Friday, September 28, 2007

Self-Criticism, and Media Saturation

So the whole point of this blog was to get me writing regularly, but it turns out that was more difficult than it seemed, for a few reasons:
(1) My consumption of culture seems to leave little time for writing about culture. Of course, any time I devote to writing about culture takes away from my time experiencing culture, thus diminishing the repository of material I have to write about. It's a vicious cycle!
(2) I write "long", as any of you who actually read my mammoth posts in their entirety probably know. I also edit pretty compulsively, and even then I'm rarely satisfied with the result. I kind of want to go back and rewrite half of that Medieval 2 post, for example - I know it's kind of a mess in some places.

There's not much I can do about (1) especially now that I have more class. With regards to (2), I'm going to start making some of my posts very brief. I will deliberately lower my standards on these posts so that they don't need to reach any sort of meaningful insight. I'll still do longer posts as well.

So, the first of these briefs (and a pretty good indication of the [minimal] level of thought you can expect these brief posts to demonstrate in the future):

From time to time I hear social pundits either lauding or lamenting the volume of media in our culture, as well as the ever-increasing avenues by which we can consume this media. Sorry, I don't have any links handy and you'll just have to take my word for it that pundits do talk about this. The idea is that technology has lowered the cost of publication so much that there is so much sheer quantity of media and other "stuff" out there that it's impossible for any one individual to apprehend and make sense of it all. I have so many MP3s on my hard drive I don't even recognize half of them, some people have so many digital photos its hard for them to remember the significance of any particular shot, and others have so many Facebook friends they write self-satisfied articles in Slate about rejecting people, and so on. (Bitter? Me? Nooooo.) As a related consequence, "culture," or at least mainstream culture, is less coherent and more fragmented.

I'm not sure what I think about all that, but I do know that an hour ago I was playing the Aztec campaign in Medieval 2 while streaming a NPR debate about privacy and security and listening to Bach's Partita in d for Solo Violin. I'm immersed in media. It is glorious. One of these days I'll write about the convergences between David Frum's argument for a surveillance state and Cortes' conquest of the Yucatan peninsula.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sympathy for the Pixels

Something very bizarre and wonderful happened to me while playing Medieval 2 Total War the other night.

I should perhaps describe this game. The year is 1428 and playing as the Sicilians, I've conquered a good deal of the known world. Having pacified North Africa, I conclude that the next logical step is to retrace the steps of the Moors (a faction I had recently wiped off the map) and invade the Iberian peninsula from the south. This meant war with Spain, a minor power in my game. Through politics, tribute, and the occasional assassination I had the Catholic Church in my pocket, so most of the college of cardinals were Sicilian, as was the pope himself. Naturally inclined to see things my way, the pope excommunicated the Spanish king, isolating the Spaniards from the other kingdoms of Europe. Then at my behest a Crusade was declared against the Spanish heretics. My army, battle-tested from the campaign in North Africa and bolstered by crusading warriors hoping to absolve their sins by helping me kill some Spaniards - a Crusade can be terribly convenient for an expansionist power - crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and left devastated, scorched farmlands in their wake as they marched on Madrid.

In other words, I've been playing as a scheming manipulative bastard that would make Machiavelli proud, because that's how you win in this game. Through its flavor-setting loading screen quotations, Medieval 2 openly acknowledges its Machiavellian game mechanics. It is a depiction of a Hobbesian international order where one must conquer or be conquered. The simple imperative is expand or perish: either I acquire more territory, more taxable citizens and thus a larger army or I will become prey to my more acquisitive neighbors.

But something strange happened when the armies met at the banks of the Tagus. The two armies formed into lines and I held my men back as cannon and mortar bombarded the Spanish defensive position atop a hill. Lacking cannon of their own, the Spanish could do nothing but hold their position as my guns softened their lines in preparation for an assault. Now, some more relevant context about the game: one of the cool things about Medieval 2 is its impressive battle engine - a fully 3D depiction of a middle-ages battlefield that is capable of rendering thousands of units onscreen at once from an aerial perspective but also allows you to zoom in and see the action in all its glorious hand-to-hand detail.

The thing is, the distant, godlike aerial view is the one that's far more practical for actual command, as when in the trenches it's easy to miss broader developments on the battlefield. For this reason I hadn't actually spent much time "on the ground," which I suppose could be some kind of metaphor for the comparative wartime experience of the generals and the actual grunts. In any case, there was little else to do while my cannonballs rained down on the Spanish so I zoomed in, with some glee, to see the devastation my guns were visiting upon the enemy. This is when the bizarre event occurred.

