Tuesday, January 3, 2012

super.hype: Sterilized Chaos

Fun is really hard work most of the time. Real Life necessitates it: a night of heavy drinking is always accompanied by a terrible hangover no matter how good of a time you had that night, unless you take the necessary precautions and eat adequate amounts of food and space your drinks out by the hour with glasses of water (but it’s likely that if you had a good time, you were too busy doing that and not drinking glasses of water). Blowing up an old CRT monitor 10 miles from the highway in the middle of Death Valley by stuffing it with 20lbs of Tannerite binary exploding targets and firing a large-caliber rifle at it necessitates being 10 miles away from the highway in the middle of Death Valley to prevent the possibility of stray fragments landing in populated areas or roadways. Having fun, good, explosive, regrettable, coyote ugly-style fun, is annoyingly burdensome.

Not so in videogames.


I was made privy to a certain article in The Atlantic that presents the most recent ad for the most recent Activision title Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. The article lambasts it for trivializing warfare and devaluing the bravery, sacrifice, and seriousness of real life warfare in an attempt to sell a video game. He makes a strong, if somewhat too emotional, argument that stands up pretty well, unless you’re something of a narrowminded misanthrope with a superiority complex.

Fortunately, that isn’t the focus of this post. But THIS ONE IS
While unfortunately slightly “ridicules” in its typographical error content, it's delightfully interesting in its position. “Why games like this are so popular, what need they fill?” is indeed to the more interesting question.

So the focus of this post is then my own answer to that most interesting of questions, and this is me gracefully sidestepping the freight train passing through the living room to focus on its much more interesting origin and destination. Why are games like this popular, and what need do they fill?
The first question is the most contested, and most easily answered. Things are popular because they’re popular. This is true for any number of good or terrible things that happen to become popular at a given time, largely because popularity is a recursive cultural phenomenon: things that are popular because they are popular. This is how things work.
Your sister sees her best friend wear something she likes. She asks her friend where she got that cool or cute little thing, and her friend (unless she is a selfish, petty wench who hates being copied(THIS IS HIGHLY PROBABLE)) graciously tells her. She goes out and buys one, or a few. Now there are two people wearing this…thing. At least one of each of her friends goes out and buys one, and now there are 4, and on and on and on until there is a critical point where so many of the girls in this circle of girlfriends is wearing this thing that it becomes impossible not to consider wearing it, hence leading to the possibility of more people buying it, hence exposing more unsuspecting girlfriends to the idea of considering wearing it, hence the possibility of more people buying it, etc., etc., etc. all the way down the rabbit hole.
Is this thing good? Does it have any “real” merit? Does it have any “purely good” quality? No one knows, but everyone must have it. This is the answer to question #1.
The obvious psychological issues that arise in the preceding scenario are actually question 2. What need does this thing fill? It’s this question that actually has an object-specific answer: A finite thing can only fill a finite number of needs.
Well, then what’s my answer to question #2?
A videogame, like many other things that we pay money for, is part service. I used to like to argue that only things that existed deserved compensation, basically products. The argument, aside from being immature, was also very negative: it focused on my perceived negative space of services versus the positive material existence of products. Products, by virtue of their reality and space-consumption, required a real, physical input to produce its real, physical output. Service, on the other hand, was nebulous, intangible, and subjective, things that were difficult to quantify absolutely and thus easy to criticize objectively.
If you too hold this view, allow me to lead you through the following personal experience which thence disabused me of it.
I enjoy a good cup of coffee. Its aromatic, wafty presence strikes a chord in my cold, morning heart and does more than just warm me up and pep up my step; it cleanses me. It renews me. I’m not a coffee connoisseur (coffeeiseur) by any means, but I know how to make a cup of coffee. The problem is, I’m not very clean when I do. I make a mess (this is true for far too many thing in my life, not just coffee). But it often doesn’t stop me from making coffee, mostly because the cost of doing so is considerably less than going out and getting some coffee from some overpriced coffee shop with an impressionistic naga/mermaid logo. I paid for the products alone: water, electricity, beans (or grounds, I’m not picky). I supplied the labor, and that was it.
My weekly consumption of coffee over 2 months was approximately $1.15/day. It varied depending on the brand of store-bought coffee, but I ended up settling on a rather middling one, bringing me to my current price. I didn’t drink coffee everyday, nor did I only ever drink 1 cup a day (it’s an average, man. Okay?) I was plenty happy with this set up for the foreseeable future. Until someone gave me an Americano.
The Caffe Americano is the Italian interpretation of our crude form of caffeine ingestion. It’s ingenious. Take standard coffee grounds, force steaming hot water through it and you have espresso. Add about 6-8 oz. of hot water and you have a Caffe Americano. Not only does it contain less caffeine, it is less caloric and more flavorful than a standard drip-brewed cup of good ‘ol fashioned American Coffee. All for the low, low price of $1.45 a cup.

