senseless 2

Rainer SchrommOrange already had pointed us to spezial#1 (see senseless), now she has duly blogged the release of spezial#2—both being South-Park-style satirical flash-movies by Christian Wasser of [senseless] taking up the computergames & violence issue. [both movies in German] The production values of #2 are considerably higher and it runs way longer than #1—but in my opinion storyline and dramaturgy of the sequel do not live up to ‘the original’, which completely blew me away. But it has to be mentioned, that #2 is charged to the brim with allusions and insider-associations. However, the creator himself seems not to be content with #2, as he [jokingly?] has added the tagline “doesn’t like Spezi2” above his avatar in his very own forums. Nevertheless it is absolutely worthy watching and the above are just my two cents—you can check out the opinion of the senseless-community members in the according thread. [in German]

Rainer FrommAlthough he already was prominently featured in #1, the cartoon-character “Rainer Schromm” has ascended to become the central figure and main protagonist in #2. Schromm is a spitting image of German print- and television-journalist Dr. Rainer Fromm [PhD in political science]. By his TV-special Video-butchery at the nursery [aired 09 September 2004 … yeah, well: sic! | 21:00h | ZDF] Fromm caused quite a stir among German gamers. He labeled the FPS-genre in total as ‘killergames’ and rendered a picture of ‘the’ gamer as a bloodthirsty, tending-to-violence nerd. All in all the special’s message was: Games are bad for the youth as they trigger violent behavior and a loss of according values. Max Payne 2 (MP2) [rated 18+ in Germany] as well was labeled to be a ‘killergame’—the game’s only content being ‘to kill’. Yes, there is a lot of depiction of violence in the game. Yes, for instance, not long after the beginning of the game, as the story really starts to unfold, the player/avatar has to witness the point-blank-range execution of a tied up, helpless woman. Yes, in order to keep your avatar ‘alive’ you have to shoot and ‘kill’ NPCs. Everything granted, but MP2 is far from being about ‘killing only’. MP2 is about discovering and experiencing a part of Mr. Payne’s disturbing biography. And violence is an element of his story—hell, the character is an undercover-cop!

Especially the attack on the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien (BPjM)—the German national board which rates computergames—is counter-productive, a true damp squib. Fromm’s feature accuses the BPjM of faultily rating computergames, of banning way too less games—in short: it is said that the whole age-rating- and banning-system does not work, at least does not contribute anything to society’s benefit. Well, from the gamers’ and/or my point of view there surely is heap of critique concerning decisions (and their basis’) the BPjM made. But the BPjM is not an inflexible and numb bureaucratical institution. Since quite a time the people working there indeed try to keep pace with cultural change. This is perfectly illustrated by the events around the appeal to ban Counter Strike (CS) in Germany—the complete story is unwrapped and discussed in Jörns 2003. ‘They’ listened to, and learned from the CS-community, recognized, understood, and accepted the gamers’ emic perspective. Finally CS was not banned in Germany.

After the controversial TV-special in 2004 invited Fromm for an interview and found him to be a jovial man with gaming experience who does not want to demonize the gaming-community, but wants ‘to build bridges between parents and the youth’. The guys’n’gals of GameStar seemingly had a good talk with Fromm, and the two camps didn’t part as sworn enemies. Neither did the gist of the palaver trickle into Fromm’s work for the TV-format Frontal 21 (“critical, investigative, brave”). This year there was another TV-special by Fromm: Violence without boundaries. [aired 26 April 2005 | ZDF] I indeed sense a slightly altered line of attack in the special, as it sometimes aims more at the games-industry. But in the end it does exactly what should be avoided: it demonizes computergames and gamers. The abstract of a presentation [there’s a pic of him ;-] by Fromm is even more articulate:

Games make war fascinating and are leading to a tacit militarization of civil society. Weapon-fetishism, historical revisionism, and mockery of democratic structures are the silent companions of computergames. They make a discussion on the dangers of computergames compulsory. In short, most real-time strategy games and egoshooters constitute an antipole to humanistic and political education.

A quick’n’dirty but plausible conclusion: Fromm is like his pendants in the US (see fatal feedback and rockstar coffee).

