Does being amused by turning non-ovine creatures into sheep make you a bad person? It doesn’t seem like a serious question, but appearances can fool you. Especially, according to Plato, if you are a fool. I think it’s safe to say that there would have been no video games in the Republic.
A few years ago, when i was walking home late at night, i got gay bashed. One of my friends very thoughtfully got me some stuffed animals and the original Ratchet & Clank game and Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando as a distraction. A few days later, another friend’s partner asked me how i was doing, and since mostly i was enjoying playing Ratchet & Clank, i immediately began describing it to her. That was a mistake.
i was enthusiastically describing the entertaining array of weapons to her when i detected that something was wrong. There was a pause and she asked cautiously, “So it’s a game where you shoot things?” Cue the sound of screeching tires as i suddenly became aware that this was a dead end conversation. i mean, the weapons i was describing at the time were the Glove of Doom and the Sheepinator – a metal glove that shoots out tiny cackling exploding robots and a device that turns all manner of small hostile critters into bored-looking sheep (see also Morph-o-ray ). If her response was censure, then i might just as well run around cackling and explode to save us both the trouble of continuing the conversation.
There are, of course, more conventional types of weapons in the game, like blasters and rockets, and there is a valid argument to be made for the underlying colonialist assumption that the title heroes can run around wiping out every native living thing on a planet in the service of defeating an evil imperialist overlord and not ever ponder the implications. But when the other side of the argument is busy turning all your points into sheep, perhaps seriously is not the only way to take it.
Many articles have been written about whether violence in video games and tv creates violent citizens, but that’s not what interests me here. What i kept coming back to was how rigidity on either side of an issue actually blocks discussion, learning and cooperation. Her response made it impossible for us to go any further, and that made me think about all the things that become indistinguishable from one another when you dismiss something wholesale.
For instance, would she make a distinction between Ratchet & Clank and Halo? One is a fluffy, entertaining game with cartoonish weapons and the other is a game with content developed by military experts which has US Army-sponsored tournaments. These are not the same animals, and if the baseline is that all games involving violence of any kind are bad, that eliminates the possibility of her having important conversations with anyone who enjoys them, to either their benefit or hers.
And what is the result of dismissing a whole range of games and gamers, and thus possible takes on representational violence, as misguided? For one thing, i’d argue that no one really learns to think for themselves if all they are ever presented with is a pared down list of acceptable options. Removing all of the spindles from the kingdom just means that Sleeping Beauty has no idea how to avoid one when she comes across it. I’m not a big fan of A Clockwork Orange, but it’s a viscerally powerful example of why the removal of free will in the service of eliminating violence isn’t a functional or ethically pure approach.
I’d also argue that believing everything beyond a certain ethical line doesn’t apply to you is unrealistic and socially irresponsible. One of the lessons i’ve learned through practicing non-violence in my life is the importance of acknowledging one’s own capacity for violence. I’ve known more than one person who was unpleasantly surprised when they responded with some degree of violence to a threatening situation because their only line of defense was that they believed they were inherently incapable of it.
Even without anything as obvious as the Sheepinator to hide behind, it’s not hard to argue that a person can enjoy a game that involves shooting critters with lasers without being fooled into believing that real violence is a good idea. To say the opposite is similar to Plato’s argument that if someone is “…a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter.”
It reminds me of when i failed to adequately account for the world and tried to get on plane wearing a belt that had 1 inch flat
six-shooter studs on it. The security guard had the grace to seem embarrassed about it, but the regulations were that no representations of guns were allowed on planes. As far as i know, they allowed children to play Halo at 30 000 feet, as long as there was no turbulence, so what exactly is the criteria for the unacceptability of a representational weapon?
Ultimately it seems to me that the inability to separate representation from reality lies with the person who believes that all of the games that involve sheepinators, and all of the water pistols, tiny metal gun studs, potentially gun-shaped sticks, and spindles in the kingdom should be destroyed. ‘Cause then we wouldn’t ever have to talk about it and we’d never come up with ways to hurt each other without them.
This month’s Guest Star is alex MacFadyen. alex is the former co-manager of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and enjoys enjoys turning all manner of things into small furry animals.