[19 August 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Last year’s ultraviolent action flick Gamer (2009) is many things, most of them not well-executed, but a few of them are at least interesting to talk about. This is not, however, a review of the film. Instead, it’s a launching point to discuss an idea which lingers in a tiny, oft forgotten corner of the player’s brain: that anxiety that what we are doing to characters on a screen is more than unfair, it’s tantamount to torture.
On a larger scale, Gamer is the latest in a series of films challenging the empathetic disconnect between audience and spectacle. In each of these movies (Running Man, Network, The Truman Show, to name a few), we’re assumedly taught to appreciate that there is a real person on the other side of the screen and that our cynical appetite for entertainment becomes tantamount to sadism the moment that we cease to recognize the characters’ personhood. That’s the idea anyway. Gamer‘s dissonance within this trope of films occurs because the scenario that it proposes is more ludicrous than even the most outlandish of these reality show movie premises: game avatars are not real. They won’t be real. There is no practical, logistical way that games like the ones featured in this film will ever exist. Gamer‘s central idea is so absurd that the prototypical moral message of this subtrope of films is not only absent, it left the building before you even got there.
Or did it?
What Gamer showcases is a kind of further anthropomorphization of the game avatar, a trope which hearkens back to at least as early in twentieth century media history as The Outer Limits and to contemporary postwar anxieties that the new viewing screens that we invited into our homes were portals into demonic worlds full of menacing spectres just itching to get out. Jeffrey Sconce (Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, 2000, Duke University Press) likens these early superstitions surrounding television to turn of the twentieth century spiritualism, where ideas about the radio and spiritual ether converged and produced activities like telegraph seances. Since the birth of harnessed electricity, we’ve sought to fill these electrical spaces with something discernibly sentient and ideally human. The idea that we’re just interacting with something unknowable and artificial is discomforting. Hence, anthropomorphism. And from this, our tales of AI, ghosts in the machine, and video game characters who talk back.
There’s no arguing that in Gamer John Tillman aka Kable (Gerard Butler) is treated as persona before person. Even his central antagonist, Castle (Michael C. Hall) stops to admire this pure avatar of rippling masculinity at one point, enthusing “you’re so awesome”, making fanboy eyes after Kable dispatches a squad of thugs at the movie’s climax. The effusive praise and unabashed attraction, male and female, directed toward Kable by the outside world makes it clear that this admiration goes beyond a cult of celebrity into pure objectification. He’s not a somebody; he’s Solid Snake.
...You know, the guy that you subjected to multiple harrowing sessions of electroshock torture because you wanted the good ending?
There is no way for a player to disavow their agency in a situation such as the above scenario featured in Hideo Kojima’s original Metal Gear Solid (1998). Revolver Ocelot, acting as Snake’s torturer, makes it abundantly clear that you can make the hurting stop at any time, but he doesn’t recommend it. Then Ocelot goes on to tell you which button to press to charge Snake’s health back between shocks, just so he can last longer. Is this helping Snake survive his experience, or is it placing the player in a situation to aid and abet a totally cruel act?
In short, why is Ocelot helping you, unless you’re actually helping Ocelot?
Sure, having Snake withstand the torture means saving Meryl, but that’s a rather abstracted reward, one which only manages to objectify all parties involved. Meryl is made into a prize for your success, and Snake is reduced to a means to an end. (Not that he isn’t ultimately in any case.) If it were truly an immersive moment, wouldn’t more players choose to simply break?
And kill Meryl?! No, the game’s logic kills Meryl. Ocelot and his goons kill Meryl. You, the player, are only Meryl’s murderer through a metalogical understanding of a conceit that depends on the relationship between certain actions that you perform and their thinly defined consequences. Ocelot kills Meryl as a result of a character choice. You put Snake through torture as a result of a player choice. The fact that so many go through with Snake’s torture says something potentially troubling about the barrier that we as players set up between our actions and what they represent.
There is a delightful twist at the end of Red vs Blue: Reconstruction (the sixth season in Rooster Teeth’s Halo-based machinima series) in which we learn that the Director of Project Freelancer will probably never see punishment for the gross mistreatment of the AI placed in his care. Because, as it turns out, torturer and victim are one and the same in this case. By using an AI based on his own mind (just as Cortana was based on Master Chief’s mentor, Dr. Halsey, in Halo‘s canon), the Director justifies his actions as self-reflexive. “There are no punishments for the terrors we inflict on ourselves”, he says, comfortably unconcerned that it isn’t him but his digital representation that has taken the brunt of his punishment.
What Gamer manages is not to construct some moralistic message about how digital violence equates to real violence in its symbolism, but rather it serves to highlight our enduring anxieties about our relationships with technology. Just like the telegraph seances and stories about televisions opening up portals to other dimensions in bygone media generations, fear of technological unknowns continue to inform our culture of rationalization and anthropomorphism in interactive media.
If anything, because of its potential for interactivity and immersion, this anxiety is heightened all the more. Part of the reason that the representation of violence continues to be contentious may in fact be because on a subconscious level we can never be totally sure that we aren’t just as bad as Ocelot, playing along to keep Snake’s screams going as long as possible.