Mindless Diversions Extra: Video Games and the Death of God

Mindless Diversions Extra: Video Games and the Death of God

I love all those who are like heavy drops falling singly from the dark cloud that hangs over mankind: they prophesy the coming of the lightning and as prophets they perish.

Behold, I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this lightning is called Übermensch.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue

“How much freedom does this game give me?” is a question that a lot of people used to ask in the first few minutes of any given game. Like, if it’s a WWII game and you start out in boot camp, these folks might try to shoot their drill instructor. There are games that refused to let this happen. Like, it didn’t let you pull that trigger until the game started proper. Other games, however, turn this into a non-standard game over. You shoot and are immediately dogpiled. You pull the trigger and find that the gun was empty (though it wouldn’t have been had you played along with target practice). Sometimes, you pull the trigger and it just immediately jumps to “GAME OVER” and it may as well have “JERK” written under that.

Some games don’t let you do bad things in the first place.

Some do.

I got the game Grand Theft Auto III when it first came out. It was the first really sandboxy game I think I’d played to that point. The game started with your prison transport van being blown up because someone very important was also on it. You were some nobody who got double-crossed during a bank heist gone bad. Your transport gets blown up and after the other guy gets extracted, you and some of the other criminals are free to do whatever you want. So you grab a car and drive down the road and find a safehouse to hide in and… the game starts. Your character is pretty good at hotwiring cars but is exceptionally good at straightforward carjacking. You see a car you like, then run up and just grab the driver, throw him to the ground, get behind the wheel, drive off. Easy peasy.

Well, it was early in the game and I still hadn’t mastered the controls just yet (which button is accelerate? Which is brake? How do I get down the road without side-swiping every single car I pass?) and I found that the simple yellow cab was the car easiest for me to drive and, hey, my part of town had one driving past every minute or so. So, one evening, I had picked up a taxi and was driving around, I got to a red light and I stopped. As one does. I looked right and looked left and saw that there was nobody coming so… I just drove through. Nothing happened. No cops came. No wanted stars. It didn’t matter.

I had to put the control down for a bit and I got up to get some water.

God was dead. I was free to do whatever I wanted.

(When I tell this story in person, I usually change the part about getting up to get some water to “I wept.”)

I suppose I should have done a better job at reflecting at how I had no existential problems with walking up to a car and stealing it straight from the driver but experienced an existential crisis from running a red light… but I figure that my brain was doing something more like this: the game was called “Grand Theft Auto” so stealing cars was pretty much baked into the cake. I *KNEW* that the people in the cars were just pixels and sound clips and disappeared the moment they left the rear view mirror.

The traffic lights, though? That was a For Real Convention. Stealing any given car was merely stealing any given car. No choice was involved, really. I wanted a car therefore I took a car. In the same way, driving around and stopping at red lights involved no choice. But driving through the red light? That involved actively choosing to take my foot off of the brake and put it onto the gas and make the left turn that didn’t even matter because nobody was coming. (I looked at the map and I remember, exactly, where it happened. See where the #2 circle is on the Portland map? There.)

Well, the folks that put out Grand Theft Auto III in 2003 have recently put out a little game called Red Dead Redemption 2.

Red Dead Redemption 2 has a *LOT* of characters in it. You can shoot most of these characters, if you’re so inclined. (You can’t draw your weapon when you’re in your home camp, though. So you can’t shoot your immediate friends. Not in camp, anyway.)

The current drama online involves posted YouTube video which has an interaction with a suffragette. She gives an impassioned speech about how she should be allowed to vote and asks the main character about Women’s Suffrage. One of the responses you can give is “anyone who is dumb enough to want to vote should go for it” and she chides you for being a cynic. In a video that has been caused a *LOT* of ink spilled is where the player shows his character finishing the interaction with the suffragette by punching her in the face. (In another video, he kidnaps the suffragette and feeds her to an alligator.)

