BLINDED PERCEPTIONS - The role of the audience on the message of a narrative

[Disclaimer: I am not a native english speaker so feel free to correct me, also spoilers for Call of Duty]


The famous literary critic Harold Bloom coined the term “School of Resentment”, perhaps inspired by Nietzsche, to describe critics that place the socio-political value of an artistic work at equal or higher ground than its quality as a piece of art. There’s nothing wrong with art being used to express opinions on society and politics, but it should not be at the expense of its original objective, artistic value, and adding some sort of social message will alter the way the audience will perceive your work based on their own opinions and how they are related to the message the art is conveying. Considering an artistic expression objectively bad or good is impossible considering the subjective nature of criticism however, it might be possible to analyze how the perception of an artistic expression is affected by the message it carries, or what the audience think it carries.


The shootout that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School has sparked a nation-wide controversy and discussion about the regulation of gun ownership by the American government. The National Rifle Association, in a pathetic attempt to deflect all the heat directed at them, placed the guilt of the massacre in the hands of a culture that “sows violence”. As controversies do what controversies do best, taking a life of their own and reproduce, the ball ended on the videogames side of the court as one of the perpetrators of this culture of violence. This is not the first time this has happened nor will be the last, but in this incarnation of this cyclical discussion about violence and videogames something appears to have changed, with the gaming community at large not only defending their hobby but also fostering interesting and challenging discussions amongst themselves about the role of violence in our medium.
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Where the School of Resentment gets in this conversation? It plays a role not only on the discussions about videogames but of our whole culture. You see, one of the worst aspects of art in the XX and XXI century, especially those that present a narrative, has been the intention of blending a typical narrative with a political manifesto or philosophical dissertation creating an insoluble and worse work of art. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with trying to balance the Art with the Message you want to send, but many creators seem to forget that the main objective of art is to be engaging, interesting and provide intellectual and/or emotional effect to its audience, and if the work should carry some sort of philosophical or socio-political meaning it needs first to fulfill these goals, otherwise becoming a monstrous chimera failing at both the Art and the Message. Books like Starship Troopers and Atlas Shrugged are both examples of works of art whose narrative failed to support their socio-political message.
But just as this affects the creators, it also affects the audience. After so many times subjected to artistic works carrying an implicit message, the audience or at least a part of it has adapted, being in constant readiness to find implicit meanings in their cultural experiences. Always breaking down the work in smaller pieces and analyzing them in search of a message hidden in the undertones and dissect its meaning. The problem being, not every story has this meaning, some of them simply are the narrative that meets the eye, and many different works end up suffering from an obsessive audience that, failing to find this secondary message, will create one out of their own perceptions by picking certain parts of the narrative and using them, commonly out of context, to support their point of view.


One current example is in relation to Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the hunt and eventual execution of Osama Bin Laden, and torture-scenes in the movie. Many commentators have speculated that the film sends a pro-torture message because Bin Laden is eventually found with information obtained through torture, despite the fact that in the own movie it is shown that information acquired through torture can be unreliable and lead to a dead end, making the status of the movie as pro-torture at least dubious. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t pro or anti-torture, it just has torture in it. It’s said that the film is based on the real investigation so if, hypothetically, in real life all the information obtained through torture was reliable in the hunt for Bin Laden and the movie was portrayed with only successful torture sessions it still shouldn’t be called pro-torture just for showing what happened in reality, but it would still receive that label. The problem isn’t the work, is the audience. There is this kind of thinking that lead to these false accusations: isolating aspects of the narrative and using that aspect as a reliable indicator of the general narrative. Sure a work of art can carry an implicit meaning and express it by embedding it in its story, but there is this obsessive witch hunt for opinions by people from all across the political spectrum, looking for something to corroborate with their point of view.
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In videogames, one of the biggest examples of this obsession is towards the Call of Duty series, especially the Modern Warfareinstallments. Many times accused of glorifying war, accusations commonly thrown by people from within the gaming community, the world’s most popular first person shooters receive a mountain of criticism comparable only to the amount of money it makes at every new installment. While some of that is explained by the series huge popularity, a surge in fame is usually accompanied by a surge in hate, the status of the series as a glorifier of war has been attributed because how the series usually portrays war in the same manner of a summer blockbuster, showing white men with short hair and stubble running and gunning down anonymous brown-skinned terrorists in the Middle East. Another thing worth noting is that Call of Duty is a videogame, interactive by nature, and on top of that it is a first person shooter, making the player the one who pulls the trigger from a very intimate, personal perspective. So is built the public image of Call of Duty: a mindless shooter filled with violence against your typical Middle Eastern terrorist/Russian ultra-nationalist, big action sequences with explosions and frantic pacing, globetrotting action in pursue of a villain trying to take away the freedom of the Free World, all of that witnessed and interacted with through the iron sights of an assault rifle of the War Hero.


But, maybe not. To me, saying that Call of Duty glorifies war has always been incompatible with my vision of the series. After all the series offered moments such as living in first person the experience of someone kidnapped and killed in cold blood, chasing through the son of a terrorist and, after much effort, finally get a grip on him and witnessing he blowing up his own brain for the greater cause of his fanaticism, the unrelenting murder of numerous civilians in an airport and the subsequent execution of the own player by the terrorists, and perhaps the greatest moment in all the series, when after fighting a horde of enemies in order to get back to your helicopter and escape an enemy-occupied zone, witnessing the detonation of a nuclear device that subsequently kills your allies and make you watch in first person as your own character slowly passes away from his wounds. Glorifying? Some of the game’s tropes have become somewhat tired now that the series has been thoroughly explored by Activision and some of the tactics to shock the player have become mundane, but the first time you see so many innocent people being slaughtered from a first person perspective or one of the protagonists being unceremoniously murdered there’s that perforating feeling that Call of Duty is playing rough, and isn’t afraid to tap into the heart of darkness.
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The bigger problem is how the game is experienced by the audience. Call of Duty is a mega-franchise and it absolutely needs to have a gameplay that is enjoyable and fun by a huge number of people, and being a modern military game its gameplay will be about killing people. So we end up with an experience where killing people become fun, and since you will spend the majority of the game killing people, it becomes easy to get embroiled in the gameplay that conveys that violence is something very inconsequential from a moral point of view and that war isn’t made of horror and death, but filled with moments of heroism, bravery and justice. The game needs this dopamine releasing fast-paced action in order to works as a competent first-person shooter but there is much more in its narrative. And we, as people that play games and are dedicated to the medium, we should not let be taken by the surface and see the experience as a whole, not reduce a game to its shooting moments and forgetting the rest of what the narrative is presenting you with. We should be better than that.

Independent of what the series is right now or what it will become in the future, there is no denying that there have been several attempts in the Call of Duty games to demonstrate, if not the worsts, at least multiple faces of war, from the hero’s conquest to the hero’s unceremoniously murder. Yes, there will be people interpreting the series from a shallow perspective, both from inside and outside of the gaming community, and will only see the Michael Bay-esque ridiculousness of these games, but it is up to us, as gamers who take our medium seriously or at least see the potential for videogames to become serious, to not allow them to be reduced to a simple action blockbusters, and have their artistic efforts properly noticed and that there’s a meaningful message to the series, not one produced out of misguided perceptions of what these games are, but out of the true quality of these works. The hating will continue both by the mainstream media condemning the “violence simulators”, the gamers that dislike Call of Duty mostly by its popularity and, probably more than anything, those that don’t understand it. Nobody needs to love or like these games, but treating them as bro-shooters that glorify war isn’t helping anyone. Let’s hope, that at least in this battle, the School of Resentment won’t win.

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