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The topic for this round: The School Shooter Mod. Is it the product of a disturbed mind or brilliant statement on the power of the videogame medium? Or is it something altogether more complex and terrifying? What does a product of this nature say about the society that creates it, the society that enjoys it, or about the society that seeks to obliterate it?

imageJim Sterling: I’m a lover of tasteless humor and offensive content, and as such, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to condemn this game as so many gamers have willfully done. In fact, it’s my worry that anybody who does condemn this game is a hypocrite, because ultimately, what is School Shooter if not something that does what most games do, without the weak moral justification?

Take a look at some of the most popular games around — Call of Duty, Uncharted, Grand Theft Auto. Sure, they all have stories, and they all have “reasons” for killing the enemies presented in the game. However, you’re still killing human beings. Uncharted is especially guilty here — a game in which lives are callously traded over shiny gold pieces and historical secrets while a borderline sociopath cracks wise and laughs with his old sugar daddy. Really, is there a moral justification for the sheer amount of carelessly dispensed death in Uncharted? You can try to argue that “they shot first,” but that doesn’t quite take away the fact that Nathan Drake has claimed many lives in pursuit of something so fleeting as treasure.

I’ve played Grand Theft Auto and I’m sure most people reading this have. I defy the vast majority of you to claim that you haven’t, at times, gotten bored and decided to go on a killing spree. In fact, if you ever played the original top-down games, you’ll surely remember getting bonus points for running over a line of Hare Krishna followers — some of the most defenseless, harmless, peace-loving folk on Earth. Saints Row is even more blatant, where entire minigames are dedicated to torching innocent civilians or destroying people and property with rocket launchers. Bear in mind, these victims are no more able to defend themselves than the teachers and students presented in School Shooter.

Yet School Shooter is singled out as particularly horrific, and I have to ask: why? Because it’s set in a school and not on the street? That is the South Park effect, where something is perfectly fine and acceptable until it touches a nerve. Just as Isaac Hayes was cool with South Park mocking Christianity, Islam and other organizations, then got upset once Scientology was in the sights, so too do gamers betray their own hypocrisy when they’re suddenly not cool with the digital taking of human life once the scenario changes to something a little harder to compartmentalize.

It’s easy to call School Shooter sociopathic, but what is a sociopath? Well, sociopaths love to justify their own bad behavior by claiming that what they were doing was “different” and thus more allowable. Just like gamers are claiming that it’s “different” when shooting “insurgents” in Call of Duty or sniping the heads off old ladies in Grand Theft Auto. It’s not that different, really. School Shooter is merely being honest and giving us the end result of most popular games.

Just because it’s set in a school, that doesn’t make it any sicker than the stuff you can do in GTA. It just makes it more contemporary, and people have a strange habit of finding tasteless material unacceptable until some vague, arbitrary grace period has passed.

I’ve defended Grand Theft Auto from criticism in the past, and I feel like I’d be betraying my own principals if I abandoned School Shooter just because its scenario is aesthetically less savory. It’s all digital murder at the end of the day. School Shooter‘s simply a little more up-front about it than most.

imageMovieBob: If you need one reason to hate the “ban violent games” argument, this is mine: The question of whether or not something like this should be allowed to exist (it should) always obscures the discussion of its actual merits (not many.) It’s two entirely separate discussions that end up being wrongly conflated – YES, this absolutely has the right to exist. But that’s the ONLY thing I can say in its defense. Otherwise? It’s utterly irredeemable – right up there with the old KKK “race war” mods of Doom/Quake in terms of being as close to evil as you can get in this medium.

imageMovieBob: Again, free speech and creative freedom are absolute to me, and it’s insane to think that this medium shouldn’t or isn’t capable of tackling this kind of subject matter… but this isn’t that game – this is artistically-bankrupt, feces-thrown-at-the-audience, “look at me!!! I’m soooo naughty!!!” bullshit of the highest order; and if there’s ONE thing that’s holding the “games as art” conversation back it’s that we’re forced to waste time defending shit like this on the technicalities of free speech instead of defending GOOD controversial games on their genuine merits.

The initial question asked the “disturbed” or “brilliant” question, and I can’t agree to either. Suda51 is disturbed and/or brilliant – THIS, on the other hand, is as base and simplistic as you can get; as cynical and calculated a grab for attention as a beer commercial or the career Justin Bieber. It’s not sociopathic or scary or dark – it’s just stupid and obvious.

If you read the interview the developer of this did with Greg Tito (in The Escapist) for me that kind of settles the whole thing – “pawnstick” comes off as the worst kind of vapid wannabe-provocateur. He attacks gamers, defends Jack Thompson, insults the makers of similar games for not being as badass as him… he might as well just hang a “PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” sign around his neck – with the obligatory footnote reading “Oh, and totally remember all this manufactured controversy when I come out with my otherwise not-worth-noticing ‘professional’ followup.

imageJames Portnow: It’s funny, I just spent the weekend lecturing at UT on propaganda games and we got to discussing debased atrocities like Zog’s Nightmare; I said I’d defend to the last their right to make such things, but told the students not to even give them the hits by looking up such trash. So I wholeheartedly agree with Bob: while they indubitably have the right to make School Shooter, it’s not a game, it’s a stunt. Frankly I don’t think it deserves the press we’ll be giving it.

