Chungking Espresso

Beyond Good and Evil and Photographic “Truth”

Posted in Game Analysis, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on April 22, 2009

Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games research blog. So go comment there, not here!

It’s time for another post in which I show how a mainstream videogame manages to capture the spirit of a particular aspect of journalism better than any existing edu-game on the same subject! This month’s game is Beyond Good & Evil, an artifact that shares with Psychonauts the distinction of being a relatively late entry in the sixth generation of videogames that didn’t sell nearly as much as it should have considering its critical reception and creative flair.

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Everything one needs to know about BG&E is masterfully presented within the first thirty minutes of playing the game. A newscast cinematic opens the experience, with Hyllis’s most popular newscaster Fehn Digler (Fehn, a Scandinavian surname, is apparently the forename of all “goat sapientes”) announcing an oncoming wave of alien enemies called the DomZ (perhaps a riff on Ubisoft’s own Petz series). He transfers control of the broadcast over to the voice of General Kex of the Alpha Sections – an intergalactic military that is purportedly protecting the people of Hillys from the DomZ. He begins, “Loyal Hillians, the impending battle will be a difficult one, but thanks to the Alpha Sections…” before being cut off by a fadeout to the protagonist, Jade, meditating on a rock. Both Fehn Digler and General Kex are instantly set in opposition to Jade by this  somewhat disruptive cut. Although the name “Fehn Digler”  connotes the historical form of investigative journalism known as muckracking, he in fact aligns with the propagandistic Alpha Sections. When the introductory DomZ invasion begins, Jade springs into action and is captured in a series of black-and-white photograph snaps—Jade is a rugged photojournalist, an independent force flying in the face of the Alpha Sections’ media hegemony.

Jade is a spunky female of unknown ethnicity. Her ambiguous features hearken back to the famous 1993 Time magazine cover claiming to show the “New Face of America” and precede by a year the most famous multi-ethnic videogame heroine, Alyx Vance of Half-Life 2. Her name carries with it connotations of East Asian and Mesoamerican ornamentation. The name “Jade” also indirectly appeals to the game’s title, Beyond Good and Evil. The famous blaxploitation film Ebony, Ivory, and Jade features two female protagonists (one white, one black), and a male protagonist named Jade. Ebony and Ivory, black and white, traditionally invoke the concepts of Good and Evil. The third element, Jade, rests outside this dichotomy. Jade is mineralogically “tough,” and its earliest use was as a sharp weapon—thus connoting both beauty and the ability to “cut through” to the truth of a situation. Also important to BG&E‘s endgame is the fact that a 19th century French scientist discovered that what was known as jade was in fact two different rocks.

The game’s secondary protagonist is Pey’j, Jade’s gruff pig “uncle.” Pigs are significant in reference to jade in Chinese history. Some of the earliest depictions of a Chinese dragon, carved out of jade, are the zhulong or “pig dragon” ouroboros artifacts crafted in neolithic China.  The Pig is the final entrant of the Chinese zodiac, having lost the Jade Emperor’s race in mythological times. Accordingly, pigs in the Chinese zodiac are depicted as vulnerable, which explains why Jade often finds herself protecting her rotund uncle.  Another characteristic of pigs in the Chinese zodiac that Pey’j isn’t is naïve: from the beginning of the game, Pey’j is highly suspect of the Alpha Sections. His name is clearly a pun on the word “page,” connoting both a medieval servant to a knight (in this case, Jade) and a unit of print media.

Despite featuring a strong female, multi-ethnic protagonist, BG&E mires itself in tedious cultural stereotyping. A Latino colleague watched me play the opening hour of the game, and the flamboyant simpering of the AI character Secundo made my face flair with shame for being a gamer. Some of the game’s voice acting and sound design are so ethnically fetishistic and colonial that it was hard for me to stomach the opening acts.

The “animal sapientes” that inhabit Hillys are fairly derivative of the tropes established by Gullah folk stories of the “Bruh Rabbit” tradition. I have two words for you, words that I hope are never made manifest in code by a videogame ever again: Gullah Rhino. I get the joke—displaced Africans living on an island—but I’m not amused. So much effort clearly went into making Jade race-neutral in speech and facial features that I don’t really understand why the makers decided to go with such hackneyed ethnic tropes for the Secundo and Mammago characters.

