Carrot meet stick…stick, meet carrot.

OK. Since my usual tricks of motivation aren’t working (put EWTN on until I start writing. It annoys me and goads me into working. If that doesn’t work I go to the 700 Club webstream.) I re-upped my City of Warehouses (that’s City of Heroes/Villains) account. I liked the game, just didn’t have the time to play.

So it’s patching. And I’m giving the Frood instructions to change my password to something unbreakable (he’s a computer security guy) until this paper is handed in. Really 5000 words isn’t hard, and the assignment was “Write something. Have fun with it.”

Confessional mode of paper blathering seems to work for me. Pass if uninterested. This paper i’m currently writing is a response to a panel I was on last spring. They put me on a panel of nothing but war games (I was discussing a hacker sim), but the people discussing them really ignored the larger issues of those games, namely the inherent racism and propaganda of your average war game. I guarantee if you’re playing Kuma War, you probably won’t be dealing with the same kinds of emotional issues our men and women over there are. The presentation of these games is a highly sanitized version of the war. In Kuma War, for instance, it’s nothing more than a game of Counterstrike in the desert. That’s also ignoring any ugly racial stereotyping that’s going on. (Command and Conquer is notorious in that regard.)

I’m discussing the game Defcon. The game was roughly inspired by the thermonuclear war game in “Wargames” with Matthew Broderick. Basically, it’s a real-time strategy game of nuclear war, and the objective is to lose the least. (The domain name doesn’t lie. Everyone dies in the game.)

Might want to download and play the demo first. It’s worth it. Keep kleenex nearby, though, especially if you remember the Cold War. I don’t remember if you can play in real time in the demo, but if you can, make sure you are. The effect is quite different than the sped up times. This is one game that needs time to work. One game can either take minutes or hours, depending.

I’m positing that this game does convey the emotional cost of war, and its means are similar to the films “The War Game” and “Threads.” If I have the space in my paper and can work it in, I need to discuss the game “Fallout,” since it’s a direct precursor to Defcon, and the soundtrack is very similar, although the two games have vastly different emotional impacts. (Fallout is more of a dark comedy. Fallout is to Defcon like “Dr. Strangelove” is to “The War Game.”)

Here’s where I momentarily start talking out my ass because I’m not a film studies person.

Now when you’re dealing with nuclear war films, the dramatic impact comes because the viewer can identify with something in the film. For instance in the film “Testament,” just about everyone can identify with the family in it. We care about what’s going on, and there’s a layer of reality to it that is shattered by the nuclear attack. (Think “The Day After.”) These kinds of films are social problem narratives, as one of my authors calls them, and they’re heavily based upon American made-for-TV movies.

Then you have another kind of film, namely “Threads” and “The War Game.” “Threads” has some elements of the social problem narratives (we meet a young couple, they have the same kinds of problems other young couples do, we meet their families, etc.) But it also is presented as a kind of documentary. “The War Game,” as well. The dramatic impact of these films is a result of the dehumanization of the material, unlike the social problem narrative. However, there is still some element of humanity in it. We care about the firefighters in “The War Game,” because it gives us something to latch onto that isn’t pure information, for instance.

So back to video games…When you start a game in Defcon (N. B. My take on video game studies is heavily influenced by social semiotics. As such, I believe that every layer of discourse is important and conveys semantic meaning for the whole.) you’re confronted with a large world map. It’s like any other kind of real-time strategy game. You place your units, you make or break alliances, and then the bombs start flying.

However, the music is what conveys the bleakness. The map itself is dehumanizing, but underneath the music and intrinsic sound (the noises you’d expect to hear, bombs exploding, beeps, and alerts, etc) the music is like Samuel Barber meets Giya Kancheli. While the attack plays towards its inevitable end, the music is a direct contrast to the violence. It’s peaceful, minimal, and almost completely static. Mixed with the music are ambient noises (radio sounds, people talking, people crying, a garbled recitation of the Lord’s Prayer). I realize I need to come up with a better discussion for my paper, but words really don’t do it justice, nor do they adequately convey the emotional impact of the game. It’s ironic without falling into the irony of Dr. Strangelove. (Think the irony of Britten’s War Requiem.) As you progress from Defcon 5 to Defcon 1, the music becomes quieter and sparser. (Sorta. Defcon 3, is the quietest, then things pick up during Defcon 2, but then you’re back to stillness for Defcon 1. You don’t really get the effect if you’re playing the game in demo mode. This really becomes evident when you’re playing in real time.) The music is dark and brutal, but it’s never manipulative.

The soundtrack keeps the player from completely disassociating, and when it’s time to launch the nukes, you hesitate and wonder just what the hell you think you’re doing. Maybe it’s just me, but I bawled the first time I played the game. I think it’s also telling that one of the first fan-based mods of the game replaced the music with more shoot-em-up music.

End paper blather.

There’s no way you could ever get this kind of game on a non-independently published game, nor would you find a soundtrack like it. Here’s my DXM-laced beef about games lately. Adorno was right. When you start moving towards a consumerist model of production and consumption, creativity goes down the shitter. Why else would we have sequel after sequel and WoW clone after WoW clone? Because they sell. Because publishers will pick them up and game companies will get a payoff after the hundreds of thousands of dollars they had to put in to the game as venture capital.

I think video games are important artifacts of our culture and society. I think video games will influence how people relate to art. It’s not an accident that interactive art and sound installation takes off after the advent of video games, in my not-so-humble opinion, since you have an entire generation conditioned to accept the kind of interactivity and sounds you’d find in those kinds of artwork. But I think video games could be so much more than they are. We won’t ever find out, so long as people are interested in just making money, though. I have to wonder if people 20-30 years after films started gaining popularity thought that there could ever be art in film. Is there art in video games? I dunno. I don’t think we have enough context, and the genre is too new yet.


~ by Jen on March 8, 2008.

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