Points of Disorder
Running Riot With a PS2
So, I don't really know if video games got any less violent after the shootings at Columbine High School. I remember people talking about it a lot. But it was just talk, I guess--until Sept. 11, and those couple of weeks when everyone made a big show of being dutifully sensitive. All the sudden, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie I had been psyched up about was delayed indefinitely, and episodes of shows like Nash Bridges were scrapped at the last minute because Cheech Marin says a sandwich he's eating is "the bomb." It wasn't exactly the same debate--nobody was suggesting that violent movies caused terrorism, the way some suggested violence in the media caused Columbine--but a lot of the same sentiment was involved. Maybe I'm naive, but it really seemed like the folks behind movies and television were doing some serious thinking for a second there post-9/11, didn't it? The future of graphic violence (especially explosions) in the media was completely open to question.
And so it's been, what, six months? It seems like less, really. And I've spent the last week playing a video game that seems as if it couldn't have been conceived anywhere but in the mind of some fanatical, white-haired caricature of a senator, ranting and raving about how the moral fiber of our country is being eroded by video games in which you use grenades and flamethrowers to torch crowds of helpless, screaming people in a shopping mall.
The game is called State of Emergency and it's kind of surreal. You really do use flamethrowers to torch crowds of helpless, screaming people in a shopping mall. And you get points for it. There's even a voice-over that periodically announces things like "Destroy buildings for bonus points!" and "Kill Corporation forces!"
State of Emergency is a game about rioting, made for the Playstation 2 by Rockstar Games, a little company that's making quite a name for itself thanks to State and last year's phenomenally popular Grand Theft Auto 3. While GTA 3 was a truly groundbreaking game in terms of its depth and the freedom it gave to the player, if you've heard of it at all, it was probably because someone told you about the game in which you can hire a hooker, have sex with her, then beat her to death with a bat to get your money back. Yeah, you can do that in GTA 3, but it's not like you have to. And there's countless other things you can do. Most of them very illegal and very, very immoral.
State of Emergency can be pretty well summed up as a post-WTO-riots Double Dragon. Like the side-scrolling "beat-'em-ups" on the original Nintendo, you're confronted with a seemingly endless supply of disposable enemies, and your job is to whale on them with whatever weapons happen to be conveniently strewn about the street. The game doesn't attempt to realistically capture the atmosphere of real rioting, and while there's no doubt that the protests in Seattle and elsewhere were a major inspiration for State of Emergency, the ideologies involved are just stand-ins for the good plumber and the evil dinosaur king.
The opening sequence explains how "The Corporation" has taken over the world, dissolved democratic government, and now forces people into a hyperconsumerist lifestyle of obedient spending. There are two modes of play: "Revolution" and "Chaos." In the former, you complete a series of missions in a specific locale (the Mall, Chinatown, etc.) for a resistance group named "Freedom." As you complete the missions, new characters and levels are unlocked. In "Chaos" mode, a timer counts down as you rack up points by pummeling the Corporation's security forces, destroying Corporation property, and the like. You do lose points for killing civilians, but it's awfully hard to resist sometimes, as there are never a shortage of them around--all the game play takes place amid a screen full of hundreds of running, screaming rioters, some carrying cash registers or TV sets over their heads.
Is it anti-consumerist? Anti-corporate? Yes, but only in the same way that Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man are anti-scientist. Kids won't be rushing out to join a black bloc, but then again, I wouldn't be surprised to find kids on a playground substituting rebels and corporations for cops and robbers.
Is that why I like these games? I don't know. I can definitely see the chest-pounding, Maxim-reading sort of guy getting a huge boner for this type of in-your-face, over-the-top violence that flies in the face of sensitivity. But it's not like you have to pretend that you're offending someone by playing these games in order to enjoy them--they're genuinely addictive, entertaining games, for the same reasons Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man were addictive and fun: A funny little world compels you to keep plugging away for more points. Still, it is pretty hard not to think about the fuming white-haired senator banging his fist on the table as some underling plays him a videotape of SOE's bandanna-clad protagonists tossing Molotov cocktails in the windows of corporate coffee shops in the name of freedom.
I actually like video games now, however, and I'm waiting for the fists to start banging. I'm shooting an M-16 at guys in fatigues on a street and all I can think is, Why aren't parents freaking out about this? Where was the picket line at FuncoLand? Why hasn't Joe Lieberman come to my house and shamed me for ignoring the Olympics and shooting shotguns at police officers on my PS2 instead?
Honestly, I want to know. Have we decided that video games and movies aren't really that much of a threat? Is there some Enron-type shit I don't know about that just can't be postponed right now? If anyone ever wanted to ban a video game, I would think that State of Emergency would be the straw man from heaven, but nobody's taking any shots.
I wonder if those groups of people who would usually be outraged are just embarrassed. I seriously doubt State of Emergency would exist if there were never a popular movement to cut down on the violence in video games. The concerned parents may feel jaded because the video-game industry has ceased to even try to argue with them and now just steals their hyperbolic descriptions of morally corrupt entertainment to make top-selling games. Or maybe they actually played the game and realized that giddily murdering hundreds of screaming cartoon people on your TV set doesn't feel that much different from stomping Koopas or dropping blocks on each other. I suppose it isn't so hard to picture the white-haired senator with a Playstation controller in his hands and his feet up on the mahogany boardroom table, shouting accusations at the screen like, "Oh, my god! The computer cheats!"
Whatever the case is, I don't feel so bad about voicing my affection for video games now. I just hope that the lack of outrage doesn't stifle the creativity of the folks at Rockstar. I might even pick up a sign and picket myself, if it'll help the cause.
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