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Friday, February 17, 2006

Conversation About Rockstar And Scalping

Shortly after I posted the news that Rockstar sent a cease & desist to an online art site, I got an email from J. Tony, an San Francisco artist who has a blog himself. He had some points about my comments which were solid and merited a full response. I was originally going to paraphrase the correspondance, but it seems more fair to just reprint the emails in their entirety (minus some introduction about Blogger's accounts and such. One will also want to read my complaints about Gun's scalping knife before getting too far down the page.

Tony starts:

What's missing from your post is the fact that the game depicts the player (Dave Beck) as a man kicking a prone, probably dead woman. It isn't just that there is violence, but in this case unwarranted violence against women.

Tha fact that Dave Beck had the counter running was indeed a statement about that violence, examining the place of rewards in video games for violent acts in and of themselves.

You even made a statement about somenthing similar in your post on Scalping in Gun. Would it have been better if there had been a point to the scalping? If you'd gotten points or other rewards for each scalp?

I agree that Rockstar really didn't have a legal leg to stand on in sending the cease and desist letter. This is clearly 100% fair use. Unfortunately, the way the law works currently, actually getting far enough in the legal system to prove fair use can be very, very expensive. I wish Dave Beck had kept the installation up, but at least now I've heard about it (even if I didn't get an opportunity, tasteless as it would be, to see it myself).


I knew critiquing violence in video games would land me in trouble ... Seriously, it's a good point because it's perfectly true, so I responded with more clarification on my two, somewhat opposing, points:

I appreciate the apparent contradiction between my complaint against Gun and my digs against Dave Beck's art. To be honest, I didn't get a chance to see Beck's website nor have I played The Warriors, but it sounds quite a lot like Rockstar's GTA series when it comes to violence.

I do think the distinctions are important. In Rockstar's games, you are playing a thug and criminal. In Gun, you're a western hero. Gun's scalping knife is sold ingame as an upgrade (and not a cheap one), except that it doesn't actually upgrade anything in the game but the violence. To scalp someone in Gun, you have to take a bit of time and risk, but I doubt the same is true for kicking a downed victim.

In other words, for Gun the scalping is an aborted game mechanic which just makes the game unneccessarily gruesome. A gang member kicking a defenseless woman might be immoral and wrong, but it's also thematic.

Would scoring points for the scalps make Gun a better game? Possibly, possibly not. When you first get a chance to buy the knife ... the indians are still faceless savage enemies. So perhaps, if scalp bounties were a part of the game, it could actually have a moral impact on the play.

Would scoring for a defenseless woman in The Warriors make for a better game? I don't really see an argument there.

So if Dave Beck's desire is to illustrate unwarranted violence against women, I'm not sure elevating it to the level of a game mechanic and then boasting about the score is exactly the best method of doing it. Honestly, it feels less like an examination and more like attention whoring.

But that's just me. And like I admit, I haven't seen the art or played the game ... so I'm definately shooting in the dark here and might be completely off-base. For a counter example though, the art project which illustrated real world violent acts a pixel art was to me, a far more poignant and thoughtful look at the blurring between violence, media and games.

However, just because I didn't like the idea doesn't mean I don't support it's right to exist. Like yourself, this seems pretty clearly to be along the lines of fair use. Even it wasn't, if he had improperly used a logo or something ... a C&D seems overkill. But I don't think it's that Rockstar is "afraid portray the violence" in their games, I think they're just tired of unfair representation. Repeatedly showing a five second portion of a game is hardly a complete picture. When 60 Minutes covered Grand Theft Auto, every screenshot was headshot or kick to death. Headshot. Kick to death. Headshot. Kick to death.

Not the best journalism when you edit a game down to it's most violent 1%. And I guess I'd say possibly not the best art either.

Still, it was legal thuggery. It's not like this would have seriously hurt sales. It's not like people don't know these games aren't violent. I suppose they were just trying to manage PR, but if a company is going to make controversial games ... they should be willing to take the body blows and not bully out the little guy.

