In the Library
This one takes a little bit of a setup. Simon Penny wrote an article
called "Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation"
for a collection of essays called First Person. Sections of this book are
being published over at the Electronic
Book Review, and one of the benefits of this re-publishing is that it
allows for comments by other thinkers on the same subjects. Jan van
Looy wrote a response to Penny's article, in which he accused Penny
of re-hashing the "violent games produce violent behaviors" debate and argued
against that position. Penny wrote his own response,
in which he disavowed the position that van Looy had attributed to him and
claimed that he was making a much smaller and more focused point, which he
accused van Looy of having missed and unfairly dismissed.
Now, having read Penny's original article and both responses (and I suggest
you do the same before continuing), I found it astonishing that Penny could
claim to have not connected violent games to violent behaviors, and his close-reading
dissection of van Looy's rather earnest response struck me as an act of extreme
bad faith. In my opinion, Penny used every trick of the academic arsenal
to not only defend himself from the critique but also to diminish van Looy
for having made it. Being the ornery cuss that I am, this inspired me
to turn Penny's tactics against his own work, in the following tongue-in-cheek
"Parable of Irony".
Simon Penny’s response to Jan van Looy’s critique of his article “Representation,
Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation” is a wonderful parable of the dynamics
of irony. Penny takes van Looy to task for having mis-read his argument
as “a diatribe against first person shooters” when he is simply positing that
“long sessions of repeated actions under emotionally intense conditions are
very likely to inculcate learned responses to certain contexts” and that there
is sufficient evidence in his argument “to allow for the possibility that
this is a possibility”. How barbaric, it seems then, that van Looy
should have mistaken this finely nuanced intellectual argument about an appreciation
of the distinction in aesthetic approach between representational and interactive
media for a political broadside.
As Mr. van Looy seems like an intelligent enough fellow, from his response,
one might wonder what led him to such a flawed conclusion. Perhaps it
has something to do with an insufficiently thorough reading of the following
"Is it unfair to blame such atrocities as the Columbine and Jonesboro school
massacres purely on such products? Clearly most people, even most Quake players,
have a reasonable grasp of the difference between simulation and real life.
But equally clearly, these games would not find a market if a larger cultural
formation had not prepared the ground. It is in this context that we must
ask: what behaviors do these games train?"
"Quake is mired in images of gobs of steaming bloody flesh and graphic depictions
of death of the most violent kind."
"Any Quake-playing kid knows how to blow away approaching enemies — knows,
in fact, according to the logic of the game, that any approaching stranger
is an enemy and must therefore be blown away immediately."
So, in the spirit of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,”
we are drawn to the conclusion that what separates the first person shooter
from the high-end battle simulator is the location of one in an adolescent
bedroom and the other in a military base. And having accepted that simulators
are effective environments for training, we must accept that so too are the
desktop shooter games.
As Mr. Penny is self-avowedly familiar with “argument[s] made to adduce
that first-person shooters do not induce violent behaviors” to the point
that this field of contestation is “a territory I had intentionally sought
to avoid”, one has to wonder how the constellation of first-person shooters
and violence in the real world made it into his essay at all. Clearly,
what he is arguing when he points out that the only difference between military
simulators and first person shooters is their location is not that old chestnut
that first person shooters incite children to violence but rather that it
prepares them so that when they find themselves in situations of violence,
their reactions are conditioned by their experience playing games.
One could forgive van Looy for mistaking the description that Quake is “mired
in” images of violence rather than “constructed with” or “stylized through”
them for a value judgment. While the particular reference of military
simulators invokes images of violence, this must be completely tangential
to the core argument about conditioned behavior, which could equally as validly
claim that children who obsessively play Tetris are likely to pack the trunk
more efficiently when the family goes on vacation. By posing the legitimacy
of holding games as responsible for massacres in the form of a question, Penny
by no means insinuates that “we must accept” a correlation between wanting
to play a violent game and actually enacting violence upon one’s peers.