Moving on. The IRIS Network is an intergalactic organization of operatives and “correspondents” that seek to disrupt the machinations of the Alpha Sections. Their primary modus operandi is the creation of counter-propaganda in the form of newsprint and radio. Calling themselves a “network” of course denotes network television news. The fact that their agents are called correspondents only deepens this connection. The root network of the Yellow Iris is used in natural water purification , a fact which might or might not be an intended connection on the designer’s part—the Network attempts to “cure” the media occlusion caused by the Alpha Sections’ propaganda.

The irides of our eyes control the amount of light that reaches our retinas by expanding and contracting the pupil. Diseases of the irides directly affect one’s ability to see; similarly, the IRIS Network also controls the information that Jade receives throughout the course of the game. Although a seemingly benevolent force (perhaps the Good to the Alpha Section’s Evil), players and Jade immediately question the motivations of the IRIS Network after they introduce themselves to Jade through a deceit: they send Jade on a fool’s errand into the heart of an ancient mine as a test of her abilities. Mr. Hahn’s ridiculous transformation from the Cadillac-driving Mr. De Castellac to a blue collar taxi driver both confirms player suspicions that the Network is not to be trusted while connecting the organization to working class values. Jade finally meets with IRIS in the Akuda Bar, inside of which a dub song constantly drones a one-word chorus: “propaganda.”

The gameplay of Beyond Good & Evil is almost entirely derivative of two Nintendo products: Ocarina of Time and the Metroid Prime series. That said, the fracturing of the self-contained adventure game protagonist into units of Jade/Pey’j and Jade/Double H is both a vital move on the part of more and more recent game designers and cause for quite a bit of realtime narrative and engaging puzzle platforming. The important connection for us is that derived from Metroid: Jade’s camera functions almost identically to Samus’s scanning visor. Not only can it take pictures, but it can also access data terminals. Photography comprises roughly 1/6 of one’s time in the game, as players are practically required to snap nature photographs of plants, animals, and DomZ for a preservation society in order to maintain a steady stream of revenue. Perhaps predicting the recent crisis in print journalism, Jade’s career as a photojournalist has fallen on hard times. The pictures in her studio are of the orphans she takes care of—not what one would usually expect to see in a professional reporter’s darkroom. Before acquiring the nature photography job from Secundo, Jade doesn’t have enough of a line of credit to afford basic power needs or transportation costs.

The use of nature photography, in which verisimilitude is demanded by the needs for preservation and education, is important in understanding the naïve assumptions about photographic truth upon which Beyond Good and Evil rely. Jade’s mission from the IRIS Network is to infiltrate key Alpha Sections installations in order to photograph their unmasked faces and the plight of their hostages:

Every proof we can find relating to this conspiracy will bring us more and more support from the people. A general uprising would allow us to overthrow the Alpha Sections; if the revolt spreads we may be able to end this war, but we need photographic evidence to find out exactly what’s going on[…]

Alpha is the transparency value in digital image manipulation. As a cohesive, unquestioned whole the Alpha Sections are completely oblique. By disrupting and photographing their operations, Jade will increase media transparency and arrive at “the truth.” At the end of the game Jade’s photographs, published under the pseudonym “Shauni” (a name which apparently shares a Hebrew root with Jeanne, meaning “God’s Grace” and therefore associating Jade with Jeanne d’Arc’s goal of driving the invaders from a homeland), do in fact bring about a revolution against the Alpha Sections.

Which leads one to ask, “Why, in a distant future full of anthropomorphized space animals and flying cars, would anyone believe in the integrity of a photograph?” Tweens know how to use Photoshop. Critics questioned Robert Flaherty’s construction of early documentaries such as Nanook of the North roughly an entire century ago (in the 1920s). The game’s title references Nietzsche’s own Beyond Good and Evil, which demands that not that morality be abandoned outright but that philosophers throw away dated (neo-Platonic, Christian) concepts such as “truth,” “knowledge,” and “free will.” Unfortunately, the game only serves to affirm the completely outmoded concept of documentary reality. The game’s ending is somewhat revelatory,  but it can’t honestly be described as “cutting through to the truth.” Players are hand-fed the narrative conclusion and its moral. What the game never explains is how the Alpha Sections gained power in Hyllis, we are told only that “the government was caught off guard.” It doesn’t explain why seemingly the entire populace suffers and accepts the blatant, omnipresent propaganda of Fehn Digler and General Kex. We don’t learn much about how media control comes about, and we don’t learn a feasible modus operandi for independent journalists.

