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by L.B. Jeffries

27 Oct 2008

Part of the inherent struggle for games to be taken seriously stems from the fact that they often don’t discuss anything serious themselves. Much of Call of Duty 4’s success comes from the fact that the topics it discusses are all relevant today: terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and modern warfare. These are all images and themes that are important to people today, as opposed to escapist fantasy or glorification of wars that ended long ago. Even going all the way back to Missile Command, which invoked the fears of the Cold War and Russia, the idea of making a relevant video game was being explored. People experience a much more profound connection with a game whose subject matter represents something that could spill over into the real world. What places and topics could games go into, particularly given their current FPS trigger happy state, that would be relevant and topical?

Let’s not beat around the bush, I’m talking about using violent video games to raise awareness of horrible real-life situations. So let’s start with the most popular genre: shooters. One of the tricky necessities of an FPS or basic action game is that you need a situation that involves a lot of combatants. Borrowing from action movies for a moment, what about Myanmar? Rambo 4 takes place in this country and also features the highest body count for the entire series by depicting over 260 people being shot or maimed. The radical oppression of the Karen people by the military is certainly a topic that can be addressed in a variety of ways. Indeed, outside of basic principles against violence, few seemed bothered by Rambo using a .50 caliber assault cannon to mow down dozens of soldiers. We’re not looking for an enemy that’s morally justifiable to shoot, we’re looking for one that’s morally repugnant to defend. At the very least we could teach people history by having them participate in wars and learn about atrocities that they otherwise would know little about. The Croatian War would be another interesting subject and indeed many games have begun to take place in Yugoslavia-like countries without making specific reference. Stepping away from the tasteless goal of simply finding excuses to shoot people for a moment, keep in mind that the game design could also involve more humane activities. A game set in Rwanda could be about saving refugees, a game set in Mogadishu could be about acting as a peacekeeper.

 

Yet setting a videogame in a modern setting is still going to raise the issue of tastelessness. Proper writing, mature mission themes, and engaging in conduct that isn’t wanton destruction are all going to be necessary. If you’re going to talk about mature topics, you have to handle them maturely and hope that resonates with the audience. Another issue raised is simply why bother at all? Why set a video game in a modern global conflict or historical moment that could be a blatant glorification of violence in some atrocious setting? Because raising awareness alone is a laudable goal. Going back to Rambo 4 for a moment, the movie managed to accomplish several amazing things despite its incredible violence. It raised awareness of the Myanmar situation so that aid and care were given to an otherwise ignored problem. Karen rebels received an incredible morale boost from the film and even use one of the quotes as a battle cry. A less action-based example, Hotel Rwanda came out ten years after the event but its success forced people to learn about an atrocity that was otherwise ignored. How many teens, how many potential activists, could be informed and contacted by playing a video game about an event? No matter what they’re doing in the game, how you frame and discuss the events they interact with will still control their impressions. Yes, there is potential for abuse here, but there is also great potential for good.

 

As always with the indie world, many games have begun to do this with varying results. Super Columbine Massacre RPG handles its subject matter in a very interesting way: it works like a documentary. The first half of the game is just a recreation of those events using actual documents and recordings from the tragedy. It’s disturbing yet it gives you an intense window into the events that whether or not welcome, is definitely insightful. The second half breaks from this and becomes problematic as the two characters fight through zombies in Hell…which is either very clever if you look at from a Divine Comedy perspective or just offensively celebratory. The United Nations have created a flash game about being a refugee fleeing a repressive country and trying to gain citizenship in a new one. It’s fairly basic and mostly dialog, but it’s also very informative and even provides links to other sites for those interested by what they see. Nor do these games even need to involve violence or conflict, I’m just conforming to the popular genres. Countless games explore things such as teaching people how electricity is distributed in a city, economic simulators, or basic philosophy. A great place to find them, along with countless other indie titles, is at Play This Thing!.

There are just so many topics video games could go into. Whether you acquiesce to the popular shooters of today or the RPG formulas of yesterday, the subject matter of these games is always open to change. Why not set a Grand Theft Auto-style game set in New Orleans during Katrina? Players could see the city before and after the hurricane, learn about the FEMA response, and be more politically aware of circumstances when such an event happens again. There is already a flash game on the topic. Perhaps even more compellingly, they may be inspired to go to a disaster zone and volunteer themselves. A child with ADHD who can scarcely pay attention for thirty minutes could learn a great deal about Katrina in 8 hours of game time. There will always be the protests and complaints from the media, whether to jump on the bandwagon of blaming society’s problems on video games or bemoan people profiting off the suffering of others. I would heartily recommend any game about a disaster be willing to donate a significant amount of the proceeds to aiding the cause it represents. Publishers and developers interested in creating such a game will have to be motivated by the hope of improving their public image and the image of video games themselves when creating such a title. Which was, after all, the point in the first place.

by Diane Leach

27 Oct 2008

University of Texas PressSeptember 2008, 152 pages, $45.00

University of Texas Press
September 2008, 152 pages, $45.00

Eugene Richards, a documentary photographer, joined forces with Mental Disability Rights International to create this disturbing book of photographs. Traveling to Mexico, Armenia, Paraguay, Hungary, Kosovo, and Argentina, Richards and the group wormed their way into mental hospitals, where Richards photographed the unremittingly grim conditions.

