In Video Games Nothing Is True, Everything Permitted

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, May 20, 2011 at 9:04 am
Way back in 2004 I made a big gaming decision because of the Nazis. It was November and World of Warcraft was about to launch. I was trying to decide what faction to roll. Each race had slightly different benefits. And their starting areas were all different. But my bigger concern was who I'd be playing with.

And at the time I knew that I didn't want to play with jerks. Perhaps I was imagining things, but I'd noticed that the people who played Germans in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory tended to be poorer sports. They griped, trolled, bitched and gloated more in the chat channel than anybody else. I figured those same jerks would go Horde because the characters looked tougher and more bad-ass. What kind of person, I asked, would associate with the bad guys?

This week two semi-famous people answered my question. At a Cannes film festival press conference for his new film Melancholia director Lars Von Trier said he sympathized with Hitler. He capped off a long, some say incredibly sarcastic, rant with the bold statement, "I'm a Nazi." Von Trier was subsequently banned from the festival and declared a persona non grata -- meaning he's not welcome to appear at sanctioned festival events. Should he win a prize for his film someone else would have to accept it.

Tyler the Creator, a controversial, young Los Angeles rapper, said something very similar on his new album Goblin. "Fuck that, I'm Hitler. Everyone's a fucking Nazi," he rhymes in the song "Window." Sara Quin of the duo Tegan and Sara called the rapper out not for identifying with the history's greatest villains, but for the pervasive misogyny in his lyrics and shameful use of the word "faggot."

"In any other industry," she asked, "would I be expected to tolerate, overlook and find deeper meaning in this kid's sickening rhetoric?" Part of me believes yes. Lars Von Trier's dark impulses are tolerated when he expresses them on film. Last year's Antichrist was accused by many of being deeply misogynistic. But Cannes officials didn't bar him from the fest last year for his film. The venue for the communication of unpopular, wrong-headed or downright inflammatory ideas can make a profound difference in the way they are perceived.

Video games, as a young, ill-respected means of expression, don't get the without the same consideration as films. Last year's shooter Medal of Honor took heat for letting players take the role of the Taliban in multiplayer sessions. In order to quell the ensuing controversy Electronic Arts changed the faction to "Opposing Force" -- a purely symbolic gesture, but one that felt mandatory.

One of the first times I played Mario Kart DS online I was smoked by a racer with a swastika emblazoned across the customizable front bumper of their kart. I never once thought I was playing the game against a neo-Nazi. I knew I'd encountered yet another random Internet jackass looking to get a rise out of people. His ploy, obviously, didn't work. But you'll find that most game makers bar players from displaying the swastika in games. That insignia has no place in games that aren't about World War II. And many games set during that period favor the iron cross and iconography that is slightly less potent -- just in case.

I've never felt the need to yell slurs at people or shove images of swastikas, genitals or whatever other offensive words into their faces. I'm not nineteen any longer. I'm not angry enough at any one to feel those impulses.

But since 2004 I have learned a little about being the bad guy. Fallout 3, particularly, taught me the pleasures of going dark. As Tura, a skin-headed scourge of the wasteland, I murdered every adult citizen of Megaton then nuked the cite of my crime for good measure. I never played the villain in games before then. And I got a taste for that kind of wrong-doing.

I avoided the Horde and the Nazi factions for ages. But as I got older I realized video games could gave me the chance to try on roles that real life could never accommodate. And, strangely enough, I feel like I've come a step or two closer to understanding what would drive a person to publicly stick their foot into their mouth like Tyler the Creator or Lars Von Trier have done.

The legendary assassin Hassan-i Sabbah was purported to have said the following words on his deathbed: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." When we're playing video games by ourselves Sabbah's words make an intriguing maxim. Games are complicated lies that grant us freedom the consequences of the real world will never afford. Strangely I don't have a hard time imagining a person feeling so disillusioned that they'd confuse their everyday existence with one where their words and actions don't have consequences. 

To those people I'd say, "play more video games."

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that explores the frayed intersections of video games, pop culture and our daily lives.
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