Friday, 26 November 2010

Nablopomo and other aliens: Day 26


This blog post is a game I haven't played. It makes reference to discussions I haven't heard, and it doesn't have a conclusion. Those seeking properly written articles need to look elsewhere today.

Oh, and there are barely any pictures either.

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My interest has been raided this week by Call of Duty: Black Ops and a discussion about child-friendly basketballing role-model Kobe Bryant appearing in an advert for it.

Here's the advert:

Now I'm not really the sensitive type, but something about that makes me feel ever so slightly uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the whole point of video games is to leave your physical body and become something or someone else, and engage in activities which are not really happening.

The implication int he advert that Black Ops enables you to feel the visceral thrill of killing other human beings makes me feel a little bit uneasy. That's not why I play video games, even the gory ones. The line between the satisfaction of performing a head shot on a video game enemy and the desire to kill other human beings in a war is not really a narrow one, but it's one which this advert does a good job of blurring.

But why? The cynic in me says that the makers in this advert know this perfectly well, and that the advert was designed to stir up controversy as much as it was designed to make Black Ops look fun.

Now, I received a comment the other day which drew my attention to this issue, and specifically a discussion on ESPN regarding the rights and wrongs of Bryant's appearence in this mature-rated game. I can't really write about it because although I watched it, I didn't realise that ESPN remove content after a certain amount of time, so I didn't manage to transcribe anything useful.

What I did remember about the discussion however, was that someone (I can't even remember who, how rubbish is that?) made the point that not only does the trailer glamorise war, but that even the fictional representation of badly-behaved soldiers was unacceptable.

This really intrigues me. On a practical, video game-related level, I (and many others) agree largely with Andy Kamenetzky, who said later that week (also on ESPN, I think):

Black Ops isn't a game marketed at kids, and while I genuinely respect and appreciate the idea of not glamorizing war, how far are we supposed to take that sentiment? Should we never make war movies where soldiers triumph, which could be interpreted as "glamorizing?" What about a comedy set in the army, like "Stripes?" Did that trivialize the military? While we're at it, should we never make a video game or movie involving the mob, cops and robbers, and on down the line, since there have been real life tragedies and violence in those settings? What about toy soldiers and G.I. Joes kids play with? Those not only arguably glamorize/trivialize war, but are aimed directly at youngsters. Since the age of war being broadcast on television, people have been generally aware it is a bad, brutal, and horrific undertaking. If they can't determine the difference between real life and a video game, that's on them, not the video game makers, advertisers or Kobe Bryant.

I'd be inclined to agree with that.

Now, most interestingly, the BBC this week broadcast an episode of fictional television drama Accused, which depicted bullying in the armed forces. Former Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, came on the BBC's Today Programme the following morning in order to express his outrage:

Accused portrayed bullying that's got no place in fact or fiction in the 21st century. [...] It [...] accepted as fact but didn't challenge, a level of bullying that I said has got no place in the modern army, it accepted the place of drink on the front line that you will not find, it portrayed as a fact no attempt by the chain of command to contain the bullying and it also took as a basis of its storyline the dishonesty which wasn't challenged of a cover-up of the suicide of a soldier as a death by enemy action. None of these things were challenged and therefore people could have thought that this is what goes on and it doesn't.
Dannatt's accusation (sorry) that a fictional television drama should not portray certain kinds of fiction was questioned by Today presenter Sarah Montague.

But [...] there are [...] fantastical stories in stories in drama. People can... People who can write stories can almost write whatever they like, it might be far-fetched, but if it's a drama don't people recognise it as such. [...] do you think the army.. should the BBC treat the army differently to other sectors of society in this regard?

Dannatt replies:

You could make a case to say that whilst the army is conducting difficult and dangerous and operations on behalf of the nation at the present time in somewhere like Afghanistan. [...] Frankly, decent people can't accept either fact or fiction - and I accept it's fiction but the basis on which the fiction was applied was so thoroughly wrong, it has to be challenged and people left in no doubt that his portrays in no shape at all the army today.


I'm inclined not to agree with Dannatt here, and that once you start placing sanctions on fiction, you're at the top of a slippery slope with censorship about halfway down and the end of free speech at the bottom, but perhaps I'm being dramatic.

There's a link between this and the the Black Ops controversy somewhere here, but I'm too tired to make it. If anyone actually saw the ESPN broadcast, they're welcome to make it for me.


  1. Could it be introduced that a story about such bullying in the military be a cautionary tale?

    In any event, the advert is quite entertaining, and the inclusive point of a person from any walk of life being able to enjoy the game is clear. I don't think it glorifies violence any more than the typical tv crime or military drama, mostly due to the cartoony nature of the ad. Kobe Bryant may be a "kid friendly" star or not, but watching him and Jimmy Kimmel blow up s@*t is pretty funny (I guess that is to say the tv shows glorify violence too much for my taste, too).

    Ironically, I have no interest whatever in playing a Call of Duty game. The overall amount of violence keeps me away, as does the style of gameplay. I guess don't have a problem with the ad, per se, but I just hope they are airing it after 10pm. I don't watch much first-run tv, so I haven't come across it live yet.

  2. I think to a large extent that people's reactions to the commercial are based on their interpretation of the commercial itself. Well-Rendered's seems to have seen the commercial as being about a violent game (and it is a violent game, make no mistake about that) where the main theme is killing other people/players. The commercial does show plenty of explosions but at no point is it clear that any of the people running around on the fake battlefield would have been killed, but given the amount of lead flying one would assume that this is the eventual outcome.

    The message I took away from the commercial however is that it's not a bunch of nerdy kids sitting around playing this game, it is regular people who have careers as well as some celebrities. That is to say, you don't have to feel like a social outcast just because you're playing Black Ops. In fact given your typical gamer is now apparently male, in his 30's and is better educated and paid than average (pretty sure I read that in The Economist) it seems quite strange that nerdy kids is still the stereotype. On the other hand perhaps I am not seeing the violence due to the fact I have presumably become desensitized to it through a combination of tv, movies and of course video games themseleves, this would most likely be the Daily Mail's interpretation at any rate!

    With regards to the charge of trivializing war, of course Black Ops is guilty of this, as is any tv show, movie or other video game depicting war. The question really is how much does it trivialise war, and does it do so to a harmful degree. The aim of any shooter is to kill the other player or team, but with the knowledge that doing so will not do any actual physical harm to them in real life. To be fair from the number of kids who rage quit games the bruising to their ego's is quite real though.

    In all seriousness though, given that war inevitable results in real human deaths and video games depict much the same action but without the same consequences then of course it trivialises it to some extent. This is something that seems to be particularly sensitive for shooter games, which is presumably why most of the major studios stress that they do consult with the military about the games themselves. In most cases they pass this off as a positive along the lines of “most realistic game ever” but they do occasionally make mistakes (or marketing ploys for the more cyncially minded among us) such as having players taking the role of the Taliban as the most recent Medal of Honor did before it was changed to OpFor (Opposing Force) to stop the public outcry. I'm not entirely sure why it is shooter games that bear the brunt of the controversy given that teenagers and young adults are much more likely to be able to get their hands on a car and use it to kill themselves and others which is largely glamourised by racing games like Need for Speed etc.

    In any case if people can't determine the difference between video games and real life then in my opinion at least that is a problem with themselves rather than whatever other convenient scapegoats the media would rather target.

    PS. I'm not sure the depiction of Kobe Bryant as child friendly is entirely accurate given the sexual assault allegations a few years back but that is really neither here not there.