YouTube banned the guy who uploaded the offensive videos and then reinstated him (whereupon he quickly uploaded *MORE* offensive videos including one titled “deporting a Mexican”).

Now the debate then comes over all sorts of questions:

To what extent was Rockstar asking for this sort of thing by putting the character in the game in the first place?

To what extent is YouTube enabling “hate speech” by allowing content creators to put videos in which they punch out suffragettes (or feed them to alligators)?

To what extent is posting a video of Red Dead Redemption 2 footage showing someone punching a suffragette (or feeding her to an alligator) posting a video of gratuitous violence and/or illegal activity?

I don’t claim to have the competence to answer any of those thorny questions.

But Rockstar has gotten a great deal of criticism for creating games where you can (and, indeed, are expected to) engage in a great deal of violence. And in having (mostly) free reign while out an about in the world, some of that violence is done against women.

This is yet another world that Rockstar created for us and, in it, we have been given a lot of free reign.

We are free to do whatever we want.

(Image is Lightnings by Thomas Bresson. Used under a creative commons license.)

(For Mindless Diversions Extra posts, we don’t have to follow the “no religion/no politics” guidelines for the comments but we still are expected to follow the main site rules.)


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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18 thoughts on “Mindless Diversions Extra: Video Games and the Death of God

  1. I’ve no problem with a game allowing for players to engage in extreme antisocial behavior, as long as it is only against virtual entities (against another player with an IRL counterpart is more problematic). I am of the opinion that it can serve as an outlet for such behavior.

    Putting evidence of the behavior into public forums is a stickier issue.

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    • More often than not, I’ve seen this criticism directly used against games that make a point of the possibility of engaging in antisocial behavior.

      Postal 2 (a game I never played! Let me signal that now!) famously allowed you to engage in violence in “normal” situations. You go to the store and find yourself standing in line behind some of the most annoying people in the world and it’s taking forever.

      Do you want to pick up a shovel and start hitting everybody in line ahead of you? SHOVEL TO THE FACE! WHAM!

      You had the option of just standing in line. Listening to the dialog. Someone finishes, push forward one step in line. Listen some more.

      Now, Postal 2 is an extreme case in that standing in line is not fun and grabbing the shovel and going to town on everybody is fun. (I mean, presumably. The game got greenlit by *SOMEBODY* who thought it would be fun.)

      Same for the Grand Theft Auto games. The ability to hire a lady of the evening to join you in your car and heal you up 25% was an option. The ability to hit anybody when you weren’t in a cutscene was an option (and, if you killed them, you got the money they had on them).

      It’s when you mixed those two options together that people started writing letters to the editor.

      Now, was it the point of the game to kill people on the sidewalk? No. The point of the game may as well have been to tell a story that may as well have been the first draft of one of Donald Westlake’s Parker stories.

      But, lingering in the back, the point of the game was whispering that you *COULD* drive down the sidewalk if you wanted. All you had to do was nudge the control stick just a little to the right. Just a tap.

      That’s what made the games so terrible. (2nd dictionary definition.)

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      • I don’t know how much criticism Rockstar deserves for this particular issue. Not a ton, really. The thing with hookers in the GTA games they deserve rather more, maybe, but it’s a tricky issue to figure out exactly where the boundaries lie. And one way or another you may find something ludicrous or weird or offputting, like a world without children, or, you know, a world with children who will survive a nuclear bomb blast.[1]

        Part of the issue is that most games actually provide really impoverished was to interact mechanically with NPCs in the world for perfectly understandable technical reasons, but mean you can have a few limited conversations, maybe buy something, and maybe inflict violence on them. So what at first may appear like an exercise of radical freedom often to me feels like a real lack of freedom after a little while.

        “I’ve already heard the three sentences this person has to say. I can ignore them or I can murder them. Huh.”

