War Reporting

Admit that videogames are a sport or the hostage gets it.
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.

Admit that videogames are a sport or the hostage gets it.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.

13 replies »

  1. I saw the documentary at Digifest and heard Tim Carter speak. I liked the film a LOT (fun fun) but found Carter’s passionate desire to reclaim ‘brotherhood’ and ‘honour’ , combined with his military background, disconcerting in the extreme. To Jim’s point, however, I preferred the entire experience to a recent art show I saw at New Museum in New York, called “Half Life”. it consisted of projections from a game of counterstrike, shown alongside the faces of teenagers in an internet cafe playing the game. The point seemed to be that the teenagers were zoned out and living a ‘half life’ (get it?) but , you know, we humans tend to look pretty dorky whenever we’re concentrating…even if we’re reading Ulysses or something. I found the show insulting and would rather be creeped out by Tim Carter than preached at by some artist ( Marco Brambilla in this case) on his high horse who doesn’t seem to like games.


  2. Sally,
    I’ve played online shooters since about 1996, and team-based online games since about 2001. I was at Tim’s Digifest presentation of his film, and was a panellist with Tim this year at Harbourfront’s “Culture of Gaming” panel during the Fresh festival.
    I obviously can’t speak for Tim with regards to his passion for ‘brotherhood’ and ‘honour,’ but I think I understand where he’s coming from. And it’s not such a scary place. Any team-based competetive sport (including martial arts) embodies brotherhood (teamsmanship, collaboration, moral support) and honour (sportsmanship, fair play, respect for rules). Online games are no different from conventional sports with the exception that the play space is virtual rather than actual.


  3. Sorry I missed that Harbourfront panel! Don’t misstake me: I like network gamese a lot. I love LAN parties, and I really could identify with the crazy fun energy of the guys in Carter’s doc. I’ve been there, and its a rush. I don’t think there is anything inherently ‘bad’ about games, just as I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with movies or books. I suspect you share my frustration that the discussion so often gets stuck on this level. But I do think there’s something spooky about the terminology that gets invoked sometimes when gamers have their backs to the wall. Brotherhoods can have grim consequences as well as positive ones. Same goes for sports. I don’t particularly take issue with Carter’s idea that Counterstrike is a martial art. But why, exactly, would that be a good thing?


  4. Do you folks know about C-Level? They are a very fun interesting bunch of artists/gamers in SF. If you check out nothing else, have a look at Tekken Torture Tournament. It’s pretty hilarious.


  5. “Brotherhoods can have grim consequences as well as positive ones.”
    True. Mobs of any kind can be scary 🙂
    Thanks for the link re:Tekken Torture Tournament – those photos are priceless.


  6. Pretty interesting video! A couple of things caught my attention…
    -at one point the 4Kings guy attributes their loss to the other teams using tactics they hadn’t seen in Europe and catching them off guard — indicating that there’s a regional style regardless of online global play
    -the “Nascar model” seems quite feasible, what the with Intel branding already going on, and the comments made about the importance of commentators (to explain what’s going on to non-gamers and heighten the tension) make me realize that when it does become a sport, I will find it about as uninteresting as I find other sports
    -I wonder if interlace flicker (how monitors look screwed up when you tape them) will become a convention that we don’t notice much any more, like shaky-cam?
    The Tekken Torture Tournament is a neat and fun concept. You can look at it as an art project and a critique of videogames or an innovation on the level of interface — it’s kind of the logical extreme of the rumble feature on console controllers.


  7. Hey Jim,
    You mention that you’ll lose interest when gaming becomes a sport. I wonder if you could elaborate on that. I find watching people play video games pretty boring in the first place, but I’m wondering what it is about sport that turns you off.
    As for interlace flicker, there are ways around that, and I’m certain that if gaming is ever televised, they’ll make sure that’s not an issue.


