Monday, February 4, 2013

On the Realities of the Games I:  9/11 and The Sims
There’s a swelling controversy around the virtual world and the way it infects and poisons America’s youth.  Most recently, the National Rifle Association has sought to deflect the revulsion with weapons designed for murderous warfare and readily available, often without even a background check, to any adult.  A young man killed a schoolroom full of small children with such a weapon, in a town not unlike the one I grew up in or the one I live in now, and the NRA would like us to believe it’s because that young man lost his moral compass and became addicted to violence by playing games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, or Grand Theft Auto.
This isn’t a new proposal.  It reaches back to the first mass-disseminated American mass shooting, at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.  Before that, various killing sprees had been blamed on impressionable youths exposed to mass culture excesses— rock and roll music, comic books, trash fiction.
But it’s hard to resist a certain moral revulsion if you’re first introduced to video games by watching a 12-year-old boy racing through the streets of a Middle Eastern city shooting at civilians and watching the bodies flung backward against the stucco walls, their red blood splayed across the whitewash as they slide into the garbage-strewn street. It’s even more tempting after reading what is perhaps the most interesting video-game memoir out there, Tom Bissell’s 2010 Extra Lives. In that book, Bissell chronicles in graphic detail his multiple addictions, culminating with a coke-addled marathon of Grand Theft Auto IV while in the midst of a gambling binge in Las Vegas. 
Bissell’s confessional follows a common trajectory:  he sinks to excess, finds help, renounces his addictions while confessing his weakness, his sinful nature, and the many homely virtues he has thrown aside, and then is redeemed, granted another chance to live the archetypal American life, pursuing happiness:  a nuclear family, a suburban home, a stable job. We are left with an implicit corollary:  had he not been Saved, Bissell would have fallen deeper and deeper into the amoral morass of the decaying urban world in which murder, theft, prostitution, seduction, robbery and rape are the means to satisfy the virulent desires unleashed by immersion in the virtual world of GTW.
Personally, I’ve played GTW IV.  I’ve played it a lot. And I don’t buy it.  I’ve also hunted, shot pistols and rifles and shotguns, actual ones, and I don’t find any seamless connection between the virtual world and the real. GTW IV is an engrossing collection of puzzles—some related to recognizing plot, some to character, some to mastering specific motor skills, and a great deal to solving elaborate spatial, logical and temporal puzzles. Bissell’s narrative is a lot of fun to read.  But it’s not the sort of story upon which to hang national policy concerning the ready availability of assault weapons.
I don’t find GTW IV to be the appropriate objective correlative for contemporary American life—at least in the digital world.  For that, I turn to The Sims.
I will confess to an addiction to the virtual world of The Sims. I have certainly played it as many hours as had Bissell his versions of GTA.  But my experience is dramatically different than was his.  He experienced GTA as a fantasy escape from the restrictions of middle-class life at the end of history.  I was addicted to The Sims for its replication of that restricted world, and for the ways it stimulated and directed the same synapse-connections as had my daily life when I lived in the suburbs.  But just as my real life in that real world had been insistently and caustically commented upon by my cultural historian’s observing ego, so also the gameplay with which I reclaimed that experience was one marked by an almost schizoid self-observation.
In my case, daily play followed a certain rhythm.  In the morning, I’d start the game with anticipation, pleasure, hope.  I’d be delighted by the sounds (my daughter Molly and I used to speak simlish to each other), by the things to manipulate; I’d look forward to earning a cache of simoleons to spend on something new.  After a couple of hours, though, I’d get impatient, moving the gamespeed up to get to the next goal; fastforwarding my sims’ reading so they’d raise their cooking skill and learn a new recipe, or grunting with annoyance when a visitor came calling, interrupting the necessary task with another necessary task—sacrificing funbuilding tv watching for friendship-building interactions with the neighbors at the door. After another hour or so, I’d be in a state of tense frustration, yearning to turn off the game, to escape its demands, but unable to leave things as they were.  Then, finally, frustration would win out and I would exit.  I’d look up from the computer screen at a sunstruck writing space cluttered with open books, legal pads, outlines pinned to the wall, guitars in the corner, cats on the rug, and it would all look a bit grey, washed-out.  I couldn’t easily move from the game’s colors, rhythms, and rules, to those outside of it, without feeling simultaneously like it was a diminishment of sorts, and a return to a messily unpredictable and complicated life, without clear goals.  I yearned for the very thing I’d just left:  a virtual world as orderly as a domestic sitcom from the ‘50s, in which, as here, all frustrations were small ones, unmarked by fear of global holocaust or individual injury, decline and death. My sims died; I didn’t.