        As for GTA, when GTA IV came around, your PC was portrayed as a somewhat remorseful criminal trying to go straight and failing in the manner of crime dramas everywhere. I remember when I played it I actually took pains to avoid accidentally harming civilians (let alone deliberately going on shotgun rampages or whatever) which… made the game interesting in ways that other GTA games weren’t.

        This was actually turned into a gameplay mechanic in Sleeping Dogs, which is a rather wonderful game, even if I wish they’d done more with that particular aspect of it.

        [1] Fallout 3, thereby sort of undermining one of the themes of the game IMO. Not that I’m much a fan of that particular iteration.

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  2. Wow, that was quick. Thanks.

    I suppose my primary question is answered – the critics aren’t taking things out of context. But the criticism does depend on specific value judgments.

    I also suppose I’m getting old. Violence for edgy transgressive sake was fine and entertaining when I was a twenty something yute at the begining of the century, but now, it seems…not so much immoral, but just hackneyed and stale.

    Eta – Rockstar continuing going to the same well for twenty years very much reminds me of Tarantino going to the same well over the same era. Though in fairness Tarantino does add stuff and mix it up over the course of his career.

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    • One thing is that around the turn of the century there was actually a real constituency for censoring violence (especially in video games) that there isn’t now. I mean even at the time some of the stuff coming down the pike (like the iterations of Postal) were too sophomoric to appeal at all, but there was at least something they were rebelling against?

      Now, not so much.

      It’s not just games, though. There was at least one episode of Hannibal, a network TV show, that featured levels of violence that probably would have gotten a movie an NC-17 in the ’90s. The edge is somewhere very different now.

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      • A few months back, Steam ran into some issues with how they curated games. The Witcher 3 created a point of contention because, well, the game had some racy stuff in it as games go. (Like, not *EXPLICIT* explicit or anything, but stuff that you could imagine that Gen-Xers would set their VCR for on Cinemax back when that was a thing.)

        They opened themselves up to curating more stuff… and then everybody jumped in line with advice on additional stuff that Steam could curate… and then Steam said “you know what? Nope.”

        So now if you’re not illegal and you’re not straight up “trolling” (there was a “school shooter game” that Steam declined to platform), you’re good.

        (Read the official Steam announcement here, if you’re so inclined.)

        Well, this caused a lot of drama among those who wished that Steam would curate aggressively.

        But the question of “what should not be available for me (or other people, I guess) to buy?” is one that is difficult to hammer out. Especially when you know that previous generations would have gotten the answer wrong according to this generation (and, no doubt, future generations will see us as having gotten things just as wrong as we now see previous generations did).

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        • Yeah I mean I’m really not sure where the line should be, and really if Steam is going to do curation, I’d really wish they’d do it with more of an eye towards avoiding broken crap and shovelware asset flips than “content”.

          Especially since they kind of need to make rules, and I doubt they’ll be able to make rules that don’t exclude worthwhile games like Witcher 3 on the basis of being a bit risque.

          Of course, what future generations will think is a whole ‘nother issue. I think releasing a game like Postal now, in this era of generally very permissive media and dismayingly regular mass shootings, would be in abominable taste, but when it came out in the ’90s, there was a bit of a point to it, hamfisted as it was.

          Which again, is a whole different kind of conversation from, “What games should a digital storefront carry?”

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          • Ideally, curration itself is a market maker, and you have distro outlets known for family friendly, all ages games, outlets known for ‘mainstream’ games that handle serious topics seriously, and outlets that indulge the baser instincts of persons (and in turn receive societal, but not governmental push back).

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  3. There’s a concept in psychology called “potential space”, first written about by a man named Winnicot. He talked about the function of play in development. He talked about the function of things like teddy bears and blankets, in that they form a sandbox in which a child can try out different behaviors and see what the consequences are.

    I think that games hit this same spot. They form sandboxes, and players try on behaviors for size, knowing it isn’t real, but all the same, it’s concrete and in front of you. I should say that I’m ok with games doing this stuff, now that I understand it.

