

Speaking of unsettling: Deadly Premonition takes obvious cues from Twin Peaks, but I would argue the more resonant connection to Lynch is his 1997 film Lost Highway.

It's nearly impossible to describe what Lost Highway is "about," but, like other Lynch films Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, it is a highly figurative and fragmented narrative in which a central character is quite literally a split personality. In each of these films, there occurs a point (or several points) at which the protagonist suddenly "becomes" a totally different person - played by the same actor - in a totally different situation. If there is a narrative logic to this splitting, it is fluid at best; the viewer is compelled to consider the film on a symbolic level, as logic either breaks down or is abandoned entirely.

But what makes Lost Highway, in particular, relevant to Deadly Premonition is the way the splitting of its main character can be read as a psychological defense mechanism. Film critic John Kenneth Muir's brilliant analysis of the film as Lynch's depiction of a "psychogenic fugue, a state of disassociation with oneself," could almost be applied to the game with equal precision. As in other Lynch films, certain events, characters, and details in Deadly Premonition that seem to make no sense at first acquire symbolic and sometimes narrative weight later on.

And, as in Lost Highway, internal conflict is rendered externally, in the physical world. In Lost Highway, the "Mystery Man," played with demented aplomb by Robert Blake, is a manifestation of the main character's growing mental instability. In Deadly Premonition, there are similar physical manifestations of abstract concepts and conflicts, represented by objects, people, and in some cases the environment.

Happy nightmares! Love, future accused murderer Robert Blake.

The fun part of Deadly Premonition, to me, was continually guessing not necessarily what was going to happen, but what the things that were happening represented.

Unlike the Iron Mans or Raiders of the Lost Arks of the gaming world - the Mass Effect 2s and Red Dead Redemptions, the well-produced, beautifully drawn, meticulously play-tested, deservingly-lauded blockbusters - Deadly Premonition is not as interested in telling you a story or having you experience it or having you create it as it is in getting you to think about what it all means. It wants you to shift perspective, to reassess what you thought you were playing and who you thought you were playing as. (In fact, the game literally forces you to shift perspective in a few key segments, though I can't discuss them without getting into spoilers.) Your sense of "agency," that big gaming buzzword, is toyed with throughout, and outright subverted on several occasions.

Just like I don't want every movie I see to be a David Lynch film - my head would asplode! - I don't want every game I play to be Deadly Premonition. But I do want to be challenged to think differently about stories and about games, and that's one of the big reasons Deadly Premonition is my pick for Game of the Year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

GOTY Reason #2: Emotional Investment

It's hard for me to describe this scene without indulging in spoilers, but I want to tell you about my favorite moment in Deadly Premonition.

York has come to Greenvale to investigate the murder of Anna Graham, whose mutilated body was found suspended from a tree, clearly with some kind of sick ritualistic intent. As you might guess, Anna will not be the only victim in this story. Other characters York meets will be slain in similarly grotesque ways by the mysterious Raincoat Killer as well.

And now for the hopefully light spoiler: Toward the end of Chapter 2, there's a tense cutscene in which York saves another would-be victim from a grisly demise with some last-second heroics. Moments later, however, a terrifying accident - or is it, since the victim appears to be almost religiously rapturous about her rapidly impending death? - smashes the rescued individual to bits. It's a sudden and jarring twist, one that I'm sure some players might find darkly funny (or, worse, actually funny). By the time I'd gotten to that point, though, I was just horrified. After another seeming failure, the case was finally turning around. And then...this.

So we come to my favorite moment. York has just pushed budding love interest Emily, the sheriff's deputy, out of the way, saving her life as the victim is crushed under tons of stone. The camera pans from an image of the victim's arm sticking out from the rubble over to Emily's face. And Emily is in shock. Wordless, petrified, near-convulsive shock.

With York, in happier times.

Emily backs away, stumbling, mouth agape. In her expression the player can read any number of terrible realizations, as the young deputy comes to grips with - literally - the viscera of yet another mortifying crime she was unable to prevent.

And all I could think during this unnerving sequence was: Holy shit - shock. I've never seen a game so convincingly portray shock before.

