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PM Pick

On the Importance of Differentiating Fantasy from Reality

Colin Harvey

For thoughtful liberals and libertarians such cases are tricky ones to manoeuvre without tying ourselves in knots of hyperbole, and allowing our democracy to be jeopardized.

Ban These Evil Games "The parents of murdered schoolboy Stefan Pakeerah yesterday led a mounting clamour for violent games to be banned. Giselle and Patrick Pakeerah's 14-year-old son suffered an horrific death at the hands of 17-year-old Warren Leblanc, said to have been obsessed with the game Manhunt. The hammer-and-knife killing mirrored scenes in the ultra-violent game." — From the front page of the Daily Mail newspaper, Friday 30th July 30, 2004

The summer months in Britain are customarily a languid time for the news media. Parliament is no longer in session, and unlike the US, we don't have any electioneering to distract us (at least no explicit electioneering). Yet while politics-obsessed news editors disappear to sunnier climes, front pages don't stop being hungry. This period is traditionally known as the "Silly Season", when deputy editors must make do with desperate bids to save Minkie whales washed up on Scottish shores or golden eagles that have somehow contrived to escape from London Zoo. But the conviction of a 17-year-old for the brutal murder of a 14-year-old is clearly far from silly; even if the subsequent press response is very, very silly. Not to mention, exploitative, tawdry and most importantly, profoundly anti-democratic.

The story is undeniably tragic. An adolescent, Warren Leblanc, is apparently obsessed by a notoriously violent video game: Rockstar's Manhunt, already banned in New Zealand. Leblanc plots to murder his young friend, Stefan Pakeerah, using weapons familiar from the game: a hammer and knife. The would-be assailant lures his unsuspecting friend to a wooded area, and carries out his intention. Fans of otherwise discredited stimulus-response notions of audience consumption — whereby individuals act, automaton-like, upon images or ideas presented to them by the media — nod their heads sagely and reach for the statute book.

The case was the cue for a vitriolic response from the most vociferous of conservative organs in the UK (sure we don't have right-wing radio shock jocks like the US, but our infamous, pernicious press more than makes up for it). The Daily Mail, enduringly popular middle-market tabloid and purveyor of a peculiarly English (rather than British) form of bigotry against anything and everything artistic created after 1950, immediately launches a campaign to get violent games banned.

The British tabloids are, of course, world renowned for their hypocritical moralizing. Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch's Thatcherite The Sun newspaper, often considered the tawdriest of the so-called "Red Tops" (the lowest end of the tabloid market), was curiously mooted regarding the murder of Stephen Pakeerah, choosing to cover the story some way down its news agenda. Conversely the Daily Mirror, left-wing tabloid and supporter of the ruling Labour Party (not quite mutually exclusive activities yet, but time will tell), wasn't shy about running the story on its front page, in common with the Daily Mail. So the hysterical response isn't about left and right politics, per se, so much as ideas of democracy and freedom of speech. Which is why the Daily Mail's forceful response needs to be met with equal vigour.

While the Daily Mail gives us brief summaries of the scenarios in each game's case, the list of offending products it wants banned makes no effort to differentiate in terms of content. So The Suffering and Hitman: Contracts nestle alongside the sci-fi and horror shenanigans of Unreal Tournament and Doom III. (That anyone would consider Rockstar's deeply rubbish State of Emergency, which the Mail also brackets in this list, realistic enough to presumably provoke riots is genuinely terrifying. That I paid for the thing is either more scary).

Even though the Daily Mail's outraged argument seems to reside in a belief that a game like Manhunt is somehow too real, its censorious attack lacks the finesse to differentiate scenarios in which the player must fight off futuristic warriors or zombie-like monsters from scenarios in which recognizable images of people are brutally executed. But then the Mail's response isn't constructed around a particularly nuanced argument, and problems in differentiating fantasy and reality seem to be a continuing motif of this whole nasty affair.

I accept that we have to tread carefully, here. A child died, his family and friends are still grieving. Others, too, will grieve in a different way for the murderer. For thoughtful liberals and libertarians such cases are tricky ones to manoeuvre without tying ourselves in knots of hyperbole and exploiting the situation as assuredly as those of a reactionary bent. But if a cultural object is being blamed for causing the tragedy we need to investigate the circumstances, rather than just rolling over and letting another piece of our democracy get bitten off and swallowed whole-sale.

Now it may be that the murderer in the Stefan Pakeerah case was already into hammers and knives and violence before Manhunt came into his life; the picture painted of him by the various newspapers covering the story is certainly one of a fairly unbalanced individual. Maybe, indeed, he acquired Manhunt precisely because of this predilection for violence. In which case blaming the game retrospectively seems a jump in logic too perverse for even the most ingenious of conservative thinkers.