  8. Once gaming becomes mainstream enough to be validated by being regarded a sport, it’ll kind of be like when your favorite underground band becomes famous. When everyone says something’s important, it’s less vital (and interesting) for cultural critics like myself to make the case.
    I dislike sport because for the most part it’s self-serious and unthinking. Videogames that are self-serious and unthinking are also pretty boring too.


  9. I saw Carter’s Counterstrike video and have spoken to him at some of these new media gatherings — I agree with Jim Munroe’s assessment that it is a failure.
    Frankly, his “documentary” comes across as nothing more than a self-promoting wank-job that vainly tries to justify the many wasted hours sitting in front of a computer playing games by comparing them with “respected” martial arts.
    Without negating Carter’s feelings that his LAN games brought the people at his failing employer together, I am stunned at his statement “They’re competitive people, they’re business people … it gave them something to bite into.” I would suggest that they already had something to “bite into.”
    Instead of spending those many hours playing games they should have focused on building a viable business — which was the obligation they accepted when they took millions of dollars from their investors.
    There were very few “businesspeople” in that group. The NRG Group — Carter’s former employer — was supposedly an incubator and possibly one of the best-executed frauds on the Canadian business community. I spoke with a venture capital broker last week who told me that even now — 4 years after the crash — NRG is often cited as the reason why new media companies will not get funded.
    I’m a gamer. I play games online and get together with friends regularly for some social gaming. It’s a good time and it’s fun.
    Is it more than fun? I have degrees in anthropology and philosophy so I’m sure I could come up with some analysis about cultural and philosophical implications of LAN-based video games. Are video games an artform? That depends on the game — some are — but much like the film industry, the majority that we see in Canada are disposable products.
    I’m a businessperson. I work at one of Canada’s major technology companies that is developing and investing in new media. I have to say that I was disappointed with the Digifest panel with the exception of an accomplished game developer who created Unreal Tournament. It seemed like he was the only person who truly had an understanding of both the industry and the art. At the Harbourfront panel Tony Walsh had some interesting things to say but again, Carter’s comments were found to be lacking.
    At both events Carter’s comments came across alternately as obsessive ravings or the usual hot air that we so often see (sallymckay also refers to this in her previous comments).
    My suggestion to Carter is stop taking yourself so seriously and stop trying so hard to justify the time spent/wasted playing Counterstrike.
    Just enjoy the experience for what it is.


  10. Hey man, I ain’t defending the NRG Group. But I would say that you weren’t inside NRG when it happened. But enough about that.
    Anybody who wants to explore the topic of videogames, then dismisses the notion of obsession, is an idiot.
    You may be a business person but what you are arguing for here is silence. As in: don’t discuss; don’t monologue; don’t hypothesize. It’s all “wanking”, and what we need are results.
    You said it was so serious – I thought there were a lot of light moments – but apparently you have fixated on those moments that were serious which I ADDED to all the other light-hearted parts.
    So Mister Colin______ – whoever you are – the last thing I’m trying to find out is what are these ravings you are refering to. You stand distantly and dismiss them, but you don’t take issue with them specifically. Look at, for instance, the issue you take with examining the tactical shooter as a martial art. I had the experience of a brief phone conversation with Captain Jason Amerine (he was a US Special Force linguist assisted this fellow called Hamid Karzai to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan). He states that, in a weird way, he found that playing shooters helped him when he found the real rounds flying at him. Similarly, any real military training involves mock-ups. So I can’t understand your counter-reasoning. It seems to be just a “shut the fuck up” kind of rationale; the typical “Who the hell do you think you are?” shit that Canadians routinely dump on their original thinkers – until they leave for America.
    What are your specific counter-arguments… if you have any?


  11. One last addition to seal your anti-discussion, shit-on-you comments…
    You might disparage the NRG Group and claim to be some new media guru – but the people you see in the documentary have essentially moved as a single unit to form an extremely successful company called
    Get the facts before you start shitting on people you don’t know.


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