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Monday, June 25, 2007

A Culture War Over Fear

In 1972, the Wes Craven horror film The Last House On The Left was released. The plot was a dark contrast to the vampire and werewolf movies of the time. In the film, two girls are raped and tortured to death and the parents exact revenge on their killers. The nature and graphic level of the violence proved highly controversial for the time. The BBFC refused to certify the movie, although later it would appear uncut in video format during the video nasty era.

It also sold quite well at the box office, spawning several clones and even Wes Craven followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes - a distinctly similar movie.

Craven wrote the The Last House On The Left after being deeply influenced by television reports about the Vietnam War.

Now we have another war, more news footage, Abu Ghariab ... and suddenly a new slew of movies which feature rape and torture as their centerpiece (not to mention television serials like 24). The Hills Have Eyes was remade and despite the subject material being of more or less cut from the same cloth as its original and The Last House On The Left, it meets with little or no controversy. A sequel is released the following year.

The BBFC's statement on The Last House On The Left noted the "sadism and cruelty" for dropping the certification. This is precisely the same argument they have made in banning the video game Manhunt 2, now that the film council's domain includes not just film media but interactive media as well - undoubtably to avoid the same "video nasty" loopholes of the 80's.

So as a culture we have accepted our fear of rape and torture as acceptable media when it comes to a flat, non-interactive video. Not when it comes to interactive media, however. The explanation of "to avoid public harm" is probably the same - even though the release of Captivity probably won't cause any street riots. Course, once again, we have no science to prove that the video game would either. So "public good" here is sharing the same narrow focus that it always has.

The Wii has complicated things with its lovely motion controller. Does swinging a controller like a baseball bat make you any more violent in the end than being able to simply push a button? I fail to see any evidence that to nature which means we're simply moving the stick out of pure "common sense". Which is often not common or sensible.

What are we really afraid of?

If the media is meant to be out of the hands of children, then that is one thing. But to assume that a game like Manhunt 2 should simply not be sold at all means that we are completely unable to keep children from spending $60 on inappropriate material or that children would be the only ones interested in the game. The former is debatable but since most purchases for children are made by adults - it seems another argument altogether. The latter isn't really discussed but seems an assumption in the underlying logic. Games are for kids ... so you certainly shouldn't put anything too nasty in there.

This is of course an assumption that fails the basic statistics of video game players. It might pass for common sense in some circles though.

Also, however, it feels like video games are a target because they're a weak mark. Fighting a video game about torture is kinda like fighting torture itself - except much easier and completly ineffectual. Still, a winnable fight is agreeable over no fight at all to some.

We all agree that we don't want innocent or good people to suffer or die - but there is little we can do to stop it. Should someone make a game about the subject, however, we can certainly sharpen our axes. Games are a straw man ... an effigy ... of not just cultural fears over technology and new mediums but the represented material itself.

And yet, if we banned Lolita, pedophilia would remain.

I don't write this as a defense of Manhunt 2 in particular. I played the first for a while, found it a dull repetetive exercise of bashing things in a bloody manner and sent it back. No real desire to play the sequel. Still, just because it is this franchise and Rockstar, the favorite kicking target of many, doesn't mean we shouldn't question the decision in a broader sense. Perhaps the game truly is unfit for consumption - I probably will never know because I probably will never play it.

At the very least we should be allowed more clarity into the decision. What line of cruelty and sadism do we truly feel is unfit for consumption? In some ways every deathmatch game out there is an excercise in sadism - but obviously we can distinct that from putting a plastic bag over a stranger's head.

All I'm saying is that moments like this are worth examining in some detail - so that we can better the conversation so that ten years down the road when some other medium is being banned while Manhunt 4 is released with little fanfare .. we're better equipped for it.


Thomas said...

It is, of course, telling that the people who are often most upset about violence in video games are the same people working in the government to legitimize torture (as the Washington Post's fine expose of Cheney covers today, although certainly both are true across the aisle to a lesser extent).

I find the whole subject matter a little repulsive, personally. But the visceral nature of the medium, in this case, does add a kind of nasty little frisson to the debate. How can people be pro-torture when it comes to actual policy, but against its depiction on a screen where we can (in some cases) squirm at the bloody consequences of the act? Or what does it say if we enjoy the games, but (I would hope) refuse to believe that the US stands for institutionalizing such action?

I don't like torture gameplay, any more than I particularly enjoy 24. But I'm kind of glad that someone's making those games and movies, because I appreciate being able to say "this sickens me, both in the abstract and as a 'game,' and I won't play it." Similarly, I'm not a fan of SCMRPG, but I understand the argument that it is a thought-provoking work, one that I can think about as I choose not to play it.

It's the people who both enjoy this entertainment and disdain the Geneva conventions that truly disturb me.

Josh said...

Priorities, as I say, it is all about the priorities. Whatever you (in the Republican abstract of here I speak, of course) think about what happens between two men in their own bedroom ... it can't trump the atrocities we might be responsible for under our own flag...

And yet my mom knows relatively normal people who simply don't understand what all the fuss is about.