Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Behaving Idiosyncratically (Guerilla War, Gumshoe)

Before we say anything else about SNK's 1987 video game Guerilla War, we should first confront the fact that it is literally impossible that this game would come out today. This is not a commentary on its play mechanics, which are actually quite solid. No, this is far simpler. Guerilla War is a port of a Japanese game entitled Guevera. The playable characters are Che Guevera and Fidel Castro. This was only narrowly hidden when the game was ported to the US, with the opening screen still being a picture of someone who looks exactly like Che Guevera and the caption "Hail the Heros of the Revolution!"

This game simply could not exist in 2011. Just imagine the ferocious media shitstorm that would be whipped up if a company were to release an overtly pro-Cuban revolution game in 2011. Even if it were lightly redressed, just think for a moment of what the speech where Michelle Bachmann rails against these Marxist multinational video game companies and their indoctrination of our youth. Think of what it would look like when Glenn Beck got his teeth into this. I mean, dear God.

Playing the game, this mostly seems like a terrible shame. It's quite a good run-and-gun game. What's particularly novel about it is that it gives the player a sensation that it is possible to believe might in some way resemble the feeling of being involved in a guerilla war, except that you generally play the game as a privileged American instead of as a revolutionary in constant mortal danger crawling through the mud to kill people. But other than that, I'm sure it's the exact same thing.

That sounded more cynical than I am about this. Guerilla War really is a pretty great game. I find myself stopping the blog to go play another round of it with some frequency (twice in under four paragraphs, in fact), which, if I'm being honest, rarely happens. But this just makes whatever changes have happened since 1988 that rendered this game unreleasable now all the more aggravating.

The problem, and this is something that should seriously disturb anyone who is interested in video games  as an artform, is that video games are, along with most mass media in the United States, intensely filtered via a level of de facto censorship that puts the overt efforts at censorship in other countries to shame. Consider - it is functionally impossible to distribute a video game with an Adults Only rating, despite the fact that content that would only pull an R in the movies gets an AO in video games. Only 24 games have ever been released with an AO rating, in fact. An AO rating was given out for the "Hot Coffee" modification to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, despite the fact that the content was not accessible to a normal user and wasn't all that explicit.

But beyond that there is the fact that the video game industry, along with television and film, are trapped in the horrific censorship of "voluntary" ratings. The way this system works is this. First, some complete fuckface in Congress - usually Joe Lieberman - begins complaining about moral corruption and children. Then, fearing Congressional hearings, whatever industry is being criticized comes up with a voluntary ratings scheme. The thing is, these "voluntary" schemes are wildly more censorious than anything that would be legal for Congress to enforce. Stuff that attempts to censor legally would be laughed out of any courtroom gets censored freely, and it's all OK because it's "voluntary," where "voluntary" means basically "at threat of gunpoint."

The result is a de facto censorship far more chilling than legal censorship. An overtly Marxist video game could not exist in 2011 simply because the distribution mechanisms for games wouldn't touch it. Gamestop wouldn't distribute it, none of the three console digital platforms would take it. That's it. Game over. Because the video game industry, like television, has choke points on distribution (you can't make television, after all, without a channel to show it on, and those are owned by a handful of companies). Yes, independent distribution for PC gaming exists - hence Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But let's face it, the PC is a dying gaming platform.

What's interesting about the impossibility of Guerilla War in particular, though, is that the game itself serves in part as a manual against this censorship. Guerilla warfare itself is a style of warfare evolved to deal with grotesque mismatches of power - when one side, for instance, has an impressive array of tanks and fighter jets, and the other side has a couple of angry dudes with guns.

It is important to define our terms with at least some care here. Guerilla warfare is not equivalent to terrorism. Terrorism is the willful confusion of military and civilian targets in order to spread fear and chaos in a population. Guerilla warfare is when a rebel force within an occupied territory engages in hit and run attacks on military targets while avoiding ever having direct confrontations. Terrorism, while potentially effective, has massive ethical downsides. Guerilla warfare, on the other hand, is the exact right tactic to use when a massive mismatch of forces exists.

Given our relatively revolutionary theme at present, this is of interest to us. We should start by noting, for those with particularly radical inclinations, that it has been decades since a meaningful attempt at a guerilla insurgency in the United States was tried. Of course, the lack of an overt military presence in the US itself makes it difficult to stay on the guerilla side of the guerilla/terrorist line, but the fact of the matter is that it's been disturbingly long since we've had any acts of leftist aggression in the US, and disturbingly short since we've had any of right-wing aggression.

But the fact of the matter is that paramilitary tactics are the boring part of revolutions. I mean, yes, it's basically an inevitability that as our generation bankrupts itself paying for the retirement of the baby boomers while the richest 1% continues to horde resources forcing the other 99% into a doomed game of scarcity economics that violent insurrections are going to happen. It's just...

