Putting it Out There, or An Attempt at Common Ground on Guns

5 01 2017

This morning, I finished reading an article by Lisa Miller in New York Magazine, an account of a project that brought together people from the extremes of the gun control v. gun rights debate (a woman who watched her daughter be shot to death in a mass shooting and the man that facilitated the auctioning of the gun George Zimmerman used to kill Trayvon Martin, for example). People were paired up with an ideological opposite, and they told each other their stories. Then, in an attempt at “radical empathy,” each person presented their partner’s story to the rest of the group as though it was their own. Instead of “She saw her daughter shot,” it would be “I saw my daughter shot.” Instead of “She was being stalked,” it was “I was being stalked.” It’s an interesting experiment and a worthwhile read, and it got me thinking about my position on the issue – thinking about the places where both sides have common ground that is often ignored, or at least doesn’t get explored in earnest. I’m going to approach this from my side of the argument, of course, but I’m also going to try to acknowledge and explore opposing viewpoints to the best of my ability.

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Mental Illness and Guns, or What Are You Really Saying?

8 10 2015

Yet another mass shooting. Yet another round of the exact same discussions, never seeming to move beyond the same canned responses. It’s so predictable that the president’s response has become a frustrated, angry rundown of exactly what is about to happen instead of a reasonable attempt to prevent more bloodshed. Very much to his credit, President Obama raised a question I’d very much like to hear answered. Why does this only happen here? What makes us so different from every other developed nation? Are we just dumber? Crazier? More violent? What’s the deciding factor? If you insist that it can’t be our gun laws, aren’t you implicitly saying that it must be one of the above?

Then there’s that other frequent response from opponents of gun control – it’s not about guns, it’s about mental illness. This one is pretty reasonable on the surface. After all, it’s really easy (and comforting) for us to look at the people who commit gun violence and say “They must be insane.” It makes sense, right? Even if we grant that that’s correct (which is a problem in and of itself – what qualifies as “insane” for these purposes? What about studies that seem to show that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it? [I have seen such studies mentioned, but I haven’t looked into them myself, so that could be an inaccurate reading]), that just brings up other questions. What does “dealing with mental illness” mean in this context? When Wayne LaPierre calls for a Federal database of the mentally ill, isn’t that a greater violation of liberties than a database of gun owners? Isn’t the fact that such a database would have to be accessible to anyone selling guns an open door to violations of privacy? Again, what constitutes mental illness here? I’ve been on an antidepressant for years – would I be barred from getting a firearm? If a person voluntarily commits themselves, is that evidence of sufficient presence of mind to negate whatever caused them to seek commitment? If a person has ever been institutionalized, or even just underwent therapy, how do they prove that they’re now sane? Can they? How would any of this have stopped Adam Lanza or Chris Harper Mercer from getting their guns? What about Dylann Roof? Was Roof mentally ill, or just full of hate? Is hate a mental illness? It seems like Elliot Rodger and Jared Lee Loughner and James Holmes are poster children for the idea that mentally ill people shouldn’t have access to guns, but where would legislation have stopped them? What about people who are in their right minds when they obtain guns but suffer some kind of acute psychological trauma down the road, like the loss of a job or the dissolution of a marriage? We’ve seen plenty of cases where such people have reacted with gun violence – can legislation somehow intercede there?

In short, what does “dealing with mental health” mean? If we think through it, doesn’t it require massive invasions of things we understand to be private, like medical records? Doesn’t it implicitly create huge new governmental powers? Does Wayne LaPierre really think that’s a good idea? Do you?

EDIT 10/8/2015, 4:56PM – Cleaned up some wording in the first paragraph.
EDIT 10/9/2015, 10:24AM – Corrected spelling of Elliot Rodger’s name.

Changing the Conversation, or There’s No Food in Your Food

25 06 2013

A while back, I read a piece by Patrick Miller from Game Developer magazine’s February 2013 issue (Opinion – Changing the Terms of the Violent Video Game Debate), and it spoke directly to something that had been baking in my head for a while. I’d intended to put together some thoughts about it, but it stubbornly refused to become fully baked. Miller’s piece got me thinking that I needed to just start writing it down and see what happens. I started that process quite a while ago, and here are the results.

In his piece, Miller argues that part of the problem with the eternal discussion and finger-pointing about violence in video games, so recently blamed for mass shootings across the country, is reinforced by the language we use to describe games and the people who play them. “In general, we don’t think of ourselves as ‘Book-Readers’ or ‘Movie-Watchers’ or ‘Music-Listeners.’ But playing games is marketed as an identity; if you play games, you are a Gamer.” Many of us who play and love games voluntarily and readily describe ourselves in a way that makes us a convenient “other.” Sure, you may spend hours getting all three stars on every level in Angry Birds, or you may fret over your win percentage in Solitaire, but you’re not a gamer. A gamer is a person with no social skills, hunched over a keyboard in a dank basement unlit but for the screen and countless unnecessary LEDs on his (always his) very expensive gaming keyboard, gaming mouse, gaming desk chair, gaming carpet, etc. He is always a loner, always frustrated, and always gaming. He is never married, coupled, or happily single, and he’s never snatching a little while to play from the hustle and bustle of a full and satisfying life. He’s always on the outside and always on the edge, pathetic and threatening at the same time.