But that doesn’t negate the interesting point Jim made: are our standard shooters any better? Well, yes, because the well-made ones are actually engaging, but many are morally vapid and often incentivize the killing of specific racial or religious groups, not because they are actually racist but because they need a generic enemy and pull one from the bin of societal fears without thinking (much as we used to do with American Indians). I’d love to see a game where raising a gun really meant something. Where pulling the trigger or taking a life was an act with great impact and moral weight. Most of all I’d like to see that done in a context that’s actually engaging (rather than a drab “serious game” that’s offering specific moralizing).

Simultaneously, shooting galleries are fun. We’ve had these sorts of games for thousands of years and they’re not going away (in fact for much of history we’ve shot live animals for sport, so I guess we’re arguably taking a step forward even with the some of the more simplistic shooters). So long as players think about the context of what they are doing I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with this as a method of play (and for the record, I’ve always found Grand Theft as fairly astute social commentary that is pointing out it is social commentary by its ridiculousness; I think it’s on us as players if we fail to observe that).

P.S. One of these years when I have the free time I’m going to make my Second Person Shooter where the game is from the perspective of a sniper scope and you’re one of the tiny blips on the other end trying desperately not to get shot.

P.P.S. It always bothers me that games like this get a ton of attention and products like September 12th go totally under the radar (Sept. 12th is by no means the apotheosis of the form, but for god sake it’s at least as well crafted as School Shooter.)

imageMovieBob: Regarding the issue of the troubling aspects of the shooter genre in general; I feel the need to interject a “broader picture” element to the discussion: that there needs to be a differentiation between issues that are endemic to gaming and issues that come from the CULTURE in which gaming exists.

While it’s true that the FPS scene is loaded with ugly stuff like racism, chauvinism, gun worship, military fetishism, all that… Those are ALL elements that FPS games have imported from the macho/meathead “army porn” culture that the genre seeks to emulate.

imageMovieBob: It’s scapegoating, in other words – the “kill everyone who doesn’t look like you!” dictum of your average FPS didn’t grow in a vacuum, its part of a bigger ugly side to our society… But singling out and attacking JUST gaming’s version of it lets people avoid admitting just how big the problem really is.

For me, personally, this is the big “down side” to having Western (particularly American) developers currently being the industry’s overwhelming driving force: we INSTANTLY took the WORST things about our (Western/American) culture – the deification of the gun and the romanticism of gun-use as some kind of righteous thing unto itself – and turned them into the focal icon of a medium that can be so much more.

imageJim Sterling: It’s certainly a wider cultural problem than just games, but that only serves to enhance my original point, rather than refute it, I feel. The fact that “gun porn” is such a huge part of our culture leads me to further question why School Shooter should be singled out for being so honest about its violent, amoral content. You are absolutely correct that television and movies have incredibly questionable subject matter at times — in fact, there’s stuff in films that are far, far worse than anything School Shooter has presented so far, and with an equal amount of artistic merit. This makes the singling out of School Shooter even more ridiculous to me.

I certainly understand the argument concerning the developer’s motives. He gives the impression that he’s looking to troll, or shock, or cause some kind of disturbance. Who is giving him that power, though? The people who are angrily accusing him of trolling, shocking and causing a disturbance. I’ve always held the belief that the only way to combat offensive content is to not be offended. It’s our negative, hurt, upset reaction that gives offensive content the advantage. Why are racial slurs so powerful, for example? It’s because of how we react to them. If we could casually write off such slurs, or even learn to laugh at how inherently meaningless and silly they truly are, then racists would be robbed of their biggest weapon. Words only have the meaning we ascribe to them, and so too does School Shooter only have the meaning you give it. In a way, it’s not School Shooter‘s fault that it’s so horrific — it’s the fault of those that are horrified. You can make your own Freddy Krueger reference at this point.

There are better games to discuss the artistic merits of, and I can appreciate the frustration that we’re stuck talking about this one and not about, say, the sexual abuse implications in Killer7 or the aforementioned September 12. At the end of the day though, we’re the ones choosing to talk about it. We, the gamers, are paying as much attention to School Shooter as any detractor. It’s up to us, I think, to care more about the worthier games. A game like School Shooter couldn’t survive in a world where the gamers (not the Jack Thompsons, who can safely be ignored at this point) don’t raise an eyebrow.

imageMovieBob: I’m not arguing that School Shooter SHOULD be singled out – just that it’s possibly helpful to step back from the immediate gut level reaction we as “game people” tend to have about stuff like this.

Even still, I don’t necessarily think this particular game needs some kind of credit for “honesty” – there’s a difference between honesty about the base-level exploitative nature of shooters that you see in, say, Duke Nukem and THIS, where the “honesty” is mostly unapologetic laziness. Again, that’s not to say I condemn it; but it doesn’t need any kind of “defense.” As the saying goes, “Shit has its own integrity.”


Be sure to come back next week for the rest of the discussion.

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