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, especially 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. Firstly, they overlook - and thus devalue - the active role of the viewer in consuming media. Thirty plus years of audience studies made clear that viewers are not passive, but active participants in the construction of the text. They choose what to watch, how to watch, and how to make sense of their experience. Besides, Watching is never neutral. Sometimes, it can be perceived as a despicable act. The viewer can feel she/he is a “horrible person” indeed: I don't think there's a worse "job" in media/tech than "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).
Secondly, both Jenkins and Wright fetishize interactivity and idealize agency, attributing too much importance to the user's "active" role in digital spaces. Because I choose what to do in a game, "I can feel ownership over the actions of the character". But what about the actions of the viewer? Why is watching a Serbian Film less problematic than killing a digital sex worker in Grand Theft Auto? I strongly disagree 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 felt guilty when I read Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho on public transportation and sensed other people's eyes on me ("What kind of person reads American Psycho?" I could also hear them saying). I felt ashamed. I was repulsed by what I see on the page. And yet, I kept on reading.
Perhaps Will Wright and I watch very different movies or read very different books.
Paul (Arno Frisch), in a scene from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewer.
I also felt guilty when I watched Michael Haneke's Funny Games. I know that the director revels in my uneasiness. By breaking the fourth wall, he called me out for what I am: an accomplice to (fictional) torture. A sucker waiting for the bad guys to be punished, so that I could "cleanse" my conscience and feel better about the world. For me, choosing not to watch is less about morality and more about self preservation. It’s about admitting an unwillingness to take part in the dark fantasies of a director, a reluctance to inhabit a perverse space, even temporarily. In a game, I can choose not to perform certain actions and gestures: I can create my own narrative (for the most part... there are plenty of examples in which a game designer forces me to behave as a psycho, like in Rockstar Games' Manhunt, for instance). In a movie, I relinquish any kind of control and become a puppet in the hands of a film director. Often, gamers can choose to be sadistic. Film viewers are, by default, masochists. Jenkins argues 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.". This is hard to dispute. At the same time, such self reflective activity is not limited to games. In fact, I think it applies more to film: I constantly ask myself: Why am I watching a character being butchered on the screen in a truculent horror film, like Jennifer Lynch's Chained? What does it mean to "enjoy" stories of psychological and physical abuse, like Katrin Ebbe's Nothing Bad Can Happen? Why do I feel guilty, and yet, keep watching? What does this say about me?
Another important issue is related to the aesthetics of violence, i.e. the photorealism of film vs. the artificiality of the videogame image. There is still a significant difference in watching a family being slaughtered in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and to kill a white couple in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I cannot unsee the images of John McNaughton's abject film. They still haunt me. In fact, I must confess that I 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 violent is that violence must be function, narratively, as a means to an end, not an end in itself. This is why Rob Zombie is not a real 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 (a clever indictment of the 1% masquerading as a deranged fairy tale), while Incident in a Ghostland is just trash.
Finally, the idea that "each individual's experience of a game will be just that, individual" is problematic, because it assumes that the viewers' experiences of a movie (or a book) are, unlike games', homogeneous, fixed, and predictable. In truth, each individual's experience of any cultural artifact is... individual. And each individual experience does "become part of the common knowledge or shared culture of the community at large." In other words: let's stop attributing video games some kind of mystical uniqueness in the name of an (vague) notion of media-specificity. The cult of interactivity is pure ideology.
Films and games are both fiction, artificial creations, works of the imagination. One is linear and sequential. The other interactive and rhizomatic.
They are both "lies": the main difference is the framerate at which the deception happens.
But this knowledge does not make the sense of guilt in the viewer any less intense.