Sunday, March 21, 2010

John Galt has been Kidnapped by Ninjas (Bad Dudes)

Tomorrow, Barack Obama will sign the most substantial health care reform since at least Medicare, if not in memory. It is worth reflecting, at this particular moment, that the headlines tomorrow will not read that the President has been kidnapped by ninjas. This is perhaps a good thing, as I doubt that I am a bad enough dude to rescue the President. This is something I would suspect just on the abstract - truth be told, I am not a particularly bad dude. If ninja rescue is in order, I am not your guy. But playing Bad Dudes has largely hammered this fact home - I am a spectacularly non-bad dude.

Politics, as Bismarck noted, is the art of the possible. Video games are similar in their exploration of a limited sphere of rules. A goal that can only be accomplished through a complex and perpetual negotiation with the system. Give and take.

Within video game criticism there is the view of digital absolutism. That is, video games are defined by their digital sanitariness. Button is pushed or not pushed. Jump is made or not made. 1 or 0. Binary.

For a time, my politics were similar. We all, I think, go through these periods. Some of us never exit them, holding to the strange belief that Ayn Rand is remotely sane through our entire adult lives. Others change. I have come, over time, to see politics as a messy, entangled thing of imperfections. An art of the possible, in which necessarily contradictory purposes are flung at each other in a system where forecasting is nigh impossible and yet something has to get done anyway. Freedom vs governmental control, economic growth vs lifesaving, depth of health care vs having health care in the biggest crises. Take your picks.

When the President is kidnapped by ninjas, the ninjas that he is kidnapped by are simple creatures. This is the beauty of that plotline. It is the ur-plotline for video games, in that it promises only straightforward engagement. The ethics of an individual mandate and its associated costs for free enterprise and small businesses do not play into this. Kicking ninjas in the face plays into this. Even the source of the assignment, the generic yet cool military guy, points to a ruthless dualism at the heart of this scenario. 1 or 0. Bad enough dude or not.

But the simplicity of this fragments quickly. Hundreds of thousand of minute decisions flood the zone. Top path or bottom. Guy on the left, guy on the right. What the fuck do I do with this asshole who is breathing fire at me.

The ethics of political engagement were always more complex than the Randian Prime Movers. And looking at our nameless narrator, one wonders why he himself is not a bad enough dude to rescue the President. He looks the part. And for that matter, why the fuck isn't he giving me a gun, or perhaps a fighter jet with which to rescue the President. Why am I sent, alone and unarmed, against a horde of ninjas to rescue the President?

I am not a bad enough dude to rescue the President because the social order does not permit that self-definition. By asking me to be a bad dude, the social order sets me up for failure. The game could rescue its own damn President. It exists purely to invite me to fail at the arbitrary and artificial task it has set out for me.

If you have to ask who John Galt is, he's not you.

1 comment:

  1. I had the same exact feelings when I played this on its release in 1989 (I was a very sophisticated 2 and 3/4 year old). It's like you're writing about Bad Dudes to me.