JQP in Brief

Balls on the Back Benches

Not, unfortunately, Ed. Labour MP Graham Allen has written a very interesting post suggesting some out-of-the-box perspectives on British democracy. I agree with a considerable amount, if not all, of what he said but that’s not why I’m linking it. If anything I feel he falls short of what I would have liked to hear: a reasoned rejection of representative democracy as a schema for a modern, Internet-enabled nation. He knows the problems with representative democracy, and mentions several:

Parliament is not fit for purpose. … Government sets Parliament’s agenda, selects membership of Parliament’s committees and uses it as a rubber stamp. Government is the unelected incubus which needs Parliament only in order to cloak itself in the electoral legitimacy which it does not have itself. […] It is difficult to see a way forward. The very power and influence which need to be exercised for liberty lie entrenched in the hands of those who benefit most from its corruption. A government which failed to make the clean start it was offered two years ago, an opposition devoid of a democratic philosophy…

I’m linking him for one reason only; he’s the first person from inside Parliament that I have yet seen, at any point and to any degree, come close to challengenging the idea that representational democracy is the ultimate expression of human enlightenment, and it’s an idea I personally think needs to be challenged.

Rumours of Wars

So, there’s some war games on the market in which players can commit collateral damage, shoot civilians, torture terrorists and so on. It’s been criticised, in a remarkable piece of naivete, for being unrealistic. Um. Er. Well. As Auntie reports:

Human rights groups played various games to see if any broke humanitarian laws that govern what is a war crime. The study condemned the games for violating laws by letting players kill civilians, torture captives and wantonly destroy homes and buildings. It said game makers should work harder to remind players about the real world limits on their actions.

I really don’t understand how anyone with academic pretensions can have written that sentence. There are no real-world limits on the actions of warring nations which cannot be safely flouted by the nation which proposed most of them. Rape is a weapon of war throughout the world, including in US and British military prisons (and, in Britain, on MOD training bases as far as we can tell from Deepcut barracks).

Collateral damage is what air superiority is for; we can kill you wholesale has always been the political message of bombing as a weapon of war. Ask Dresden. None of this retail death, this checking for combatant status. If you piss us off, the furious arm of the Lord God Allah will come down on your house. Death from above is the “civilised” equivalent of suicide bombing.

Given that both of the prime movers in the invasion of Iraq have joined the warlords of Cambodia, Angola and Columbia in sponsoring torture, infrastructure devastation and the murder of civilians as legitimate acts of war, these computer games are social conscience in their own special way; and I’ll bet they turn more kids off real wars than any Faux news, cheerleading tv report.

Which leads to the next point.

The games were analysed to see “whether certain scenes and acts committed by players would constitute violations of international law if they were real, rather than virtual”. The group chose games, rather than films, because of their interactivity.

“Thus,” said the report, “the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real-life situations on the battlefield.”

This is the “video games make kids kill” canard all over again, and like that one, it relies on two completely ridiculous assumptions. One is that exposure to abstracted knowledge of evil causes evil in the “vulnerable”, by which they mean women, children and black people. This is Victorian crap.

Abstractions allow people to process an issue rationally when personal experience leads them instead to process it emotionally. Being 14 in Baghdad has a very high likelihood of leading a person into either violence or victimhood; seeing your school friends shot by people from another race and religion is what will make children kill.

Playing a video game in which hideous things happen to fictional characters allows a teenager to look at the world and go ‘if this really happened to someone I know, it would be wrong‘. That’s step a in reaching “If this happened to anyone it would be wrong.” The Government message over the last decade has been the reverse: this is only wrong when it’s happening to Christian, white America. If it’s happening to Arabs or Muslims it’s fine is what our leaders want their populations to think.

It said games were sending an “erroneous” message that conflicts were waged without limits or that anything was acceptable in counter-terrorism operations.

“This is especially problematic in view of today’s reality,” said the study.

In particular, it said, few games it studied reflected the fact that those who “violate international humanitarian law end up as war criminals, not as winners”.

And this is directly self-contradictory. The message that conflicts are waged without limits is not erroneous, it is necessary: I have personal experience of civil war in Liberia. The child soldiers in Angola and Nicaragua, the atrocities committed by the USA in Vietnam, or the Russians in Afghanistan and many other places: these were, and in some cases still are, wars without limits.

Equally, the message that to the USA and Britain “anything was acceptable in counter-terrorism operations” should be phrased as is, not was. Both nations have committed war crimes. We know this. They know this. But, just like with the millions of African-American men incarcerated for being poor and black (“drug-related charges” is the code) only poor criminals go to jail. Rich ones are bailed out by the taxpayer, or campaign for election as European President. Even though Blair lost, I doubt that’s what the researchers meant when they said “war criminals not winners”.

This Is Not A Robot

Their reaction also relies on the completely spurious assumption that players of video games are incapable of distinguishing speculation and fantasy from ethical reality.

America, and recently Britain, really do seem to have forgotten that youth does not equal either stupidity or lack of autonomy. People under 40 can think, they’re actually pretty good at comparing sources because they get their news off the internet instead of cable TV, and they were born after SciFi became mainstream.

Speculative fiction does for social schema what theoretical physics does for practical technology. Speculative fiction is exactly where you can try out, hypothetically, the impact of a particular social organisation scheme on the people living it, without creating dead people. Computer games are an extension of that brand-new cultural force. They allow people an interactive, speculative experience of a life they are not forced to live, and game-players know this. The Baby Boomers running America don’t, but the kids playing the games do.

Mr Rossignol said there was plenty of evidence that gaming violence is “fully processed” as fantasy by gamers. Studies of soldiers on the front line in Iraq showed that being a gamer did not desensitise them to what they witnessed.

He added: “Perhaps what this research demonstrates is that the researchers misunderstand what games are, and how they are treated, intellectually, by the people who play them.”

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