The Day the "Fun" Became Real
"I can't take it in," said my English friend. "You have to understand. To us in Britain, this looks like something out of Hollywood."
Like something out of Hollywood. It rang true; the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center sound very much like the plot of a grade-B action film. "Shadowy foreign arch-villain commits monstrous act of terrorism in an attempt to ignite a world war, resulting in an apocalyptic explosion and the death of thousands." It resembled many a sight that we've already watched on the silver screen. However, this time there was no Steven Segal or Jean-Claude van Damme around to save the day. It wasn't fiction, it was horribly real. But, disturbingly, it looked like fiction.
If the terrorists' objective was simply to kill people, they might have been able to kill more of them by other, less dramatic means. After all, the Hutus in Rwanda managed to kill nearly a million Tutsis in only a hundred days, using little more than AK-47s and machetes, a rate of slaughter that dwarfs even the Holocaust. However, the terrorists did not simply want to kill people; they wanted to create a public spectacle. Not an entertainment spectacle, to be sure, but a spectacle nevertheless: one guaranteed to shock, horrify, and amaze. In this they succeeded, perhaps even beyond their own expectations.
And who are the arbiters of what is and is not spectacular these days? Who establishes the standard for really bitchin' explosions? We do. We in the entertainment industry have the dubious privilege of setting the world's expectations for calamity. How many times have you looked over a colleague's shoulder, playing a new game at the office, and said, "Wow! Cool!" after some particularly impressive piece of destruction? Our works were the example that the terrorists were trying to live up to. After blowing up a couple of embassies, murdering a few GI's in Saudi Arabia for practice — tutorial mode, you know — they've just made it up to our level.
Three years ago, in my column Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!, I wrote that one of the things I disliked in games was neat, tidy explosions:
Look closely at a picture of a place where a bomb went off. It's a mess. A really big mess. Things are broken into pieces of all sizes, from chunks that are nearly the whole object, to shrapnel and slivers, down to dust. They're twisted, shredded, and barely recognizable. Things that are blown up by a bomb don't fall neatly apart into four or five little polygons — they're blasted to smithereens.
I suppose for the sake of our stomachs we'll have to preserve the TV and film fiction that people who die violently do so quickly and quietly rather than screaming and rolling around; but I don't see any need to pretend that high explosives are less than appallingly destructive. Bombs ruin things - lives and buildings. "They leave the places where they've been shattered and unattractive. Let's tell the truth about them.
No, this isn't another hand-wringing piece about the social cost of violence in video games. Video games don't motivate Osama Bin Laden — I doubt if he has ever even seen one - and plenty of people play video games without turning into Bin Ladens. What concerns me is not the violence per se, but our attitude towards it.
I'm sure we've all sat in production meetings that sounded like this:
Designer: "OK. So there's going to be this group of terrorists, and they're going to try to blow up the Empire State Building—"
Producer: "No way, man, the Empire State Building is old news. It's gotta be the tallest. The tallest building in America is the Sears Tower in Chicago."
Marketing: "Yeah, but nobody cares what happens in Chicago."
Designer: "Well, the tallest building in the world is the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur."
Marketing: "Where's that, like Indonesia? Really nobody cares what happens in Indonesia."
Designer: "Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia."
Marketing: "I rest my case."
Producer: "No, it's gotta be in America. And it's gotta be New York or L.A., not some Midwest town like Chicago."
Marketing: "What about Seattle? The Space Needle? Seattle's hip these days."
Producer: "Do you know anything about gamers? Seattle is only hip to Frazier-watching yuppies and Microsoft clones. Nah, it's gotta be something big. Big like L.A is big."
Designer: "Los Angeles doesn't have any famous tall buildings. Maybe we could blow up the Rose Bowl."
Producer: "Like anybody would care. No, it's gotta be something that we can watch fall down."
Designer: "OK… how about the World Trade Center? It's not the tallest building in America, but it's right in downtown Manhattan, and it's got two towers. We could blow them both up."
Producer and Marketing [together]: "Yeah!"
Don't cringe; if you've been in this business more than six months, you know perfectly well this is exactly how those meetings go. If it sounds in bad taste now, after it has really taken place, why wasn't it in bad taste before it happened? Why is mass murder just good fun in prospect, and bad taste in retrospect?
After the Second World War, Charlie Chaplin said that if he had realized what was really going on in Germany, he would never have made The Great Dictator. As it was with Fascism then, so it is with terrorism now. We in the entertainment industry can no longer treat terrorism as a generic pretext for a stupid, shallow game or movie. Of course, we never should have in the first place. We felt we had the freedom to do so because terrorism was someone else's problem, something that happened in Belfast or Tel Aviv or Medellín.
Our leaders are calling it a war. The enemy is one that crosses all borders, all races, creeds, colors and ethnicities. The enemy is not a group of people, but an idea: that terrorism is an acceptable means to achieve political ends. The first thing that we have to do in combating that idea is to take it seriously; to treat it not as a minor problem that happens elsewhere, but an insidious threat to all people everywhere.
For a while, we will replace our vapid terrorism movies with desperately earnest and respectful terrorism movies, just as we did with movies about the Second World War. Perhaps later on we'll be able to produce savage satires in the vein of Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5. And 50 years from now we'll be distorting history just as U-571 did in claiming that it was the Americans, rather than the British, who salvaged an Enigma machine from a captured German submarine. Maybe somebody will make a movie in which the events of September 11 are depicted as the work of the Khmer Rouge or the Shining Path.
In the meantime, I have another question. Now that terrorism isn't "just good fun" any more, what other clichés of action games and movies are we blithely accepting today that will seem like extremely bad taste in the future?
Back when Michael Meyers was making Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, he filmed a couple of scenes showing the grieving families and friends of the nameless henchmen that Austin Powers had killed. It was a brilliant idea, questioning our careless acceptance of that old standby of action movies and games, the disposable bad guy. However, Meyers cut the scenes before the film was released. He felt they weren't funny and didn't belong in a lighthearted romp like Austin Powers. He chose to conform to the existing pattern rather than confront it.
Maybe in a hundred years — and I realize this could be a naïve fantasy — human life will have more value. Perhaps people will look back on those video games in which we mindlessly blow people away in the hundreds, and be as appalled by them as we are by Roman gladiators today....I think Michael Meyers should have left those scenes in.