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May 18, 2005

Discussion: Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends

John Le Carré's latest novel, Absolute Friends, weaves its way through the Cold War and into the present day, in essence preparing us for a discussion of how civil liberties can and will be abused in the presence of fear, or in the attempt to create an atmosphere of fear. Without straying too far into spoiler territory, let me at least make it clear that the last section of the book is intended as a scathing attack on the current administration. And, in fact, a rather clumsy exposition follows the main denouement which makes that fact plain, in case anyone wasn't following it.

There aren't tons of games that deal much with politics, at least in terms of making statements about them, but there are a few. There are also a few games which deal with things like the electoral process, and there was a great game years ago which involved détente, Balance of Power. Plus the strategy games which you could argue are an abstraction of politics, such as Diplomacy.

In some ways, of course, you can't get away from politics. Whenever three people get together, you have politics¹, and so many games make political statements directly or indirectly. RPGs are great for this, and so were some adventure games. The one game I worked on that didn't ship involved a storyline that took a stance on environmentalism, and involved some characters who you didn't need to squint at too hard to see the corollaries on our national stage. So, it's out there, certainly.

But in this specific case, I've read a couple of books lately that are shocking in the directness of the case they make against Bush. The first, of course, is Absolute Friends. The other was Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, which caused quite a hullabaloo since the plot revolved around a man who was engaged in conversation with a friend about his intent to assassinate the President that very day. Granted, there were some clear flaws in his plan (the man was a bit off his rocker), but it was a concrete attempt to present how angry people get about politics these days.

I read both of these books and found them a little clumsy -- they are so overt in their distaste or hatred for the current administration that they lose some credibility, though le Carré less so.

I did a little searching of the memory banks and came up with a couple examples of exactly this sort of thing in games, and the reaction to at least one of them is similar². JFK Reloaded purports to be a historically accurate portrayal of the JFK assassination. (The other games which I won't discuss in any real detail are the Kuma/War games, one of which purportedly presents Kerry's Swift Boat mission in Vietnam.)

I'm really of two minds about this sort of portrayal -- on the one hand, it seems extremely crass to present that in an interactive setting, but on the other hand, no more crass than any number of books and movies about the same subject (Quantum Leap, anyone?). Deep simulation of a single event could open up so many angles on the scenario to make it an interesting object of interactive inquiry. It doesn't really seem all that different from showing JFK autopsy photos in far-larger-than-lifesize relief on the big screen, as Oliver Stone did, and I'm sure Stone would claim that there were artistic forces at work, an attempt to make America confront the death of a President who is very fondly remembered.

I'll say one thing for it; the furor over the event certainly belies any claims that videogames are no different from boardgames (and thus not protected by the first amendment). If someone made a boardgame about a presidential assassination, you can bet it wouldn't get quite this attention. Part of that is due to the smaller market that board games represent -- but I suspect the larger part is due to concerns of the impact of such an interactive simulation.

And hey, even art in bad taste is art, which is about as close you'll ever hear me to calling John Waters an artist.

¹Note: Someone used to say a phrase along these lines to me, "two people are x, three people are a committee(?), and four people, that's politics" or similar. If anyone can provide me with the original aphorism, it would allow me to check off one thing that is keeping me awake wondering and searching my memory at night. I think my brain needs defragmenting, the random access isn't as fast as it used to be.
²Yes, so a disclaimer: I haven't played the games, just read all the hype and stuff. I am mulling over playing one of them, just to see what they're all about. Also note: this is an absolutely abominable interview, in my view, since the interviewer clearly has his own agenda. He frames a lot of questions in a way that doesn't invite open dialog.

Posted by Brett Douville at May 18, 2005 09:29 PM


Interestingly enough, the state of Illinois is getting ready to fight over the idea that video games are not protected by the First Amendment, with a proposed law that would require retailers to determine (on their own) which games are inappropriate for persons under 18, and restrict sales or face jail time.

Link: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20050520/ap_on_hi_te/video_games

Posted by: Anne at May 20, 2005 02:43 PM

I read all about that today -- the company for which I work has an office in Chicago (and I had an idea it was coming). I was dismayed; on the other hand, I feel pretty confident that this will be overturned, as was the earlier St. Louis ordinance along the same lines (http://www.idsa.com/6_3_2003.html).

It seems like the sort of easy issue that politicians can glom onto, and then blame the courts when they uphold our basic freedoms. Everybody wins... well, except for the taxpayers who shell out for this sort of thing. When I imagine the expense that this country went through debating the Schiavo case and the baseball steroids fiasco, I wonder at the even greater lost opportunity cost of the missing debate and investigation into other issues, like how we could have let one crackpot determine whether or not we went to war¹.

After a while it just seems to me like we have somehow allowed a group of children to run the country, and I'm not talking about any one party in particular. But, I suppose, "'twas always thus and always thus will be."

¹Look up Curveball(Informant) on Wikipedia.

Posted by: Brett Douville at May 20, 2005 09:57 PM