In order to evolve, journalists might one day have to throw their claim to being able to discern and disseminate “truth.” On the other hand, so-called “citizen journalists,” if they hope to succeed in the fragmented environment of newsmaking on the web, are going to have to learn that objectivity is more difficult to attain than the simple snapping of a picture. If only a game so apparently concerned with disrupting propaganda and news media hegemony could have helped light the way.

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Follow Up: Against Escapism

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on January 16, 2009
My last post on how video games weren’t necessarily escapist (and the subject I initially set out to address: how they also might fit Chomsky’s propaganda model) raised quite a few objections, so I’d like to see if I can clarify my meaning on a few of those points. By the end, I’ll try to segue back onto the subject of newsgames and how they relate to this issue.

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On the subject of escapism. This is where I got myself into the most trouble. I failed both to understand how important the notion of escape is to many gamers and to clarify the exact type of escape I was addressing. I admit that many people play video games not to avoid thinking about the war on terror and the economic recession, but rather to avoid thinking about their jobs, relationships, and other more direct troubles. This comment from the last post that calls me to task most effectively:

My argument is that the very games that support the possibility of a noteworthy gaming industry are the ones that support escapism. […] This isn’t the escapism of the great depression, and nothing can quite be that, so to use the term in a modern context it *has* to be adapted to modern sensibilities. Otherwise you’re just saying the 1930s are over and little else. […] I don’t believe that the reasons people need an escape have stayed the same, since I think we an agree that it’s a cultural phenomenon, and our culture has changed.

What I’d like to point out is that alongside the Great Depression, people in the 30’s also had to deal with the same day-to-day problems that we still do – only to a perhaps heightened degree thanks to the partial-shattering of public spaces by recent information technology. If we’re going online and into video games to find interpersonal engagements, then I think this is an attempt to recreate these lost public spaces rather than to escape from their destruction.

Back on topic: the historical assumption – which might of course be a false one – is that people latched onto musicals and screwball comedy not to escape common woes such as having a belligerent boss or a nagging spouse, but specifically the larger social woes of economic depression and social stratification. I am unsure of the degree to which this is true, but I’m betting that a lot more people who play games are regularly worried about the economy and foreign policy than they are willing to admit on Internet gaming forums. Video games would be a likely place to go to avoid having to think about such issues. My assertion is that many video games deny players – at least players who pay attention to the story – a complete escape from these worries.

Many gamers and non-gamers are familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series, so it’s fertile ground for drawing points. This series has dealt with gang violence, drug use and distribution, poverty, immigration, and ethnic minority issues to a much greater degree than any other game franchise. Here’s one example: Ian has talked about the tacit argument that San Andreas makes about the food choices that many underprivileged Americans have in their neighborhoods – it inspired him to make his own game, Fat World, about the politics of nutrition. What this shows is that we can find connections to the real world even in a game featuring the primary mechanics of shooting guns and stealing cars. Whether or not one realizes it while they’re playing the game is a different issue – but it’s likely that these ideas do enter into our subconscious thoughts while we’re playing only to resurface later on (McGonigal’s idea of an “experience grenade”).

Whether you agree with his design criticism or not, Richard Bartle’s recent unexpected controversy over a torture quest in WotLK is proof towards my assertion. See, when people thought about the issue long enough to argue with Bartle they revealed the fact that they’d been thinking about the game and its moral implications all along (they were just choosing to ignore them in most cases). Users brought up examples of genocide, poisoning, animal cruelty, racism, and other questionable practices in WoW quests. Whether or not they thought the moral implications of these quests were serious enough to forego some easy experience points is irrelevant. People aren’t escaping from such real world issues by playing games, they’re dealing with them in highly structured ludic encounters because it’s a fun way to feel potency over realistically insurmountable problems.