As I watched, a mortar shell landed in the midst of the Spanish lines, throwing soldiers in all directions. Then, a few of the fallen men staggered up, shook the stars from their eyes, and found their feet. In defiance of all sane human instinct for self-preservation, the entire line formed ranks to close the gap my mortar had just created in their battle lines, stepping atop the bodies of their just-fallen comrades to do so, even as shells continued to rain down around them. Another shell landed in their ranks not far away. Again the survivors picked themselves up and closed ranks over bloodied corpses.

It was a poignant sight, the fatal drama of these hopelessly outnumbered soldiers doing their duty and constantly reforming their continually diminishing lines. With some guilt I realized that my extended artillery bombardment wasn't even necessary. My army was vastly better-trained, better-equipped, and better-manned than the Spanish citizen militia fighting to defend their homes, but I subjected them to a full barrage of guns because I am the sort of perfectionist gamer and Machiavellian schemer that seizes every possible advantage - and I wanted to watch some explosions, too. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation from too many M2TW all-nighters, but I actually felt sorry for these little polygonal warriors. Pity swelled in my chest and my shriveled Machiavellian heart ached in sympathy for the pixels.

This experience was in part so unlikely, so alien, because empathy for the enemy is such a rare experience in video games in general, and indeed may even be anathema to the whole gaming experience. It's hard to have much "fun" - which is what most people expect from a game, though I think it's an awfully limiting metric for evaluating aesthetic merit - if you're killing a whole bunch of people that you sympathize with. Instead, a game needs to create a firm boundary between "The Self" and what intellectuals like to call "The Other," which is a pithy and pretentious way of saying "something that is not at all like me and is in fact something I can define myself against (in the case of most video games, by killing lots of Them)."

When game graphics were primitive this was all relatively straightforward. Whether you were hopping on turtles in Super Mario or shooting at aliens in Space Invaders the "enemy" was pretty clearly an abstraction, a pixelated representation of something else. As game graphics have improved and the distance between the representation and the actual object collapsed, though the depersonalization becomes increasingly complicated. In Wolfenstein 3D the Nazis were crude, cartoonish and clearly not "human," in Call of Duty 3 the distinction becomes much finer.

To resolve this predicament first-person games typically rely on the same tricks to dehumanize the waves of enemies that the player kills over the course of a typical game: make them aliens, or zombies, or Nazis, or robots, or best of all some combination of the four: alien zombies (Doom 3, Halo), alien Nazis (Half-Life 2), alien zombie robots (Quake 4). Perhaps the purest manifestation of this phenomenon is Return to Castle Wolfenstein's final boss, an alien/zombie/robot/Nazi. Strategy games haven't even had to employ these conceits. Simply set the player above the battle and the little units scurrying about in response to your every will, lobotomized peons without agency, become more insect than human.

I was thinking about some of this as I watched my artillery tear apart the Spanish. I thought about my long-suffering soldiers, who had campaigned for a decade beneath the scorching skies of North Africa only to be told that the road back home to Italy led through Spain, and oh by the way could conquer it for me while you're in the neighborhood? I thought about the deluded religious fanatics in my army, who fought and died for the cross without realizing that their beloved pope was my puppet and this entire "Spanish Crusade" was but a pretext for my avaricious lust for conquest. I thought about how by letting me abandon the omnipotent perspective of most RTS games for a grunts-eye view, Medieval 2 Total War was enabling a sort of empathy, a communion, with the poor souls on both sides of the battle line.

I was thinking about some of this as I watched my artillery tear apart the Spanish. I thought about my long-suffering soldiers, who had campaigned for a decade beneath the scorching skies of North Africa only to be told that the road back home to Italy led through a hostile Spain. I thought about the deluded religious fanatics in my army, who fought and died for the cross without realizing that their beloved pope was my puppet and the "Spanish Crusade" was but a pretext for an invasion to sate my avaricious lust for conquest. I thought about how by letting me abandon the omnipotent perspective of most RTS games for a grunts-eye view, Medieval 2 Total War was enabling a sort of empathy, a communion, with the poor souls on both sides of the battle line.

Then my artillery ran out of ammunition, so I advanced my lines, executed a textbook-perfect double envelopment, sent their entire army fleeing, ran down the panicked Spanish beneath the iron-shod hooves of my cavalry so they couldn't regroup to defend Madrid, and executed all the prisoners captured in battle rather than release them to fight another day.