Deadly Premonition is utterly committed to the player's emotional investment in the story and characters. So much so, in fact, that it makes the player role-play as York's alter ego Zach. And unlike most every other computer RPG, this one really does directly assume the player is inhabiting a role in the fiction. Hate to keep harping on this, but again, the "Zach" conceit is remarkably effective in encouraging the player to claim an emotional stake in the story. When a character talks to York, s/he is talking to Zach, too - to you. And after he's done talking to someone, York will ask Zach what he thought, engaging him/you in sometimes lengthy conversations reflecting on what they've just seen and experienced together. In this way the game demands that the player reflect on and emotionally engage with the story and characters in a way other games don't.

Finally, and this is something I'll discuss further in a future post, there are the Red Room and White Room sequences - dream-like intermissions between story chapters where the player explores weird symbolic spaces in York's mind. These scenes, which take obvious cues from David Lynch, build the player's investment in the characters by repurposing them in bizarre, surreal ways. You come out of these sequences saying, one, WTF, and two, why is York seeing [that person/those people] in that way? What could this represent? Are these the "premonitions" of the title, or something more abstract?

Like any piece of fiction, a colorful and interesting set of characters goes a long way toward engaging the audience. Greenvale is populated with an eclectic mix of inhabitants. Some of the more immediately recognizable, besides York and Emily, include amiable rockabilly convenience store owner Keith; his weirdly ethereal twin sons Isaach and Isaiah; traveling tree salesman Forrest Kaysen; kindly, deaf old hotel owner Polly; brusque, adversarial sheriff George; gas-masked, wheelchair-bound, weird-sandwich-loving millionaire Harry and his attendant Michael, who speaks only in rhyme; and SWERY's homage to Twin Peaks' Log Lady, "Roaming" Sigourney the Pot Lady (she carries an actual pot, not the drug).

Like York, the ancillary characters are instantly memorable. And unlike in Alan Wake, that other supernatural horror thriller of 2010, they're not merely props: when one of them turns out to be the next victim, we're genuinely sad, both for the victim and the characters who have to deal with the aftermath. (By contrast, what was Alan's wife's name again? Amy? Sarah? Gertrude? All I remember was the annoying sidekick Barry and the crazy lady with the paint and a bunch of demonic farm equipment.)

Throughout the main story York will gain plenty of revealing insights about his co-investigators, Emily and George, as they share intimate details of their backgrounds. These conversations were some of my favorite moments in the game, as York (and by extension, I, as Zach) begins to understand and empathize with the vulnerabilities of these people. Vulnerability is something most games portray inexpertly, if at all, and yet it's exactly this quality that audiences crave in their characters in order to relate to them.

[A brief aside: while I loved the "recruit your team" conceit of Mass Effect 2 - a phenomenal effort and the clear AAA GOTY pick for me - the vulnerabilities of characters like Jack, Thane, and Miranda rang a little more hollow for me. It's possible this is just because of the sci-fi trappings, but I think it's more likely that while the dialogue is undeniably polished and the production value is flawless, it's all a bit too Hollywood for my taste. One issue could be ME2's dialogue interface: When you can instantly (and, in my case, often inadvertently) replay the exact same lines of dialogue over and over, the emotional impact is necessarily deadened as immersion is broken. I'm not saying those characters' stories aren't rich and engaging; the emotional catharsis at the end of loyalty missions was the real reward for me, not the characters' newly-acquired loyalty. I just think it's more meaningful when there's no "game reward" (e.g. a boosted "loyalty stat") necessarily tied to characterization.]


As difficult as Deadly Premonition's side quest structure can be to parse - some only activate at particular points in the story progression, at certain times of day, and/or are dependent on the weather(!) - taking the time to meet Greenvale's characters and explore their lives can be immensely rewarding. As with any small town, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye. Although some of these tasks may be simple fetch-quest affairs, the player understands that as with a good deal of the "action" sequences in the game, they're means to an end. And that end is often not a tangible reward like a new gun or improved stats, but instead a more intimate view into the strange and fascinating lives of Greenvale's inhabitants.

