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by Nick Dinicola

4 Sep 2009

It seems that whenever the subjects of games and social values crossover, it’s always in a negative way. Earlier this year, Resident Evil 5 faced accusations of racism for its portrayal of African natives. There’s no doubt that the game did contain some loaded imagery, but the game itself didn’t have anything to say about racism. Just a couple weeks ago Shadow Complex was caught up in a controversy over its association with Orson Scott Card. Some gamers were reluctant to purchase the game, giving money to Card, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Yet once again, the game itself didn’t have anything to say on the subject. But that’s not an argument in defense of these games, it’s more of a criticism of the industry. There seems to be a lack of social commentary in games.

This game wasn't supposed to be real and that was OK.

This game wasn’t supposed to be real and that was OK.

In fact, it seems that most games go out of their way to avoid it. As more effort and thought is put into video game narratives, there’s also more effort put into avoiding any social commentary. The games that do have something to say only tackle vague, general themes. Far Cry 2 explores man’s inhumanity to man. Shadow of the Colossus explores love and loneliness. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a powerful war story when certain aspects of its gameplay are taken into account, but it’s also set in a fictional Middle Eastern country. It may say something about war, but it doesn’t say anything about a war. It stays within the safe boundaries of ambiguity. What does it say about the industry when Resident Evil 5 is the closest any game has come to commenting on racism, or that, despite its title, no Call of Duty has actually explored a citizen’s duty to serve in war?

But there is social commentary in games, it’s just hidden in the fiction. Fallout 3 is filled with examples of this: the mission, Oasis, is all about euthanasia, but instead of killing a senior citizen, which would probably have generated controversy, we’re asked to kill a tree mutant. Tenpenny Tower is all about prejudice, but Fallout 3 makes mutant ghouls the discriminated minority instead of a specific race or gender. Then you have the Grand Theft Auto games that take on immigration, gang life, and the pursuit of the American Dream, but they are set in fictional cities. They may be imitations of real cities, but they are still fake. Nothing is really real. 

This game was supposed to be real and that wasn't OK.

This game was supposed to be real and that wasn’t OK.

It makes sense that games would avoid directly addressing such topics immediately after seeing the public reaction to previous games that have tried to do so. Six Days in Fallujah was a war game set during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, and would have followed a squad of Marines over the course of six days as they fought in the city. The game was widely criticized by gamers and non-gamers alike. Non-gamers criticized the entire medium as inappropriate for such a subject, and gamers criticized certain mechanics in the game as inappropriate. Then there’s the case of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a game that gave players a unique perspective of the events at Columbine (without condoning them) while inviting discussion about them. It was naturally met with hostility by the mainstream press and many gaming outlets, and even after being selected as a finalist for the Slamdance festival’s Guerilla Gamemaker Competition, it was quickly removed from the competition by the event’s organizer. But unlike Six Days in Fallujah, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a finished product that anyone could play and judge for themselves, and as such, it had many supporters within the gaming industry who appreciated its attempt at social commentary.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Considering people’s reactions to these games, it seems that games are free to comment on societal issues as long as the commentary remains allegorical. When games try to portray something real, an actual war or actual violence, there’s a backlash from non-gamers who see this as insulting to the source and from certain gamers who wish to keep games “fun.”

But there’s another angle in all this to consider as well: the impact of player choice. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a direct commentary; it was saying something about the events and wasn’t leaving much room for interpretation or at least leaving no more room for interpretation than any other standard narrative, whereas Fallout 3, took on all sides of an issue at once. The latter game didn’t directly comment on euthanasia, whether it’s good or bad, it just gave the player a choice, and through the consequences of that choice, the player was able to form his own opinions. Did you feel bad killing Harold, or did you feel it was noble? Did you feel bad forcing him to live, or did you feel it was for the best despite his wishes?

If you did feel bad about your decision, you could always reload a save and do something different. In this way, games have the innate ability to show both sides of an issue. Of course, this does dilute the significance of our actions since we can always rewind time and make a different decision, but this issue of permanence is another discussion entirely. As it stands now, some gamers are guaranteed to play though a choice-driven game multiple times, and that’s when games can take advantage of their branching paths by imbuing each path with a different message.

