Arts | Internet

August 1, 2008

You'll Be Your Mirror

How videogames reflect the worst aspects of our society.

David Downs

A break in the gunfire brings me out of my trance. I rub the tension out of my eyes, looking back over my shoulder at the clock in my living room. It's past 3 a.m. I cringe inside. So much today will not get done.

Video games are bad. They're worse than having unprotected sex and smoking pot at the same time. The Nintento Wii should come with a Surgeon General's Warning. Metal Gear Online should require a prescription.

Not because games can inspire violence or trigger fatal war flashbacks, like some may say. They're bad because they're a better mirror of how we're bad. A long, hard look into games is a look into the Void of Man itself. Gaming's economics, its industrial secrecy, its arrested development, its blood-drenched history, and its pathological addictiveness make it the best mirror we have into our culture.

Shooting Up

Graphic by Mister Lister.

Let's start with the headlines. The meek nerds have inherited the Earth. The US games industry grossed $18 billion in 2007, versus $9.6 billion for film or $12 billion for recorded music. Nintendo is more important to Japan than Canon or Panasonic, and second only to Toyota.

Games require hundreds of men and $10 million on average to make. This year's blockbusters cost five or ten times that—Grand Theft Auto IV cost around $100 million and Metal Gear Solid 4 reportedly cost at least $50 million. That's chump change when the gross comes in, though. 2007's top grossing film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End took a year to make what GTA IV made in a month: around a billion dollars.

There are more gamers now than ever and the Nintendo Wii is turning them on older and older. "Some day we will all be gamers," the Times Online opines in a recent story. The upcoming September release of Spore and Mercenaries 2, the explosion of casual gaming, as well as the future of mobile gaming—these all indicate that games are ascendant. Yet the industry, like the civilization it reflects, is backwards and corrupt.

The games business has all the secrecy, control, and banality of the movie business of the 1920s, when a few studios ran everything and access to stars, sets, and scripts was tightly controlled. Despite great sites like Gamasutra and Kotaku, there is no real insight into what's going on behind the scenes. There is no TMZ laying low the gods of Warhammer. There is no upskirt shot of director Hideo Kojima. No three-month early leak of Spore. There are no independent gaming juggernauts like a Quentin Tarantino or a Banksy or a Robert Rauschenberg. It's just Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. If you want to play in their sandbox, you pay, and pay big. And that money does not trickle down.

Residuals for voice actors remain unheard-of in gaming because the actor's union has yet to win them. Videogame stars routinely get shafted for their contributions and have gone public in the fight for equity. It's as if Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci went on record the week Casino came out and said, "Yeah, we got stiffed." Michael Hollick, the voice of GTA IV's Niko Bellic, received $100,000 with no residuals for a product that could make hundreds of times that. Metal Gear Solid 4 actor/Watchmen screenwriter David Hayter, who voices the lead role of Old Snake, says he received substantially more than Hollick, but not without a fight.

"They absolutely don't want to pay anything," Hayter tells Gelf. "The only reason I got paid more is I didn't need the job. I had other things to do. But they made Snake the iconic center of the story. Well, they tried to make it Raiden, and the fans freaked out. So they had me back, whereas in the GTA world you'll never see Niko Bellic again and it's a shame."

The industry's classic secrecy and greed extend to the locks on new games and consoles. Some of the most sophisticated digital rights management ever created protects such tepid content as Madden, a product of corporate groupthink that sets a new low for inanity. The real stars of the genre aren't much better. GTA IV, for all its hoopla, is a simple revenge story. Metal Gear 4's submenus for submenus are so clunky they would make Steve Jobs punch a baby.

Pac Man ate dots. Tetris amounted to moving blocks. Twenty years later, innovation has stagnated with Wii's reinvention of table tennis (go play beer pong, people) and the porno-violence of Mercenaries 2—where you can finally blow everything up. The mightiest buzz emanates from the repeatedly delayed, long overdue Spore—an "evolution simulator" created by videogame god-king Will Wright, who invented the Sims.

Spore puts videogame character creation in the hands of the users, so naturally the first thing early adopters did in July was create a plethora of Penis-sauruses and Boobie-monsters. Wright says gaming is still evolving into an art form, and that it's hitting its Cretaceous period. A huge diversification of life awaits, supposedly.

But spend five minutes playing most games online and you'll realize we're still in the primordial ooze. There's no guarantee evolution won't clip us. The degree of cooperation online is laughable. Chaos theorists would be more helpful in terms of strategy than anthropologists. The level of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general ignorance comes straight from the wellspring of hate itself.

Cognitive neuroscientists will tell you we are pre-wired to enjoy sorting Tetris blocks, tracking Mario from left to right, or blowing away some schmuck who never saw it coming. We mainline the baby-crack of fast movement and light right into our retinas. I've spent more than 170 hours inside Call of Duty 4, or a month's work. Games don't cost $60. They cost $60 plus the opportunity cost of the time spent playing them. COD4 can set an average person back $3,200, and yet he'll come back for more.

Games are desire made manifest, our brain's internal reward circuits made art. Given who we are and what we're preprogrammed to like, the inanity and addictiveness of contemporary games seems almost inevitable, like the accretion of galaxies, or the folding of proteins.

We are a nation of the strongest, smartest, quickest people in the history of man, and we are spending our time literally twiddling our thumbs all night because it feels fabulous. In a paper on pseudo-modernism in Philosophy Now, Alan Kirby writes that we've "lashed fantastically sophisticated technology to the pursuit of medieval barbarism" (Assassin's Creed?) and that our destiny is "to suffer the anxiety of getting hit in the cross-fire." Games like Metal Gear Online have bottled that anxiety, and I will give game companies all my money for a fix. Kirby speculates why this is: "Our world is so frightening and seemingly uncontrollable, [it] inevitably feeds a desire to return to the infantile playing with toys." Games "take the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism."

By the time I get my revenge on Nobodyman, it's 4 a.m. And as I stagger to my bed, I can imagine a scenario where the entire enterprise is somehow less insular, exhibits less groupthink, and takes more risk. I imagine games that are more inclusive of women and other races and viewpoints—games that intensely reward cooperation while racism, homophobia, and fraggers get their due. But consciousness soon gives way to dreamscapes of explosions and anxiety, and in my dreams I return to the fray. Games are the best mirror. We simply cannot look away.

(You can check out more of Mister Lister's Gelf graphics at

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Article by David Downs

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