Friday, April 01, 2011

We're Oscar Mike

Last week I spent about 24 hours on a train, traveling down to Baltimore and back. I was visiting friends and taking some writing time and getting away from the lingering winter for a long weekend, but with that much time to kill on the train, I did a lot of watching-the-world-go-by. This is Battleboro.

I also watched some TV. I successfully made it into, and out the other side of, Generation Kill, an HBO 7-episode series adapting Evan Wright's book about his time embedding with the First Recon Battalion Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The series was produced and largely written by David Simon and Ed Burns as their follow-up to The Wire, and it can be similarly difficult to penetrate at first. I'd watched the first two episodes of Generation Kill at least twice before, and never continued through the rest of the show. But over six days and in between train rides, novel rewrites, and long, long drives between Baltimore and DC, I watched all 7 episodes about the drive through Iraq, to Baghdad, and into the unknown of occupation. It's essentially a road trip movie in and of itself, except this road trip involves firefights, Ripped Fuel, and occasionally state-sanctioned murder.

I can't speak from personal experience, but I've read reviews from soldiers -- including some of the Marines Wright was embedded with -- that have called Generation Kill the most accurate portrayal of the life of the modern American soldier. What's important about that isn't just the accurate portrayal of facts -- there's a Booklist review on the book's Amazon page that says:

Today's American soldiers, Wright says, are young men who are "on more intimate terms with the culture of the video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own families." (One 19-year-old corporal compares driving into an ambush to a Grand Theft Auto video game: "It was fucking cool.") Wright also explores how today's pop-culture-driven soldiers differ from those who fought more than three decades ago in Vietnam. A perceptive, often troubling examination of soldiers' view of war, peace, and combat.

And that's a big deal when you're giving those young men guns and telling them to go save the world, but I think it's also a big deal in our day to day life. It's a question of pop culture that's been clouding my vision lately. Reading the AV Club, or Ain't It Cool or any comics website ever, you get the sense of consumption without thought. Sales numbers are reported (box office receipts or paycheck amounts), and reviews are produced heavy on snark and light on introspection. There's a taking in of media and no regard for narrative or the struggle of art or what we think about when we think about ... anything. It's all novelty, irony and sales figures.

That's not an across the board condemnation of reviews. The AV Club tries -- I thought their Glee/Community equation a few weeks ago was insightful in its simplicity -- and io9 regularly posts more in-depth articles than your average bear, like this exploration of why the new V series was a failure of storytelling AND not very much fun as nostalgia junk food, and this long article on when it's the right time to show your kids the Empire Strikes Back or Wrath of Kahn, as well as pop science blogging (The Strange, Sad History of Lobotomy and How Many Groups Reached the Americas Before Columbus? are recent examples). Unfortunately, it suffers from the revamped Gawker layout that keeps me away from that entire family of sites these days.

Meanwhile ... I had a whole digression planned on Marc Maron being condescending toward Joe Rogan on his WTF podcast last week, and basically telling him that he's a bad person for making a living hosting Fear Factor for six years, but I think that just comes down to the fact that Marc Maron can be condescending, and that he thinks liking Fear Factor is wrong because he doesn't like Fear Factor. Instead, I'll leave you with some thoughts on Dragon Age II!

If you're not a video game/fantasy nerd, you might not be aware of Dragon Age II. It's an action role-playing game that features the option to romance lots of different kinds of white people -- male or female! The controversy in previous games like this has been that gay or bisexual romances were possible -- if you made a male character, you could engage in an awkward and clothed cutscene with another male character. So, you know. Gays! In our video games! Scandalous, right?

None of these romances are particularly sexy, whether they're male-male, male-female, female-female, or elf-whatevs. The characters move awkwardly and no one ever takes their medieval fantasy underpants off. But the scandal regarding Dragon Age II comes from one particular gamer, posting on the game's bulletin board (there are still internet bulletin boards!) that having so MANY options for romance infringes on his rights as a straight male gamer.

"In every previous BioWare game, I always felt that almost every companion in the game was designed for the male gamer in mind. Every female love interest was always written as a male friend type support character. In Dragon Age 2, I felt like most of the companions were designed to appeal to other groups foremost, Anders and Fenris for gays and Aveline for women given the lack of strong women in games, and that for the straight male gamer, a secondary concern. It makes things very awkward when your male companions keep making passes at you. The fact that a "No Homosexuality" option, which could have been easily implemented, is omitted just proves my point. I know there are some straight male gamers out there who did not mind it at and I respect that."

No kidding! Now, this probably wouldn't have gotten any more coverage than your average internet troll, except that one of the writers on DA2 followed it up with a thoughtful, incisive, and overall excellent rebuttal:

"And if there is any doubt why such an opinion might be met with hostility, it has to do with privilege. You can write it off as "political correctness" if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They're so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don't see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what's everyone's fuss all about? That's the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want."

There's more in the link above, but the story morphed even more when a petition was posted online to have David Gaider fired for stereotyping gays by having one of the gay romance options in DA2 gain "rivalry points" if your male character spurns his romantic advances. The petitioner's argument being, I think, that this implies that all gay men aggressively pursue sex, whether the object of their affection wants it or not. I don't think that's the POV of the character in question, but regardless of that -- one of the gentlemen from Penny Arcade (it was Tycho, but to be honest, I can't keep track of what their real names/character names are) posted in a blog this morning to say:

"It reminds me of when I first saw Samus Aran's face in Metroid: Prime, my face, flashed inside the visor, saw my eyes, which were her eyes, blinking at the brightness. These are truly alien experiences for me, and I'm exposed to them and enriched by them because I didn't have to fill out some questionnaire before playing the game to make it aware of my sacred boundaries. I wasn't given the option to check the "No Homos" box, or to choose an elf with a less bewitching accent. Instead, I was dropped hip-deep into the Inferno Round of a moral quiz show. I just want to shake these people sometimes. Hey. That feeling, the one that you're feeling?

"That IS the game."

I'll repeat it for emphasis: "That feeling, the one that you're feeling? That IS the game."

If you experience art and you're left feeling sullied, unusual, confused, angry perhaps -- that's the point. If you get everything you want exactly how you want it, left with no questions, nagging desires, or sense of wonder -- well, it might have been a nice way to spend a few hours. But then what?

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