Sunday, January 30, 2011

Censorship of Violence in Video Games

Violence has been a part of video games since their inception.  There are entire genres of video games, such as the first person shooters, which require the player to commit acts of violence to progress by nature of their design.  As the visuals in video games become more and more realistic due to more powerful computer hardware, these fictional depictions of violence can become difficult to distinguish from reality.

Some have accused violent video games of inspiring real life acts of violence.  Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the infamous perpetrators of the Columbine school shooting, were known to play video games such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D.  Some have argued that after getting in trouble and having their computer use restricted, the pair was forced to seek alternate means to vent their anger.  In a move that can only be taken as either a brilliant act of artistic creation or a display of complete tastelessness, an independent party has created a role playing game depiction of the shootings.

Several governments have implemented measures to restrict graphic depictions of violence in video games.  In Australia, after controversy over violent video games such as Mortal Kombat, a classification scheme for video games was introduced in 1994; games which did not meet the fairly strict requirements for a MA 15+ rating were effectively banned.  This has lead to situations such as the release of Left 4 Dead 2 in 2009, where after having their game rejected by the Australian Classification Board, the developers were forced to create a version of the game with toned down gore in order to sell their game in the Australian market.

The game play of Left 4 Dead 2 involves the player and three other survivors cooperating to fight off a seemingly endless onslaught of infected, humans who have contracted a virus which transforms them into a violent zombie-like state, using a diverse array of close quarters and ranged weaponry.  In the "uncensored" version of the game, the player's weapons can cause grotesque damage to the infected, severing limbs and causing body parts to explode.  During intense battles, the player's screen can become so inundated with blood splatters that it can be difficult to play the game.  The level of gore is strongly toned down in the Australian version.  The player's weapons no longer causes the infected to graphically lose body parts, the amount of blood produced during combat is drastically reduced, and the screen no longer becomes clouded by blood splatters.  However, even though the gore is reduced, the core gameplay of the game is still, at its essence, highly violent.

Examples such as the Australian release of Left 4 Dead 2 have been criticized as examples of government censorship.  In the United States, fictional depictions of violence in video games are relatively unrestricted, although games with sexual content such as The Witcher have had "censored" versions released for the American market.  Government restrictions on the content of video games are especially contentious as there does not appear to be a clear correlation between playing video games and aggressive behavior.  If violent content in video games cannot be shown to have an effect on aggressive behavior, how can this censorship be justified and does a government have a right to restrict the content in video games in the first place?  Furthermore, how can such a rule be fairly enforced?  It would be difficult to quantify the level of violence in a video game - or sexuality or any other quality worthy of censorship, for that matter - and the classification schemes in place rely on an entirely subjective judgement call.

Kim: Most Violent Rap Song Ever?

Perhaps this is one of the greatest examples of pure hatred towards women (or perhaps just one woman?) in modern rap music. Eminem's "Kim" reads more like a movie script than a song, and is filled with expletives and threats directed at his wife, the aptly named Kim. The song starts with a clearly drunk Marshall Mathers mocking his wife and cursing at her. At the end of the first verse he forces her into a car, and the next two verses express his pure hatred towards his wife due to her cheating ways. This song is impossible to listen to as mainstream rap, as the song is so expletive-filled and intense. No psychologically stable human being puts "Kim" onto their iPod and blares it while pregaming for a party or while running on the treadmill at a gym. Rather, Kim is a song that Eminem created to truly show his hatred for his wife. I'm sure he knew this song would never be a mainstream success, but I believe he wanted to get something off his chest and try to scare his wife a bit. To truly solidify how fu**ed up this song really is, Eminem closes with the following four lines (as you hear "Kim" choking to death in the background):
"Now shut the f*ck up and get what's coming to you
You were supposed to love me
Now bleed bit**, bleed.
Bleed! Bit** bleed, Bleed!"

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Is the Media Making Us Numb?

Let's face it, we all know about the crisis going on in Egypt right now. Yet, have you consciously been affected to the point of tears or been emotionally moved by this violence. If you have no idea how ridiculous it's getting over there, take a look at the video.

