Friday, April 01, 2005

The Ontology of Vice: Guns, Guts, and Grand Theft Auto

So the other day I was reading Jaza's article on Desire and Suffering. I'm certainly not well enough versed in Buddhism to evaluate the truth of Jaza's claims, but I think it makes for an interesting critique of Buddhism.

I remember learning once about the Eastern philosophy relating to the nature of suffering. It was during a religious studies course that I took during my senior years of high school. Part of the course involved a study of Buddhism, and the Buddhist / Hindu ideas about what causes suffering. Those of you that are somewhat familiar with this, you should already have an idea of what I'm talking about. Those of you that are very familiar with it, you probably know far more than I do (I'm no expert on the matter, I have only a very basic knowledge), so please forgive me for any errors or gross simplifications that I make.

In essence (as I was taught, anyway), Buddhists believe that all suffering is caused by desire. It's really quite a logical concept:

  • we desire what we do not have;

  • we suffer because we desire things and we do not have them;

  • therefore, if we free ourselves from desire (i.e. if we do not desire anything), then we become free of suffering (i.e. we achieve the ultimate level of happiness in life).

The concept is so simple, and when you think about it, it's kind of cool how it just makes sense™. Put it in the perspective of modern Western culture, which is (in stark contrast to this philosophy) totally centred around the consumer and the individual's wants. In Western society, our whole way of thinking is geared towards fulfilling our desires, so that we can then be happy (because we have what we want). But as everyone knows, the whole Western individual-consumer-selfish-driven philosophy is totally flawed in practice, because:

  • as soon as we fulfil one desire, it simply leads to more desires (the old OK, I've bought a Mercedes, now I want a Porsche example comes to mind here);

  • there are heaps of desires that everyone has, that will never be fulfilled (hence you will never truly be happy).

Then there is the great big fat lie of the consumer era: things that we desire aren't really desires, because most of them are actually things that we need, not things that we want. Justifying that we need something has become second nature.

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But all this got me thinking, what about other things? Sure, it's great to stop desiring material objects, but what of the more abstract desires?

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Clearly, knowledge and the desire for it cannot be explained with the same logic that we were using earlier. It doesn't follow the rules. With knowldge, desire can lead to no desire, and vice versa. Fulfilment can lead to sadness, or to happiness. So the question that I'm pondering here is basically: is it bad to desire knowledge? Is this one type of desire that it's good to have? Is there any constant effect of attaining knowledge, or does it depend entirely on what the knowledge is and how you process it?

My answer would be that yes, it's always good to desire knowledge. Even if you cannot say with certainty whether the result of attaining knowledge is "good" or "bad" (if such things can even be measured), it's still good to always desire to know more, just for the sake of being a more informed and more knowledgeable human being. Of course, I can't even tell you what exactly knowledge is, and how you can tell knowledge apart from - well, from information that's total rubbish - that would be a whole new topic. But my assertion is that whatever the hell knowledge is, it's good to have, it's good to desire, and it's good to accumulate over the long years of your life.

Anyone who knows me, knows that Knowledge is Power is one of my favorite sayings. The example of the Holocaust as unpalatable knowledge is interesting. (There are several other examples if you care to read the whole post.)

The term I prefer is sinister wisdom. I think sinister wisdom is the most interesting type of knowledge. My wife, Sarah, is addicted to true crime novels and I pick them up from time to time. The well-written ones are hard to put down precisely because of the hideous nature of the crimes they describe.

With our sensationalist media, it's easy to lose perspective on the scope and extent of these threats, but nonetheless, the world remains a place of potential peril yet great promise.

I've been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto recently. I actually prefer Vice City to San Andreas, but both of them are works of art.

The reasons for their success are obvious to anyone who plays the game. It has a very complex ontology of character types that interact with the main character and each other in clever ways. But the ontology of the game is a sinister one. It's a world populated by the Mafia, yakuza, drug dealers, gun runners, bank robbers, pimps, hookers, gangs, crooked cops, Area 51, covert operations, and vendettas. Tommy Vercetti, the main character of Vice City is an ex-con out to take over Miami and Carl Johnson of San Andreas is blackmailed into a life of crime by crooked cops. And the nameless kid from GTA III is driven by a desire for vengeance.

