Chungking Espresso

Newsgames and Documentary

Posted in Columns, Film, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on January 16, 2009
I know you’ve already looked at the title and exclaimed: “Cinema Envy!” Well step off it for a moment, because I’m not going to sit here and lament how newsgames “aren’t as good” as documentaries. Rather, I’d like to take a look at the various sub-genres of documentary in order to identify some room for new types of newsgames that we might not have seen yet. Along the way, I’ll make some  comparisons between works in both media. I promise not to analyze them using the same standards or theories. I’ll also try to avoid stepping on Ayo’s toes here, because she’s planning on upcoming post on the value of transparent bias and reflexivity in film and games

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There are some games that are painfully reminiscent of the cliché of “talking head” documentaries. Ian and I examined a game called Homeland Guantanamos earlier in the semester about an alien (both legal and illegal) detention facility and one particularly troubling death that took place there. What started out as an intriguing investigation simulation quickly turned into a series of poorly motivated fetch quests linking together video clips of interviews with detainees. The makers almost seem to have given up on editing a properly engaging documentary and instead “settled” on making a video game, a medium they apparently associate with sloppy narrative and multimedia-happy tedium. The idea of going into a detainment area for unwanted or criminally suspect aliens does however call to mind Fred Wiseman’s work on High School and Titicut Follies. These are basically one of the precursors (print muckraking or “yellow journalism” being the other) to investigative TV reporting.

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Investigative journalism works in any medium – for a time. By transposing oneself onto the camera’s POV, both Wiseman films and investigative news allow one to gain access to secret or contested spaces; however, recent studies have shown that TV viewers are perceiving such “soft journalism” as a poor turn for television news. And we don’t see documentaries like Born Into Brothels or Iraq In Fragments causing the same amount of public commotion as did Titticut Follies, which – along with works such as Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish – raised widespread concern over the well-being of people held in mental health facilities.

Perhaps its time for serious games to step up to the plate and take on the muckraking mantle? I don’t think it’s diminutive to say that what counts as soft news in TV and film is much “harder” than most of the material one comes across in video games: it’s a nice place to start and develop from. Video games simulate processes and spaces better than any other medium, and they grant a modicum of control that aids engagement with an issue. What I’m saying is, Homeland Guantanamos could have been a really important newsgame. If a game similar to Molleindustria’s McDonald’s tasked itself with focusing on one of its four mini-simulators, say the cattle processing plant, then something far more meaningful than an investigative report would emerge. PETA’s Mama Kills Turkeys pairs the familiar Cooking Mama sim with shocking video footage of poultry plants. This could have been a really persuasive piece, but the work falls mostly on deaf ears because the game itself doesn’t focus on the troubling part of the cultural phenomenon (namely, the mistreatment of animals in processing plants).

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Moving on, “intimate” documentaries are an intriguing branch of the genre that we really don’t see converted into the newsgame medium. Art video games such as Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation and Passage seem to share a lot in common with the experimental home movies of Stan Brakhage, but this kind of document doesn’t really count as news. I’m talking more about games that would relate one person’s own point-of-view on a current or historical news story. If you’re my age, then you hear all the time about our parents were doing when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination or the Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Lots of films dealing with the period call upon these nostalgic moments, so it’d be exciting to play a game that simulates the feeling of anxiety or wonder at watching these events unfold.

Ross McElwee makes some of my favorite intimate documentaries, and he deals with many issues that would fit comfortably within “serious” gaming: love, death, religion. His Sherman’s March starts off as an exploration of the historical event and quickly spirals off into his own march through legions of “eligible” Southern bachelorettes. It might seem like I’m harping for more first-person perspectives in newsgames, but it seems like the metaphor used in McElwee films is an entertaining and accessible way to approach historical and current issues. One game called Medieval Unreality, a collection of personal reflections on blood feuds in Albania created as an Unreal mod, replicates this model (in a necessarily less humorous way than McElwee). What we have here is a violent FPS being turned into a non-violent, collaborative meditation on loss and reconciliation – accomplished through metaphor and evocative imagery.

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Next, some documentaries seek to muddy the waters of truth and falsity about a news event. The Thin Blue Line and Capturing the Friedmans are some good examples of this. The latter reminds me of a nightmarish nonfiction version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where each new firsthand account of a supposed mass molestation brings the viewer further and further away from understanding the “facts” of what happened. A game like Kuma’s John Kerry’s Silver Star Mission could have accomplished something like this. The company claims that their game will “present the player with the facts needed to decide what happened” the day Kerry supposedly ran a swiftboat nose-first into an embattled beach and shot a fleeing Viet Cong at great personal risk. In the middle of Kerry’s presidential race, conflicting perspectives on what exactly occurred during that mission arose and brought into question whether or not he deserved his Silver Star. Instead of showing both accepted and dissenting versions of the events, the game simply regurgitates Kerry’s own story.

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Another example, closest to the goal of The Thin Blue Line, is the JFK Reloaded game that seeks to show how hard it would have been to make the Oswald’s killing shot from the depository. This was to be the world’s first “mass-participation forensic construction” of a historical crime, and a contest was held to see who could get closest to matching the conditions claimed in the Warren Commission. Ian’s written before about the shaky ground on which video “evidence” stands in court cases and the rising acceptance of simulations in courtrooms, and I’ve also read a bit about the Innocence Project that seeks to get convicts off of death row by exposing flaws in their legal proceedings. Newsgames dealing with such contested court cases seem to be an obvious direction for such simulations to develop.

Finally, many newsgames seem to follow the “Michael Moore” style of wildly biased “documentary” work. Moore’s early work on Roger and Me and The Big One cast the director as a crusader for the underdog on a highly personal quest. For a few years, it was touching to see him approach the business leaders he criticized with pleas for their participation in the work. Since Bowling for Columbine, these pleas have struck a discordant tone with more and more viewers – raising such questions as, “is a senile old bat like Charlton Heston really the bad guy here?”

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I personally think that September 12th makes its argument against “tactical bombing” pretty well, but that might only be because I already agree with its premise. Someone trained in counterterrorism or ballistics might have good reason to disagree with this premise – namely, it’s blatantly reductionist and it doesn’t propose an alternative solution to the war on terror. Some of Molleindustria’s work can also be seen in this light. See my post on their McDonald‘s game and how it ignores some verification work that might otherwise strengthen its model. These games are most similar to Moore’s Sicko and Fahrenheit 9/11: we know what they’re arguing against – and they do it well – but whether we agree with them in the end is usually reliant on the opinions we enter into playing/watching them with.

These Moore documentaries, and the newsgames I’m comparing them, work because their bias is transparent. Moore’s habit to skew the order of certain timelines in his films aside, everybody knows what they’re getting into when they pay ten dollars for a ticket. As long as the makers of these newsgames don’t actively seek to decieve their players, then I can’t see anyone mounting a strong opposition to them based on bias. Newsgames aren’t satisfied with presenting facts. Unlike traditional print and TV news, they task themselves with persuading players to see an issue their way. It might be necessary to take a more nuanced or balanced approach – presenting both sides of a contentious subject matter and letting the player decide which is more plausible – before we see these games make any converts.

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