The video is just one of many many other videos that show the current turbulence and chaos going on in the country. These people are fighting for all the marbles, man. They're putting it all out there because they're so sick and tired of an oppressive and authoritative government suppressing their lives. As ridiculous as this sounds, people are like eagles, don't clip their wings so they can't fly. Through this video, I see firsthand what is the result of pent-up emotion and frustration. These people had such few options and the enmity towards the government was so widespread that it has led to this disastrous calamity. Even the internet was shut down in an attempt to prevent further mass leakage about what is going on in Egypt. Yet, what are we doing about it? In fact, what is the U.S., one of Egypt's biggest supporters, doing about it? They are not even supporting either side, simply being apathetic and not supporting the need for democracy.

I don't support the violence, and I never will. The glorified aspects of violence seem awesome and fascinating until you experience it firsthand. That doesn't mean I don't play a bit of Halo Reach and Black Ops here and there or enjoy engrossing myself in the latest "Saw" film to come out. However, this is different. This is real life stuff, but most of us and most of the U.S. seems so apathetic. The media is making us numb with constant coverage about sickening acts of murder and crime that happen daily and the genocides and natural disasters happening all over the world. I'll admit it, the things happening in Egypt didn't convict me at all until finally I watched a video on my friend's Facebook of a man being beat to death (unfortunately, I can't find a way share that video with you all). Maybe even my indulging of this aestheticized violence through video games and movies is numbing me as well. It's a sad world isn't it?

They're Not So Different After All

The assertion made in class last wednesday that the “monsters” of modern day, at least those described Kanye West’s “Monster” are markedly different from prior conceptions of monster initially struck me as a little odd, and perhaps something of an overgeneralization; while there are perhaps even more ways to inflict hurt these days, there are few new tricks to actually being a monster.

In his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye characteristics himself as one who wields tremendous power and influence, and who on occasion abuses them, thereby casting himself as an abomination, and thus a monster. Common threads that run through his work, namely disillusionment, fear, shock and anger continually led me again and again to the image of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.

While an image so often cited that it is now almost beyond cliché, I couldn’t help notice that the languages that Kanye’s lyrics and the Goya’s brushstrokes speak are strikingly similar. Kanye claims that as a monster, his “eyes [are] more red than the devil’s,” while Jay-Z notes that even today’s monsters continue to “Murder murder in black convertibles” and their psyches continue to be terrorized by “fiends scream[ing] in my dream.” Thus, both it is clear that as monsters, terror and grotesqueness are manifest both externally as well as internally.

Despite the gulf of time, it is clear that several commonalities are able to transcend temporal and physical separation. Goya’s monster is easily just as grotesque as evidenced by his matted hair and the blood flowing around his mouth. In my mind, this drew inevitable comparisons to Nicki Minaj’s verse, which promises that “first things first I’ll eat your brains,” once again justifying her actions because after all, “that’s what a muthaf-cking monster do.” A monstrous appetite for destruction is evidently a common thread. Disillusionment is no stranger as well. Saturn’s eyes are flush with terror and horror, as if finally recognizing that despite committing such an aberrant act, his monstrous qualities quell all efforts to control himself, clearly reflecting that he is a monster not only on the outside, but also on the inside.

Sure, these days being a monster has changed slightly. More specifically, it seems like we’ve continued on some sort evolutionary trajectory, or at least one that’s spawned more creative means such as Uzi’s, AK’s, plasma pistols, gravity guns and so on. By using more or less similar imagery and language to conjure terror, it seems what society associates with monsters has been consistent - Goya’s monster and Kanye’s may not be so far removed from each other after all.

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino takes cliches about violence in movies, exaggerates and toys with them to the point where the extremely violent scenes in Pulp Fiction become amusing rather than horrifying. In this scene, the professional killers Vincent Vega and Jules are having a heated philosophical debate about predestination and the existence of God right before Vincent Vega accidently shoots Marvin in the face. On top of the irony of such an accident happening during a debate about predestination, the reactions of Vincent Vega and Jules cause us to not be horrified at the sudden death of Marvin but instead laugh at the absurdity of the situation. These professional killers are not completely hysterical at what just happened since they are both not completely unfamiliar with such situations; Vincent merely tells Jules to "chill out man, I told you it was an accident."