    So this stuff is mostly about being able to try out being someone different from yourself. So I favor the response where, if you shoot the DI, everyone else in the platoon shoots you. Because that’s pretty much what would happen.

    As others here have noted, it means something quite different when you post these things to media, expecting a wide audience.

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  4. There’s a big difference, it seems to me, of posting a video of playthru of a game as a mainstream producer designed it, and posting a video of a game with some crazy weird mod. The latter you are definitely telling the world about yourself; I’m not as sure in the former.

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  5. Pillsy comment above makes me consider that this conversation is similar to the one that occured when Hugh Hefner died. He really didn’t change – but society did, as well as the people that were most irritated(?) (vexed? opposed?) to his business and his way of life.

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    • How has society changed?

      How much of a business was T&A back in… what’s a good Hefner year? 1975?

      So I googled “how much money is there in pornography 2018” and got this:

      According to various reports, currently, the porn industry’s net worth is about $97 billion. This money is enough to feed at-least 4.8 billion people a day. Every year, Hollywood releases roughly 600 movies and makes $10 billion in profit. And how much porn industry makes? 13,000 films and close to $15 billion in profit. The porn industry makes more money than Major League Baseball, The NFL and The NBA combined.

      Granted, “pornography” ain’t merely T&A anymore. But business seems to be booming.

      According to Erik Kain’s co-blogger Paul Tassi at Forbes, Red Dead 2 took 12 days to outsell Red Dead 1.

      That number is significant not just because of its sheer size, but because in 12 days it has eclipsed the entire lifetime sales total of the original Red Dead Redemption, which moved 15 million units by the last reported figures.

      According to that same article, GTA V has apparently just crossed the 100 million sales mark.

      If society is changing, it’s changing in the direction of buying more and more while decrying it louder and louder.

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      • I’m guessing ‘net worth’ is something akin to market value or market cap? For comparison, Take Two’s market cap (Rockstar’s parent) is about 12 billion, EA about 27 billion, Activision Blizzard is about 45 billion. (Disney’s market cap is 175 billion). So 97 billion in the scheme of things world wide isn’t a lot. I also question ‘profit’ which even for real Hollywood is legendarily subject to accounting whims. What would be more useful is revenue, which from my understanding is a real power curve thing – especially spread over 13,000 titles, and very spotty IP enforcement (as far as I can tell).

        But that’s my point, I guess. ‘Adult entertainment’ is less stigmatized on some level than it once was, but on another level it’s all getting merged into one blobby mass of I Know It When I Seen It. As compared back in the day, when there were tiers (Playboy > Penthouse > Hustler) and near-field things (i.e. SI swimsuit issue) that used to be ‘acceptable’, for some value of that word, in certain, mostly discrete settings.

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  6. Everything really does go back to the argument between Plato and Aristotle about theater. Aristotle defended poetry and theater on the grounds of catharsis. He believed that people are emotional beings, some of these emotions are dark, and that poetry and theater provide an outlet for the negative emotions that humans have. Plato and other philosophers were not having this. They believed the only way humans could overcome their more negative impulses is through strict emotional discipline. Even indulging them a bit in a form like poetry and theater had to negative a downside. Nearly every form of entertainment has been put through this debate. Currently video games are going through this debate. Do anti-social video games like GTA or Rockstar contribute to the wave of mass shootings or do they create a necessary safety outlet?

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    • When you look at the stuff that survived, it’s difficult not to imagine that Aristotle was defending Aristophanes. (Like, in the same way that we see Dickens defending Punch and Judy shows.)

      I shudder to think what our descendants will be defending.

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      • On the other hand.

        “Aristotle! Look at this vision from the future! A man punches a woman in the face!”

        “Truly a horrible vision of a barbaric society! Can you translate what they are saying?”

        “She argues that she should be allowed to vote!”

        (and now we run into the Monty Python problem of being unable to come up with a punchline that exceeds the setup.)

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