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On the subject of catharsis. I guess people have quite a few different ideas on what catharsis actually is. This isn’t surprising, because our historical literary source for the word doesn’t do much to clarify its meaning. Despite whatever changes in definition the word may have experienced (most people seem to reduce it to meaning any sort of “release”), I refer specifically to its original use in Aristotle’s Poetics (and later, Politics): a purification of two emotions, fear and anxiety. Brenda Laurel (one of my favorite video game writers) has applied the Poetics to computing, but I haven’t read this book yet myself. I’m not convinced at the moment that the dramatic structure of a game is much like that of a Greek tragedy; however, I do think that Aristotle’s catharsis has some relevance to the issue of games and escapism.

I hold that escapism and Aristotelian catharsis are mutually exclusive. This comment from the last post encapsulates the counter-argument to my position:

You seem to draw a distinction between escapism and catharsis as they relate to art/media, and it is this distinction that I call into question. Is not the cathartic value of video games that which we use to escape from life’s ills? […] I would even argue that, because of the control they offer a player, many video games are even better methods of escapism than the glitzy movies and Broadway plays you reference. What better way to escape than to completely transport your conscious into that of a digital avatar, fighting the ills of modern life in a way only possible by way of video game?

Aristotle valued tragedy over comedy (any play with a happy ending, not necessarily funny) because it forced viewers to come to terms with their own beliefs, character flaws, and mortality. The Oedipus cycle is the prime example of such work: we’re forced to watch a good person and his family suffer for sins outside their own control. What I’m getting at here is this: taking control of a digital avatar in order to fight the ills of modern life is the opposite of escapism. A game confronts you with a problem, you can usually relate this problem to one you’ve observed in daily life or the news, and then you deal with it. The agency that games grant us in these simulated alternate versions of warzones and economically depressed neighborhoods is a way of “purifying” (catharsizing?) our fear and guilt over these situations.

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On the subject of the propaganda model. I definitely made a grave misstep when I mentioned the effects of modern shooters on the “tender” minds of young players. It wasn’t my intent to fall into the category of the anti-gaming scaremonger talking about the negative effects of games on children. One commenter that agreed with me based on perceiving my comments in this light wrote:

The fact is, most war games promote war… (as do many films, though many war films are also anti-war). Whether the hostiles are Mexican or Russian is useful to a point, but the greater issue is war begets war.

I don’t find this to be true at all. I’m staunchly anti-war and anti-violence; I’ve been playing violent video games since I was 4 years old, and I still don’t think violence solves real world problems. On the other hand, I think the idea of trying to remove violence as a primary mechanic in most mainstream games is misguided – at the least, it’s a bit hasty considering how long it took popular TV and film producers to realize that conflict wasn’t essential to plot progression. One of my professors, Celia Pearce, has a lovely anecdote that she shares whenever a “concerned adult” asks her about the psychological effects of violence in games: almost all mammals playfight, and they understand the difference between it and real violence. Surely your clever little children are at least as smart as puppy dogs and kitty cats?

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Chomsky’s propaganda model isn’t about dark government agencies embedding mind control into your media, it’s about subtly controlling public opinion through the exclusion of some stories and facts. If there are no AAA titles dealing explicitly with the war in Iraq, all this means is that the industry is missing out on a great opportunity to be the prime medium through which young Americans interact with the news. Instead of rehashing my half-formed ideas about the shortcomings of the mainstream gaming industry, I’d like to finally bring the subject back to newsgames.

The majority of newsgames, in that they don’t rely on corporate funding for their development, completely avoid the danger of falling into the propaganda model. In their unflinching goal of simulating experiences relevant to public issues, they avoid the pitfall of being labelled escapist and trivial by non-gamers. Even though I think its possible to recast mainstream gameplay as engaging real issues through metaphor or displacement, there’s still the fact that many players probably enter into them explicitly for escape. This is why newsgames have struggled to gain a popular following, I think: because one doesn’t start playing one of them as a means to cool off or forget about what’s happening outside.