Marvin's death is interestingly not shown on screen, with the camera cutting away to the outside of the car when he is shot. The majority of the violence in Pulp Fiction is implied in the same way, with Tarantino opting to use cutaways and long shots to underplay the actual violence occuring. Because of this, this allows us as an audience to take the violence even less seriously since we are not actually shown the actual bloody images of it. Instead, we follow the quirky characters into the absurd situations that follow.

What makes Pulp Fiction so unique is that it follows these kind of absurd events and takes them all the way to their natural conclusions. Quentin Tarantino even milks a scene like Vincent Vega and Jules washing their bloody hands after accidently shooting Marvin and brings out the absurd humor in the situation, allowing our reaction to the violence to be laughter rather than horror. Jimmy, a friend of Jules, is sensitive to hosting these two bloody hitmen since his wife would divorce him if she were to ever find out. Jules reaction to Vincent carelessly wiping his bloody hands on a towel is humorous, mainly because his general attitude is not really of one who actually just witnessed a brutal accidental death but instead someone who is eminently concerned with not getting blood on his friend's towel. His pop culture reference to Maxipads adds even more absurdity to the situation.

This is a painting called The Triumph of Death. Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted it in 1562. It attempts to show the death and horror of the time of the Black Death, some 200 years earlier.

The Black Death was the worst pandemic in recorded history, taking place between 1348 and 1350. It originated in Asia and spread to Europe, killing between 30% and 60% of the population. The population of the world dropped from 450 million to 350 million. The "Little Ice Age" was happening at the same time. The combination of famine and disease made Europe a very unpleasant and desperate place to live.

The population took 150 years to recover and the event had a profound effect on the course of human history.

The Triumph of Death is oil on canvas. An army of skeletons is rampaging throughout a black and broken landscape. Smoke from burning bodies is rising in the distance. People from every social class are fleeing, fighting, and being slaughtered indiscriminately. There is a solitary cross near the middle which is having no positive effect on the mayhem.

Read more about this painting in the NYU database:

Violence in Broetry

My friends and I read BrosLikeThisSite (  When you google it, the first sentence that comes up is "Sure you've drank enough to kill a 13-year-old girl, but it's only like 11 o'clock.  You're not f*cking passing out now."  This is a very accurate representation of BrosLikeThisSite: excessive drinking and aggression towards women constitute every post on this highly successful website.  The creator NedsYoungerBrother satirizes the typical college bro's objectification of women.  He refers to them as slampieces, sluts, and sorostitutes, maintaining that they only exist to be "slayed".  He writes about the plight of the bro in a bro-hating society that preaches absurd values such as respecting women, having a real job, and not being violently destructive while hammered every night.  

While bro culture doesn't condone real violence towards women, it certainly implies it.  After all, the very word "slay" means to kill violently.  Take the piece Calling Girls Sluts on BrosLikeThisSite: "Bros dig power, and to be honest there is nothing more empowering than calling girls sluts. Honestly, does it get any better than cruising the streets with your bros and constantly saying, “Oh, look at these f*cking sluts!” every time you pass by a group of girls. Answer: No, it doesn’t."  Apparently, degrading women is the ultimate sign of power in Bro World.  

My friends and I regard BroBible, BrosLikeThisSite, and TotalFratMove with equal parts horror and fascination.  They're funny enough to keep popping up on my Facebook newsfeed, but there has to be an element of truth in how women are perceived.  The possibility of this truth is deeply worrying.  Directly falling under the category of "sorostitute" or "whorority girl", we are objectified and denigrated to nameless things that bros slay at mixers.  On TotalFratMove, sorority girls have begun to post TSMs about their slavish obedience to frat boys with trust funds.  These websites are meant to be strongly ironic, but they cross the line from satire to reality when girls use these demeaning terms on themselves.  By employing this vocabulary without any intent of reclaiming these terms, girls are enacting this violence on themselves.  

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Utah's crazy man, Utah's f-cking crazy man."