But I did feel kind of bad about it afterwards.

Appendix (AKA the ungainly paragraph that didn't fit gracefully anywhere else so I'm sticking here at the end):

To give full credit to the developers, Medieval 2 also has something of an antiwar - or at least a war-is-terrible - sentiment, even as its very mechanics encourage constant expansion and conquest. Quotations from the likes of Erasmus or Martin Luther on the horror of war are displayed in place of Machiavelli in some of the loading screens.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How SciFi missed the point

Ray Bradbury once said that he didn't own a computer, "because I already own a typewriter, and I don't need another one." This sentiment from one of sci-fi's canonical masters, of a computer as a glorified typewriter and calculating machine, perfectly illustrates just how blind and short-sighted so much of science fiction was. To see why one needs to look no farther than Britney Spears.

Britney Spears made a sorry spectacle of herself a few days ago at the VMAs, and what's worse, she did it in front of a net-savvy, plugged-in audience, which meant an incident that a few years ago might have blown over after momentary embarrassment within a certain audience - how many people actually watch the VMAs, anyway? - becomes a broader cultural event. There is no greater evidence for this than the remarkable fact that I, who must be about the last person to be interested in what happens in Britney Spears' life, have not only seen the spectacle myself, I've also seen that video where a sobbing Britney fan comes to her passionate defense. Sure, my exposure to the whole fracas only comes out to about 10 minute of video at most, but this is still far, far, far more Britney than I thought I would ever encounter in a 24-hour span.

This is hardly a unique insight. Political pundits have already observed how the Internet has the effect of magnifying a politician's gaffes - former senator George Allen's "macaca" moment being the oft-referenced example of this - and it's long been accepted that the convergence of cell-phone cameras, a rabid audience, and YouTube has brightened the spotlight on celebrities to a blinding glare. Nor is, I think, my broader point at all novel - that the Internet has, in fact, changed everything. It allows incredibly niche, tiny subcultures to network and form communities and harnesses the long tail of consumer demand. At the same time it gives the "mainstream" culture a pervasive vehicle of transmission so that even individuals who are doing their best to tune out have difficulty escaping its presence. (I skimmed thread titles about Britney in the off-topic forums at some sites I lurk, and was formally introduced to the entire affair via an article at Salon.)

Nevertheless, I bring up this admittedly not very original point that "The Internet Changes Everything" for a reason. For one thing, I think it is frequently underestimated just how much information and communications technology has Changed Everything. In terms of cultural impact, the Internet is equal to radio and greater than television, the telephone, and the telegraph. It has completely reshaped how an entire generation interacts with each other and the broader culture, and by doing so, it has changed the lives even for those who might have little use for the Internet at all. An elderly Virginia citizen who has never touched a computer, for example, has nevertheless been directly affected by YouTube and the role it played in George Allen's re-election failure. (I could perhaps even point to Bill Clinton's impeachment, which certainly altered the trajectory of this country and the world, as a product of the information age - it's questionable just how big the Lewinsky Affair would have been had Drudge not trumpeted the story early, as it's precisely the sort of story that the "respectable" media of the time was hesitant to publish.)

From time to time people have wondered what exactly happened to "the future" - by this they mean the wonderful technological advances promised by futurologists and science fiction writers decades ago. Where is the life promised by the Jetsons? Where are our moon bases, our flying cars, or personal robot servants? But these are mere trappings, fetishes of technology. The astounding advances in communications technology has already ushered in a completely different world. But our science fiction writers have almost entirely missed the point. Science fiction has largely been what I call "industrial" science, by which I mean it is fixated on technology you can see and touch - lasers, spaceships, robots - while failing to realize just how significant this electronic-mail thing was going to become. But the first world is post-industrial. A better car, a faster spaceship, would hardly affect our lives the same way that the Internet has.

Ultimately I think the problem was that the canonical science fiction writers, and certainly "hard" sci-fi writers, were and are pretty terrible sociologists - it is a "soft" science after all. The Isaac Asimovs, Raymond Bradburys, and Phillip K. Dicks of the world were far more interested in the gee-whiz technological wizardry of their futures than in the social impact that advancing technology would have. In fact, going back and reading their work it's often amusing just how anachronistic their "future" societies seem: if it weren't for the cool technology laying around, many of those stories could just as well be set in the pre-feminist and pre-counterculture postwar decade.

