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The Parable of Irony

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 passages:

"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 its construction.

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 experience:
“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 through.”

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