Thursday, June 13, 2002

Pixelized Seduction

Can Video Games Learn From the Death of Comic Books?

Video games aren't just for kids anymore. At least that's what folks are saying now that Rockstar's hyper-violent Grand Theft Auto III and State of Emergency began flying off shelves.

Those same pundits had similar words for comic books 15 years ago. Revisions of the superhero myth in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Watchmen spoke to the bearded, postgrad intellectual as much as they thrilled the BMX-riding 11-year-old crowd. Maus portrayed Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, telling a tale of the Holocaust in a way that only comics could. Art Spiegelman earned a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. Comics enjoyed notoriety, popularity, a modicum of respect and one last moment in the sun. Fans, speculators and nostalgia-seekers scooped up every variant cover of Marvel's X-Men relaunch. Todd McFarlane's narratively thin reimagining of Spider-man myth catapulted the artist into semi-celebrity. At the time it seemed as if most everyone was into comics. Now, with sales plummeting to miserable lows, it looks like comics aren't for anybody anymore.

Video games could be traveling down this same geek-worn path. Censorship and the limited appeal of superheroes helped cut the throat of the now almost bloodless comic book. Those who make, play and love video games need only look at the past of the nearly departed comic to see the writing on the arcade wall.

The slow death of comics began in 1954, with the publication The Seduction of the Innocent, an anti-comics diatribe by child psychologist Dr. Frederick Wertham. During the "Golden Age" of comics, four-color funny books were in the hands of every kid in the nation. Among the most popular of these pulps were lurid horror and crime comics. The amoral fables featured in titles such as Tales From the Crypt and True Crime shocked Wertham. While studying criminally violent kids, he discovered that most, if not all of them, read comic books. Wertham argued that the joyous onslaught of murder and mayhem that leapt from these books was poisoning the minds of America's youth. This indictment of the comics medium appalled parents and brought the issue of violence in comics to the attention of the United States Congress. In a desperate attempt to save the medium from government intervention, publishers created The Comics Code. The group penned a set of editorial standards not unlike the Hays Code of 1930 that scrubbed American cinema clean of violent gangster tales. In the years that followed, comics became neutered, their growth stunted in such a way that half a century later, the majority of comics are still populated by spandex-clad superheroes and mired in overwrought morality.

Sound familiar? Because of violent content, video games have undergone similar scrutiny. Rather than imposing limitations, game publishers in 1994 created the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Decades earlier, the MPAA ratings system had allowed American cinema to break free of the restrictive Hays Code and freely explore mature, adult and challenging themes. The ESRB left game publishers with the same option. And so were born Grand Theft Auto III and State of Emergency, unworthy "Mature" rated heirs to the taboo-breaking big-screen achievements of Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and A Clockwork Orange.

With a working classification system in place it would seem that video games are off the hook, but that's not the case. The indefensible actions of loners-turned-gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold cemented further government investigation into the possibility of a connection between video game play and violence. Harris and Klebold, like most disaffected youths, enjoyed playing first-person shooters such as Quake and Doom. This unfortunate coincidence in part influenced the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the marketing of violent video games to children. Their study determined that "video-game producers are aggressively marketing violent entertainment products to children even as they label the material inappropriate for young audiences."

There has yet to emerge a modern-day, video-game-hating equivilant to Dr. Frederick Wertham. That's not to say that people haven't tried to fill his shoes. In his breathless review of Grand Theft Auto III, Aaron Curtis, former editor of the now-defunct Los Angeles Times "Tech Times" section, wrote that enjoying the title's game play was akin to "admiring the cinematography of a snuff film." Curtis had issued prior Wertham-esque rants. In a review entitled "First 'Jet Grind,' Then Juvenile Hall," the writer warns parents to keep their kids away from a grafitti-centric in-line-skating Sega title. Curtis called Jet Grind Radio "one of the most irresponsible games ever put out for a set-top console" because the tagging and gang associations portrayed in the game promoted "the mayhem that makes urban life so unpleasant."

