Friday, November 16, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Feeding the Gators

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Let’s do something a little different today, Immanuel Can. I was thinking about the social implications of that clip you sent me this morning from the action-adventure video game Red Dead Redemption 2. It seems like that might be worth talking about from a Christian perspective.

Do you want to take a crack at describing it?

Immanuel Can: It’s hard to imagine if a person has not seen modern video games. (Of course, for those who have children, avoiding video games is all-but-impossible nowadays.) A lot are now story-based, but a lot are also what’s called “first-person-shooters”, designed to let players kill a lot of characters as they move through a maze or follow some kind of prepared story line.

The Swamp and the Pigpen

This particular game is a very bloody shoot-’em-up narrative set in the Old West. In it, the creators have placed a character that looks like a first-wave feminist suffragette, and she’s yelling at people on the street about giving women the vote. The game makes her shrill, annoying and persistent, inviting a response from the player.

Apparently, one option the player can choose is to support and protect a group of such protesters. But other options are equally possible — including punching, kicking or shooting the elderly woman, dragging her down the street by a rope, and then feeding her to an alligator, or to a pen of pigs. Guess which sorts of gameplay have been featuring recently on YouTube playbacks?

Tom: I was mildly amused by the bit where he drags her, still spouting feminist dogma, behind his horse, and her voice stays exactly the same as she’s bouncing down a dusty road. Then we get to the swamp and things get really nasty. But actually watching it is very different from just describing it, isn’t it? I found it quite distasteful, not because we haven’t seen such things in movies for years, but because it’s a deliberate choice made by the game player. And in order for it to even be possible, somebody had to imagine it first, and then a team had to painstakingly program it. It’s not something that just occurs by itself. That tells you something about the thinking behind what is one of the most expensive-to-make and massively popular video game series in the world — something like 15 million copies shipped in 2017, and of course many more of the sequel in 2018.

No Harm, No Foul

Now, I don’t want to go off on tangents like “keep this away from your kids” or “this should be banned”. There are arguments one could make about that, certainly, but they’re being made elsewhere. What does interest me is the way in which technology is now enabling us to explore obviously sinful choices while experiencing no visible negative consequences. No suffragettes were actually harmed in the making of this video, but the fact that they were not does not make choosing to live out the fantasy of brutalizing a harridan a harmless act.

IC: Actually, this was one of the LEAST-popular questions I ever posed to my students: “Can one sin in a video game?”

With one accord, they all would rise up, declaring the very question too stupid to be asked. “Of course you can’t,” they insisted. “It’s a game. That means it’s all imaginary; it’s not real, and so it obviously can’t present any real moral problems. Only a crazy person or someone who didn’t understand virtual reality at all would even suggest such a thing.”

The Springs of Life

So what would you say to that, Tom?

Tom: I would say it’s entirely wrong. It’s na├»ve. You’re feeding your own inner ’gator when you do that. The Bible teaches that our actions are a product of what we allow ourselves to indulge in our hearts, and that what we think eventually comes out in what we do or say. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Cartoon porn is not “real” either, but you wouldn’t argue watching it all the time will improve your marriage — at least, you wouldn’t have much luck arguing it to your wife.

IC: A good answer. I used to ask my students, “If you came home, and your father were watching virtual-reality pornography in the living room, what would your response be if he said, “It can’t be sin; it’s not real”?

Tom: Urgh. Makes the point.

IC: As I said, though, this question was NOT popular. The vast majority of gamers do not want even to entertain the question, and get angry with you if you raise it. It seems there are a lot of people whose enjoyment of virtual reality is tied up with the feeling that they don’t have to consider it as morally bad in any way.

Payback is an Itch

Now, we’ve been thumping a bit on the issue of the gamers who play this stuff, but that’s the easy bit. There’s a much harder question, and a much less politically-correct question, but one I think that is even more urgent than the possible moral turpitude of the game.

Tom: Do tell.

IC: I’m thinking that there are an awful lot of young men out there (and maybe some women, too) who are entertained by the thought of somebody taking a round out of (or perhaps putting a round into) the more strident kinds of political women’s-interest advocates. I don’t mean they’re actually planning violence, far less that they will be induced to do any by this game; I don’t know that. But they do seem to enjoy the thought of seeing it happen virtually, no? If that reflects any real resentment, I think we need to ask where that is coming from.

