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GAMES, WAR, AND REALITY TV

26 Aug 2010

The Hollywood Reporter is reporting that cable network G4 will begin airing in spring a reality show called "Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan". It's just what it sounds like:

The show will take viewers behind the scenes of a U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, starting with training sessions in the States and then during its deployment for several months in Afghanistan.

"There is simply no way to comprehend the incredible amount of pressure and split-second decisionmaking these individuals must undertake in the worst possible physical conditions without riding along with them as our cameras will do," G4 president Neal Tiles said.

The reactions I've seen so far have been predominantly negative. For example, from Darren Franich writing for Entertainment Weekly's PopWatch blog:

It’s foolish to judge anything this early (Bomb Patrol is set to air next spring), but it’s hard for me to picture how a show about soldiers engaged in a life-or-death activity — in the midst of a highly controversial conflict — will manage to not be incredible offensive to every single human being who has ever lived.

Rachel Maddow did a feature on the announcement tonight, arguing that often the draw of reality TV as a genre is when things go wrong: "You're waiting -- if not rooting -- for the incidental disasters." To the extent that that's true, it seems to suggest that the underlying draw for "Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan"could be to see soldiers, um... fail. Catastrophically.

Even commenters on G4's own forums, though not completely unified on the issue, do have some harsh words. Poster keebles124 said this:

This is a horrible idea...I play modern warfare but I dont think watching and hoping someone get blown up in reality is sane. Us as viewers of G4 expect to see faceplants and nads getting kicked, split or lit on fire, and we find that funny because those people are Arseholes...

But these guys are doing jobs none of us on here would do, (if you would then you would be there,so keep any stupid responses to yourself) and to find humor or pleasure in the possibility of a soldier's death is sick and disturbing. We have to remember that every soldier that possibly dies on this show is one less soldier we have on our side.

This is an awkward situation. I'm trying to keep in mind what Mr. Franich said -- "It's foolish to judge anything this early..." -- but I can't help but wonder, aside from the obvious volatility of basing a reality show on such politically- and emotionally-charged current events, how this might play out for public perception of video games.

Stay with me.

While G4 isn't strictly a network about video games, games are clearly their focus. Hit their front page right now: I see a wrap-up from Gamescom, previews for several upcoming games, a news feed in which every single entry is about a game, and so forth... and this is all above the fold. G4 is, to a certain extent, a product of -- and a driver for -- mainstream adoption of video games as a legitimate adult hobby. True, the network can be lowbrow (NSFW) and arguably tasteless at times. But it also represents a mainstream outlet for gaming news and content that -- as far as the games themselves are concerned -- doesn't treat them like time-wasting child's play.

But the association between video games and attitudes about violence is already one of our weak points as an industry. It's the point on which our detractors (often politicians) most frequently -- and most effectively -- attack us. A vocal plurality sees gamers as people with little to no respect for the real-world implications of the violence in their entertainment. It doesn't matter that that's not true: it's what our products are saying about gamers* to* non-gamers.

And in this case, it's not even about gamer attitudes toward some indefinite, generalized idea of violence. It's about gamer attitudes toward a very specific, ongoing, politically- and emotionally-charged situation of violence. Or more specifically, it's about the perception of those attitudes by non-gamers.

What is a non-gamer to think of us, of gamers, when the cable television network about video games airs this show? Perhaps they'll think we find war -- even real, ongoing, right now war -- just another form of entertainment. Perhaps it will look a hell of a lot like they're right.

Leigh Alexander wrote a related bit recently, asking Who Cheers For War?:

The cousin of someone dear to me got all but one of his limbs blown off in Iraq. This is our most popular way to play together? And we are all okay with this?

It is, of course, driven in part by economics. Modern Warfare 2, widely touted as the "top-grossing entertainment product of all time," is a performance that many publishers are eager to repeat. Thus here we are in 2010, and the battle-royale to watch this holiday is among first-person shooters. Historical war. Modern war. Future-war. Reports of "Halo-killers." We all sit back and anticipate the fall-holiday first-person-shooter shootout shit-show. Hallelujah. [...]

What continues to concern me is that we don't think about it and we don't discuss it. We're able to witness grenade-flung bodies, we're able to crush enemies under the treads of our vehicles, we're ourselves able to die in trenches. And get up again, and keep doing it. How far can we push things before video games like these stop being a way to interact with and process the human experience, and instead cross a line to where they're trivializing it?

There's something to our -- gamers' -- dismissive attitude toward violence in our entertainment. Obviously it hasn't turned us into a society of serial-killers. Obviously nearly all gamers are socially well-adjusted, responsible people. But equally obviously -- from the other side -- we simply don't afford violence the respect it deserves. The respect that shows, that proves, that we do *understand that bullets and bombs really kill people and shatter families and destroy communities and ruin lives, that they are doing it *right now in Afghanistan, that we *do *care about this, and that we're understanding and accepting of the fact that not everybody is okay with the argument, "It's just a game".

So I ask, at the risk of jumping to conclusions: is a reality show about an ongoing war, aired on a major gamer-centric TV network, really what gamer culture needs right now?

Posted In:

politics video-games