But now for the conundrum. Since quite a time there is a book edited by Rainer Fromm on the shelf right behind me: Playing digitally—Killing in reality? (Fromm 2003) I have not yet read it from cover to cover, but what I have read so far doesn’t go well with the above. Already from the introduction (which is by Fromm himself) it becomes clear that he obviously is quite knowledgable about the history and development of egoshooters. He plays—or has played—shooters himself, has visited LAN-parties, talked to gamers, and so on. Fromm even seems to be sympathetic to eSports. Over and over again it is stated that reducing the causes for violent acts by youths to the link games-violence is misleading and wrong. The whole content of the book renders a far more differentiated picture of shooters and the gamer-scene. Just two examples:

By far the most fans of computergames are peaceful. During the research for my book I did not spot one act of violence or aggressivity at LAN-parties. Many parents are happy to send their kids to a LAN-party for the weekend. Gaming means a weekend without alcohol, drugs, and brawls. (↵Fromm 2003:21)

The interview impressively rebutts the legend of the lonesome, autistical gamer who senselessly plays the night away at the screen. It documents the social functions of networked games, which are a part of the youth’s leisure time habits. (↵Fromm 2003:168)

Why then the agitation against games—that’s what it is—in the TV-specials? That doesn’t really make sense to me. Violence as an element of computergames of course definitely is an issue which has to be discussed on the level of society at large. No doubt about that—and the same is true for the depiction of violence in any media. But Fromm’s features, their content being widely spread by the powerful multiplicator television, only fuels a witch-craze and impedes the necessary understanding of what is going on. Interpreting correllations between games-sales and criminal statistics doesn’t seem to help either. In best reductionist fashion Lt. Col. David Grossmann claims in his book Stop teaching our kids to kill (Grossmann 1999) that he has proven a cause-effect relation between the mentioned sets of data. His conclusion is games cause offline-violence. Alas in his open letter to Hillary Clinton Steven Johnson points out quite the contrary:

The last 10 years have seen the release of many popular violent games, including “Quake” and “Grand Theft Auto”; that period has also seen the most dramatic drop in violent crime in recent memory. According to Duke University’s Child Well-Being Index, today’s kids are less violent than kids have been at any time since the study began in 1975. Perhaps, Sen. Clinton, your investigation should explore the theory that ↵violent games function as a safety valve, letting children explore their natural aggression without acting it out in the real world.

“Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science.”—W. H. Auden [from the poem Under Which Lyre, 1946] But thou shalt practice anthropology!

Yeah, but is it art?Without becoming hysterical we can discuss Raskolnikov’s violent acts and their effects in Dostoevsky’s
Crime and Punishment, the aesthetics of violence in blood operas like Last Man Standing and its Japanese paragons on which it is based, violence and ‘explicit language’ in Pulp Fiction (the latter’s chronological order being as ‘disarranged’ as that of Max Payne 2), and so on. But being uncomfortable with the ‘new medium’ computergame more often than not leads to hysteria. “Yeah! but is it art? … You tell me, as I don’t know”—Robert Crumb. Discussing if computergames are art may well be an idle venture. On all account computergames are or can be a means of telling stories, of mediating experience, even of practicing fair-play sportive interaction. Gamestudies already do a good job in enlightening us on those topics.

Anthropology—and/or cyberanthropology—is able to contribute complementary knowledge: Are there new kinds of social formations triggered or even induced by computergames? If so, what’s their structure, how do they work? What do computergames and their elements, depiction of violence only being one among the many, mean for the gamers? How are games culturally appropriated by gamers? What are the cultures which inform the appropriation? How do they emerge, how do they change? The perspective of gamers as passive users or consumers has to be dropped. It’s not garbage in—garbage out. Leastwise it’s complex socially and culturally informed artefact in—social structure, culture, and altered artefact out. It’s my innermost conviction that the qualitative methods, concepts, and theories of anthropology are apt to unveil the aforementioned and to lead to understanding it. On the basis of knowledge gained by gamestudies and anthropology we can fruitfully discuss the computergames & violence issue—but neither on the basis of staging hysterical witchhunts, nor on the basis of reductionist and faulty misuse of quantitative methods.

For everybody near the location, wanting to see Rainer “killergames” Fromm live and in person, there’s a chance for participant observation: On 22 September 2005, 14:30h Fromm will give a lecture [↑flyer | .pdf | 39KB | in German] and a talk on the topic of his book at the Kunsthalle am Fischmarkt in Erfurt, Germany—exactly the city which became infamous for the first amok run in a German school. 16 people were killed, before the killer committed suicide. Back then in 2002 the incident immediately was linked to egoshooters, Counter Strike in particular. This linking-up did much damage to the understanding of games and gaming-culture in Germany’s public discourse … Above the chosen location more symbolical hype for the lecture only could have been achieved by staging the event 11 days earlier. I wonder who will deliver the lecture—Dr. Fromm or Mr. Schromm. But that’s senseless, too.

all translations from German sources by zeph—put the blame on me