Characterization as a reward for gameplay may seem an odd inversion of the norm. Usually we "endure" cutscenes, which function simply as context-building mechanisms to build investment in the action sequences that follow. But, like so many aspects of Deadly Premonition, it is precisely because of this subversion that I find the game refreshing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

GOTY Reason #1: Memorable Protagonist

Commander Shepard and John Marston might star in two of the most (rightly) acclaimed games of this year. But both are positively boring compared to FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan.

Call him York. Everyone does.

Clearly based on Twin Peaks' eccentric FBI agent Dale Cooper, York is the hero of Deadly Premonition, the investigator sent to the small northwestern town of Greenvale to solve a brutal murder case.

He's also one of the weirdest and most endearing protagonists I've ever encountered.

SWERY goes out of his way to distinguish his main character in the way a screenwriter might: by giving him instantly memorable quirks. Unlike the gruffly amiable (and inexplicably compliant) Marston or the impassive cipher Shepard, York has any number of recognizable traits and tics that imbue him with a multilayered personality:
  • Signature movements. As in the pic above, he flicks his cigarette lighter open with a confident swagger. He taps his collarbone when he's considering a problem.
And his most distinctive motion: he brings his hand up to his face, as if pressing a phone close to his ear, when he talks to Zach (more on that in a moment). Great actors understand that distinctive motions are often just as effective as words, if not more so, at revealing character. What does Shepard do? Cross his/her arms? Dance poorly?
  • Identifiable interests. Turns out York is a film buff - not surprising, since SWERY studied film in college and his co-writer, Kenji Goda, is in fact a filmmaker. His encyclopedic knowledge of movies, revealed mostly during driving sequences, ranges from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace to the John Hughes oeuvre. And as York discusses films, the player gets a sense of how his analytical mind works, his attention to detail, context, history. By contrast, I don't know what Commander Shepard is into. Fish?
  • An odd mix of the mundane and bizarre. Like many of us, York loves his coffee - but he also reads prophecies in the swirling of the milk. Over dinner with his new friends in the local police force, he casually describes horrific crimes (a man who uses victims' remains as kitchen utensils, a serial rapist with over 800 victims) while enjoying a steak and a beer, oblivious to his companions' shocked reactions. At one point early on, he seems more interested in the taste of a homemade biscuit than the details of the murder case he's investigating. York's odd way of processing information and making seemingly random connections - in a socially awkward way, of course - is reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. His speech patterns are also similarly strange, with resonant ruminations on the case, the town, and life interspersed with incomprehensible and colorful figurative language ("I'm in shock, like a weasel in an electric chair!"). Like Holmes, York's worldview is a combination of the esoteric and the mundane, and like Holmes, he's endearing because of this.
  • A history. I can't get into too much detail here without verging into spoiler territory. But unlike other game protagonists, York's backstory - which is parceled out in tantalizing bits throughout the game - is rich, and, crucially, ambiguous. In one scene, York reveals he used to be a punk rocker in his youth, a lifestyle tellingly incongruous with his current professional, if eccentric, demeanor. It seems an offhand detail that, like so many of the offhand details in the game, simply feels like a whimsical way to flesh out the game world. Yet when you learn exactly what befell York in his childhood, the revelation that he embraced a punk lifestyle as an adolescent is incredibly fitting. (And while we're on the topic, I should mention that almost none of the offhand details in the game are truly "offhand"; most relate back to the story in distinct and interesting ways.) York's dedication to ritual - his morning coffee, his repetitive movements, even his signature greeting "Call me York. Everyone does" - not only makes him relatable, but also provokes questions. Mainly, how did he get this way? Who is he, really? I'm hard-pressed to name a game protagonist I've felt as invested in figuring out.
And then, of course, there's York's most definable characteristic:

