activism, video games

Call of Duty and Left Correctives to Narratives

Richard Falk’s “Viewing American Sniper” was a recent and fantastic review on ZNet. However, it points out a broader concern: Movies are not the only arena for cultural criticism for the Left anymore. Video games have received some critical commentary by those on the Left, but generally speaking that commentary has been mired in a traditionalist analysis that ignores the actual experience of playing the games.

I invite you to watch the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trailer, featuring the stellar talent of Kevin Spacey who as always makes a fantastically Machiavellian villain. Though this trailer is nine months old, the release of the game was only on November 4th. The hype cycle for video games in the AAA market (the games that have development budgets comparable to major motion pictures) becomes year-round.

In the trailer, Spacey’s character offers a worldview that is essentially consistent with the modern mainstream American representation of the world. He says, most saliently, “Democracy? Democracy is not what these people need; hell, it’s not even what they want. America’s been trying to install democracies in nations for a century and it hasn’t worked one time. These countries don’t have the most basic building blocks to support a democracy!”

Now, to be clear: Spacey’s character is a villain. And the cliches of the big war video games like Battlefield and Call of Duty are actually somewhat liberal-leaning, even with the xenophobia inherent to these games which assume the inherent righteousness of American soldiers even as their leaders may be corrupt, involved in destructive shadow games or incompetent. These games make private military contractors and big corporations into the bad guys.

But this statement by Spacey’s character indicates a worldview. It indicates a worldview that liberal-minded people may quite well understand. Because the Left has failed to educate them.

We have failed to tell people that America virtually never actually tries to install any kind of democracy, but actually creates corporate plutocracies that are beholden to US interests. We have failed to remind people that the United States has frequently intervened to overthrow democracies and replace them with dictatorships.

We have failed to educate Americans and Westerners on the fact that there are millions of people in the Third World thirsty enough for real change and democracy that they were willing to revolt in ways many Americans would not be capable of, and have been willing to wait in long lines in serious danger to vote as many Iraqis have done repeatedly.

The irony is that this game was developed and made much after the Arab Spring showed that millions of people in the Middle East are perfectly ready for democracy on their own terms.

So Spacey’s worldview is villainous to most, but it seems nuanced enough. Interesting enough. Valid enough. Even though it’s actually gibberish, plenty of people are willing to accept the basic assumptions that he uses to reach the nightmarish conclusions he does in the game’s story.

But there’s a silver lining to this.

Both movies and video games today are filled with stories about corporate villains and corrupt politicians. It’s almost a cliché in the 2010s to have a story with a private military corporation being up to no good. Resident Evil’s Umbrella corporation has been a satire for almost two decades of the ruthlessness of corporate practices. And games like Spec Ops are actually willing to show the brutality of American occupation for what it is and challenge the narrative of Western military righteousness.

There’s a narrative out there that is being told even as the Left is not participating in it. With some rare luminaries like Anita Sarkeesian as exceptions, we’re not even fighting a major cultural battle. And unlike the battle to try to make movies more humane and less propagandistic, it’s a battle that is possibly winnable even in the fairly short-term. Video games are being consumed by young people and made by young people. Sure, the art form will become conservative just as movies have. But there is a window to take advantage of.

Right now, there are minds that are hungry for another worldview. Call of Duty games do show that a lot of people want to participate in a simplistic and heroic narrative where violence solves problems. But Modern Warfare also shows that there is a cynicism about the mainstream narrative that would only need a brief critical corrective to adjust.

It can be harder to critically review a video game than a movie. It can require the commitment of five, ten, fifteen, even twenty hours for even a relatively short game. I can understand the reticence to really engage with video games. But it’s something we’ll have to do to succeed.

activism, culture

Christian Radio and Shared Decency

So I just happened to be listening to Christian radio as I was adjusting the channels.

And as they came on, they said something to this effect:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth. Bases are loaded. And your son strikes out. Take time to tell him that he’s still a winner in your eyes.”

Fundamentalist Christianity has some problems. Some really, really serious problems. But that was actually a bit of a gospel of the truth of love.

Maybe we should start focusing on giving kind people better ways of expressing that kindness than protesting abortion clinics instead of wagging our finger at them about their faith.

film, storytelling

The Limits of the Academy and Storytelling

So, much has been made about how this may be the least diverse group of Oscar nominees yet in racial terms.
Half in the Bag, though, pointed out another problem: All of the Oscar nominated films are about men. Strange, impacted men with a unique view of the world and a problem: Turing, Michael Keaton in Birdman, Stephen Hawking.

It’s easy to just say, “The Academy is overwhelmingly represented by white males”.

But why do we as a society not only struggle to tell the stories of non-white, non-male people, but also keep on patronizing such films?

