- Playing the News
I have never forgotten one passionate class discussion on television violence that took place during my days as a graduate student. Although I am unable to recall the course, the voice of a student who was a forceful advocate of showing the violence has come to mind frequently over the years. She strongly believed these scenes provided a vehicle for those of us who lived far from crime-infested areas to understand lifestyles we do not experience first-hand. At the time, and still, I find myself torn. As much as I oppose censorship in any form, whenever I think about the ramifications of continual exposure to this kind of brutality, I fear it normalizes the behavior in a way that is not socially beneficial. Over the years, as I have watched violence increase, pondered the escalating conflicts within our polarized world and watched new technologies easily circulate events such as the Saddam execution, my mind has often returned to that class debate.
Playing the News is a film that speaks directly to the dilemma. Keith Halper is the chief executive officer of a company that markets game simulations based on battles from the Iraq War. The Kuma War on-line games, he explains, are designed as an "intense, boots-on-the-ground experience" for those who play. He sees this experience as a positive way to understand the actual events for, in his view, young people do not watch television news or read newspapers. Rather, they play hour after hour of video games, so why not convey war reports to them through their recreational activities?
To its credit, the script responds to this question through the voices of both critics and enthusiasts. Commentary from figures outside the gamer community is the film's strength. Henry Jenkins, who teaches Comparative Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserts that the game allows a player to see the world as an embedded journalist would. This conclusion seems to correspond with the game's intention. Andreas Kluth, a technology writer for The Economist, is a bit more skeptical. Kluth concedes that the videos may educate people about the war, but concludes that this type of experience would be more voyeuristic than real. A gamer may learn about the mechanics but would miss the agony of the population, for example. This skewed perspective comes about because heroic events are included in the games, while less attractive actualities (such as U.S. military torture at Abu Ghraib prison) are not. A war [End Page 505] correspondent, Philip Robertson, articulately expands on Kluth's point. Voicing suspicion of Kuma's claim that it is much like a news organization, he asserts that integrating a game format with "news stories" misconstrues the very nature of the war itself. Speaking persuasively against being swayed by the "educational" thesis, he asks whether a video game focused on simulating the violent engagements of the war is a form of entertainment that sanitizes too many aspects of what is essentially a complicated and chaotic environment?
Black Caesar, Rick Harris and Steve Jefferson offer the gamer perspective. They are among those who download the episodes from the Internet, and each conveyed his fascination with the product. One, for example, said he becomes so involved in the game that he has no idea what is going on around him. Another states it is "funner" to watch the game than to look at the real news on television. I found Steve Jefferson's experience representative. He plays 5 to 6 hours a day and has concluded that the war is pointless but believes that we have to do what we have to do. He also notes that he has friends posted in Iraq and that, to his mind, the game gives him some sense of their experience. By contrast, he acknowledges that the game is still just a game, and he can walk away from it.
The need to engage with the distinction between actuality and the shades of it a video experience can capture...