Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole contemplates the infantilism of playing videogames
Writing in Guantánamo Diary, the recently declassified and published (though still in a redacted form) memoir of his imprisonment and torture at Guantánamo Bay, Mohamedou
Ould Slahi relates how one of his guards suddenly received new orders to be nice to him. The guard brought him some home comforts, including muffins, a TV and a PlayStation 2 console. The guard was “a big gamer” himself, but Slahi was not overly impressed. He told his jailers: “Americans are just big babies. In my country, it’s not appropriate for somebody my age to sit in front of a console and waste his time playing games.” Slahi goes on: “Indeed, one of the punishments of their civilisation is that Americans are addicted to videogames.”
You and I may agree that videogames are a fascinatingly creative cultural force, but don’t you – at least sometimes – harbour the suspicion that Slahi has a point? That if we routinely spend evenings playing videogames, we are just big babies? I did recently, during a co-op romp through
LittleBigPlanet 3. The nonsensical tedium of the game’s blizzard of unskippable cutscenes and tutorial micro-levels reminded me of catching a terrifying glimpse, at a friend’s house, of a TV programme for three-yearolds, where any old gibberish can happen as long as it features lots of pointless colour and lighting effects.
Probably, I am being unfair both to those TV shows and to LittleBigPlanet 3, which might for all I know be targeted brilliantly at a younger age group that will hurl a controller across the room in tantrummy disgust if a game doesn’t relentlessly switch gadgets, playstyles and environmental aesthetics in the manner of a coked-up magpie. LittleBigPlanet 3 is the most obvious kind of game to pick on if you want to make the argument that people who play videogames are just big babies. We all know that there are videogames with serious themes that a human infant could not understand (I mean something such as Papers, Please rather than The Last Of Us). The image of a Guantánamo Bay guard giving a prisoner videogames as a treat is one that would no doubt interest Joanna Bourke. She is the author of the celebrated An Intimate History Of Killing, and her new book, Wounding The World, is an examination of how endless war becomes normalised through war-themed cultural products, or “militainment”. In modern shooters, Bourke writes, the “opponents are often highly racialised[…] War gaming typically takes place in the new empire, complete with headscarves, turbans, scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars and harems.” (Brilliantly, Bourke even notices that: “While the British and American soldiers simply fall down when shot, Middle Eastern and Russian soldiers dramatically jerk, shriek and fling their weapons in the air.”) When the guard left his posting at Guantánamo, he offered Slahi a choice of videogame to keep: either Madden NFL 2004 or NASCAR
Thunder 2004. Slahi chose the EA Sports racing game, though he doesn’t explain why. We can hope, at least, that he wasn’t offered a post-9/11 shooter.
Slahi’s description of Americans as big babies is more sophisticated than it looks, given the political context of where he was – and still is – imprisoned without formal charge. The whole point of the Bush-era torture regime was to infantilise prisoners, to reduce them to a state of vulnerability and dependence. This never, as official reports now conclude, issued in “actionable intelligence” to prevent an imminent attack, but perhaps the point was that such treatment constituted adequate revenge in itself. And so for a man to call such torturers babies is a clever rhetorical riposte. If it instils doubts in those who are lucky enough to pass the time playing videogames in our homes – well, maybe from time to time we need jolting out of such complacency.
Slahi did not hate all the examples of American culture that were offered to him. He found JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye wonderful. It would be nice to think that, last year, Slahi’s jailers upgraded the AV equipment to a PS4 and surreptitiously slipped him a copy of Metal Gear Solid V:
Ground Zeroes, in which an American spy liberates a prison camp much like Guantánamo. But if they did, any report of it will probably be censored, too. In the meantime, readers, enjoy your freedom.
It would be nice to think Slahi’s jailers surreptitiously slipped him Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes