Screenage wasteland?

When video games look as good as action films, commercials are more fun than cartoons, and everything screams "Buy!" it's easy to lose your bearings.

Topics: Gaming, Video Games, J.R.R. Tolkien,

As the father of an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old I spend a not insignificant amount of time watching cartoons. I have learned some valuable lessons in the process. Here’s one: Though the quality of programming in this golden ‘toon age of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Dragonball Z” and “The Wild Thornberrries” is unprecedented, the real action, as far as my children are concerned, comes during the commercials.

The evidence is unavoidable. If I want to encourage my children to extricate themselves from the couch to come to dinner, the cries of pain are far more muted if I cut off the “Rocket Power” kids in mid-snowboard tailpress than if I dare to abort an advertisement before its 30 seconds of gripping narrative are completed. Especially in these pre-Christmas days, when action-packed Barbie/Yu-Gi-Oh shenanigans have hit fever pitch. My kids don’t flip during the commercials; they live for them.

And that means, this year, they are living for video games. I have no statistics at hand, but my guess is that there have never been as many video game advertisements flooding the airwaves as there are right now. It’s the result of a combination of factors: the continuing rise of recession-proof computer gaming, the launch of the online networks for both PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and the ever accelerating merger of the movie and gaming industries. Heck, in the middle of “Dragonball Z” on the Cartoon Channel, an animated cartoon wiseguy actually reviews video games while simultaneously battling an evil artificial intelligence that has taken over his spaceship. Is it a commercial or another show? My attempted explanations involve many amusing contortions.

And it’s not at all clear that the kids care about my warnings about cross-merchandised product placement. It’s all good, Dad. Relax.

My concern isn’t so much that this is new. Commercials — and video games — have been pushing their way to the forefront of cultural expression for years, if not decades. But the production values are getting too darn good. Somewhere down the line, that’s got to have significant implications for how new generations relate to various media and draw lines between fiction and fact, story and advertisement, reality and virtuality. Or maybe the result will be that they are no longer capable of drawing such lines — or that the lines will no longer exist.



Three currently running commercials, in particular, are driving this point home for me with new, turbo-driven power. Two of the ads are tied to movie releases: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Die Another Day.” Both start with scenes from the movie that segue into scenes from the game. Which looks cooler? You be the judge. Would you rather watch the dwarf or be the dwarf?

The other ad, for the military war-game SOCOM on the PlayStation 2 console, begins with some teenagers in their living room getting annihilated while playing online. “Who are these guys?” they wonder dispiritedly about their opponents. Then the scene cuts to some “real” soldiers cackling nastily in a tent somewhere in, maybe, Afghanistan.

Let’s not stop to think too long about the message being conveyed by the sight of American soldiers taking pleasure in killing American teenagers. That way lies madness. Instead, consider the thread tying all these commercials together: the conceit that the video game experience is approaching real-life production quality, or, even better, Hollywood blockbuster movie production quality.

This is new. Historically, games spun off from movies have been pathetic. Computer-generated actors didn’t hold a candle to the flesh-and-blood version, the dialogue was limited, the gameplay was boring. As for real life — oh, it was cute when a Marine sergeant modified the original Doom for some squad-based Marine combat, but it was still nothing like the real thing.

As we close out 2002, the relentless advance of computer processing power has begun to deliver graphics that are, like, you know, really good, and the revenue generated by games is attracting voice actors, writers, and designers who are astoundingly creative. I’m still unlikely to go out and buy a James Bond video game, because of my lingering prejudices, but heck, if I had a PlayStation 2, I’d be itching to have a go as Legolas at the battle of Helm’s Deep. Generations of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing gamers have been inspired by Tolkien; now the game technology is at the point where it is catching up to my imagination.

But what does it mean for my 5-year-old? The commercials are more exciting than the cartoons, and it’s getting impossible to differentiate between the games and the movies. And all of it, all the time, gets more and more violent. What, we haven’t yet invaded Iraq? You could have fooled me, after an hour or two spent watching MTV or the Cartoon Channel.

I am not one of those who lie awake at night worrying about the effect that gaming violence may have on our nation’s youth. At the same time, I’m also not in any hurry to set up my kids with their own consoles so they can start launching rocket grenades hither and yon.

But the day is undoubtedly coming soon when the No. 1 Christmas wish is going to be a box that will allow my kids to sit in front of the TV and become 007 or Aragorn or Lara Croft. And with each minute that goes by, that computer-mediated experience is becoming more engrossing, even as the cross-fertilization between marketing message and narrative storyline becomes more seamless, in every medium. How far are we from the plot of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” in which the kid who thinks he’s playing games is actually waging war against aliens? “America’s Army” is supposed to be a recruiting tool, but doesn’t that seem like an inefficient waste of resources? Who needs to enlist? Just log on and go fight.

Likewise, I’m finding myself feeling increasingly archaic as I read my kids “The Hobbit” before putting them to sleep. I read the book over and over again as a kid. But won’t my kids rather play the video game version instead? Which is liable to get more adrenaline going: wielding your sword Sting against the giant spiders in Mirkwood in real time on the big screen in the living room, or passively reading about Bilbo doing it on the static pages of a musty paperback?

I will concede that I was able to read and play Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager, and I’m hoping that there will still be some room for the written word and fleshly experience in my children’s lives, even if they do become citizens of Xbox Nation. But I also know that the sophistication of the consumer entertainment products that confront today’s kids trump anything that I had to face, by multiple orders of magnitude.

I used to think, as the son of a critic who was reviewing television shows more than three decades ago, that the best way to prepare my kids for their media future was not by sheltering them from the storm, but by exposing them to it while providing informed annotation. I was very, very proud when my daughter came to me once, confused by a car commercial she had been watching: “Daddy,” she said plaintively, “I can’t figure out what they want me to buy.”

But now I’m not so sure that my strategy is going to have the desired effect. I feel as though I’m up against the Balrog with a Swiss Army knife. In the 21st century, our entertainment elves have gotten so good at what they do that the commercial is the entertainment — and the game isn’t just the movie but also the front page of the New York Times. The scene of those soldiers laughing in a tent in Afghanistan, or wherever, having just fragged some 14-year-olds, is chilling. It mixes pro-war propaganda with Toys ”R” Us seduction as smoothly as Rocket Boy, in “Rocket Power,” rides a railing on his skateboard. We will buy the games, play the games, and then be the games.

What do they want us to buy? The question becomes ever more complex, and the answer ever more fluid, as entertainment — games and movies and books and music — blends into one digital soup, reflecting all experience. Pop that disc into the player, and be all you can be. Inoculating ourselves against that future is going to be tougher than beating Sauron — even if you’ve got every gadget that James Bond ever dreamed of and a magic ring, to boot.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>