Games should not be limited to this kind of diplomatic social commentary. They should be able to offer a direct opinion without being stigmatized for it, but I think the former approach is better for the medium as it takes advantage of the interactivity of games. After all, any medium can preach a message to its audience, but only games can let us experience and analyze both sides of an issue without preaching a single thing.

by Tommy Marx

4 Sep 2009

Looking at Billboard’s Hot R&B chart for July 19, 1986, brings back a flood of memories for me.

I remember dancing to Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent”, Jermaine Jackson’s “Do You Remember Me?” and Klymaxx’s “Man Size Love” (one of my all-time favorites). It was the summer Janet first got “Nasty”, El DeBarge asked who Johnny was, and Anita Baker praised the rapture of “Sweet Love”. Some of the best broken-hearted love songs ever recorded are ranked, from Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s “On My Own” and Atlantic Starr’s “If Your Heart Isn’t In It” to the epic “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force.

And the number one song on the chart for the first of two weeks was “Rumors” by Timex Social Club. Sung by the impossibly cute Mike Marshall, “Rumors” had an irresistible dance beat and a rawness to its funk that made it sound different from anything else out there. The song, written by Marcus Thompson, Alex Hill, and Marshall, became a mainstream hit too, spending five months on Billboard’s Hot 100 and peaking at #8.

Granted, the lyrics seem somewhat hypocritical. The singer complains about rumors while spreading them at the same time. The song specifically name checks Tina Jackson, a student that went to Berkley High School with Thompson (“some say she’s much too loose”), Michael Jackson (“some say he must be gay”), and Susan Moonsie from Vanity 6 (“some say she’s just a tease”). Then again, it makes sense to provide examples to back up your argument.

Timex Social Club would have two more hits on the R&B chart, “Thinkin’ About Ya” and “Mixed Up World”, both of which peaked at #15, but they would never again appear on the Hot 100, making them a one-hit wonder. Still, “Rumors” holds up surprisingly well more than 20 years later, and Timex Social Club still performs regularly (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).

by Sean Murphy

4 Sep 2009

Look at that guy.

They don’t make them like that anymore. The thing is, they didn’t make them like that then, either. Col. Percy Fawcett was sui generis, supersized. And if he was the first of his kind, he was the last of a kind: the great old-world explorers. By the time Fawcett died (disappearing in the jungles of the Amazon), the world had become a much smaller place.

New Yorker writer David Grann knew he had an ideal subject when he began researching the Fawcett story; he could not have known he was going to become part of the story. The Lost City of Z is the end product of inestimable research and in-the-field reportage, literally.

Like (literally) hundreds before him, Grann inexorably cultivated a compulsion that could only be satisfied by experiencing the action himself. Unlike many other reporters, explorers and thrill-seekers who set off to find Fawcett’s trail (and, inevitably, subsequent fame and fortune for telling their tale), Grann actually made it out alive. And he also found things even he neither expected nor anticipated: no spoilers here, you’ll have to read it to get the scoop.

What Grann came to understand, before ever setting foot in the jungle, was something that no number of books, movies or documentaries could successfully convey. That is, Percy Fawcett was, in every sense of the cliche, very much a man apart. The mere triumph of entering and exiting the Amazon alive was, as many hearty fellows found out by paying the ultimate price, not an inconsiderable achievement. At a time when the North and South Poles were all the rage, one could be forgiven for assuming that the warmer weather, bustling foliage and diverse plant and animal life all afforded a preferable venue for discovery. On the contrary, the ostensibly bountiful tropical haven was in actuality a death trap. Grann quotes Candice Millard from The River Of Doubt, her study of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing Amazonian adventure:

by Eleanore Catolico

4 Sep 2009

Club kid ilk everywhere put on those jukin’ shoes because Simian Mobile Disco just announced their US tour dates (after the jump) in the fall to promote their second studio album Temporary Pleausure out now on Wichita Recordings. This is a follow up to 2007’s Attack Decay Sustain Release. Producers Jas Shaw and James Ford of SMD recruited a pantheon of indie stars including Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Telepathe, and Chris Keating of Yeasayer giving vocals to Temporary Pleasure‘s first single, “Audacity of Huge”. Recorded in the band’s East London studio, Temporary Pleasure is an album filled with minimalist house beats and robotic vocal distortion of imperative lore. Unlike the heavy-hitting pump up the volume, pump up the volume, dance! of Justice or the Bloody Beetroots, TP stealthily slithers into your cerebrum. 