But to return was also untenable; that world, that simland, was too frustratingly limited.  Its rules were too rigid, its demands on my autonomy too great. It was disturbingly like a critique of everyday American life, without the satisfactions of protest or the possibility of transformation.  But wait. Even the drug of virtual agency quickly wore off.  This was a god-game:  I should have omnipotence, and omniscience, but I had neither.  I could look down at the scenario, but from only a small number of camera angles.  I could observe action, but only within the narrow confines of this home, and this suburban lot.  I couldn’t go next door or see the workplace, or escape into a wider world. I was trapped.
The Sims was released on January 31, 2000, at the end of a short era of American peace and prosperity, when it seemed the utopianism of the counterculture had found common cause with a technocracy liberated from militarism and now looking for new missions.  But Americans do not abandon the old myths and symbols that easily.  Where were the cowboys and wild ones, where was the frontier, where was the promise of personal mobility in this technocratically engineered program of steady, if slightly boring, material progress?  Fukuyama said it well, when he confessed to “a powerful nostalgia” for a more outsized drama, with Americans its most interesting heroes.
In the same month that George W. Bush took the Republican nomination for President (declaring “In Midland, Texas, where I grew up, the town motto was, ''The sky's the limit,'' and we believed it; there was a restless energy, a basic conviction that with hard work, anybody could succeed and everybody deserved a chance…”) Wright’s Maxis Software released Livin’ Large, the first of a string of “expansion packs” that added more consumables and expanded the abilities of sims to act out in more extreme ways—notably, to remake themselves—sim-ing their simness. Its success might, in retrospect, be seen as a predictor of the way the election would go.
 In January of 2001, George W. Bush gave his first inaugural address, articulating with eloquence the backward-looking, forward-driving America his campaign had come to exemplify:
 We have a place, all of us, in a long story—a story we continue, but whose end we will not see. It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer.   It is the American story—a story of flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals.   The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born.   Americans are called to enact this promise in our lives and in our laws. And though our nation has sometimes halted, and sometimes delayed, we must follow no other course.  Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.   Our democratic faith is more than the creed of our country; it is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along.
Two months after the inauguration, a second Sims expansion pack appeared—House Party, which combined two emerging trends in the new American economy: ever-more-conspicuous public consumption and display, and a Bush-administration-fueled campaign to expand home ownership.  As the ironic term McMansion came to be coined to describe outsized private homes with triple or quadruple stall garages and cavernous “family rooms,” bought with easy credit and the promise of infinitely rising property values and stuffed with ever-more-elaborate consumables, The Sims:  House Party offered the opportunity to create outsize entertainment rooms with giant televisions and stereos, elaborate wet-bars, swimming pools, and all the accoutrements simultaneously being built in the physical landscape of the American exurb. 
Then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 turned the Bush-era swagger and its Cold-War-era rhetoric of American moral superiority and global mission in a darker and more paranoid direction.  While the number of Americans killed, 2,819, was the largest military loss on American soil since the Civil War, it was a tiny fraction of the number of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. It was 1/16 the number of Vietnamese children estimated born deformed as a result of U.S. use of Agent Orange.  Six years earlier, the Srebrenica massacres by Serbs of Bosnians had killed 8,000 civilians. Death statistics for 2001 in the U.S.: 42,000 highway deaths; 20,000 flu deaths; more than 15,000 murders. One violent coup in any other part of the globe, one natural disaster in an unprepared region reaped tenfold the number of innocents killed in 9/11.
The intensity of national response to the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 was far out of proportion, then, to the simple numbers.  It is more easily understood as a complicated reaction to a larger sense of threat and injury that was triggered by the attacks, a sense of wounded virtue at the violation of the myth of national immunity.  American exceptionalism-- its moral gift and its geographical isolation—were to have protected America from attacks both military and ideological.  We had fought, and won, the Cold War not just with military technology and investment, but with the moral superiority of our political, social and economic systems, and we believed that our national behavior in the drama on the world’s stage had convinced the globe of our earnestness, our virtue, and our superiority as a cultural system and a historical entity.  We were poised on the edge of a global revolution that would bring the combined powers of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism to every corner of the world. Our technologies had conquered the globe. Yet the fragility of our belief in ourselves and our mission manifested itself in the force and turbulence of our response to the terrorist attacks on that day. Over the following months and years, we would be drawn back to an older, more paranoid Americanism, and we would force the world to fit the mold of our older, more paranoid Manicheeism:  for or against us, friend or foe, wounded but implacable force for good, or dark, demonic force for evil.
