So it turns out that Variety, that venerable journal for people who like to use the term "The Industry" in a non-ironic fashion, has a video game blog called "The Cut Scene" written by one Ben Fritz. Now, you might expect that this is like a meat-packing journal having a column for reviewing tofu burgers. Fie! Come not with such preconceptions. I'm sure it's a serious enterprise.
Well . . . sort of.
The matter came to my attention because The Cut Scene, just a few months into its run, has taken a brave moral stand against inappropriate content from a video game industry titan. Now I see you are on the edge of your seats . . . . is it wanton violence in Grand Theft Auto IV? Racist stereotypes in a hot new shooter? The fact that every online fantasy game in existence dresses female characters like Charlie Sheen's downstairs maid?
No — Ben Fritz is seriously upset that Sid Meier's update/remake of the venerable game "Colonization" will be named . . . well . . . "Colonization."
I literally exclaimed "holy sh*t" out loud when I was reading an e-mail this morning listing the "Games for Windows" coming out this year and I came across this
This leads me to wonder how the asterisk is pronounced when you literally do that. But I digress.
But goddamit, am I the only one who think it's morally disturbing to make a game that celebrates COLONIZATION? It's ironic, actually, because just a few months ago a friend sent me a link to some information about the original "Colonization" game from 1994 (pictured left) that this one updates. At first, I thought it had to be a joke, but sure enough, it was real. However, I dismissed it as a relic from a time when neither developers nor players took videogames seriously as media with moral implications.
Yes, 1994, before the Magna Carta and the Enlightenment and stuff. What the fuck? Is this guy twelve?
But the idea that 2K and Firaxis and Sid Meier himself would make and release a game in the year 2008 that is not only about colonization, but celebrates it by having the player control the people doing the colonizing is truly mind boggling.
What's mind boggling [sic] is that a blogger at Variety would launch into a cant-rant that would be disdained as silly even by the Yale English Department.
There are many reasons why this is extremely foolish. It reads almost as if this is the first computer game Fritz has encountered. Empire-building games always involve conflict — often violent — with other people, and the more sophisticated ones almost always depict stronger groups overcoming weaker groups. Many involve religious or cultural conversion of some sort. Many permit digital genocide, with your little nation of abstractions defeating another little nation of abstractions mercilessly. One of the earliest and best strategy games ever made portrayed global thermonuclear war as a viable strategic option. While the graphics, gameplay detail, and level of abstraction vary widely, they all come down to build, manage, conquer, and destroy.
Fritz's objection seems to be that in this instance those familiar gameplay elements are insufficiently abstract because they are depicted in a specific historical context that included real-world events we deplore as opposed to made-up contexts involving pretend events we would deplore if they had actually happened. But what, precisely, makes it more offensive or more celebratory of historical evils when I have my French colonists conquer parts of America in a game of Colonization than it is when I have my American colonists conquer part of a randomly generated map inhabited by Greeks or Babylonians in a game of Civilization IV? Or for that matter when I order my Zerg minions to commit genocide against defenseless human colonies in Starcraft?
Fritz has bought hook, line, and sinker into the entire nanny-state notion that depicting something — even interactively — is celebrating or endorsing it. Certainly it can be, like the sick concentration camp simulators that the neo-Nazis put out now and then. But is Das Boot an endorsement or celebration of Nazi Germany, or is it a tragic and heroic film depicting the terrible reality of war? Is Das Boot a lesser movie than the saccharine Dances With Wolves because it unflinchingly depicts the war from the side of the bad guys?
How about the computer games in which you can play German forces in combat, either in shooters or in real-time strategy? Is Fritz ranting against those? Well — apparently, not yet. Is he ranting against Grand Theft Auto IV's depiction of various sorts of violence and bad behavior? No – he seems somewhat fascinated by it, and also skeptical of the notion that it should be viewed as harmful.
No, Fritz is not asking for a transformation into "Grand Wash Auto IV: The Soaping, Featuring Non-Expoitatively Clothed Union Washers." He's not freaking out about the game because it includes carnage — as historical colonization certainly did. He's freaking out because it's insufficiently respectful of certain academic dogmas and proprieties. He's freaking out because certain subjects must, to his ilk, be treated only with moans of outrage. That's silly to anyone but Fritz. Gambling, drugs, and prostitution are indisputably social evils, but would a movie critic, the sort of actual, thinking writer Variety is known for hiring, decry The Godfather or Goodfellas as dangerous influences on society, or would he appreciate them as the works of art they are?
Moreover, Fritz clearly hasn't played the upcoming game or the original. If he did he'd know that the game imposes severe consequences for going around picking fights with Native tribes, who will kick the asses of an overly aggressive player. Amusingly, in one of the GTA IV columns I linked, Fritz gets in somebody's face for saying that GTA IV encourages violence without playing it first.
Plus, how can you possibly be the designated computer game blogger for a major media outlet like Variety and not have even heard about the original Colonization until a couple of months ago? That's like getting hired by the New York Times Review of Books blog and making your first entry "I have just heard about a very shocking book celebrating pedophilia. Apparently it's called 'Lola' or something."
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