OK, look, I don't know about you, but I'd make a fucking terrible paramilitary insurgent. I'd be the most rubbish rioter on the block. I'm a fat bastard who grew up playing video games. However grouchy I may have been about always being picked last in gym class, I had to admit the tactics involved in trying to avoid me were sound. So violent revolution may be on the cards, but the fact of the matter is, I, and I expect most of my readers, are not going to be the central figures in this one. We're going to be the ones holed up under our tables whimpering for our mommies.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have our own tactics in mind. Or that those tactics should not, broadly speaking, be modeled on guerilla tactics. We are, after all, hopelessly outgunned by the institutional structures of power. Society as it exists is not going to help us. If you are in your late 20s or 30s and working a low rent job with no benefits, you are very probably fucked and it is not going to get better for you. The standard advice is that if you want a comfortable retirement this is when you need to be putting money away. So basically, if you're more than 30, even if a good job with benefits drops into your lap, you'll have to work it until you die.

This means that we are going to have to fend for ourselves. This is not a disaster. As we've already observed, happiness is cheap. Once you solve the happiness issue, it's just food, shelter, and medical care. Two of those three are easy. So let's look through the major approaches to dealing with the problem of fending for yourself.

First off we have survivalism. Several problems exist here. First, we are geeks. We are going to make very, very bad survivalists. We will get eaten. Possibly within seconds. Second, survivalism is a really stupid idea anyway. Planning for the utter collapse of society is a poor idea. As others have pointed out (though the one I am remembering is Margaret Killjoy in the pages of Alan Moore's sublime underground magazine Dodgem Logic, to which this entire revolutionary jag owes much), you will not survive the apocalypse. This is why it is the apocalypse. If the way this all shakes out is the complete collapse of civilization, frankly, most of us are in fact going to die and there's not really much point in planning for it. (There is a third massive problem with survivalism, namely its deeply flawed conception of individualism, but that's another post.)

No. Let's assume that we're going to have to function within an existing civilization. What are we going to do? One answer, and an answer worth taking seriously, is "behave idiosyncratically."

Which brings us to our other game, Gumshoe. There is no particular reason why Gumshoe should be an obscure game. But it is. The game is a straightforward platformer - you try not to fall off or get hit by bad guys. Except that your avatar progresses inexorably towards the right, and you control the game with the Zapper. And there's the problem - other than the title that comes with it, almost no peripheral has a meaningfully played catalog of games. The usual reason for this comes down to simple math. Even the most successful games for a given platform have relatively small sell throughs - the best games for the Gamecube, for instance, managed about 33% sell through. (That is, 33% of people who bought a Gamecube also bought Super Smash Bros. Melee) So even if your peripheral does blockbuster business, and then your game for the peripheral does phenomenally as well, your absolute best case scenario is that  11% of console buyers will buy a peripheral game. In practice, the math never actually works out that well. Especially because any video game company can do that math, and so they never devote serious resources to peripheral games, leading them to be poor-selling shovelware.

With, of course, a few exceptions. Such as Gumshoe, an improbably difficult but strangely fun game. It's a game of the sort I have referred to in other entries as rabbit holes - games that only a relatively small number of people have played, but that are quite beloved among those who have played them. They are thus objects of intense fascination that nevertheless put their players somewhat apart from everybody else because of a lack of larger social context.

Rabbit holes seem to me a good goal. The creation of objects that seek not so much a mass audience as an effective audience. Whether these objects be artistic, pragmatic, or otherwise. I am, essentially, calling for a smarter, leaner version of communes - groups of people with relatively compatible ideas of happiness and interests pooling resources both to accomplish a defined goal (albeit possibly one of limited interest outside the group) and to survive.

The trouble, of course, and what will have to sustain this "8-Bit Revolution" thread for at least another post in the future, is this: history is littered with failed utopian communities. They seem not to work.

Can we make them?


  1. I favor the Oneida Community strategy, where you start out as a self-sufficient visionary community going well against the currents of larger society and end up a company that makes silverware. It's very nice silverware, really.
    In all seriousness, such an idiosyncratic revolution seems appealing. Don't such communities, or a fertile basis for them, basically exist?

  2. "But let's face it, the PC is a dying gaming platform."

    People have been saying this for 20 years. There are still computer games.

  3. You can also still buy a buggy whip if you go looking for it.

  4. [doing my best "pet shopkeeper" impression]: "It's not dead. It's just restin'."

  5. I always love people who think they'll "SURVIVE" the apocalypse.....I mean, really? I have a friend (he's not really a survivalist)....but he stockpiles food just before any major event......and it's always people of color who're going to "steal" his food. The funny thing is, he's really a pretty good guy....seriously!

  6. "Walden Two" by B.F. Skinner.......what a valid utopian community might look like....I'd love to live there.....but I've never seen a group of animals that didn't seek to stratify themselves.....never, not once.