People don’t avoid playing newsgames because they’re boring – quite the contrary, most of them build off of tried-and-true “fun” game mechanics and utilize the stylish Flash animation that has defined the most recent generation of TV cartoons. Rather, I suspect that they avoid them because they’re afraid of purposefully mixing their pleasure with intellectual engagement. I’ve struggled to show how mainstream video games might not be escapist, because I’d like to help break down the wall between the act of playing a shooter and the act of playing a newsgame.

Model Propaganda

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on November 28, 2008
(My article for JAG that got prematurely linked on Kotaku and eaten alive: follow up on the way.)
So we read Chomsky’s Propaganda Model earlier in the semester for insight into limiting forces on journalistic verification and transparency in mainstream news media. Before you discount this post as mental masturbation or the ramblings of another upper-middle class anaracho-syndicalist (which I’m not), I’d like to state clearly that I’m not going to suggest that there’s any sort of collusion between the video game industry and the government to prevent the production of video games dealing with touchy foreign policy issues (or any government issue for that matter); however, I’d like to dispel the common association of video games with harmless “escapism.”

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Coming from a background in film, the archetypal examples of escapism that pop into my mind are the Depression-era big budget musicals and screwball comedies. If you’ve never seen a Busby Berkeley musical, then you owe it to yourself to see some of these prototypical examples of “eye candy” that have informed the visual flair of most action movies, Broadway musicals, and even video games that we see today.

Warner Brothers was the only Hollywood studio to maintain independence during the Depression, and they did so by appealing to everyone’s desire to visually escape from the drudgery of daily life at the time. This is essentially the same method used by the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages, when cathedrals were the only place one could go to see a visual simulation of what Heaven might look like to a populace riddled with poverty. Screwball comedy poked fun at the foibles of the rich to show poor people that money didn’t necessarily make one happy.

The point I’m getting at here is that escapism works, quite literally, as an escape from real world ills. Video games don’t necessarily do this. If we sought an escape from violence and terrorism, then we wouldn’t have so many video games on the market focusing on just these two issues. Rather, many video games seek to provide catharsis for the mental ills that plague us all. We don’t see games about Iraq, but there are plenty of games that attempt to deal with the same “forces of evil” that fearmongering pundits fill our heads with through metaphor or displacement.

Even Mario wages battle against the totalitarian, (literally) draconian Bowser. Americans don’t like seeing freedom, safety, and capitalism toyed with (and the Japanese are happy to produce games that reflect our values exactly). WWII games used to be the most common FPSs besides scifi-themed shooters, but recently we’ve seen a market influx of “modern” shooters – Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare being the highest-quality example. If game company marketing departments advise against addressing current political situations directly in war shooters because of fiscal considerations (“we don’t want to alienate half of all potential buyers”), then we have a self-enforced limiting influence similar to the mainstream news propaganda model on our hands. I’m not saying that the cause is the same (government control), but the effects certainly are (avoiding sensitive subjects through a given medium).

I do think there is something troubling about the kind of shift from WWII shooters we’ve seen towards games positing Russian and Mexican terrorists as the enemy. One would do well to remember how quickly the American propaganda machine shifted from vilifying Germany to declaring a cold war on “Uncle Joe” after Berlin’s surrender. When you listen to any right-wing radio personality talk about his “solution” to our present sticky international relations situation, he reminds us that propaganda was essential toward the goal of hardening American hearts toward its enemies during and after WWII. CoD4 is particularly troubling because it posits Russian terrorists as having a controlling influence on Middle Eastern militants (this is actually a complete reversal of the truth of our having financed Bin Laden and others in their struggle against the USSR).

Currently we’re on the brink of seeing yet another cold war against Russia (our politicians use the war on terror to obscure this fact), and the “looming threat” of cheap foreign labor (particularly Mexican, on our own soil) troubles a majority of working class Americans. Both CoD4 and Battlefield: Bad Company deal with Russian enemies, while Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter I & II deal with terrorists on the US/Mexico border. All four of these games are both well-made and wildly popular; however, we must ask the question as to what it’s doing to our subconscious thoughts about foreign policy when we play games where we have to battle Russians and Mexicans instead of extremist Muslim terrorists. Are we not priming the minds of teenaged players toward future conflicts with these countries under the guise of avoiding touchy “real” military engagements?

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