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'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.

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