So, Whitney Houston died. It was all the rage in the news for a while. Something about drugs, I think. I kinda sorta, well… don’t care. Not that I have any particular antipathy towards the lady, mind you, it’s just that I only have so many bits of attention and care to give, and that’s below my threshold.
Of course, the news is no stranger to this sort of thing. It’s a big part of why I find very little of interest in the mainstream “news” media. The old “if it bleeds it leads” mentality is tired and stupid. I’m almost, but not quite to the point where I don’t even feel the moral outrage or pity or sympathy I’m supposed to. Maybe there’s a promised land on the other side of wallowing in the mire of depression and outrage the media would have me march into (the better to distract you, says the Big Bad Wolf), but for now, it’s all just… static.
Still, this whole Josh Powell saga that the local news is all whipped up about broke through the static a bit to cause me to ponder psychology and vicarious emotion. The guy wasn’t the best sort of person. There are some bits of depravity in the case that the media loves to hint at (ax murderer! of kids!), and the high probability that he killed his wife (but we just don’t know! drama mystery! apocryphal intonation that we’ll probably never know!) that make his case, well… a media circus. Yes, the guy was pretty screwed up. He caused a lot of damage. And yet… it seems to me that there are more important things to spend time talking about.
I know, I know, I’m wasting time on it here, but there’s a point to be made.
We, as gamers, have our own topics of sometimes inconsequential incoherent interest. A WoW talent system revamp (again!) is Big News. Eeeevil shark-jumping Kung Fu Pandas! SWTOR and homosexuality is Important Stuff. Plate mail bikinis are evil, unless they are employed as tools of irony or self-expression… or something.
Y’see, it’s not like those things aren’t important to someone. They are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just… I have other things to think about, and my priorities, frame of reference and even moral framework are different. (Though I’m sure that someone thinks I’m Wrong, and need correcting.)
And yet, the media would insist otherwise. I have to wonder, what is it about our inherent voyeuristic tendencies that makes these things so juicy for reporters? Certainly there’s a bit of the old “but it’s for the childreeeeeen” in there, and selling moral outrage at a distance is old hat. It’s curious, that in all of the above instances of Much Ado About… Something… there’s a bit of vicarious emoting going on.
We can blather about Houston’s “untimely” death, her descent into drug-addled dysfunction, or her less-than-storybook marriage. Sometimes it elicits sympathy or commiseration from those who understand, sometimes it’s empathy from those who might think “there but for the grace of God, go I“, sometimes it’s schadenfreude from the little bit of meanness that we all seem to have at times and those who embrace it.
In the Powell case, there’s a bit of the vigilante spirit in the stirring, where Powell is the villain of his little morality play, and we of the dedicated moral audience get to pillory him and thereby indulge in self-assurance that we’re not as bad as he was. It’s almost as if we can suppose that his bit of vice has been excised from the human race, so we’re all better off. The Collective has purged some of its imperfection. I don’t buy that line of reasoning, but I wonder if that’s what we’re being sold, even if it’s subconsciously.
…so what of games?
Even without ol’ Jack Thompson being a sanctimonious moron, games have their share of detractors who would suggest that those of us who like games are really just Powells in the making. And on the other hand, there’s the “Killing Monsters” school of thought that suggests that fantasy violence and vicarious vice of all sorts is cathartic and even preventative of such actions in the real world.
It strikes me that perhaps we’re looking at a similar impulse under the hood. Houston had some drug issues. Powell did some pretty nasty stuff, but so do game avatars. If we’re not actually part of the drama, though, it’s all just so much storytelling. Sure, at some level we understand that drugs really wreck lives, and that Powell did real things, and that games aren’t real, but we’re pretty good at rationalizing things away if we’re not actively part of them. Things that don’t intrude on our immediate reality aren’t exactly… real.
It’s almost certain that terrible, evil things are most likely happening somewhere. Powell isn’t representative of white suburbia (or what we think white suburbia is), but he might fit nicely into some thuggish regime out in Africa somewhere. (Or is that inner city Metropolis/Gotham/GenericBigUSACity?) If we can sequester him away in a “not my reality” or “not in my back yard” mental nook, we can ignore him as well as we ignore avatar actions. (We do this all the time, politically, socially, whatever.)
Except… we’re learning at some level. We’re still cognizant of the difference between reality and fiction. We may choose to overlook some things, embracing the comfort that comes with ignorance, but it really is hard to unsee or unlearn things. That said, hearing about Powell every ten minutes on the radio doesn’t make us homicidal, but it gives us an outlet for our hate and moralizing so that we don’t have to analyze our own behavior. It’s always easier to pick apart someone else and find flaws, or find things to be offended about, than it is to do a bit of honest self-evaluation in comparison to the ideals we pay lip service to.
With games, we can indulge in vices that we’d never have the gall or depravity to embrace in real life, and then go on our merry way secure in knowing that we’d never really do that sort of thing.
…I’m actually more of a “Killing Monsters” kind of guy in that I think this is a survival tactic. Nongamers whine and fuss about those eeeevil people doing eeeevil things to convince themselves that they would never do that, and gamers get their darker impulses out by slaughtering digital baddies. I’m not really sure that either is all that healthy in excess when the priority probably ought to be making one’s self a better person, but I think that both serve as an outlet so that we don’t wind up indulging in nastiness for real.
At some level, I think we need to get past looking for assurances that we’re not bad and actively seek to be good, but the media circus and the game industry offer introductory catharsis in the meantime. That’s probably a useful function, though it’s not really a destination. News needs to move on, and so do we. We can only live vicarious lives for so long, whether it’s an imagined “not that guy” or “that one guy“.