War and Joysticks

For a month or so, a poster-sized advertisement emblazoned with the message “Make Games Not War” and bearing a cartoon hand forming a peace sign was pasted on walls of New York City subway stations. The ad, for the 2007 … Read More

By / December 14, 2007

The World's Most Decadent Ad

For a month or so, a poster-sized advertisement emblazoned with the message “Make Games Not War” and bearing a cartoon hand forming a peace sign was pasted on walls of New York City subway stations. The ad, for the 2007 Video Game Awards, was paid for by Spike TV, who created the awards show in 2002. Samuel Jackson hosted the event on December 9.

Here are some results for any pacifists who were unable to catch the broadcast. BEST SHOOTER Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Activision/ Infinity Ward) BEST MILITARY GAME Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Activision/ Infinity Ward) GAME OF THE YEAR BioShock This last one in particular offers the most felicitous irony. It turns out that BioShock is an Ayn Rand-inspired shooter game in which players battle their way out of an under-water dystopia. That’s the same Ayn Rand who said:

Whatever rights the Palestinians may have had — I don't know the history of the Middle East well enough to know what started the trouble — they have lost all rights to anything: not only to land, but to human intercourse. If they lost land, and in response resorted to terrorism — to the slaughter of innocent citizens — they deserve whatever any commandos anywhere can do to them, and I hope the commandos succeed.

And also said:

If we go to war with Russia, I hope the 'innocent' are destroyed with the guilty. … Nobody has to put up with aggression, and surrender his right of self-defense, for fear of hurting somebody else, guilty or innocent. When someone comes at you with a gun, if you have an ounce of self-esteem, you answer with force, never mind who he is or who's standing behind him.

Had she only lived long enough to buy an Xbox and pretend to be at war I’m sure she’d have mellowed. As I heard a gray-bearded man put it to his friends while pulling out a hand-held video game on the 6 train, “This keeps me sane.” But isn’t there something slightly insane about an adult culture that thinks it can play pretend war games in lieu of war? Isn’t there something wrong with an adult culture with a video game habit period? After all, the award show ran on Spike TV, not Nickelodeon. Although, had it aired on Nickelodeon its home audience might have been the same. As Diana West points out in her book The Death of the Grown-Up, How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization, "one third of the fifty-six million Americans sitting down to watch SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon each month in 2002 were between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.” That’s a mandate for idiocy nineteen million strong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with adults playing video games or glazing out in front of the occasional cartoon, but clearly there’s a priority problem. Rapper XZIBIT, who was a presenter at the awards, said in a backstage interview: "I have an 11-year old who's a big gamer and I like to play whatever he's playing." Father-son time is a beautiful thing, but you’re not supposed to share your 11-year old’s tastes in recreation.* West argues that Western adults have co-opted more than their kids’ hobbies; they’ve accepted their adolescent world view—most critically, the doctrine of moral relativism. She makes a convincing case that the culture went from being grown-up-driven to adolescent-driven, not in the nineteen-sixties, but in the years immediately following World War II. This was the first time kids had their own money to spend and that established them as a targeted consumer group. An adolescent-directed marketplace blossomed up around them: West writes:

All this new stuff not only satisfied passing teen tastes, it validated them. It worked like this: If Western Electric manufactured Princess extension phones in “dreamy” colors, then teens should want Princess extension phones in “dreamy” colors. It also entrenched such immature tastes. That is, if manufacturers made Princess phones in “dreamy” colors, then, of teens should have Princess phones in “dreamy” colors. The retail relationship between consumer teens and their consumer dreams effectively derailed the adolescent trajectory toward adulthood, stalling and even blocking the transition to more mature tastes and interests.

And the rest is history. Almost. The other necessary component was the consent of the greatest generation. And consent they did. West quotes David Reisman’s famous 1950 study The Lonely Crowd:

Children are more heavily cultivated in their own terms than ever before. But while the educator in earlier eras might use the child’s language to put across an adult message, today the child’s language may be used to put across the advertiser’s and storyteller’s idea of what children are like. No longer is it thought to be the child’s job to understand the adult world as the adult sees it. . . Instead, the mass media ask the child to see the world as [the mass media imagines] “the” child sees it.

West maintains that it was also in the post WWII era that the seeds of cultural and moral relativism were planted. Having just defeated Nazi Germany, the U.S. was understandably loath to adopt any posture or policy that could be said to have the slightest whiff of xenophobia. So, “anything goes” became the guiding principle in a youth-centered world. It’s the noxious simultaneity of moral relativism and adolescent insecurity, fueled by educators and marketing gurus, that, West maintains, is hastening the downfall of Western civilization. So we arrive at history’s most decadent advertising slogan: “Make Games Not War.” Peace-loving Spike TV are also known for airing movie marathons featuring that delightfully sociopathic cold-warrior James Bond. That “delightfully” wasn’t sarcastic; Bond movies are great. But there’s something about the perpetual adolescent sensibility of outlets like Spike TV that seems to require the relegation of survival and war to the realm of pure fantasy. Everyone would be happier if war only existed on movie sets or inside an Xbox, but only a special kind of childish mindset could think it’s so: our decadent Western one. The problem with “Make Games Not War” is that only one side espouses it. There’s another side, and they know no such choice exists. For them, that well-meaning poster is nothing but cause for celebration. West quotes anthropologist Bryan Page, from sometime in the nineteen-fifties: “Play has become the primary purpose and value in many adult lives. It now borders on the sacred.” And what do our enemies hold sacred?

* This piece has been edited and expanded since its original posting.

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