Sarah doesn't approve of these games. Or the fact that I love nothing more than running around blowing people's heads off with an M-16.

Now, I'm also a gun nut. I have always thought firearms were fascinating and strangely beautiful. I enjoy going shooting as often as I can, which in LA, is usually once or twice per year. But I can fire up GTA and shoot electronic people once or twice a week quite easily.

While violence is quite accepted in our culture, video games are increasingly dealing with issues of drug use and abuse. Stephen Tomtilo's article for the New York Times recently discussed several games coming out deal with narcotics and criminal syndicates.
In Narc, which is rated M, or Mature, for ages 17 and older, players control one of two narcotics officers, partners who were once separated after one became addicted to drugs.

The gameplay primarily involves arresting dealers, whose drugs can be confiscated and used.

A digital puff of marijuana, for example, temporarily slows the action of the game like a sports replay. Taking an Ecstasy tablet creates a mellow atmosphere that can pacify aggressive foes. The use of crack momentarily makes the player a marksman: a ''crack'' shot.

But using each drug also leads to addiction, which can lead to blackouts that cost the player inventory and to demotions or even expulsion from the police force, which halts progress in the game. In measured doses, the substances can make a tough challenge easier, but the makers of the game say it is possible to play without using the drugs at all.

''Should you be able to use them?'' the game's producer, Wayne Cline, 31, said. ''We decided, yeah, if they're part of the life of a cop. Just like in the movie 'Narc' and the movie 'Training Day,' sometimes they use.''

More drug-related games are coming. Take Two Interactive, the publisher of the Grand Theft Auto series, recently announced a title to be released this year called Snow. According to a company news release, the game ''will challenge players to oversee every aspect of the drug trade.''

Vivendi Universal is planning to release a game based on the film ''Scarface,'' which featured extensive cocaine use. The company has also announced Bulletproof, a game starring the likeness of 50 Cent, the rapper and acknowledged former crack dealer, in an adventure set upon ''a bloody path through New York's drug underworld.''

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Patricia Vance, president of the rating board, said the trend was not so much about drugs as it was a move toward greater realism. Games increasingly include more character development and deeper stories, she said, which lead to a broader range of topics.

But for some, Narc's inclusion of drug use is a reality they feel is unwise for games to reflect. ''Narc was a bad idea,'' said Michael Pachter, an analyst who follows Midway for Wedbush Morgan Securities. ''Violence is embraced in our culture, which is why you see violence in video games. I don't believe society believes drugs are an appropriate thing. I think that alienates consumers.''
(emphasis added) |Link|

Video games are merely simplifications of life. They have a limited ontology and the leave some aspects of life out.

But Grand Theft Auto and other violent games mirror some unpleasant aspects of life. Some fairly sophisticated parties claim that video games lead to violence. So, if one agrees with me that GTA reflects the violence in our society and makes a pleasant, artistic diversion out of it, are these incidents of violence based on GTA a case of life imitating art, or art imitating life, or both?

We live in a society where most adults have easy access to hard drugs, firearms, violent TV and movies as well as copious amounts of porn, from softcore to heavy bondage. To claim that is it video games that turn people into killers strikes me as questionable.

I think it's part of a larger fallacy of seeing technology as arising independently of the culture that creates it. The technology is generated not out of objective science, but out the needs of a social and political milieu. (See also Don Idhe's Technics and Praxis: A Philosophy of Technology, 1979.) Firearms and violent entertainment are products of a violent society. And these two products arguably serve to intensify the violence in society.

The problem is the violence endemic to our culture. I don't know how to solve the problem, but I think the solution must involve dialogue with men, mental health screening and counseling, reasonable regulation of firearms, better police response to domestic violence, equality of opportunity regardless of race. I'm not totally opposed to restrictions on violent video games or movies. But I think children need to be made aware of the fact that there are bad people in the world and that America is a place where access to firearms is the rule, not the exception.

Let me conclude this long, rambling post by suggesting that they can have my PS2 controller when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

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Note: Cross-posted at the Bellman.

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