CNN is my homepage and I love being informed on a lot of issues, not surprisingly enough however, violence is a staple of the website. I mean we all know the saying ‘If it bleeds, it leads” but I think it might be a little bit overkill (hate to say exactly what the other Charlie said but ‘no pun intended’). I mean even in the last 24 hours headlines about rat poisonings, The Grim Sleeper serial murderer, a five year old with a loaded gun in school, birds dying from blunt trauma, changes in the security ratings, and the video I posted today Utah dances with the idea of a pistol as their state symbol, violence is media gold and we see that with this video:

The video itself sucks but the main point is that Utah may have a John Browning Pistol as the state symbol.

I mean let’s be serious here, I love the Second Amendment (I’m from rural small town, Illinois and actually knew a girl who had named her hunting dog… ‘Browning’). And I fully plan on buying a firearm if the situation becomes necessary. But Utah, C’mon! We have the right to conceal a weapon but making it your state symbol is crossing the line. Making it the staple of your state is almost terroristic, in the sense that they flaunt AK-47s and blast bazookas to show their military prowess. What message does this send to anyone not from Utah?--"Uhh... badmouth Mormonism or the BYU mascot, Cosmo the Cougar, and I'll blow your f-cking head off!" It's just too aggressive in my mind. I mean if the people want to pay homage to a state hero I understand that but I live in the Land of Lincoln and I don't think North Carolina should change their state nickname to the Land of Gatling. I mean I love America and Utah is probably a fine place but this is just a little too much for me. The transcontinental railroad was completed in Utah, why not make a RR spike your state symbol like your quarters (I love coins)? But then again I’m sure some other person might b-tch and moan and retell the story of Phineas Gage (he gets a RR spike through his head…and lives). All I’m saying is that there is some other alternative to having a deadly, killing machine as your state symbol, but then again its not my call, only my opinion.

Violence, for everybody!

After 4 solid hours of playing Black Ops on the Xbox and procrastinating, I found it was time to post a relevant video to our discussion on violence in the media. On November 9th, Activision's Black Ops broke the record for launch day sales, and received over $1 billion in revenue worldwide over the following five day period . During the days preceding the release, the following trailer entitled "There is a Soldier in All of Us" was televised :

The first time I saw this, I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity and shear awesomeness of the concept. Thanks to a video game, you no longer needed to endure grueling training to become an elite soldier. You could be a concierge or a pizza chef, and still dual wield Glocks. Even national basketball icons like Kobe Bryant could make a guest appearance to an important tactical fight in a derelict building. Everyone could having a blast (no pun intended).

Notice that this trailer praises the "coolness" of war and completely bypasses all of the horrors, similarly to a US Army recruitment video. You get to shoot guns at faceless targets, blow stuff up, meet new people, and blow more stuff up together. Despite all the rounds fired at these pedestrian "soldiers" who don't find much necessity in using cover, no one is hurt. This is especially obvious in the last few seconds of the trailer when everyone is running about in the open: they might as well be playing laser-tag. One man in the football jersey looks like he may have been hit when a car explodes, but the audience must assume that he will get up unharmed, laugh it off, and start shooting away--because you cannot show death in a commercial.

It's interesting how violence can be embraced when there is no concept of loss. It loses a great deal of its significance when the person the violence is directed towards can just brush it off, in which case one might ask if it can still be called "violence". Such violence sells, and thus the marketers behind Black Ops gave the intended audience exactly what they wanted.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How can one man have so much power?

OK, I'll be the first to offer a content post. The first day of class, despite a SNAFU with the syllabus copying, we were able to look at a clip of violent media, Kanye's "Monster" video:

I remember the first time I heard "Monster," driving along 280 in late September, listening to Hot 97, taking pleasure in my proximity to NYC. The infectious yet low-fi hook gave the track an aura of legitimacy and disaffectedness (a trait growing in popularity), and Nicki Minaj's verse was some sort of schizophrenic female version of a more-violent Busta Rhymes. I liked it.

