'Zero Dark Thirty' and Morally Engaged Players

Jeff Reichert’s most relevant question for the games industry is one concerning consumers: “Why is it so hard to engage the reader to a more credulous relationship with the moving image?”

There is a social taboo still alive and strong against crossing the critical line between video games and film. Even with the current gun-control climate once again putting both mediums on the hot-seat over our culture’s fascination with violence, the two circles seldom intertwine. Regardless, game players and game critics miss out if they ignore the recent conversations abuzz in the world of film and television entertainment. One recent conversation is particularly worthy of our attention for its critical engagement of content, form, and the wider pop culture discourse.

Kathryn Bigelow, award winning director of The Hurt Locker, stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy recently after the release of the now Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty. The film, which quite explicitly states it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”, follows the pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden. The issue for many is its handling of torture. To some, Bigelow falsely implies that torture, and waterboarding in particular, played a pivotal and necessary role in acquiring the information that would eventually lead to the discovery of the location of Osama Bin Laden.

The claim has been argued back and forth, and rightly so. It’s enlivening to see such a significant topic earn deserved attention among critical circles. While I personally feel the film far from condones torture, I still wholly appreciate Jeff Reichert’s criticism of the film’s professed “realism” and the implication this has for its themes. In fact, I believe his article, “Desert for the Real”, is a must-read for anyone seeking to critically engage with video games.

Reichert makes an argument that hinges on both the message of the film and how it’s delivered:

“The inference that “enhanced interrogation” led to valuable information coupled with the film’s ‘this-then-this’ procedural structure, in which one event or clue discovered leads to the next, makes the case that American-sanctioned torture led to the death of bin Laden, and most viewers will leave the highly ‘realistic’ Zero Dark Thirty confident in that knowledge.”

Despite games' inherently procedural rhetoric, games criticism, even those pieces about offensive or troublesome content, primarily separate the troublesome content of a game from its “fun” or otherwise engaging systems. Take Far Cry 3 for example, which received plenty of negative attention as well as overwhelmingly positive reviews, as though the two were on equally weighted parts of a whole. As Reichert states, “It’s become all too commonplace for critics to float above the fray, and praise works they find aesthetically valuable and politically questionable.”

Reichert asked an important question that we should ask ourselves when potentially ignoring the moral implications of games, both their story and systems: “Isn’t this just abdicating a crucial part of the critical act? Wouldn’t we rather our film writers be morally engaged viewers rather than diffident aesthetes?” or, as he continues, “Shouldn’t art that so bowdlerizes its real-life subject matter in order to create a pleasure experience be called out for doing so?”

Of course such criticism does exist, but this conversation would be healthy to have in the games industry as well. After all, procedural rhetoric, to use Ian Bogost’s immensely useful term, is both intuitive in a way and difficult to learn. So while John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun can call Far Cry 3 racist for the “magical negro” trope he finds in the tattoo mechanic, another critic can shrug it of as “mainly just a game mechanic”.

Meanwhile, Michael Clarkson in his own criticism of Far Cry 3 calls out the game’s emphasis on its minimap for causing the player “to think of the game world as the map,” wonderfully dissecting (although not vehemently as I would like), how the rules contribute to an alienation between players and the actual island (and its inhabitant along with it). He also astutely points out that “its encouragement of stealthy long-range combat makes its violence seem clinical rather than brutal.” Without an alternative frame of reference, a morally engaged player must call Far Cry 3 out as problematic.

Of course the enjoyment of a game and a critical assessment need not be mutually exclusive. Adam Serwer, for example, writing for Mother Jones, offers an excellent defense of Tarantino’s own Oscar-nominated and controversial film, Django Unchained, summing up by saying “Django works best as film criticism; it certainly doesn't work as history." Reichert reaffirms this approach when he states “the moral viewer looks to cinema to encounter a host of perspectives, and can find pleasure in a variety of them so long as the art itself is well reasoned and internally sound.”

This discussion is not just about creating and sustaining morally engaged critics. I think Reichert’s most relevant question for the games industry is one concerning consumers: “Why is it so hard to engage the reader to a more credulous relationship with the moving image?” This is as applicable to games as it is to film and television and the answer must include critics as drivers of video game discourse. Pop culture deserves the genuine improvement of morally engaged conversations.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.