And the games he plays? As Miller points out, “Video games suffer from an unfortunate rhetorical shift because our genres typically describe what we do, and that kind of makes us look bad when our most popular genre has (first) ‘person shooter’ right there like it’s an aisle at Blockbuster.” This is both a linguistic tic and an expression of video games’ unique proposition. In games, you’re not a passive observer. You are guiding the action, choosing how to address a certain situation. If your player character shoots someone, in almost every situation, you’re the one making the choice to pull the trigger. There is an agency that’s easy to pin to descriptions of gamers as violent. In Grand Theft Auto, the player chooses to be a sociopath, gunning down cops and running over pedestrians with no consequences. In Modern Warfare II‘s infamous “No Russian” level, the gamer chooses to take part in a terrorist attack, killing countless unarmed civilians. In that old chestnut that still gets hauled out as though it’s still the king of the arcades (and arcades are even still a real thing), Mortal Kombat, the player memorizes a complex series of rapid motions and button presses with the sole purpose of ripping out the opponent’s spine, knocking off his or her head, or exploding him or her from the inside – when he or she is already defeated and can’t fight back. These are voluntary actions that, to those reclusive basement-dwelling gamers aren’t just devoid of appropriate horror, they’re fun. Fatalities are the icing on an already violent cake. GTA‘s complete freedom to do violence anywhere and everywhere is its major selling point. There’s essentially nothing to the Call of Duty games beyond shooting people. Granted, “No Russian” was notable because the targets were unarmed, but the player character still racks up incredible body counts with no hesitation whatsoever everywhere else in the game – and that’s just in the single player. At least in that environment, the enemies are obstacles between the player and the completion of a goal, a goal usually presented as incredibly important by the story. In multiplayer, the only goal is killing, with the goal being the achievement of a maximum number of kills so that the whole thing will start over and you’ll get to kill some more. There are objective-based multiplayer modes that take the emphasis off of killing – hold this position, set off this bomb – but there is no sense of purpose to those objectives. You strive to do them in order to get points, but there’s no narrative purpose, and the primary method of achieving them is being more efficient at killing than the enemy.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that any of these scenarios turns players into killers. I don’t believe that. I also happen to greatly enjoy Call of Duty‘s multiplayer, and while my initial foray into Grand Theft Auto 3 way back when started as a principled attempt to drive safely and only kill “the bad guys,” it quickly devolved into bog-standard sociopathic mayhem when I realized that Liberty City doesn’t work that way and isn’t supposed to. Despite these facts, I have never killed anyone in real life.

That gets back to that linguistic tic – what you do in these games defines them, rather than any sense of motivation for your actions or purpose in its presentation. Grand Theft Auto games are “open-world crime games” or “sandbox shooters.” Only in frantic defenses by gamers are they ever referred to as satires and social commentaries, and can you really believe what a gamer has to say? The Call of Duty games started out grounded in the story of World War II, which gave them a greater sense of importance and purpose, even without constant exposition of the larger context. As they’ve moved into more modern settings, the plots have become more directly expressed, and they’ve necessarily gained a lot of complexity to reflect our more globalized and interconnected world, but (and this is the part that seems to fervently resist becoming fully baked) they’re not saying anything. They present chaotic global threats, and there’s a general sense that the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good, but there’s no explanation as to why. In the Treyarch-made Black Ops outings in particular, real history is cribbed from to create scenarios, but they never feel grounded in any sense of the meaning and import of that history. The storyline jumps from place to place and time period to time period so jarringly that no understanding of the facts can be established. Vietnam becomes a theme park ride, completely devoid of any sense of why it was so incredibly scarring to the American psyche. Powerful scenes and ideas are lifted from other pop-culture explorations of topics, like The Deer Hunter‘s Russian Roulette, but the characters are so interchangeable and weightless that these have no real impact. Oliver North shows up for no purpose beyond being able to say “Look, it’s Oliver North! Must be the early ’80s!” Manuel Noriega shows up, and there’s even some light treatment of his… let’s say “contentious” relationship with the US, but the player comes away thinking “that guy sure double-crossed my player character and his pals” rather than “that guy sure is emblematic of the incredibly tangled, convoluted, and often horrifyingly brutal and counterproductive relationship between the United States and everything south of Texas.” The games want to present their antagonists as every bit as uncomplicated and baseline evil as Hitler, even as they crib from incredibly complicated real world events that defy that kind of simplification. And by presenting these realities in a context where the right answer is always shooting someone in the face, they have the potential to change the way players view the world. No, I’m not agreeing that these games will make mass murderers out of gamers. The effect is more insidious. It may shrink their worldview, make complex problems seem utterly simple, and make them believe that the most efficient tool in any given conflict is the headshot.