Indeed, “in this context” it is crystal clear that Penny’s activism has
nothing to do with associating violent games with violent behaviors, but
rather the ethical activism of his piece serves simply to call for greater
awareness of the need for refined critical attention to the methods of the
construction of such analyses. As a critic who recognizes the danger
of “ironic double coding [that] allows the speaker or maker equivocality”,
Mr. Penny is no doubt aware of the danger of using a culturally volatile
topic such as the relationship of violence to video games to advance an otherwise
minor and debatable point and has studiously avoided juxtaposing categories
in such a way that the implication may exist that there is a shadow of a
possibility of correlation between violent games and actual violence.
After all, the argument boils down, if we take him at his word, to pointing
out that there is a qualitative difference between representational and interactive
media, and that is news.
However, one might inquire of Mr. Penny why his analysis focuses so repetitively
on the effects repeated sessions of interactive entertainment may have on
children. For, after all, if simulation is an effective training tool,
then it is surely the case that not only adolescents but also full grown adults
may be subject to its effects. In the case of military simulation, at
least, these techniques are available only to those of the age of majority,
and yet one would think that they are effective given the evidence he presents.
I would not want to infer that Mr. Penny was implying that the youth are somehow
more at risk from the effects of gaming (which, we must remember, are not
necessarily negative), since he never explicitly said as much.
The fact that military simulation is an exercise that all participants acknowledge
as a training procedure, whereas desktop games are often played, consciously
and unconsciously, for fun should similarly not give us pause. For,
the new interactive aesthetics “must move beyond the aesthetics of passive
image consumption”. Clearly, what we have here is not a new iconoclasm
(with due reference to Baudrillard) on Mr. Penny’s part, but rather a modern
“Areopagitica” that warns that we must expose our children to violent video
games early and often, for only by testing their moral mettle against such
experiences can we harden them to the dangers that simulations hold for them
in their adult years.
It would be a disservice to this finely articulated argument to not call
attention to its nuanced immanent critique of generalization; after all statements
such as “Whatever the power of images, interactive media is more” and “Passive
observation may be shown to have some effect on the beliefs or even the actions
of an observer, but an enacted training regime must be a more powerful critique”
can only serve to show the dangers extrapolating from a juxtaposition of events
a relationship of causality.
It is under this sign that we must read Penny’s playful characterization
of van Looy as “an apologist for gaming” with its gross oversimplification
as yet another warning against reading at face value, as when Penny cites
David Grossman’s claim that games “hardwire young people for shooting at humans”.
Indeed, one must ask whether this “Grossman” is not itself a play on words,
a reflection of the fantastical notion that a method for modifying behavior
could somehow produce a “hard” condition that is beyond the reach of modification.
It could not be clearer that the claim “we must accept that there is something
that qualitatively separates [an interactive work] from a static image …
or even a movie of the same subject” calls attention to the agency of the
subject in an interactive space and the ability to choose to play by the
rules of the work or not; if it is not the interactivity that separates such
work from standard representation, then the term itself must be flawed.
Indeed, the epitome of Mr. Penny’s subtlety lies in the key remark that
“Each work affords, accommodates, or permits only certain types of behavior.”
As anyone who has studied criticism in the twentieth century knows, the limitation
of a work to a literalism of authorial control has been thoroughly and critically
debunked by everyone from T.S. Eliot to Jacques Derrida. Penny’s positioning
of the interactive work in this clearly outdated conception of textual relationship
is the finest underscoring of his methodological mockery of the short-sightedness
of critics who cannot read past the presumptive meaning of a text to realize
its formal commentary on its subject.
Any claims that Mr. Penny is an academic hack retreading a popular argument
in finer garb to grab a share of the limelight could only come from a similarly
mistaken interpretation of his text. Just as he warns us that the reader
must be vigilant to the ideological structurings of interactive works, his
text is itself posed in such a way as to demand of the reader a critical analysis
that goes beyond credulity to a hermeneutic engagement with the terms of
It is a work of supreme irony, rivaled only, in my estimation, by that great
auteur John Hughes who similarly called attention to the trope when he (a
grown adult) cited David Bowie (another grown adult) representing to the youth
their own experience within a work that represented to the youth their own
“And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds,
are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going
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