Then while I visited my family in Louisiana for Christmas, I sought out the leaked video. It starts out with a shot of a hanging model. As in from the neck hanging. And then Kanye, it his rationalface, poses a few corpses of more dead ladies, giving Cee-Lo Green's Ladykiller moniker an outright challenge for the title. Jay-Z shows up next like Aleister Crowley on Wall Street, but black, and rhymes "conscience" with "monster." It seems that Mr. Carter has done a few things to be ashamed of, such as vampirism and potentially necromancy. Finally, Nick Minaj re-enacts at least two or so Freudian case studies, dressed as both a little girl with pink hair and a dominatrix, and then tortures herself, while keeping the loud persona with the dominatrix and the sweet persona with the little girl. If nothing else, we might revisit this video when we get to the Buffy section of the course (which will be under the heading "transgression"). Somewhere between all of that, Kanye reappears with a severed lady-head and an "aw shucks" attitude. Everybody knows he's a motherfucking monster, indeed.

So Kanye and Jay-Z and Nicki seem to imply that they're fairly monstrous due to their success and influence and power (vis Kanye's album). It's a fun fantasy, sure. The megalomaniacal businessman cum artist who... does what exactly? Stores dead models? Eats entrails? All while making dope beats?

This video seems to also throw the "rap-is-misogynistic" criticism back to pundits. Not only do the rappers call women bitches, but they also murder them and use their corpses to decorate their overpriced apartments in Tribeca. So should we take Kanye and posse's video as a satire via exaggeration? Wouldn't that just cloud the fact that rap, no matter how much we like it, still has a great deal of woman-hating to go around.

However we "read" the video, one thing is evident: it's much more fun to believe that the bad guys are lovable rapper millionaires like Jay-Z and Kanye and Nicki Minaj than the people with the real power of violence. They're creating an imaginary world to make their lyrics matter because no matter how clever and shocking their words seem to be, the braggadoccio of "I'm rich and a libertine to boot" became a cliché of hip-hop about twenty years ago and, in an America of social media and financial depression, is becoming less and less relevant.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Introduction to ENGL:2890, Violence and Art

This blog will act as the class blog for ENGL: 2890.103, "Violence and Art: Barbaric Poetries and Brutal Force," at Cornell University in Spring 2011, though hopefully it will live beyond the semester. The goal of the class is to identify moments of aestheticized violence in various media and analyze how and why these moments affect us individually and collectively. The course will cover a variety of materials, including Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, 2pac, Eminem, Professional Wrestling, Gurlesque Poetry, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I will make the syllabus available for readers to play along at home.

If you are a student enrolled in my course, I welcome you to this experiment in writing, and hope that you find it fruitful. Students will be expected to update the blog regularly, and I will hold a weekly submission period for featured blog posts (to be held through Blackboard) to honor the best writing about violence done each week throughout the semester.

Here's the course description and rationale from my syllabus:

This course is not for the weak of heart. You will encounter maiming in florid, archaic diction. You will see stylized and gory combat. You listen to jeremiad and battle cry alike. You will witness dissolution and rape. You will be suplexed, ddt’d, and piledriven. But through it all, you will partake in one of the 20th and 21st centuries most contested debates: the role of violence in popular culture. Pundits rave about the effects of violent video games, violent music, and violent television on the mental and social health of children. Year after year, directors and producers pump millions of dollars into increasingly violent movies, movies that make those millions back while collecting trophies. This April nearly a hundred thousand people will flock to an arena to see men beat each other up, as tens of thousands see this spectacle at arenas across the country night after night. It goes without question that our society is one obsessed with violence. Besides the routine news reports of wars, inner-city violence, and bizarre tabloid articles, we willingly pay for the chance to be entertained by violent art, a form of art as old as the Bible and the Iliad. You’d think that our survival instincts—the ones that protect us against bodily harm—would have steered us clear of depictions of our fellow humans in all sorts of agony, but that’s obviously not the case.

In this course, we will try to figure out how and why violence simultaneously appeals to us and revolts us. We’ll write essays that analyze violent works from a variety of critical perspectives. And in the end, we’ll hopefully learn more about who we are, what our relationship to violence is, and how to articulate our insights to others.

If you are not in this course, please feel free to read and comment as much as you'd like. This blog is not only for the students to display their writings, but also to interact with the larger community of Internet-users.