Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Headlines, Violence, and Cynicism

The headlines this morning were hard.  Another mass shooting, this one close to home, close enough that I found myself doing a mental inventory of everyone I know who works for the Navy.   I remember touring the museum there a few years back, and wandering the decks of the decommissioned destroyer Barry with an excitable herd of cub scouts.  

What's hardest about these deaths is the depth of our resignation towards these spasms of violence as a culture.  There's just nothing, nothing that can be done, we say.  And sometimes I feel this, and feel it strongly.  This is simply the way things are.   When violent angry men misuse their freedom, people...children, soldiers, teachers, first responders...will die.  Period.  We just have to do what we do, and accept this as the pattern of existence.  If it seems overwhelming, well, there are plenty of other places we can look to distract us.

Assuming those distractions aren't somehow echoes of the horror outside.

Like, say, the headlines in the gaming world, which today trumpet the latest installment of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto franchise as it goes to market.   Though I regularly read gaming news, as a gamer, I've been slacking a bit lately.  Part of it is income-related, as I have trouble justifying dropping fifty bucks on something we don't really need.

But part of it is that nothing particularly appeals to me.  And this I say as one who plays a wide range of games, from Real Time Strategy to casual to puzzlers to platformers to multiplayer combat sims.

What I don't like playing, though, are games that immerse me in a world or ethos that I find unpleasant. And Rockstar is particularly talented at unpleasantness.  Their notable genius as game designers is almost entirely turned to that purpose.   Even Red Dead Redemption, their brilliantly designed and realized Western-themed sandbox game, was too infused with a dark and cynical spirit for my tastes.  

Reading through the glowing reviews of the latest Grand Theft Auto...a solid nine of ten on Gamespot, and a full fledged perfect 10 on IGN...I found myself reading a dark harmony between the reviews and what I've been reading in the headlines that tell the story of our world.

Grand Theft Auto V, or so the IGN reviewer tells us, is a satire of American culture.  It paints a singular picture of our world, shining a fierce and unforgiving light on the ways in which our society is broken and hateful.   Kids are lazy, useless slackers, or empty-headed consumers.  Spouses are all unfaithful.   Leaders are corrupt and manipulative, and corporations are even more so.  Everyone is just out to make a buck.  To quote from that review:
There is nothing in San Andreas, though, that doesn't serve Rockstar's purpose in creating an exaggerated projection of America that's suffused with crime, violence, and sleaze.  There are no good guys in GTA V.  Everyone you meet is a sociopath, narcissist, lunatic, sadist, cheat, liar, layabout, or some combination of those.
The reviewer for Gamespot struggles with that a bit more, perhaps because she's a woman, and the view of women in GTA is...well...let's just say there's not a single female character worth knowing.   They're all two-dimensional objects, "b*tches and hoes", and while this is nominally part of the "satire," that's not enough.  As she puts it: 
With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism.
But let me suggest that this worldview is not just misogyny.  If men are invariably violent, brutal, and monstrous, the story GTA V tells about them is just as "insane and wrong."

And that, I think, starts to get at the essential challenge of satire, parody, and cynicism.  I love good satire as much as anyone.  It can be a fierce and prophetic tool for tearing a hole in our darkness.  But if it is not counterbalanced, not leavened with hope and grace, then it becomes something rather different.

The story that Rockstar tells, the world they have so brilliantly created?  In that world, there's no reason not to destroy and inflict horror. Human beings are inherently monstrous, so deeply flawed that there is no possibility of good.  Why not just do whatever you want?  Why not steal and kill and torture?  What does it matter?  Cynicism may seem like a justified response to horror, but it is a response that ultimately feeds the darkness rather than defying it.

It's why I prefer not to spend time in Rockstar's worlds, but it's also a good reminder of the dangers of giving up in this one.