It seems beyond the comprehension of critics that children not only crave but have a cognizant appreciation of lurid, violent and so-called antisocial materials. Expressing conflict with brute force, in the way that WWF matches, Godzilla flicks or Looney Tunes do, speaks to the physical knowledge a child has of the world. Dozens of skinned knees, noogies and (in the less progressive households) spankings have already tought these youngsters that pain is the first, most primal way that humans learn. Their media of choice overtly echoes this awareness.

The audiences of Tales From the Crypt and Grand Theft Auto III (despite the claims of their labeling) are one and the same: the adolescent. With this faze of youth often comes a fascination with violence that flies in the face of accepted concepts of maturity. Millions of teens revel in horror flicks and gothic-themed rock, genres that defy ratings restriction.

Traditionally mature subject matter appeals to the intellect as much as the gut. Kids (and many adults for that matter) reject this material as boring and dull. Add an explosion, a gunfight or a pair of breasts and now you've got something interesting. The truth is that comics and video games never really grew up. For every Eightball, there are a hundred Spawns. For every nuanced puzzle-adventure such as Ico, an army of trigger-happy Max Paynes. Despite minor creative victories, there's little maturation going on in either field. Comics and video games have only become more brazen, more clever and more technologically advanced in their youthful expression of bloodlust.

This is where the comics industry made its fatal mistake. Fueled by the wrongheaded notion that comics were now a grown-up medium, publishers abandoned the youngest kids, and focused on sating the desires of teens and adults with adolescent tastes. Family-friendly titles all but disappeared from comic shelves. Images of scantily clad demon-women and blood-soaked vigilantes dominated stores. In some shops, where aging collectors were now the primary clientele, kids weren't even allowed to browse without a parent or guardian in tow.

Anyone who reads video game press will detect a similar impulse. "Cute" is anathema to the core gamer in the same way that Pokemon and Raffi are kid stuff compared to supposedly grown-up product such as Gundam and Linkin Park. The cracking voices in discussion groups and letters columns want nothing to do with cartoon characters. They're much more interested in the realistically rendered racks of the street-fighting babes in Dead or Alive than another adventure with the never-changing Mario. A sneak preview of the latest Zelda game caused a particularly loud uproar. The game's bold new look, one that recalls the work of Chuck Jones, was immediately decried by gamers for being too "cutesy." They preferred the style of a hyper-real tech demo they'd seen months earlier that featured Link going sword-to-sword with Gannon. The pratfalling, paper-thin 2-D characters and stylized facial features represented a move in the wrong direction.

To his credit, Nintendo's lead visionary Shigeru Miyamoto has made creating games for kids his first priority. Miyamoto creates artful games such as Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Pikmin whose appeal bridges the tastes of adults and kids in much the same way that Carl Barks' Donald Duck and Scrooge comics did. Miyamoto understands that gaming's popularity depends on a continual flow of new gamers from generation to generation. For many, Nintendo is the starting point for a lifetime of gaming. In comics, this moment of first contact is all but lost. Once ubiquitous in a child's life, comics are now an oddity, and because of this the legions of youthful comics readers have shrunk significantly. Older readers are all who remain, and these poor souls are locked in an eternal grapple with grimacing muscle-men from which only few escape. Those who do manage to cast off the chains of superheroism discover a little-known treasure trove of smart, beautiful work that represents the pinnacle of comic book achievement. Ironically, these underappreciated underground comic masters were weaned on the same comics that Wertham trashed. Current comics trailblazers Crumb, Clowes, Spiegleman, Ware and Los Bros. Hernandez all took long drinks from the musty well of horror and crime comics. The waters did not poison them, but instead influenced and informed their great works.

Video games have yet to produce a Maus or Ghostworld. In fact, if left to the fan-boys, the marvelous and vital work of Miyamoto would morph into adrenaline-packed fighters and bloody first-person shooters, leaving young gamers high and dry in much the same way comics did to their young audience. To survive, video games must continue to welcome new gamers with friendly, engrossing experiences that Mario and his cartoony comrades offer so well. Of course, the core audience's thirst for action must be sated, but respite must also be offered. As underground comics offer a safe haven for the demanding comic reader, video games must also provide a more contemplative place for the battle-weary, maturing gamer to retreat to. This will be the place where true video-game art will be found.

--Gus Mastrapa

Originally published in Neksis, Volume 1 Number 6