Friday, 13 December 2013

Getting Shot At In All My Guises

I'm used to being shot at in games. I'm intimate with it, with the experience of viewing myself through the sights of a gun, with depressing a trigger that brings release and relief from being and wholeness for both the bullet and the me the bullet interrupts. Being subject and object holds no fear for me, as whichever is destroyed I know that I will continue. I remember my sister complaining that her boyfriend sat around in front of her just playing games where he shot Germans without realising that it might upset her but I knew the problem was deeper than that. We're always killing someone in games, it's just something I learned to be down with because I like playing them. Killing myself, or at least my great grand parents, on a regular basis just made things a whole lot more honest. It humanised everything else I've ever killed.

Of course, we don't really kill Germans in our computer games any more, if we ever did. As the atrocities fade into history, the stock Nazi villains that populated early shooters have developed an armour of camp and irrelevance. Too many other players have caught up with me and can see themselves, or someone like them, in the ordinary soldiers. Duty now calls upon you to kill brown people instead, for the most part, (the rhetoric of culpability remains, shorn of any shred of the justificatory logic it might have held) so I've been dodging that particular bullet for a number of years. Except that they aren't people at all, they're Terrorists, who are like Nazis but without the sexy uniforms. They're an ideology wrapped up in flesh for you to try to wipe out: you can't shoot an idea, but maybe if you can trap it in a fragile mind you have a chance of deleting it once and for all. Every repeated instance.

(But ideologies don't work like that anyway. They are external to the minds that they touch upon and change, like the protagonist in Geist they are unaffected by the death of the host. Execution and war become punishment; punishment for every German's culpability in the holocaust whether they were a Nazi or not. It's a ritual, but one that's hidden from the player - referencing the one reason the war was worth prosecuting would fundamentally spoil the fun of prosecuting it again and again and again. My favourite, personalised, example of the disinterest displayed in the true horror of Nazism is Call of Duty's General Heinrich Amsel. In a game that slavishly recreates the weapons that mechanised death no-one researched the names of the villains. Heinrich Amsel would never have fought for the Nazis, he would have been obliterated by them, because Amsel is a German-Jewish surname. So it goes.)

This is all a preamble to what was to be my main point but maybe isn't any more: why I don't feel that there's anything wrong when I gun down the mentally ill in games. I mean, I do think that there's something wrong, something massively wrong, it's just that I'm used to it. I can't always feel the disgust that I know I probably should. I'm far too used to it.

The mentally ill make for good villains, across all media in fact. You see, we just don't stop, we don't know how. We can't listen to reason, so the question of the appropriateness of force is taken away from you, the protagonist. We make things easy as well, because ultimately, we want to die. Not the clean, pure death urge of the hero either, who stakes his life on the promise of a better world; we just want to be put out of our misery.

It's bullshit, of course. Stigmatising bullshit at that, coming from the same root formulation of moral innateness that allows us to bomb civilians because they look like our enemies and fuelled by a desire to have new villains as uncontroversially evil as the Nazis until recently have been able to be. But I've seen it again and again. Its in the cutscene where a defeated enemy attacks again, justifying the final blow. It's on the choice tree that pops up when an antagonist's eyes clear, reason returns and he begs for an end; and I've provided it. In horror games where the horror is that your mind may not be your own so you obliterate any evidence of what you may become. The mad are both cause and victim of the evil that threatens you.

Even cures are worthless, the popular anti-psych message about medication is that it turns you into a zombie: unfeeling and unaffected; effectively unable to contribute in a meaningful way any more. And, well, the good thing about zombies is how fun they are to kill, how many you can wade through without any feeling of remorse. They are better off dead; both the victim and the cause of the evil that threatens you.

It should stop, though. We need to be able to tell the difference between madness and malice. We need to be able to show the difference between madness and malice, because ideologies spread in a way that madness doesn't. But the secret I know is that we'll always need enemies to populate our fantasies of opposition, and my complicity in this narrative power structure is as unavoidable as my complicity in global inequality. But then, if there's one thing I've learnt from my ancestry it's that an awareness and acceptance of your past is vital for the work of doing things better in the future.