Tom: Well, I think young men are tired of being hectored. It used to be you could take a position on a political issue without being called a Nazi, a racist or a -phobe of one sort or another. That’s all gone in the current political climate. In leftist rhetoric, every issue is framed as a “moral” issue of paramount importance, and the tone of public debate has become correspondingly moralistic and increasingly frantic. Men are blamed for every evil under the sun, and “a woman’s right to choose” has become nothing short of religious dogma.

That leaves young men today with no voice about whether unborn children live or die, and no voice in most major political discussions. I think — no, I know they resent that powerlessness, and the shrillness and unquestioned self-righteousness that makes it increasingly difficult to even offer a reasoned opinion without being deplatformed, ostracized and pushed out of the mainstream.

With that in mind, a little “harmless” ultra-violence in the privacy of your bedroom may seem quite unobjectionable to non-Christians. They figure all they’re doing is blowing off steam.

More Than Steam

IC: And yet, do you suppose that this “blowing off of steam” could possibly be reflective of a deeper anger? I’m seeing more and more evidence of men — young men, in particular — moving away from the old concept of male chivalry toward an attitude which at its best is marked by a new indifference to the traditional spectrum of feminine demands and expectations, at somewhat worse by studied contempt, and at its most troubling by something like callousness or simmering resentment. I think it’s increasingly general; and I think it’s increasingly deeply felt. But it’s not yet politically acceptable to observe it.

Clearly, the game designers knew that sort of sentiment is available to be exploited. Through this taboo scenario, they did just enough to make the game enticingly controversial and an attractive virtual exercise of resentment, without doing something that might actually alienate their audience of young men. They went far — but apparently, not too far for their purposes. I find them disturbingly shrewd about this.

Tom: Oh, I’m very cynical about this sort of thing. The outrage the game is currently provoking is basically free advertising. For the developers, what’s the worst that can happen? They probably have Suffragette-Free Version 2.1 in waiting in case there’s a smidgen too much pushback from the usual suspects. Meanwhile, the young men to whom this thing is targeted are eating up the fact that they are in possession of something a little bit edgy, and the feminist watchdogs have a new thing to pretend to be outraged about, even though they’ve previously logged minimal ire over the dozens and dozens of male characters that can be similarly abused in this and other video games. It gives everybody something to huff about for a week, and then the scandal will disappear off the radar the moment there’s something newer and more exciting to flap about.

An Alligator for an Eye

IC: There’s a basic problem in our modern grievance-based feminism, and it is exactly the same in the budding male-resentment subculture: it’s the intuition that the way to respond to “injustices”, perceived or real, is to become mean and eye-for-eye towards the perceived offender. The common supposition is that that will balance out historical unfairness … give them a taste of their own medicine … teach them a lesson ... show them how it feels … pay them back for what they did to us … make us feel better … make them sorry they did it, etc.

Tom: To feed them to the alligators.

IC: It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that this attitude does not work. All it does is create new perceived grievances on each side, polarize the debate and raise the temperature. But it’s also the first impulse of the human flesh the minute we come to believe we’ve been dealt an injustice, so we can expect it to be a go-to reaction in our increasingly communication-dense world.

What would you say the word of God could tell us about that, Tom? Does it give us, as Christians, any alternatives?

Tom: At the individual level, certainly. That’s where we have to be careful not to allow ourselves to get caught up in the rhetoric of the day and mistakenly view ourselves outside of Christ as members of some aggrieved group. In Christ these are non-issues, and we dare not bring them into the church or the home and fight about them there.

Taking the Hit

As a Christian, and on the personal level, it’s preferable to graciously take a hit for the sake of the name of Christ than it is to score a “win”.

The societal level is another story. The New Testament is long on personal responsibility and short on instructions about how to re-order society to address the historic grievances of identity groups, be they women or men. I have a feeling that problem’s going to have to wait for Someone Bigger than Me to address it.

IC: Yes. On a personal level, vengeance is never an option. That’s true whether you’re seeking your own payback or joining a group that’s seeking it. We’re not to operate like that. We are not to cause, look for, or even rejoice in the fall of those who have acted as our enemies, but rather to seek their good. So to enact violence against them, even in a virtual scenario, is to train our minds to think as we ought not to think, and to delight in seeing harm come to those for whom we ought to be praying. How can we love people if we are delighting in their harm — even if we think they deserve it?

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