But wait, you ask, isn’t that 30¢ more than your own sweat-n-blood style American Coffee? Yes, sir or madam, yes it is. And that's okay by me.
For a measly 30¢ more per cup (and with fastidiousness, per day), I can have a rich, aromatic, delicious, satisfying, cup of high-quality, fresh-brewed caffeine juice without the muss and fuss of a coffee maker, grounds on my kitchenette floor where I do my laundry, and 15 lost minutes per day of cleaning all that crap up. And that’s okay by me.
What I’m paying for is the convenience. What I’m also paying for is the product itself. What I’m even more (also, furthermore) paying for is for that stupid hippie indecisive college kid who probably works at a mac store after he takes off this apron kid to make my coffee for me, so I can feel better that someone like him has to make coffee for someone like me. AND THAT'S OKAY BY ME.
What needs do these games fill? There are always the easy answers: entertainment, escapism, thrills, catharsis, unspoken pathological death wish. These are all possible and equally likely. But they’re disparate, too disparate to contain the actual, unifying answer that can give us a deeper insight into a grander need that is filled by games in general. The next best question then, is this: What do all these filled needs have in common?
All of these things are messy. It’s a mess to have to entertain yourself. Ask any kid what his least favorite part of playing with toys is and he’ll say “putting it away”. And not because he’s sad playtime is over, but rather because he has to pick up all the crap he’s flung all over the place and place it neatly, carefully, boringly, back into the bin he got it from. Or worse, have to carry his intricately pieced together LEGO tractor into his plastic Tupperware to take home from Bobby Joe’s house, making sure that it’s got adequate padding on both sides so it doesn’t jostle about in the Jimmy on the ride back home.

And escapism? How long do we spend on the phone and online searching and searching and searching for the best prices on hotels, flights, and car rentals only to be greeted by some balding, half-burned Caucasoid telling us that he stays for free because his cousin cleans the pool out back. Having fun is messy.
What games do is let us sterilize our entertainment, escapism, thrills, and catharsis of these "messy" contaminants. In Call of Duty, we get to experience the thrill of combat, the grandeur of firearms and explosives, and the awesome results of destruction without having to clean up the messes they would create in reality.

Hell yeah, I blew up that skyscraper by shooting a rocket into that helicopter, but I don’t have to clean that shit up. OF COURSE I rammed this tank into this building to kill that one guy who was AFK while on the phone with his fiancĂ©e, but hey, it'll put itself back together when the map reloads.
It goes further. Beyond taking care of the plainly physical consequences of destruction and chaos, they also take care of the psychological, political, and relational ones. We don’t have to worry about that guy’s son we just killed, because it’s okay, we didn’t really kill him (but, really, we seriously really did and then we went and stuck our scrotum on his face because that’s what noobs deserve).

We don’t have to worry about all the people we just displaced by razing a village to kill 2 guys hiding in the basement of one of the houses there. And we certainly don’t have to get off our couches, leave our homes, or lift a finger off that controller to go and rebuild all the lives that we’ve just broken. But we do get to experience doing each and every one of those things as though we did them.

This is the need that games are filling nowadays. And perhaps that’s the real problem. Games that are popular nowadays aren’t necessarily “too easy” as some might say. Rather, they’re too nice. They’re too hospitable, kind, and courteous. They've been sanitized. And this need, the need to be sanitized, to be cleaned up after and to not be held responsible for the actions you do and decisions you make, is what’s being fulfilled. This need is understandable, and in a way videogames as a technology seems to meet it perfectly. But consider this:
If we are afraid that games are making trivialities of real life, isn’t the only real solution to remove the triviality from our games?