I don't mean to indict an entire genre, of course, just the amusing failings of the older, stodgier, "I don't need a fancier typewriter" Bradburys of sci-fi. Cyberpunk certainly suggested that there was more to the future than jetcars and moon bases, and Cory Doctorow, probably the most important sci-fi writer today, is almost entirely a child of the Internet. My point is that any science fiction that claims to be relevant today must, like Doctorow, account for how information and communications technology has and will affect our lives. Otherwise you're just playing with spaceships and lasers.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Casino Royale - Blunt Instruments

I think that Casino Royale may be the first Bond film that I am not the least bit embarrassed to say that I enjoyed, possibly even loved. It could have been disastrous to abandon the Bond series' self-conscious wink-wink camp in favor of a more serious, somber tone, yet somehow Casino Royale manages to pull off a somber, not at all tongue-in-cheek James Bond without straining credulity. I like Casino Royale so much that I think I'm going to write two posts on it.

In this first post I want to examine one of the most exhilarating chase sequences in recent memory, when Bond chases bomb-maker Mollaka through the streets of Madagascar and into a construction site full of conveniently placed obstacles. Mollaka is played by Frenchman Sebastian Foucan, who co-founded the modern sport of "free-running," which is also known as "parkour" or "l'art du deplacément." In the footchase Mollaka demonstrates a breathtaking, almost superhuman agility. The limber Mollaka vaults over obstacles, kicks off of walls, and bounds through the construction site like a coiled spring. Daniel Craig's Bond, meanwhile, doesn't hold stock with any of this French "deplacément" nonsense. With substantially less grace Bond stumbles through obstacles and seems to keep up merely through a dogged persistence. When the chase leads to a sheer, three-story fall, Mollaka drops and executes a perfect tuck-and-roll. Bond takes the elevator. At one point Mollaka leaps through a small gap in a half-completed thin wooden wall, bending and touching his toes as he sails through in order to condense his flying form. Bond simply puts his head down and runs through the wall, breaking it apart.

It's a thrilling sequence, both in a holy-shit-did-he-just-do-that way as simple spectacle and in a more cerebral way as a study in contrasts. Indeed, in the chase Bond is so outclassed physically by Mollaka that it hardly seems possible for him to keep up, yet somehow, through sheer tenacity, he does. What Casino Royale seeks to do with the visual metaphors in this opening action sequence, of course, is establish the "new" Bond: more thuggish, less experienced, and without an arsenal of esoteric gadgets to fall back upon. As M puts it, he is a "blunt instrument," and smashing through walls is what he is good at.

Still, I think in this sequence Casino Royale may have stumbled across something more significant and meaningful, and it may be why this particular chase sequence has remained so memorable to me. For one thing, the sequence is an inversion of action-movie convention: typically, it is the bad guy's hapless henchmen who are the lumbering brutes, and our heroes defeat them through skill, finesse, and ingenuity. Previous Bond movies are particularly good examples of this: Bond always has a fancy gadget or death-defying stunt with which to get the upper hand on the adversary. But in Casino Royale, Bond is the one that lumbers and the bad guy is the one with all the skill and finesse. The mere novelty of a role reversal between hero and baddie is enough raise this chase sequence above stale action-movie clichés.

What gives this inversion a particular frisson, though, is that the Western audience - particularly the American audience - desperately wants to identify with the lumbering brutes, the blunt instruments of the world. As the global hegemon it is long past the time when America can conceive of itself as the scrappy underdog of the world stage, and in this current conflict against terrorism (which the Bond movie is at least tangentially about), it is the terrorists - whether operating as isolated cells in our homes, or as insurgent guerrillas using "asymmetric" tactics - that rely on agility, luck, and stealth to survive against the better-armed, better-equipped, better-trained US (and to some extent Western) military machine. The sources of Western military pride may be awe-inspiring, but they lack a certain finesse. What is a M1 Abrams tank, a 2000-pound bomb dropped from a $50 million strike fighter, a 100-thousand ton nuclear-powered supercarrier, if not a blunt instrument?

In this context then, the action-movie convention of a wily, clever, and graceful hero outfoxing the blundering bad-guy thugs becomes deeply unsatisfying, even unnerving. It would be an unwelcome reminder of the limitations and fallibility of sheer power. Small wonder, then, that the sight of James Bond putting his head down and running through a wall thrills us so. It's a comfort to be told that sometimes, when facing an enemy that confounds you at every turn, it is possible to say to hell with looking graceful and just smash through that wall.