Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - CONTENTS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Amazon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

Steven Poole con­sid­ers two din­ner party no-gos: pol­i­tics and vi­o­lence

They do elec­tions bet­ter in France. Quite apart from the em­i­nently sen­si­ble rule that no cam­paign­ing or pub­lish­ing of opin­ion polls are al­lowed within 24 hours of the polls open­ing, French politi­cians also make bet­ter cam­paign videogames. Jean-Luc Mé­len­chon, the fire­brand anti-cor­po­rate lefty, surged from nowhere in a few months to be a real con­tender in the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. In the event he came a close fourth, but one of the things his cam­paign will likely be remembered for is what is prob­a­bly the best ex­am­ple yet seen of a videogame as naked pro­pa­ganda.

Fis­cal Kom­bat, as Mé­len­chon’s game is called, was de­vel­oped by an anony­mous col­lec­tive of French gamers who call them­selves Dis­cord Les In­soumis. It’s a 16bit-styled side-scrolling brawler in the tra­di­tion of Streets Of Rage, and the hero is a pixel­lated Mé­len­chon, with steel-grey pom­padour hair­style, who strides down the streets pick­ing up wealthy pinstriped men be­fore they can punch him, and shak­ing stolen money from their pock­ets be­fore hurl­ing them to the left or right. “You should be happy to pay taxes,” digi-Mé­len­chon chides a banker. “Don’t fool your­self: you have mil­lions, but there are mil­lions of us.” At the end of your game, your score in eu­ros is added to the pub­lic cof­fers along with that of ev­ery­one else who has played, thus im­bu­ing a serene sense of hav­ing laboured well for the pub­lic good.

Back in the ’90s, the far-right Front Na­tional made a ver­sion of Pac-Man in which Jean-Marie Le Pen raced around the maze col­lect­ing French tri­col­ore flags. In the US in 2003, there was a Howard Dean for Iowa can­vass­ing game (made by Per­sua­sive Games) to help the Demo­cratic pri­mary can­di­date. And cam­paign­ing games may be com­mon in the fu­ture, as can­di­dates hope to reach the kinds of vot­ers who ei­ther don’t en­gage in po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion at all, or who dis­trust any­thing they see in the main­stream me­dia but are pa­thet­i­cally cred­u­lous of any mav­er­ick claim­ing to bust through the con­spir­acy with al­ter­na­tive facts.

None of the main par­ties in Bri­tain has yet re­leased a gen­eral-elec­tion videogame, but one can fondly imag­ine a re­al­is­tic stealth-ninja af­fair in which a sword-wield­ing Theresa May stabs and slashes a swathe through the sabo­teurs in her own par­lia­ment, while Labour may well re­lease an ed­u­ca­tional romp in which your Cor­bynite avatar spends all his time beat­ing up en­e­mies within his own party while, on a far-dis­tant misty moun­tain­top, the en­tire Bri­tish elec­torate soberly gath­ers to vote for some­one else.

The gen­eral and lit­tle-ques­tioned as­sump­tion on this topic, though, is that po­lit­i­cal games can play a use­ful part in win­ning vot­ers dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign. At the same time, we are loath to grant videogames a com­pa­ra­ble per­sua­sive po­tency when it comes to ac­tions we con­sider harm­ful. For very good rea­sons, for ex­am­ple, we tend to be scep­ti­cal of any re­search claim­ing that vi­o­lent me­dia make peo­ple more vi­o­lent. Al­ready in 2017, two aca­demic stud­ies that claimed such a link, and gar­nered much pub­lic­ity at the time, have been re­tracted. So I for one can rest eas­ily and con­tinue to en­joy mur­der­ing Nazis from a safe dis­tance in the bril­liant Sniper Elite 4.

But this ques­tion isn’t go­ing to go away; it’s go­ing to get more ur­gent and con­found­ing. Your car­toon­ish and ki­net­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing stan­dard con­sole mur­der sim is one thing, but what about mo­tion-con­trolled killing in VR? The psy­chic ef­fects of a VR game in which you stab some­one in the neck by phys­i­cally em­u­lat­ing the pre­cise ac­tion of stab­bing are go­ing to be, at best, un­pre­dictable. For this rea­son the writer An­gela Buck­ing­ham re­cently ar­gued in Aeon mag­a­zine that VR mur­der should be il­le­gal. You may not want to go that far, but it’s go­ing to be some­thing to ad­dress se­ri­ously.

At the very least, when it comes to the ques­tion of whether videogames in­flu­ence think­ing and be­hav­iour, we can­not have our cake and eat it too. If dig­i­tal ul­tra­vi­o­lence has zero ef­fect, then pre­sum­ably po­lit­i­cal cam­paign games are also a waste of time and money. But if po­lit­i­cal games can make a dif­fer­ence – and I for one have long ar­gued that the em­bed­ded pol­i­tics of even or­di­nary, com­mer­cial games, such as the na­tion­alse­cu­rity ide­ol­ogy that nor­malises bru­tal­ity and tor­ture, are a pow­er­ful form of stealth pro­pa­ganda – then the ques­tion of what vi­o­lent games do to us must log­i­cally re­main one to be strug­gled with too.

If dig­i­tal ul­tra­vi­o­lence has zero ef­fect, then pre­sum­ably po­lit­i­cal cam­paign games are also a waste of time

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