The band recently forayed into the avant-garde fusion of technology and aesthetics called “augmented reality” or AR. Conceived by Kate Moross and produced by MagicSymbol, an installation celebrating the release of Temporary Pleasure featured a mixture of both real life and computer generated images all within the SMD cosmos, creating the illusion that virtual things thrive in the corporeal realm.  It’s that art imitating life or life imitating art shtick. Those clever synth-cats.

This ambitious, visual evolution for SMD would translate impeccably to their live show, seizure-inducing lightning fest and all. Pyrotechnics aside, SMD live if done the AR way could be a new kind of ecstatic chaos for the concert-going experience, minus the need of drugs. SMD have already expanded their alignment with the AR endimanche’, by having Kate Moross also direct their music video for “Audacity of Huge”.

As an extension of SMD’s said affinities, “Audacity of Huge” is abound with striking, juxtaposed tableaus of things you’d find off the cover of your old EyeWitness books and convex close ups that make you ask, “What is this, really? or “How does it relate to anything?”, reminiscent of Conan O’Brien’s old Late Night skit “Patterns” where we see a few incongruous pictures, only for them to be united by a more-often-than-not grotesque punch line. Nothing super yucky here, thankfully. There’s also a lot of viscous liquids. Honey? Maple syrup? Maybe molasses? Look out for the boys of SMD at the end of the video making a cameo appearance in what appears to be a limited edition set of UNO cards. I guess that illusionary motif finally comes full circle, huh? Still pretty cool though. Be sure to catch SMD kick off their tour of the States on October 28th in Boston, but for now here’s the video for “Audacity of Huge” and a trippy visual performance of “Synthesise”, full of flashy geometrics:

by Brian Parks

4 Sep 2009

Since 1987’s Cobra Verde, Werner Herzog has directed just two feature films in the ensuing twenty two years—Invincible (2001) and Rescue Dawn (2007), preferring to focus increasingly upon documentaries. It appears he made the right choice as these features were met with general indifference both critically and at the box-office, while his documentaries have garnered multiple awards and almost universal praise. However, with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Herzog’s interest in the fiction format appears to have been reignited, with two features completed (the other being his Bad Lieutenant reimagining) and yet another soon to begin filming.

Now, for those of you who upon seeing the title card David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film didn’t immediately turn off the trailer and start pulling out your wallets- let me enlighten you as to why this quite possibly could be the most awesome-est thing ever!  OK, well maybe of the year…

Number one—the plot. The film is based on the true story of a San Diego man who acts out a Sophocles play in his mind and kills his mother with an antique saber. Awesome.

Number two—the cast. Willem Dafoe (owner of a lifetime pass for his work as Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart), Michael Shannon, Cloe Sevigny, Grace Zabriskie, and Udo Kier. Doubly awesome.

Number three—Uh, a pack of ostriches stole Udo Kier’s glasses. Seriously, did you not see that? When was the last time time you saw something that randomly weird (and totally unrelated to plot) in a mainstream American trailer? Exactly.

Unfortunately, no official release date has been provided as of yet. One possible reason—studio executives realized what they got themselves into and are nervously stalling for time trying to figure out how to market this eccentricity to cineplexes in Nebraska. If this is in fact the case, we may be waiting for quite some time…

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Tibet House's 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert Celebrated Philip Glass' 80th

// Notes from the Road

"Philip Glass, the artistic director of the Tibet House benefits, celebrated his 80th birthday at this year's annual benefit with performances from Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Brittany Howard, Sufjan Stevens and more.

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