The frenzy of paranoid responses in the months after the attacks rekindled and replicated Cold War responses of decades before.[i]  But there were differences.  The Cold War’s sense of siege had been based upon a threat of genuine national and global immensity:  atomic holocaust, whether willfully or accidentally ignited, that would eradicate the virtuous and the unvirtuous alike.  After 9/11 no evidence surfaced of a similarly massive destructive force arrayed against us.  The American rhetorical response to 2001’s attacks bore little or no relation to the scale of the threat.  Yes, there were tepid and sporadic discussions of the potential for nuclear terrorism and “dirty bombs” on American soil, but the vast preponderance of political speeches, journalistic essays, and common talk, focused obsessively on further attacks on American symbols:  hence the massive barriers around the White House and the US Capitol, the surveillance at the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell.  Most broadly, it was the American sense of safe invulnerability that came under attack, and it was that feature of the attack that succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of the perpetrators of 9/11.
Within a year of the 9/11 attacks, The Sims had become the best-selling video game in history. This might seem unlikely, given the increasingly frustrating and limiting nature of the gameplay, as the novelty of its features wore off. Of course the cure for that was quintessentially consumerist—buy an expansion pack that allowed you more ways to shop, different raw materials with which to design and build your house, or even (in the case of Apartment Life) to live in something resembling an urban environment. What the expansion packs amplified was the capacity of the game to serve as a huddling-place, a retreat from a hostile world threatened by—already punctured by—unexpected, terrifying forces, largely invisible but utterly venomous. This was a picture of the world and America’s place in it that was trumpeted by the voices of the Bush administration, particularly as the grotesque misstep of the Iraq invasion became clear. Even opponents of the Bush propaganda found themselves exhausted by the virulence of rhetoric and the shrill repetitive chant of the campaign.
Retreat to The Sims represented a significant trend in American cultural life.  By 2008, the franchise had sold 100 million copies, almost exactly the number of actual American households that year.   At least once a day, we can estimate, some member of every computer- or videoconsole-owning American household was returning to the quiet, restrictive, orderliness of a world modeled on the idealized postwar American utopia: the single-family home, presided over by adults who disappeared periodically into workplaces invisible and inconsequential to the real life except for the wages their work brought—wages that enabled purchase of consumer goods, and thereby drove the stream of their continuous production.
The Sims franchise replicated middle-class suburban life, with all its restrictions and anxieties, its sense of eternal yearning, desire, and discontent.  But it also eliminated from that sphere the full-on darkness that lay at the edges of the real American middle-class household, first in the Cold War, and then in the so-called War on Terror:  the threat of undeserved, random injury or death, the eradication of the world, or at least of your world, which, in the solipsism of the post-9/11 American mind, was the end that mattered. In the confines of its bright, stylized, virtual landscape, we could reclaim, again and again, the promise of American progress, American prosperity, American exceptionalism.

These days,   I’m over The Sims. The many add-on packs, from Pets to World Adventures have sought to inveigle me, and those like me, who have played so passionately, seem obvious, cheap, diminished.  Instead, I have moved to Fallout 3 and its quasi-successor, Fallout:  New Vegas.  Here the radical flatness and infinite or near-infinite geography of the gameplay mirror GTA IV, with a mordant satiric edge. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing Washington, DC in ruins; even more satisfying is to hear the unctuous patriotism of the nation’s self-declared “President” on the virtual radio.  The game is rife with post-apocalyptic jokes, references, and scenes.  On every front, technology has failed—bioterrorism and genetic engineering, “survivability” initiatives, robotic nuclear-cleanup machines:  all have turned out to render more harmful the already-toxic wasteland that is the consequence of technological utopianism combined with political grandiosity. 
Fallout 3 takes on the caricatures of American political mission;  New Vegas does the same for laissez-faire capitalism, which has set up shop in the ruins of Nevada’s gambling cities. In both cases, the pleasure lies in a strange slippage between the horrors that surround you as you play, and the sardonic intelligence that lies behind and weaves through the game itself. Bracing satires on the grandiosities of the era of American superiority, these games render politics in the real world all the more surreal, and they make it bearable, for a couple of hours, a long, intense weekend, till even this begins to seem snide, and you click the Quit key without saving, exhausted with moral exhaustion turned to play.  

[i] Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s, November, 1964, pp. 77-86.

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