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No Substitutes on Game and Player

No Substitutes

Michael Ubaldi  //  July 29, 2010

Violence in media hasn't inured me to the real thing.


he latest public exclamation from Wikileaks is, naturally, an occasion for polemics. For me, it answered a big question we might ask ourselves when these things happen and war images accost the domestic mind. So, after two decades of exposure to broadcast entertainment and video games, am I indifferent to acts of violence caught on film in real life? Emphatically, No.

The last time Julian Assange's organization importuned the United States military, the world was shown footage from the gun camera of an Apache helicopter flying over Baghdad in 2007. American soldiers, targets of potshots in the neighborhoods of the Tisa Nissan district, requested air escort. Crews of the Apache and its accompanying craft observed young men in civilian clothing armed with AK-47s and an RPG, one block from a patrol. After several minutes of assessment, the Apache received clearance to fire and did so, killing or wounding most in the group. A civilian van whose occupants attempted to recover survivors was also targeted.

Witnessing death loses neither its shock nor its jarring distinction from the most sanguine, tactile performance of ragdoll physics.Among the deceased were two identified as freelancers on Reuters' payroll, camera-cum-weapon in tow; enter the controversy. For the sake of the present argument, however, accept my narrow and settled opinion: supporting the operation for seven years on, unmoved by the collateral risk invited by asymmetrical combat, and satisfied with the Army's conclusion that "there was neither reason nor probability to assume that neutral media personnel were embedded with enemy forces." Consider, too, that gun-camera footage from the theater is closely imitated by Modern Warfare 2, a first-person shooter I have played frequently over the months.

And yet through that obscure, black-and-white grain, the human form reduced to softly articulated white silhouettes, the sight of a 30mm cannon actually firing, living beings in its crosshairs, is unmistakable. With every intention to defend these actions, I still react instinctively and gravely. However many times I re-watch a clip — Wikileaks' piece de resistance or another — witnessing death loses neither its shock nor its jarring distinction from the most sanguine, tactile performance of ragdoll physics.

Am I soft? It's not unfair to ask. Medical procedures on cable or as depicted on House, MD turn my stomach. Slasher flicks repel me, my tolerance for dramatized brutality and gore undoubtedly lower than many. Contact sports, weapons, full-throated physical pursuits — not me. But insofar as I subject myself to this content — seeing and, in-game, committing far worse — I underscore my point, which is to confute that of censurers who insist violence in media corrodes the mind and morals. Year after year of this stuff and yet I instantly know the difference between actors, computer graphics, and dead men.

Ed Kirchgessner // July 29, 2010 // 12:22 AM

I've got to agree with you, Mike: regardless of how many violent video games I play, real life violence still repels me. An incredibly jarring production of Frontline that aired last fall stands out — footage of Marines fighting in Afghanistan that was so up close and "in your face" that it left me dumbfounded.

Jessica Johnson // July 29, 2010 // 10:51 AM

I may love games like Gears of War and all the gruesomeness that goes with it, but I am still a human being inside. I can't watch real (and sometimes even fake) footage of people or animals being brutally killed. In fact I am still haunted by an actual accident I witnessed many years ago that I wish I could forget involving a small child.

Real life is far more horrific than any game I have ever played.

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