"Inspirational" Games

So, I've recently noted that iTunes categorizes all music by overtly Christian artists as “Inspirational”, and sheer inaccuracy of that description has gotten me thinking.

There are very few overtly Christian artists that I listen to on my own time, because I've never been particularly taken with that style of music, but even a rudimentary examination of motives will show that most “Inspirational” music is music for a worship service, so of course it's a little repetitive, and musically simple, it's designed to be sung along to from the get-go.

Except, “Inspirational” is very clearly a genre of music. Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band (look up “Banjo Boy”, it's amazing) are an overtly Christian band, but they're folk and bluegrass, not “Inspirational”.

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that when you (or I, for that matter) hear about “Christian Games”, you probably think of this:

I think the picture says it all.

And yet, what about games that aren't hamfisted? When was the last time you played a game that was about generally Christian worldviews that wasn't awful? Or, even worse, when was the last time you played a game about Christian worldviews at all? The only thing I've ever seen is games that are supposed to represent events of the bible, and make them “fun”. There's a complete gameplay-narrative disconnect.

And yet, a game about the power of forgiveness, the tendency of mankind to drop the ball on their own, and the magnitude of a sacrifice of one person of amazing virtue (all Christian themes, though not exclusively so) could be amazing, as long as whoever is making it realizes it doesn't need to be a first person shooter where David travels through bible stories, and upgrades his sling stones with faith points. It's rather difficult to imbue mechanics with narrative significance (mechanics in this case referring to the most basic building blocks of a game, in the MDA sense, if you don't know what I'm talking about, you can find more information here), but the game world in which you operate in can abide by certain rules consistent with a Christian worldview.

At the moment, the only Christian principle Super 3D Noah's Ark reinforces is that if feed animals, they don't bite you to death. That's... uh, good... I guess?


Playing Columbine

So, just the other day, I saw a documentary called “Playing Columbine”, about Danny Ledonne's “Super Columbine Massacre RPG!”.

Yeah, if you haven't heard of it before, I know what you're thinking. The point of the documentary, also created by Danny Ledonne, is to draw attention to the controversy surrounding the game, most especially its last-minute dump from Slamdance's Guerrilla Gamemaker competition, despite protests from the game competition jury, but more than that, the documentary is about pointing at the role of games as art and the ability (or inability) of violent video games to influence violent behavior.

An important Disclaimer before we get too far:
I have not played this game. It looks like I might need to, but I haven't yet played it, and anything I say about it is gleaned from first hand accounts of people that have, combined with internet research and said documentary. The website for the game can be found at http://www.columbinegame.com/

The point of the game, well, I'll just quote a bit from the “Artist's Statement” found on the website:

“Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, through their furious words and malevolent actions, can be understood as the canaries in the mine—foretelling of an 'apocalypse soon' for those remaining to ponder their deeds. With ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!,’ I present to you one of the darkest days in modern history and ask, 'Are we willing to look in the mirror?'”

Whether or not the game accomplishes this is unclear (certainly for me, having never played it), but the amount of controversy regarding it certainly proves it struck some kind of a nerve, and virtually all mainstream media outlets that caught a whiff of it didn't help.

The detractors of the project generally fall into two parties: The people who feel that allowing a person to participate in recreating the tragedy is reprehensible (the player does, in fact, take on the role of Harris and Klebold), and people who have latched onto this as evidence of the negative impact of violent video games.

To the argument that violent video games encourage violent behavior, I merely need to point out that violent crime has been on a drastic decline in recent years. Small scale cause-and-effect studies don't do much for your cause when correlational evidence is stacked so high against you. Furthermore, playing violent video games, it's been shown, does encourage violent behavior, but as “Playing Columbine” insists, so does watching violent movies and reading violent books. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, even shows that reading polite words causes polite behavior. No more needs to be said about that topic.

(As much as no more needs to be said, have you ever noticed that Video Games are blasted for desensitizing people to violence, and yet, video games that are more graphic, represent violence in a more physically accurate form, are also attacked? Seems a little disingenuous...)

Regarding the responsibility of creating a game that represents the events of Columbine in excruciating detail, I direct your attention to “Elephant” the 2003 Gus Van Sant film about a school shooting. It, too, weathered a great deal of criticism, but has been almost universally critically acclaimed, particularly for its willingness to tackle generally taboo issues. (The name “Elephant” refers to the fact that no one wants to acknowledge the existence of the real problem) The same goes for “Bowling for Columbine” and “Zero Day”. The idea that a game somehow can't explore these themes, if done with artistic responsibility and respect for those involved, is laughable to me.

This is probably a futile endeavor on my part, because I imagine no one who reads this blog legitimately believes that games simply cannot be agents of social change, but I'm tempted to grind it out anyway.

