3D DIRECT September 20, 2001
Apathy for Distraction
by Barry Fox
We've just spent the last several weeks finding out what would happen if a bad action movie came to life. And, unless you are completely desensitized, you've been deeply disturbed by just how accurately special effects artists have been able to virtually blow up a building. You've probably also been scarred for life by the horror that's been left behind after the explosion's fireball dispersed.
The context of everything we do as 3D game developers and 3D animators went through a nauseating and disorienting shift in perspective on September 11, 2001. In the days to follow, Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie, Collateral Damage, and rebroadcasts of The Peacemaker and Independence Day were yanked by networks that deemed them too realistic, except for the aliens. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda unequivocally proved just how rotten and festering our fantasies turned to realities can be.
I don't want to flog the dead horse of violence and video games; nothing has been proven in that long-standing debate in either direction. However, at least 6,000 deaths are worth more than a minute of silence or a candle in your window. I think you could pay respect to those that have died by acknowledging that your work affects people and by examining how it does.
In fact, most of the violence we portray is empty and without context. An article in the latest Next Generation magazine chides a game developer for not adding "pain skins" to their game, while the developers of Kingpin ran advertisements bragging about "exit wounds." If you game developers are really as good as you think you are at making the violence seem real, then have the families of the murdered character run out and cry over the corpse of their dead loved one instead of animating the transparency to zero after 10 seconds.
One of the reasons we allow ourselves to create so much graphic violence is because we are so uninformed about the real thing. Media Scholar Noam Chomsky points out that Americans are so busy trying to survive that there simply is not enough time and energy to absorb and disseminate the effects of the complex American foreign policy. Did your eyes just glaze over at the words American foreign policy? To be truthful, most anyone who knows anything about America's actions in the Middle East has been expecting a terrorist act in our country for several years. Those of you that are so overwhelmed by the amount of new software information you have to absorb and hours you have to work must remember: look outward or look out.
Looking outward for new inspiration is what fuels good art in any medium. 3D suffers from a preoccupation with Ferrari's, rocket launchers, and unnaturally large-breasted women. "But, that's what sells!" Yes, I've heard that argument too. But the more accurate assessment is that our industry is populated by 18 to 30-year-old boys who build what they like. It just so happens that shooting and killing is what they like to fantasize about. So amazing modeling and animation skills concentrate on making killing look cooler and cooler. So, of course, these become the best examples this new medium has to offer. But, watch the top 10 lists of games sales. PC games like Myst, The Sims, and Black & White top, and even dominate, these lists because these games appeal to more than just 18 to 30-year-old boys.
A timely example of how powerful our medium is may be in Electronic Arts' Majestic. It has had to be temporarily shut down. And in this case, it's not necessarily because it featured violence no one can stomach, but because it portrayed the reality of terrorists and spies. Here was a forward thinking game played out on the real devices in our lives that appears to be prophetic when we see the real terrorists using text messages encrypted in photos on the Internet, manipulating the stock market, and using state-of-the-art flight simulators. Majestic makes real and significant comments about our lives.
So here's my humble, paltry advice. Start by sparing all of us the bin Laden quake skins and first person shooters where you slaughter Afghani commandos. Real Afghanis are suffering at the hands of the Taliban government and Afghani women are tortured, if not killed, for trying to secretly educate their daughters. After a similar atrocity in Spain, Picasso gave us the painting, Guernica. I wholeheartedly recommend following this shining example along with those of game makers like Peter Molyneaux with Black and White. Here's a game where violent actions have far-reaching effects and are part of moral dilemmas. Lorne Lanning's Oddworld games show violence in the context of oppression and overconsumption. When I played Will Wright's The Sims, I thought I would see what would happen if I started a fire in the kitchen. Then my Sims family's little girl fell into the flames and died. After that, my Sims would begin crying anytime they want to the kitchen and were much more listless and unresponsive. To be sure, these are all cartoony representations of life, but they offered a sugarcoated allegory of the context and consequence. These types of works entertain, featuring violence in a way that causes you to be enriched by the experience.
America is reminding me strongly of the boxing Bantam rooster from Warner Brothers cartoons; he punches the first thing he sees when a bell is wrung. Or, even more poignantly, dances around punching in the air when there's nothing to hit. It's obvious that this country must wage war with these villains, but I'm hoping that this blow can trigger more than just superficial introspection. I've long seen 3D animation as a truly squandered medium since it has so much potential power of expression and yet manages to be even more culturally bereft than the movies. And guess what? Our lives now literally depend on being a more thoughtful and informed population so that our hyper-distracted ignorance does not leave us oblivious to the complex and dangerous world around us.
Barry Fox really enjoys being in 3D.