  • Split personality. Early in the game you discover that York has an "imaginary friend" he calls Zach, a personality with whom he regularly converses - out loud and in front of others, no less. It becomes clear very quickly that you, as the player, are Zach; there is a sort of bending of the fourth wall as you realize that York is issuing you direct commands ("Just stop the car if there's something you want us to check out, Zach."). I can't stress how unique and interesting I found this conceit. It instantly renders York an unreliable narrator - when's the last time you played a game with one of those? - and gives you the nagging suspicion that some or all of this story may simply be a figment of York's imagination. Since Deadly Premonition is very much interested in playing with what's real and what isn't - and is heavily invested in bringing you into its strange world - employing the "Zach" conceit is a brilliantly tidy way of immersing the player. For a generation of games that prides itself on "immersion," only a few succeed in meaningful ways. The makers of Deadly Premonition understood that while games rich in environmental/incidental storytelling (e.g., BioShock, Red Dead Redemption) can go a long way toward inviting the player to inhabit the game world in an emotionally gripping way, only a protagonist as multifaceted as York.
***
I'll be taking a short break from the series for a couple of days for the holiday, but will do my best to have my next entry up in short order. Meantime, happy holidays!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

7 Reasons Deadly Premonition is GOTY: Introduction

Belieeedat, York.

And believe me: Deadly Premonition is my Game of the Year. Easily. And with all apologies to Danny Weissenberger, who made this call back in July, I'm going to add my voice to his excellent series of articles on the topic. I'll also do my best to keep spoilers to a minimum.

For anyone who hasn't read Danny's articles, here's the brief overview. Deadly Premonition is a third-person detective story by Japanese designer Hidetaka "SWERY 65" Suehiro, released in the US back in February. Sold at the budget price of $19.99, it was both panned and lauded by reviewers. It's gained cult status not only due to the polarizing responses it's provoked, but also because of its unrelentingly strange and oddly charming Twin Peaks-esque story and characters.

For a much better introduction to the game than I can give here, check out this video of Infinite Lag pal Matthew Weise's MIT presentation from a few months back.

Before I get into the 7 Reasons Why DP is my GOTY - which I'll cover in a series of posts, all of which will be linked right here on this page - let's look at the big reasons it shouldn't be.

1. Combat is poorly implemented and thoroughly unnecessary.
2. Driving can be interminable, especially with the anachronistic Resident Evil-style controls.
3. The map, which rotates depending on the direction you are facing and has no zoom levels, is useless.
4. The graphics and animations are sub-PS2 quality, and the sound mix in inconsistent at best, with many instances of cheesy soundtrack music popping up during tonally inappropriate times.
5. The side quests are largely impenetrable affairs, and the game is filled with seemingly tangential objectives and items.

In the series of posts that follow, I'm going to lay out 7 reasons I think these flaws - which are significant, no doubt - are completely worth overlooking. EDIT: All posts are now linked below.

Without further ado:

7 Reasons Deadly Premonition is Game of the Year
1. It features the most memorable and multifaceted protagonist in recent memory.
2. It is fully committed to the player's emotional connection to the characters and reaction to plot events.
3. It plays with the sense of player "agency," shifting perspectives in meaningful ways.
4. It is, like LOST, a patently absurd supernatural story that is nonetheless expertly told.
5. It contains, as SWERY has said, many "lovely useless elements."
6. It is remarkably ambitious in ways big-budget AAA titles can never be.
7. It embraces ambiguity and weirdness, respecting the player's ability and desire to discuss the story and atmosphere without needing a "right answer."

And once you've finished the game, check out this great conversation I had with indie developer Bredon "Switchbreak" Clay, who provides some excellent counterpoints in his own analysis.

Look for a post on each factor over the next few weeks. Until then, do yourself a holiday favor and go pick up a copy, will you?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Murder Simulators


The lights come up on a macabre scene straight out of a Poe story. Decaying castle walls surround the gallows where the blindfolded prisoner, hands bound behind his back, waits for the trapdoor beneath him to open and the noose around his neck to snap taut. To his right a priest in white robes rhythmically bends forward and backward, miming a crude simulacrum of the Last Rites. The executioner, face obscured by a black hood, stands impassive on the prisoner's left, awaiting the signal to throw the lever. The atmosphere is suffused with grim anticipation, a sense of guilty fascination, of morbid curiosity. Something terrible - and, maybe, secretly satisfying - is about to happen.

Eventually the priest stops swaying. There is an interminable pause.

And then, with a sharp crack, the floor opens. The prisoner drops. A thud as his body smacks against the scaffolding. The lights dim as the castle doors close. The scene, like the prisoner, is dead.