The black and white photos make less attempt at composition than at the documentarian action of seeking to capture the moment. The result makes Diane Arbus’ late work look like snaps from a child’s birthday party: a naked teenager huddled in a cage barely large enough for him to squat in, a Mexican girl who spends her waking hours straitjacketed: when unbound, she chews her hands, which are scarred and infected. An elderly woman huddled in a wheelchair, wild-eyed, and emaciated. A cold, bare room filled with men in various stages of undress, the concrete floor pooled with urine. Men shrieking in filthy showers as attendants wash them with buckets of icy water. Men, women, and children bound to beds, underweight and dirty.

Given the dearth of mental health services available in our (still) comparatively wealthy nation, the marginalized, even brutal treatment of the mentally impaired elsewhere in the world comes as no surprise. Yet I admit I looked at the photographs and watched the accompanying DVD (really, the book’s images set to Richards’ narration, which appears at the back of the text) with some frustration. Richards’ work is heartfelt and noble, but of limited appeal. At $45.00, A Procession of Them isn’t likely to find a wide readership. Rather, it will reach mental health professionals, academics, and aficionados of photography. 

I admit some of my frustration arises from compassion fatigue. Living as I do in the San Francisco Bay Area, I see a procession of mentally ill, homeless people daily. Until her unit went into foreclosure, I endured the screaming of a mentally ill upstairs neighbor who heard voices. I complained to my husband about A Procession. I said I felt it was a misguided attempt. No, he said. Just because there are problems here doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to suffering elsewhere. 

He’s right.

by Thomas Hauner

27 Oct 2008

I committed the jackass foul of cutting the around-the-block line to get into They Might Be Giants’ show. But the length of the line maxed out precisely when the rain was most dramatic, so I felt it was ok. Once inside I joined the also long queue of alt-rock nerds, eagerly awaiting the performance of the duo’s 1990 album Flood in its entirety. As the self-described “hardest working band in Brooklyn that still takes the L train” put it, the nights show would feature a bifurcated set, “that’s a fancy way of saying we’re playing two sets with a fifteen-minute break so the bar can sell drinks.” The duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has developed a strong reputation for their live shows in their 26-year career. And they were chatty and hilarious throughout their two and half hour set, mocking weary CMJ photographers (“That ringing you hear when you finally lay down your head on a pillow is not going away”), their sometimes discombobulated endings (“Don’t let the song get in the way of your first place finish”), cheap weed (“I just got high from some terrible second-hand weed smoke”), and Flood’s original two-star rating in Rolling Stone (“They were right about Hendrix and they were right about us”). The second half of their set featured classic They Might Be Giants anthems, new and old alike, such as “Mink Car”, “Dinner Bell”, “Seven”, “Older”, and “James K. Polk”. That they played two encores by popular demand only cemented the night’s stellar vaudevillian-like set, closing with the educational “Alphabet of Nations” and crowd-favorite, “Fingertips.”

by PopMatters Staff

27 Oct 2008

As a New Zealand trio known for their wildly energetic shows chock full of crowd interaction, Die! Die! Die! seemed hopelessly discombobulated in the spacious three-quarters empty Blender Theatre. While I can’t blame this entirely on the band (the Blender Theater is a world away from most other CMJ venues), it certainly didn’t help them. Though they made an earnest effort to whip the crowd into a frenzy with their garage punk stylings—jumping into the crowd and rolling on the floor—it never seemed to adequately hit the mark they were aiming for. The band had a solid chemistry, but put forth a product that was far better suited for a venue half the size and twice as full. Instead, Die! Die! Die! played a set that resembled a high school musical being performed at Carnegie Hall.

by PopMatters Staff

27 Oct 2008

There’s something both incredibly organic and dramatic about The Octopus Project’s live sets. Watching the Austin foursome power through their energetic electronic sets, which sound something like trip-hop on speed, there’s a pervasive sense of manic chaos that still manages to seem planned at every step of the way. The group’s Saturday night set at Blender Theater wasn’t any different. Band members swerved past each other, passing off instruments or twirling knobs on synths—all of which were connected by sprawling tentacles out of a main hub front and center on the stage (and if that’s not where they get their name from, I’ll eat my hat). I can’t for the life of me listen to one of their studio albums, it just doesn’t translate. Their sprawling soundscapes seem dependent on the interplay between the band’s members during solitary moments which create an aura or an essence that can’t be tied down or bottled up—something that makes the experience of seeing them live that much more memorable and beautiful.

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