Luckily, games are emerging (and have always existed) that buck this trend. Bioshock not only gave the player agency in deciding the fate of the Little Sisters, its well-woven storyline played gleefully with the entire notion of player agency in a way that left my jaw hanging open for quite a while after it delivered the big ol’ twist. I haven’t played (and am looking forward to playing) Spec Ops: The Line, but everything I’ve heard about it says it’s a subtle and nuanced analysis of video game violence without becoming preachy, boring, or unpleasant to play. The Assassin’s Creed series is centered on grisly, bloody, up-close-and-personal violence, but it uses dialogue and story elements to explicitly state that killing shouldn’t be taken lightly. Characters repeat that sentiment directly, and the discussions between the assassins and their major targets as the targets lay dying drive home that the targets are people with real lives and their own reasons for doing what they do – reasons that are often all about their own perception of what’s good for others. Rarely, if ever, are they sneeringly evil mustache-twirlers. While adding such cut-scenes to every kill would be impractical from a production standpoint and would utterly ruin the game’s pacing, a lot of work has clearly gone into the presentation of blood. It isn’t the neon-red stuff of Mortal Kombat, spewing forth in great torrents. It is dark, and usually emerges from victims in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jets. It remains on the player character’s clothes for a (brief) time, and as the player navigates the frequent multi-enemy fights, his or her weapon becomes more and more coated in gore – a sensationalist bit of spectacle on some levels, but also a concrete reminder of the injury being inflicted, of the pain being caused. Especially in Assassin’s Creed III, seeing the blood build up on Connor’s club is a visceral nod to the damage it does with each impact. The assassin is also working in pursuit of an incredibly important goal, nothing less than the salvation of all mankind – yet even as that goal is presented in all of its awesome import, the player is frequently reminded that the opposition, the Templars, are seeking the same goal – just in a vastly different (and we are told incorrect) manner. They’re not necessarily evil, they’re just misled. In some cases, as they die, they make pretty convincing arguments for how they were doing good in the world. And yet, in simplest terms, the Assassin’s Creed series lends itself quite directly to the derogatory descriptor “murder simulator,” and probably less grudgingly to the more common name “hack and slash.”

This points to a two-pronged mission that faces the entire video game community and is the responsibility of all of the people within it – people who make games, people who play games, and people who talk about games.

One objective is to change the way we talk about games. We have to be more assertive and vocal. We have to loudly proclaim that the old question of are games art? has been definitively answered in the affirmative and be prepared to offer proofs. We have to refute the simplistic and out-of-date descriptions offered by those who characterize games as childish at best, sociopathic at worst – refute them with examples and counter-arguments, not just invective. We have to take back the public voice of our community from the loud, angry and ugly nonsense offered up by self-proclaimed gamers in response to Anita Sarkeesian’s utterly reasonable and relatively innocuous critical look at gender issues in games.

The other mission is more limited, being primarily the responsibility of those who make games, but those who play them aren’t entirely off the hook here either. The producers need to think more about what their games mean. They need to recognize that a game with a story can’t help but express support for or argue against certain ideas. They need to make themselves aware of how their stories will be perceived, regardless of their intent. The creators of Resident Evil 5 almost certainly meant no harm and were not motivated by racism when they set their game in Africa and created scenarios they found frightening, but it behooved them to look critically at how their choices came across. Treyarch isn’t trying to hurt anyone by presenting the wars of the last century as window dressing for a fun-fair shooting gallery, but they could stand to be a bit more sophisticated in their historical borrowings. Activision and the remnants of Infinity Ward seem to understand this, having brought on Stephen Gaghan, a guy who certainly gets complexity and interconnectedness, to pen the Call of Duty series’ first next-gen outing, Ghosts.

This doesn’t mean that every game has to pass some test of seriousness and political correctness – they certainly do not. I am a great lover of silly action movies, and as I said before, I play a whole lot of Call of Duty – even the Treyarch ones. There is always a place for mindless entertainment, but the people producing it shouldn’t be ignorant of the messages it contains, and wouldn’t it be great if it was offset, even just a little, by smart, mindful options? Hollywood can comfortably include Michael Bay and Merchant Ivory. Games should aspire to the same breadth of content.

The good news is that the games industry is moving in that direction, with lots of indie stuff doing excellent things and exploring big ideas. There are a lot of cool explorations of the mechanics of the medium (Fez‘s 2D/3D switcheroos, Spelunky‘s procedural levels, Minecraft‘s creativity-as-core-mechanic, Braid‘s control of time) and aesthetics (The Unfinished Swan, Limbo). There are cool things going on with story, both in experimental indie explorations of story structure and story as motivation like Dear Esther and just a deeper commitment to the quality of story, like the Insomniac-produced Bioshock outings, Far Cry 3, hopefully the Gaghan-penned Call of Duty: Ghosts, and plenty of other examples. And that’s where the responsibility comes in for people who play games – we need to support this development, and we need to talk about it. We need to understand and discuss where these games succeed and where they fail, both as fun diversions and as art. We need to embrace and defend our beloved medium’s place in society, because, like it or not, we’re not just basement-dwellers anymore. This hobby, this medium, is no longer talking to an exclusive audience, and it’s no longer just ours.