It’s what we in the education biz call a teachable moment: an explosive artifact of the media world whacks the piñata of media fears and phobia. Enter the $100 million Grand Theft Auto IV.
A recent discussion at BoingBoing about the new Grand Theft Auto reminds us the obvious but often forgotten axiom that communications are messy (just ask your husband/wife/lover/friends/mother/father/daughter/etc.). Scale doesn’t matter. Not surprisingly the thread is an eclectic treatise on how hipster netizens view media ethics. The most interesting tension is between those making a feminist critique of the game’s misogynistic tendencies and those calling the game social satire. I think the truth lies somewhere between, but the discussion does demonstrate that in an age of postirony (irony with a faux critical pose lacking real substance), it’s hard to be critical without coming across as anti-fun. People are ridiculed if they use big words and theoretical tools to back up their ideas (some commentators derided the use of “patriarchy,” but hey, did the problem of patriarchy somehow magically disappear?), which begs the question, when did being educated become so uncool? Granted, academese can be a kind of inarticulation that obscures a lack of creative thinking or good ideas (and frankly quite boring), but we should be able to say things like patriarchy and militarism without seeming stuck-up.
GTA maneuvers social norms because postirony allows us take pleasure in the politically incorrect, permitting us to dismiss without consequences our own moral standards as frivolous relics of the ’60s. I’m for engaging fantasy, but mindfully, so perhaps we’re in need of a kind of post-postirony, which in the laws of logic, makes a kind of double negative, and hence we return full circle to irony as a rhetoric of social critique (i.e. Dada, Situationism, punk). In the mediated realm irony and humor are often the only way corporate media take on serious issues while maintaining some emotional distance. Recall how the court jester is the one person who can criticize the king without getting his or her head chopped off. Now think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both cultural phenoms on a network owned by one of the world’s biggest media companies, Viacom, and realize that their silly/serious media deconstructions have a bigger educational impact than Fox News (as a PEW study showed).
Navigating media requires traversing a realm of double binds such as real news being fake, and fake news being real. You can add to the list just about every advertising message which has as its subtext the belief that commodities have utopian properties that will transform our mundane lives into magical realms of possibility. To stay sane we require cognitive dissonance, which means holding contradictory beliefs as true (like buying new designer jeans that look old or freedom equals militarism). Mental tools like “truthiness” help us seek moral clarity in a world that has little, yet we sill suffer greatly when we see acts of cruelty played out in the media, video games being an easy target because we associate them with children. But beware of talk about media victimizing children, because kids often become ciphers for adult anxieties of being hijacked by technology. Most adult media critics claiming to represent children are probably masking their own fear of change.
Is it possible to accept the existence of video games as a kind of phenomena on their own terms? Unlike traditional media video games contain problem solving tools that often require people to work together. Moreover, video games have depth and challenges that encourage transgression. In one anecdote from a friend who teaches digital media, he found a clever kid using his taxi in GTA to run over and kill as many people as possible. His rationale? He was testing the stupidity of the game’s AI.
Can video games be used as tools to discover something important about how our minds operate, and where in the spectrum of moral critique our values come from? I don’t suggest making them into Roarshack tests, although that is what GTA has become for many. Nor I’m I calling for solipsism, because we do need a moral compass and social norms that respect people’s rights and integrity. I do feel in many respects that we are as much defined by community as we are by our own internal thought process. We need to go from the Western idea, “I think, therefore I am,” to a more indigenous concept like, “It all thinks, therefore I am.” As such, there should be a space for us to consider the intelligent aspects of video gaming, albeit with an eye towards critical engagement, and explore the potential holographic concepts contained within them.
(A recent book, Gamer Theory, takes a slightly different POV to argue that life in capitalist reality is in itself a gamespace, and that gaming reflects the ideological structure of our world.)
At one point media effects research changed the question from, What do media do to children?, to, What do children do with media? The latter question assumes a lot more agency on the user’s behalf. Media are not just ideological magic bullets that control our thoughts, but can also be a source of gratification. That in itself is not evil, despite what the religious fanatics want us to believe. Still, the rule of the playground stands: it’s always fun until someone gets hurt. But so far I can only vouch for tennis elbow.
I don’t think games like GTA pose a threat to society, but do enrich the complex and entangled debate concerning media effects. Yes, some people are prone to violence and can be pushed over the edge by certain heightened states of nerve stimulation, but I believe most people have a check against that. Still, we should also be able to criticize the game without being attacked as neo-Vicotrians. Play and fantasy should not be considered a threat to the social structure.
When I go to teach my mass media class at the university, my bus passes the Roman Colosseum, built by Emperor Vespasian in his “bread and circuses” campaign to entertain and feed the masses in order to stave off social unrest. It’s a reminder that in ancient times real people were killed for sport, and that was perfectly normal. Now virtual people are killed for entertainment (admittedly our method of aerial bombardment is a kind of “virtual” killing that is very real for its victims), but wouldn’t you agree that in the Old World when there was no mass media people actually killed more often for stupid reasons like honor and the sex lives of rich land owners? (“All wars are sex wars” — The Invisibles) This is a tough argument to make, because immediately WWI and WWII and Nagasaki come to mind, so in certain respects, war deaths have not decreased, they have just been industrialized. Still, again reflecting on the Colosseum, I have the strange, if not naive sensation, that in general the world is a more moral place to live (albeit less than perfect and full of blood thirsty lunatics supported by institutionalized violent pathology), and that it is in direct relationship to ideas about human rights disseminated and normalized by global media.
Truth is, after reading the Buddha’s sutas from over 2500 hundred years ago, I find that people have not changed much. Back then the mind was just as susceptible to greed, ignorance, delusion and confusion as it is today. The difference now is that the feedback system is far greater and involves more people. Frankly, it’s harder to get way with shit. In terms of cosmic cycles, you could say that we’re in a global phase of high metabolism. We amplify and burn more quickly. Trick is, at what point does the organism/system stabilize? Clearly a society that produces GTA for entertainment is in a highly volatile state. However, there are signs from the great GTA Debate that we are edging towards homeostasis. The fact that we have this instantaneous and massive societal debate is certainly an important indication that rather than being brainwashed, many of us still care deeply about the world… and we use the media to voice our opinions.
After Orson Well’s broadcast of War of the Worlds inadvertently produced a panic (recall that HG Well’s classic was recast as a news report), social scientists went back and surveyed listeners to find out what happened. What emerged from their media effects study is that educated people were the least susceptible to believing the broadcast was of a real invasion. Those with strong religious convictions were the most vulnerable. That caveat should remind us that more often than not it’s not the media itself but our own beliefs and education that produce the outcome, media being an element of a far more complex mental ecology than we would admit. If there is one sure thing to be gleaned from this whole exercise, it’s going to be a lot of free marketing for Rockstar, whose $100 million investment is sure to pale in relation to its profits.
PS Check Buzzfeed for the latest in the blogosphere.
Technorati Tags: Grand Theft Auto IV