Video courtesy of Sputnik Observatory
Henry Jenkins on media and guilt:
Will Wright told me one time that games are the only medium where you can feel guilt. And I think that's kind of interesting. His point was that if I watch a character in a movie do something truly irreprehensible, I can always pull back to the level in which I say, "That's a horrible person, that's a lousy character. It's not me." Or I can pull back to the level of, "This is a horrific filmmaker, I hate this movie." But, again, it's not me. I don't feel guilty because that character did something. In a game, though, if the character does something it's because I've chosen for that character to do it. Even more so as games become more open-ended, more flexible and so forth. So that who I am when I play Grand Theft Auto is part of who I am. It's part of my fantasy life. I can explore other options of myself that I wouldn't have explored in other circumstances. And in Will Wright's term, I can feel guilt. I can feel ownership over the actions of the character, which change how I feel emotionally about the actions that are taking place. Now guilt can become a powerful resource in the hands of an artist. It's a new emotional vocabulary. It's a vocabulary bound up in choice and consequence, in rich ways. Right now we're using it in very superficial ways. It's guilt-free violence. It's easy gratification. What we want to do is get to the point where I think carefully about the choices I make in a game. That I reflect on what I did in the game. That the game, that I use the game as a mirror to think about myself and about who I am and to explore dimensions of myself I might not explore otherwise. Some of that takes place now. More could take place if we took the medium more seriously. And around it then is what we call Metagaming, or the dialogue about games. Where we talk among ourselves about our game play experience. And the ability to share different game playing experiences, to learn from each others experiences, becomes that much more powerful as we move toward...as we tap the social dimensions around games. So each individual's experience of a game will be just that, individual. But it becomes part of the common knowledge or shared culture of the community at large.
I always found this position not only theoretically weak, but also empirically wrong - even in the original formulation by Will Wright, who famously stated "I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie".
I think that both Jenkins and Wright make two serious mistakes here. On the one hand, they overlook - and thus devalue - the active role of the viewer in consuming media. Thirty plus years of audience studies have made clear that viewers are not passive, but actively participating in the construction of the text. They choose what to watch, and how to watch, and to make sense of their viewing experience. Often, to watch is a despicable act. The viewer can feel she/he is a “horrible person” indeed - in fact, I don't think there's a worse "job" in media than the Online Content Moderator (just watch - or maybe not - Ciaran Cassidy and Adrian Chen' The Moderators, or Eva and Franco Mattes's Dark Content or Hans Block and Moritz Riesewick's The Cleaners just to get an idea).
On the other hand, both Jenkins and Wright fetishize interactivity and agency, attributing too much importance to the role of the user in digital spaces. Additionally, it is empirically false that "games are the only medium where you can feel guilt". As far as I am concerned, I experience guilt mostly with non-interactive media. I feel guilty when I read Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho on public transportation and sense other people's eyes on me. Perhaps Will Wright and I watch very different movies and read very different books.
Paul (Arno Frish), in a scene from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewer.
I feel guilty when I watch Michael Haneke's Funny Games. And the director revels in my uneasiness. By breaking the fourth wall, he calls me out for what I am: an accomplice to (fictional) torture. For me, choosing not to watch is less about morality and more about self preservation. It’s really about admitting an unwillingness to participate in the sadistic fantasies of a director, a reluctance to inhabit a perverse space, even just temporarily. The problem with images is that you can’t never unsee them: they will haunt you until you die. I have reached an age where I am reluctant to consume hyper-violent imagery just to keep abreast (no pun intended - see American Psycho) of the latest trends in pseudo-transgressive cultural production. My criterion for watching something is that violence must be a means to an end in any kind of narrative, not an end in itself. This is why Rob Zombie is not a filmmaker but an amateur butcher. This is why Lars Von Trier should stick to comedy instead of oversharing his abusive manias. And this is why Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is a masterpiece of perversion (a clever indictment of the 1%), while Incident in a Ghostland is nothing more than trash.
Both films and games are fiction, an artificial creation, a work of the imagination. They are both "lies": the main difference is the framerate at which the deception happens. But this knoweldge does not make the sense of guilt in the viewer any less intense.