And it only cost a quarter.

This grisly scene was one of several contained in the antique coin-operated machines housed at the wonderful and weird Musee Mecanique in San Francisco. One of the highlights of my business trip there earlier this month - aside from hanging out with Gamer Melodico proprietor, musician, Kill Screen contributor, beer connoisseur, and International Cool Dude Kirk Hamilton - was touring this collection at Fisherman's Wharf.

Alongside vintage Pole Position and Star Wars cabinets, one can find an eclectic assortment of antique test-your-love-skill meters, crank-operated moving picture displays (many of the scandalous peep show variety!), pinball tables, photo booths, player pianos, nightmare-inducing laughing puppets, and mechanically-animated dioramas such as the morbid spectacle described above.

The animated scenes range in tone from pedestrian (a depiction of a farm at work) to exotic and salacious ("The Opium Den," pictured above) to surreal ("The Drunkard's Dream," in which mechanical monsters emerge from every dark corner of the wine cellar the drunk has collapsed in).

But most curious, and most genuinely disturbing, were the "execution" machines. Mrs. JPG and I saw at least one other: in this one, clearly inspired by the French Revolution, a criminal was guillotined after being read his Last Rites. Again there was a tense pause before the blade swished down and lopped off his wooden head, which fell neatly into a tiny basket.

It's strange to say, but somehow true: watching these crudely-painted, wire-controlled figurines enact these pantomime executions was far more shocking than nearly any digital murder I've been a party to in a videogame. And I've killed a lot of virtual people.

There is something undeniably grotesque about witnessing a death, real or virtual. Doubly so when that death is an execution. You can't help but feel, looking at this terrible thing, that you bear some small measure of responsibility for its occurrence.

One of the most disturbing images I've ever seen was a grainy .mpeg of the Nick Berg beheading my brother managed to download shortly after the event in 2004. I barely made it through the video before leaving the room. I remember being filled with a palpable disgust, not being able to shake the idea that by viewing this act, I was somehow complicit in it. Maybe that's just latent Catholic guilt, but it's still difficult to get past.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the execution scenes at the Musee Mecanique was the fact that I caused them to happen. I brought those scenes to life with my quarter. It's one thing to view a murder scene; it's another thing entirely to be the cause of it. And unlike most videogame deaths - which have become so fantastically gory, frequent, and inventive as to render them cartoonish parodies - the very crudeness of the Musee scenes, coupled with the awareness that they were explicitly built to showcase real-world "taboo" events, made them all the most resonant.

People who call games like Gears of War "murder simulators" have a poor understanding of the videogame landscape, or a distinct agenda, or (likely) both. The vast majority of videogames, I would argue, do not attempt to present emotionally affecting or even realistic depictions of death. Death is a mechanism by which obstacles to player progress are removed. Gory death animations such as the close-up chainsawing in Gears are, perhaps, intended as sensational rewards for players' displays of skill, and derive most of their impact from that sense of reward, not from the depiction of violence itself.

At a fundamental level, there is little difference between chomping a ghost in Pac-Man and stabbing a mark in Assassin's Creed II, despite the obvious gap in the degree of verisimilitude. I'm not saying the latter game is appropriate for young audiences. But I do find it hard to believe violent videogames make children more prone to violence. (Instead, I think, actual violence makes children more prone to violence. But that's a topic for another post.)

As in a given real world situation - the media's videogame-like depiction of the first Gulf War comes to mind - we find it difficult to empathize when death is presented on an abstracted level. Only humanizing victims, something most videogames fail to even attempt, can inspire that kind of emotional connection. The only videogame death in recent memory that not only intended to evoke genuine emotion in the player, but succeeded brilliantly at doing so, was in Deadly Premonition - a game that would never show up on the cable news radar.

Anyone who's endured a traffic jam caused by rubberneckers on a highway understands a basic fact about humans: we're fascinated by the morbid. This is nothing new: thousands of years of cultural artifacts, both mainstream and subversive, attest to this. The existence of decades-old coin-op execution scenes - with their embedded questions about audience, function, complicity, etc. - speaks volumes about the reactionary discourse around videogame violence in 2010.

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.