I know how Tim Carter feels. When I tell some people that punk rock saved my life, I get funny looks too.
In his documentary about Counter-Strike (Sierra, 2000), Carter tries to make a connection between videogames and martial arts. I think he fails at this, but he makes a valiant and genuine attempt to communicate what he knows to be true: that despite how bloody, violent and pointless the military first-person shooter looks to people on the outside, the game had a positive impact on his life.
When I face the challenge of explaining that there’s more to punk than pokes the eye, that there’s a rich vein of politics, creativity and philosophy running through a subculture founded on negativity and antagonism, at some point I have to abandon the intellectual arguments and just say it helped me. It may be fucked up, but so am I, and it gave me a way to live and think that let me focus my energy instead of having it cook me alive.
Many make the argument that videogames, with their competitions and professional players, are a sport. There’s a Cyberathlete Professional League, though it’s unlikely to get any respect until it changes the “cyber” to something less ’90s. Martial arts, on the other hand, have even more respect than sports: there’s spiritual and cultural dimensions that give it more cachet. In his documentary, Carter skips over sports entirely to align Counter-Strike training with martial arts. Watching it at Digifest (held in March at the Design Exchange, billed as “Canada’s leading festival of digital culture, creativity and innovation”), I didn’t feel the analogy was convincing, even to a game enthusiast like myself — but I was intrigued by his chutzpah.
We got together to discuss some of the ideas behind the documentary, and he explained that as someone who was involved in both the military (the infantry reserves) and strategy games (table-top and computer), he watched the evolution of multi-player games with intense interest.
“The LAN games on Yonge Street were inundated by teenagers playing Rogue Spear (Red Storm, 1999) … I saw Counter-Strike around the same time. What was incredible about this was the energy … it’s not like it is today when you go in and everyone’s wearing earphones. Everyone was involved with the game, yelling back and forth. The team dynamics were there. The whole room was rocking with one big LAN game.”
The local area network (LAN) games — played with several networked computers with people in the same room — are in contrast to the online games people play against opponents online. Services, Carter’s documentary, focuses on the LAN games he organized at the dot-com he worked at. He felt it brought them together and gave them a focus in a time when their company was dying after the tech-bubble burst. “They’re competitive people, they’re business people … it gave them something to bite into.”
Carter’s passion for games is real, but he’s conscious of people’s perception of them. “They say that film became a mature medium when Pauline Kael began writing about it in the New Yorker. When you read the film criticism of the ’60s it reads like the game reviews of today.”
While an imperfect communicator, he has to try. No one else cares enough. And I think that though this participant-observer stance is tricky — and Carter’s documentary errs on the participant side, long and full of minutiae — it’s vastly preferable to the objective stance of mainstream reportage.
First Person Shooter aired a year ago on CTV. “Filmmaker Robin Benger covered 14 wars in 24 countries as a veteran TV producer but nothing prepared him for the discovery that war was being waged in the basement of his own home,” intoned the promotional material. Benger’s teenaged son was a Counter-Strike fan, but instead of doing something drastic like asking him why he plays the game, he characterizes the cybercafés his son visits as “opium dens” and intercuts shots of the game with his son staring at the screen. This imagery of his glowing, slackjawed face is standard in videogame exposés: yet, you ever look at someone watching a movie or television and it’s really no different.
Like most documentaries in the genre, it exploits the concern of parents by ratcheting up the drama via camera techniques and sound, keeping them hooked into an hour of prime-time ad space and delivering nothing of substance. “Are they dangerous, addictive, or just the latest form of fun?” the promo says, and since it’s easier to float these received ideas than it is to make a point, there are no conclusions.
Without conclusions, there’s no debate, and nothing changes. At least cautionary classics like Reefer Madness didn’t push our buttons for nothing. That’s why, rough around the edges though it is, I’d rather have Tim Carter‘s first-hand report from the battlefields of Counter-Strike than that of an indifferent officer like Robin Benger who views it all from a safe remove.