Thanks for reading,

Did I forget to warn you it got long winded? It did. But hey, we're talking aesthetics here. Now, I really like his response to this, because I think it sorta brings it on home to the real issue at hand ... which is violence and how it impacts us socially:

I really like what you said and think we are pretty much in agreement. The funny thing is that this subject (and the reason this response is so long) is that it all came to a head personally for me last night after I had written that note. I went home after work to find that my 10 year old had played a rather silly and gratuitous game from called "Tactical Assassin". It is a very simple flash game where you play a sniper/assassin with missions to kill various targets. There is no danger to your character, so it pretty much comes down to taking pot-shots at mostly unarmed individuals through a scope. The graphics are simple, but somehow the blood... the only color in an otherwise black and white game... is pretty effective.

Now, I'm sure there are many many many 10 year olds out there to whom this game would be nothing. They'd play it for a while and get bored, and forget about it. My son, however, is not one of these people. Violence of any kind, to humans, animals, or any "feeling" being in literature, film, or games is very upsetting to him. That said, he is also drawn to the "taboo" of playing a game like this, so yesterday, when he came across the game and played it, he was very, very disturbed and yet was also compelled to keep playing, and afterward was very upset. It took a long time to talk him down, to convince him he wasn't a bad person for playing (and even enjoying) a game with violence in it, and to convince him that we, his parents weren't mad at him, but had warned him off such games because we knew he wasn't ready to play them yet.

That all had me thinking a great deal about violence in games last night and this morning, and how it effects different parts of our culture, and made me appreciate the idea behind Dave Beck's piece.

I didn't mind the fact that he reported the score so much... didn't find it so much a boast as simply making sure the actual point of the piece is made even though it has been taken down... just the idea of points awarded for such behavior, and then knowing it was that many points, well... makes a point....

Of course, the only real way Dave Beck's piece's message gets across is if the points were only awarded while someone was actually watching the piece... it shows what length of time people are willing to watch that sort of violence, even taken totally out of the context of the game. If the points were just counted off as long as the site was up, the score is meaningless.

As for the violence being taken out of context of the game and focus on violent games being just on the most violent aspects without any other, more complete coverage, I agree wholeheartedly. I worked at Sega when Bill White appeared before the Senate

( )

to discuss the violence in Mortal Kombat and Night Trap... games that by today's standards are tepid in their representation of violence (actually, at the time I thought they were pretty tepid in both violence and game play... but I did have a thing for Dana Plato... maybe I shouldn't have admitted that). Lieberman and Kohl hammered on Sega and Nintendo for this violence. Night Trap was particularly problematic because the violence in it was way, way, way less than a typical 70's/80's slasher flick that could be shown on late night VHF TV. There wasn't a single thing in that game that couldn't be shown on network television and they made it out to be like an uncut version of Hostel.

For art, however, I feel that taking portions of a game somewhat out of context is OK. For me, art is often about moving things into a new context, showing things in a new light. I don't think Dave Beck was trying to call attention to Rock Star or The Warriors in particular, but to the socially acceptable violence in video game culture in general. I do agree that the pixilated real-life-violence images are some of the most stunning examples of art examining games to date, and are far more effective in their message, and I'd like to see even more work done like that (there's a hell of a lot more craft involved than in making a looping video).

So, basically what the bottom line of this note is that I've been thinking deeply about the issue, and that I think we're mostly in agreement, and I really appreciate your blog.

Cheers and thanks,

Cheers and thanks to you as well, Tony, all excellent points. Not sure there is much more to elucidate on the idea here, there's a couple perspectives which probably can co-habitate pretty well. Once again, head over to to see more of Tony ... and by that I can only refer to the posts where he is shirtless.

I'm actually a little surprised this never got around the gamesphere a little more, since most people love to kick Rockstar ... and this is a pretty obvious egregious act of lawyering (by the way, egregious is my new favorite word). Oh well, I'm in serious need of coffee.

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