Thursday, November 19, 2009

more Signs of Cultural Upheaval

The Video Game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has broken every sales record for an entertainment property. We are not talking about video games only, but movies, music, and everything else in the entertainment world. A video game has blown away the competition during a global recession.

This little fact will go largely undigested in mainstream culture. This is after games sales fell dramatically last October from the previous year. Now I have managed to squeeze in a few hours on Modern Warfare 2 between work, the immanent birth of my first child, skating, and applying for a doctoral program. In a nutshell: It Rocks. And pushes the envelope in a way no other game has. The crude ethical problems of games like Grand Theft Auto have nothing on the Russian Airport scene. Discussing it with my hardcore gamer students have resulted in similar impressions. All of us were a bit disturbed by playing an undercover CIA character who has to massacre innocent civilians in an airport in order to protect his cover. Some of us even tried to figure out ways around it, to no avail.

This is extremely disturbing. So disturbing that the developers actually allow you to set up campaign mode with a bypass of the airport massacre. But it got me thinking. More than any other game this game can break long held double standards of our culture just as easily as it breaks sales records.

Why is it ok for actors, and movie makers, writers, and musicians to engage is such flights of fancy, but not the rest of us? In western culture we have long allowed certain exceptions for "artists" because there is a purpose to their work. That's why a child rapist like Polanski should not be prosecuted. Yet he will sneer down at us plebeians for engaging in even a virtual version of violent and unethical behavior. As I walked through the airport slowly killing civilians in a scene perfectly orchestrated to highlight the terror and horror such an event would surely create, coolly shooting down a desperate civilian crawling for safety (the scene even has slow mo moments perfectly copied from Hollywood) it occurred to me that this truly is unhealthy for society and is probably one of the psychological sources of the extreme degrees of privilege and hypocrisy in Hollywood and the Entertainment industry. Actors go one step beyond what I was doing and actually point a real gun and shoot blanks and other live people who reenact these same types of scenes every year for "art." I don't think I will ever play the level again, unless its necessary for the Ethics class we are trying to embed the game in...

But Hollywood is better, more humanitarian. I mean, for gosh sakes, they bleed compassion. They are more human than the rest of us and so its ok for them. One of Tom Friedman's only good ideas in The World is Flat was the equalizing effect technology has on society. Look, we know its not his idea, but its still true. And Modern Warfare 2 is taking this equalizing into its next natural step. Now we can all engage in the same kind of visceral play acting movie stars call "avant garde." How much you wanna bet Rock Star is going to incorporate rape, or something equally ugly into the next iteration of Grand Theft? Because if its ok for Hollywood to simulate rape and other heinous acts then its certainly ok for the rest of us.

Oh Brave new world that has such people in it.

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