No one would doubt that movies can be agents for social change, and the one quality that games have different from movies is interactivity. Graphics and sound have since become a non-issue. So, how interactive does something have to be to be called a game? Pressing “Play” on your DVD menu doesn't turn “The Dark Knight” into a game. Having to press “Play” every 44 minutes while watching the first season of 24 on DVD doesn't make it a game. You remember those old arcade games, where it was all animated and you only had one button, but you had to hit it at the right time to avoid dying? That's clearly a game, and it's almost entirely you watching things, and there's only one button.

But that's kind of a glib assessment. When you press the button, it has an effect on the course of the story in arcade games, while once the story starts in a movie, the author has complete control, right?

Well... if I go and see a movie, I decide when I'm gonna see the movie, right? If I buy it on DVD, I have control over when I press the button, I have control over how to interpret things, I have control over whether or not I want to keep watching, I have control over whether or not I have to pause it to go take a whiz. I've certainly heard more than one convincing interpretation of “Mulholland Dr.”, but because the person can only ever have a set experience, it can be “art”?

Well, no, that doesn't work either. The demeanor of the film changes significantly if you don't see the cowboy the second time, which is entirely under the control of the viewer. You can't absorb all of the information in one go, and you have to choose what you pay attention to, but that sounds like choices you make in a game. I haven't heard an argument that doesn't boil down to “Games usually aren't artistic, so they can't be artistic”. Even Roger Ebert's critique of games as art only thinly veils his contempt for the average gamer:

But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

But nevertheless, most sensible cultured gamers admit that this critique is not undeserved. Most people don't think of games as art because there are virtually no artistic games.

(It's worth noting that that's why I enjoyed Xenogears so much. It was the first game I remember playing that seemed to have a cinematic sensibility about it. The fully rotatable 3d environments allowed the camera to move during even mundane scenes long before graphics in consoles reached the point of allowing for more than rudimentary cinematography)

And more than artistic purpose, political activism and social responsibility have been largely absent from game creation. Edutainment is there, but none of it is that good. What interests me most about this, however, is the cycle that's emerged about older generations being threatened by the newest development in youth culture. I think the parallel is obvious here: Swing, Rock, Movies in the first place, Grunge, and now it looks like videogames. Are cultural/artistic revolutions occurring with just enough time between them that the older generations forget about when they were the edgy revolutionaries being yelled at by their parents about how they were all going to end up drug addicted rapists? Are the people fighting to have video games, even violent ones, treated as a legitimate artistic medium going to learn their lesson, and not rail against their children about how this time, unlike all the other times, the world is really going to hell in a handbasket?

Eh, it's probably more likely that I'll be a 70 year old man, and filmmaking will have turned into nothing but a vehicle to produce additional “Saw” films, and I'll be yelling at my grandkids about how all they ever do is watch hamfistedly moralizing torture pornography.

I can't wait. =/

The website for Ledonne's film can be found at: http://www.playingcolumbine.com/


Buck Rogers in the 20th Century

I've been doing a lot of work on Buck Rogers lately, reading old Canon, talking about what the appeal is, trying to figure out what, if any, Internet presence is commanded by the name “Buck Rogers”.

Did you know that the original Buck Rogers from the 1920's was the first story to run with the “Man from modern day is frozen in time, wakes up X years in the future”? Buck Rogers was from the modern day, but wakes up in the 25th century after various accidents (depending on the instantiation of the story you're looking at) leave him in suspended animation.

Here's a valuable lesson for writers out there that I learned just recently:

If Buck Rogers is supposed to be a hero, and he is, believe you me, it helps to have a quality that makes him exceptional. Well, that's easy, he's from the 20th century (or possibly the 21st century, I suppose) and he's in the future, that makes him exceptional, but it's just not enough. If I got transported into the 25th century, I would flip the fuck out. Barring some sort of huge catastrophe (which the Buck Rogers universe doesn't provide for) human beings in the 25th century should be better at doing just about everything. I don't know about physical fitness, but more advanced transportation, more advanced weaponry, fewer diseases and genetic defects (gennies, genetically engineered humans, are a staple of the universe), and so forth. Why would a 20th century pilot be able to function meaningfully in this world at all, let alone become a hero and save the day?

The answer is that the 25th century world must have lost something that Buck Rogers, being a hotshot pilot from the 20th century, still has. It can be almost anything, but (and I know this sounds so obvious as to be self-evident, but you'd be surprised) Buck needs, in order to be a hero, some quality that no one else has.

It's kind of a pre-req to being a hero at all, really. I harp on thematic consistency too much as it is, but unless you can answer the question of “what is the singular quality that makes this hero special?”, you're not really telling a story about a hero. You don't need to tell a story about a hero, to be sure, but... might as well know what you've got, right?