Narratives both play with our existing sense of reality and can act as a pinion to get to a new one. A good story can make us question reality; a great story can change our world.

So when we keep telling the same kinds of narratives, about the same kind of people, it limits our horizons. It shows that we’re comfortable with a particular way of thinking and aren’t demanding something better.

I know how tempting it is to tell the stories of great men, or weird men, or men with a problem. But it goes beyond art when we can’t think about the stories of women, and the stories of people of color, and the stories of people from before the 19th century, and the stories of people who aren’t people.

There are so many people who have been silenced. Maybe we should find a way of speaking for them in art.


Hobbies and Changemakers

Hobbies are important.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been playing Sentinels of the Multiverse more than my traditional gaming hobby, tabletop roleplaying. We’ve been designing heroes, villains and environments so we can try new experiences.

Many of the people in my gaming group are either training to become or actively are, as part of their lives, changemakers. People concerned with either the healing of the mind or the body.

There are times that I am at a table talking to people and I always wonder if there is some gap between me and the rest of the people there. If I’ve spent my day working through a trauma of torture or helping others cope with some kind of political event that is tough to swallow, it can put me into a place where I feel like I’m in a different world, just sort of faintly talking through.

But plenty of people feel that way. During serious depression, it can feel like someone is buried alive, just barely managing to talk through the dirt. Schizophrenics and autistics have a fundamental experiential gap. And I’ve come to realize over time that my normal experiences are also not the norm for others. That I have experiences as a daily occurrence that many strive for years to have just a precious few times.

So when I, and the other people in my group who are changemakers, come to the table, we no longer have to be the counselors, or the reporters, or the cops, or the political writers, or the support group leaders.

We can just be the people who are playing a superhero card game. We can be the dudes nerding out about Marvel. We can be those guys who fight Transformers in a tabletop setting.

It’s vital for those of us who want to change the world to remember that we are still people with hobbies, people with friends and families. We want a world of people, not automata. We want a world where people are free to play a board game and have no greater implication or darkness outside the room.

Let’s get it.


Jerame Reid and the Police Brutality Gulf

The recent killing of Jerame Reid indicates exactly why the gulf in this country about police brutality is so massive, and what people simply fail to get about the issue.
Before Days shot Reid, Days was repeatedly swearing. “Show me your hands, show me your fucking hands! Don’t move, don’t fucking move!”

Police apologists have come out defending Days, saying that Reid’s attempt to get out of the car (which he announced that he was doing with his hands up to lie face down) could have been a prelude to grabbing the gun. Except Days had his partner present.

In any instance, I am reminded of a great old episode of CSI, where Grissom points out that everyone was identifying with the perpetrators (a mob that had killed a man) instead of with the victim.

Imagine being Reid. You’ve been pulled over for running a red light. You reach for the glove compartment. An officer then begins to swear at you and pull out a gun, saying there’s a gun in the glove compartment. You repeatedly tell the officer that you’re not reaching for a gun. You’re scared, you want this to be over.

Now, whether or not there was a gun, whether or not Reid was a criminal, is all immaterial. Reid had done time and there probably was a gun. (None of the reporting I am seeing confirms one way or the other).

But what cause did the officer have to swear repeatedly? To act aggressive?

Officers are professionals. It’s the job of a customer service representative to give you your product or service with a smile. It’s the job of officers to serve the public.

When we forget that, we take another step towards losing our most cherished civil liberties.


State of the Union and the Republicans

So it appears that Obama made some fairly extreme agenda points in his State of the Union speech, which everyone knows is pretty much gamesmanship to try to distinguish the Democrats from the Republicans (after the Democrat’s strategy of “Be Republicans that sound nicer” hasn’t been working in midterms).

And one thing that pretty much everyone agrees is political dynamite is the idea of raising taxes on the top 2% of earners (amongst other things including a lot of loopholes and eliminating some deductions) to get the deficit down.

So, remember: Any time Republicans posture that they have concerns about security, or about the deficit, or entitlement spending…

Every one of those things is secondary to making sure that the rich have to pay anything like they might in any other industrial country, or what they had to pay during some of the years of America’s greatest prosperity.
The Republican party is the party of class warfare that would rather protect the most powerful people on the planet than, say, human survival.

Just so that’s clear.


Missing A Great Man

Today is the day we celebrate a prophet.

It’s going to be a tough day for me. I already am fighting back tears.

But it’s important to listen again to Dr. King’s speeches.

Because it’s been more than fifty years since his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech, and we still can fly the air like birds, and swim the seas like fish, and talk across the whole world like angels, and we have been reminded this month that we still do not walk the Earth as brother and sister.

But let us not cry. Let us rejoice.

Because Dr. King believed that we could find that world.

Let’s live up to his faith in us.