....LMB: "Insight Through the Barrel of a Pixelated Gun"....

June 07, 2002

I have always found that the bastardized, marginalized genres of entertainment are the ones with the most opportunity for subversion. If you're not a fan of science fiction, you wouldn't know that a huge number of sci-fi novels are about violent overthrow of governments (oppressive ones, of course). Comic books like The Invisibles and Preacher assault mainstream cultural and religious values. Horror movies like Dawn of the Dead ruthlessly mock consumer culture and make eerie statements about the human capacity for violence.

It goes on. Transgressive social commentary can be found in gangsta rap, punk rock, public access television, even personal websites.

I'm not saying that these entertainment forms are always rebellious and insightful. Probably 90% of the time, they're crap. But it seems to me that since the mainstream turns up its nose at these "immature" or "low" forms of culture, that the authors of these projects can get away with saying bold, controversial things without facing harmful consequences.

Which is why I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to find bits of radical political philosophy buried in a sci-fi video game. I shouldn't have been, but I was.

In most ways, Deus Ex, originally released in 2000, was both a video game and sci-fi cliche. It's 50 years in the future (yawn), and you are a bionically enhanced (yawn) secret agent (yawn) fighting terrorists (yawn) in a Blade Runner- type cyberfuture (zzzzz...).

So after you complete some missions for your UN anti-terrorist task force, you begin getting clues that you are working for the wrong side. Your character realizes that the "terrorists" are actually working to counteract the oppressive plans of your employers at the UN.

It wasn't till my character ended up in a Hong Kong bar plying a barkeep for information that I realized that something unusual was going on. Every time the bartender spoke, you could choose a response from several provided for you and your character would reply. The conversation was made up of these exchanges. I barely noticed when my search for clues had turned into a debate about the nature of democracy... Yes, while the bartender was arguing for safety and security, my character was offering counterarguments for the freedom of man like he was Locke or Rousseau instead of a sci-fi action hero.

The conversation eventually ended, and my character again began shooting at villains and sneaking into enemy strongholds. But I continued to be impressed that the game had snuck this intellectual discourse into the middle.

And I would be even more impressed by the game's conclusion. The game approaches climax as your hero has managed to enter the inner sanctum of the villains, Area 51. But you are given three different options on how to conclude the game, none of which is "correct" or better than the others, each of which will radically change the life of every person on Earth.

One of your allies tells you that you should simply kill the main villain. Once destroyed, both you and this ally can use the powerful resources of Area 51 to rule Earth from the shadows, corrupt elites giving the illusion of freedom to the masses. People would have order and security, but not power or self-determination.

Another ally is an advanced AI, poweful enough to control every electrical and telecommunication network on Earth. It wants you to flip some switches to give it access to the world, which it will then rule with cold computer efficiency. It offers you the chance to merge with its systems, so that its efficiency will be tempered by human sensibilities. Basically, it proposes benevolent totalitarianism. Order and security, tinged with fear and powerlessness.

And finally, a third ally instructs you to utterly destroy Area 51. The base is a hub of all the world's communications and electricity. Destroying the base will lead to a "new dark age," but one in which people will not be controlled by plutocrats or dictators. People will create their own societies, not on a global scale, but on a local scale that they can actually comprehend. Technocide for democracy.

"My god," I realized, "this video game is forcing me to think about the nature of government, and which form I think is the best: the corrupt corporate 'democracy' of the modern era; totalitarianism; or anarchy!"

Beat that, Pac-Man!

Each choice has its own ending, which concludes with an interesting and appropriate literary quote.

Of course I had to try all three finales to see what happened. But what was my first choice? What would Jake the Super-Cyborg have done if forced to choose among the three?

Area 51 was atomized in a cataclysmic fusion reaction. Electric lights winked out across the globe, as final radio transmissions fuzzed out into static, and then silence. No guarantees, no happy promises. Just rebirth, and the opportunity to build my own world, our own world, from the ground up, with our own hands.

Posted by Jake at 12:31 PM

This is an amazingly coherent and insightful essay. Amazing.

Posted by: at November 21, 2002 05:42 AM
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Lying Media Bastards is both a radio show and website. The show airs Mondays 2-4pm PST on KillRadio.org, and couples excellent music with angry news commentary. And the website, well, you're looking at it.

Both projects focus on our media-marinated world, political lies, corporate tyranny, and the folks fighting the good fight against these monsters.

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Media News

November 16, 2004

Tales of Media Woe

Senate May Ram Copyright Bill- one of the most depressing stories of the day that didn't involve death or bombs. It's the music and movie industries' wet dream. It criminalizes peer-to-peer software makers, allows the government to file civil lawsuits on behalf of these media industries, and eliminates fair use. Fair use is the idea that I can use a snippet of a copyrighted work for educational, political, or satirical purposes, without getting permission from the copyright-holder first.

And most tellingly, the bill legalizes technology that would automatically skip over "obejctionable content" (i.e. sex and violence) in a DVD, but bans devices that would automatically skip over commericals. This is a blatant, blatant, blatant gift to the movie industry. Fuck the movie industry, fuck the music industry, fuck the Senate.

Music industry aims to send in radio cops- the recording industry says that you're not allowed to record songs off the radio, be it real radio or internet radio. And now they're working on preventing you from recording songs off internet radio through a mixture of law and technological repression (although I imagine their techno-fixes will get hacked pretty quickly).

The shocking truth about the FCC: Censorship by the tyranny of the few- blogger Jeff Jarvis discovers that the recent $1.2 million FCC fine against a sex scene in Fox's "Married By America" TV show was not levied because hundreds of people wrote the FCC and complained. It was not because 159 people wrote in and complained (which is the FCC's current rationale). No, thanks to Jarvis' FOIA request, we find that only 23 people (of the show's several million viewers) wrote in and complained. On top of that, he finds that 21 of those letters were just copy-and-paste email jobs that some people attached their names to. Jarvis then spins this a bit by saying that "only 3" people actually wrote letters to the FCC, which is misleading but technically true. So somewhere between 3 and 23 angry people can determine what you can't see on television. Good to know.

Reuters Union Considers Striking Over Layoffs- will a strike by such a major newswire service impact the rest of the world's media?

Pentagon Starts Work On War Internet- the US military is talking about the creation of a global, wireless, satellite-aided computer network for use in battle. I think I saw a movie about this once...

Conservative host returns to the air after week suspension for using racial slur- Houston radio talk show host (and somtime Rush Limbaugh substitute) Mark Belling referred to Mexican-Americans as "wetbacks" on his show. He was suspended for a couple of weeks, and then submitted a written apology for the racial slur to a local newspaper. But he seems to be using the slur and its surrounding controversy to boost his conservative cred with his listeners.

Stay Tuned for Nudes- Cleveland TV news anchor Sharon Reed aired a story about artist Spencer Tunick, who uses large numbers of naked volunteers in his installations and photographs. The news report will be unique in that it will not blur or black-out the usual naughty bits. The story will air late at night, when it's allegedly okay with the FCC if you broadcast "indecent" material. The author of this article doesn't seem to notice that Reed first claims that this report is a publicity stunt, but then claims it's a protest against FCC repression. I'd like to think it's the latter, but I'm not that much of a sucker.

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Mission: Mongolia

Jake's first attempt at homemade Mongolican barbecue:


What went right: correctly guessing several key seasonings- lemon, ginger, soy, garlic, chili.

What went wrong: still missing some ingredients, and possibly had one wrong, rice vinegar. Way too much lemon and chili.

Result: not entirely edible.

Plan for future: try to get people at Great Khan's restaurant to tell me what's in the damn sauce.

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