Let's assume, though, like the Daily Mail, that this wasn't the case. Let's assume the relentless ultra-violence on offer in Manhunt caused Leblanc to transform into a monstrous individual capable of murder. There's a lot of material here to make the causal observer think that the game might have a deleterious effect on a kid. The player adopts the role of a serial killer who has narrowly escaped the death penalty. His or her role is to negotiate their way through the grim urban environment, killing as they go. Along the way various weapons are supplied, which the player can then use to dispense with some pretty vicious enemies in grisly fashion: asphyxiating with a plastic bag, slitting an enemy's throat, or punching and kicking an opponent to death. And that's just for starters.

Aesthetically speaking, the game is very impressive, evidenced by the fact that you even feel a bit grimy afterwards. At the beginning of the game, as the Daily Mail took relish in pointing out, the player is encouraged to turn the lights off, and pull the curtains before starting to kill. Even with the curtains drawn, I had to raise the brightness on my television quite considerably to stand even a moderate chance of navigating my way through the shadows without walking into groups of lethal thugs or simply getting stuck, inexorably colliding with a wall or fence. This is a dark game in more ways than one.

I don't believe that games don't have an effect: if I thought a cultural object didn't have an effect on me, whether it's a film, a novel or video game, I wouldn't bother engaging with it. I want to be entertained, or scared, or surprised, or made to laugh or to have my mind expanded, whatever. In fact, if the cultural artifact fails to do this well enough then it's probably no good as a cultural artifact. God knows, advertisers seem pretty convinced that their work has an effect. But the reason the Stefan Pakeerah case made the front pages of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror and rated mentions in several other media publications is precisely that such an extreme response is so very unusual. Do we really want to ban a game on that basis? Furthermore, do we really want to ban a whole slew of games on that basis?

An obvious response is to call for the proper enforcement of classification legislation as a means of preventing minors from purchasing inappropriate games. When non-gamers learn of my professional and personal interest in video games, the first subject they inevitably reach for is the issue of violence. Often this is because their offspring or young relatives or friends have been playing one of the games mentioned in the above list or something equally bloodthirsty. The individual in question has inadvertently witnessed their kith and kin or acquaintance ruthlessly eradicating some unsuspecting Non-Playable Character in an elaborately violent and visceral manner.

In a few cases and to my barely concealed incredulity, the adults in question have bought their kids the material themselves. Intriguingly, when I then try and point out that British video games are classified by the British Board of Film Classification and that it's illegal both to buy and sell such games to minors, I tend to be greeted by blank stares.

The Daily Mail's subsequent coverage of the Manhunt case — or rather the cranking up of their campaign to get violent games banned — provides an illustrative demonstration of where the British classification system currently founders. In a manner much like Charles Dickens' Fagin, the newspaper sent out a small retinue of children to purchase various violent games from vendors around Britain. None of these individuals apparently encountered any problems purchasing the games in question.

For gamers, the non-enforcement of classification laws is an unsurprising outcome. Indeed, the issue of children purchasing inappropriate products has been of concern on the letters page of the British gaming magazine Edge for some time. Simultaneously reassuring and contradictory as the idea of compassionate, concerned gamers might seem, Edge is nevertheless a small-scale publication compared to the Daily Mail and so the idea that gamers think about this stuff tends to go unnoticed. As I've argued in Trivial Pursuit before, getting the wider culture to take video games more seriously as an art form might make retailers and adult purchasers of games think more carefully about enforcing classification rules.

But in Britain, in terms of digital games and films at any rate, adulthood is enshrined in law as beginning at 18 years of age. Manhunt is consequently classified for people of this age and above. The murderer Warren Leblanc is 17-years-old. Now, it strikes me that some 17-year-olds are remarkably mature and thoughtful individuals able to differentiate fantasy from reality, and able to understand the real-world consequences of real-world violent actions.

However, it also strikes me that some 18-year-olds are immature, unreflective individuals who may have a limited grasp on reality. But then, occasionally I meet people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s about whom I might make the very same judgment. In other words, age is a blunt weapon (given the circumstances, apologies for the enforced metaphor) in protecting individuals unable to discern when something is real or not. The correct enforcement of classification rules might protect younger children, but to me it seems an inadequate response to the case in question. There is a much better response.

In the '80s, the self-same Daily Mail was at the forefront of a campaign to get so-called "video nasties" like Driller-Killer and the first two Evil Dead films banned for reasons searingly redolent of their current splenetic attack on video games. In the case of video nasties, the ruling Tory administration capitulated. Some 20 years later many of these films have subsequently been released with little if any ripple of attention from anyone in the press, and scant evidence of any effects other than delight or fright from the purchasing demographic in question. Certain individuals, like Sam Raimi, director of the Evil Dead films, even get to direct family fodder like the Spiderman films.

Hopefully one day organs like the Daily Mail will succeed in adequately differentiating fantasy from reality. Until then, the onus is on liberals and libertarians to offer alternative arguments for not simply capitulating to the forces of conservatism (and God knows there's a lot of it bantered about on both the left and the right) and banning every game on the Daily Mail's list with immediate effect.

The best response to a case like this? The best thing we can all do when something as tragic as this happens is to investigate the case rationally, and offer the individuals concerned as much compassion and understanding as we can muster. But in terms of legislation and our democracy, the very best thing we can do is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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