Friday, September 01, 2006

Bully Pulpit

Last month there was a largely positive New York Times review of the videogame Bully from Rockstar games, a company made infamous by their Grand Theft Auto franchise, which raised some interesting points about gender politics and representational realism that are more subtle than those made in many mainstream game reviews.

The broader point is that rather than simply transferring the wanton violence and mayhem of the Grand Theft Auto series to a juvenile setting, Rockstar seems to have pulled out that game's most compelling elements -- an open world for the player to explore, tightly defined and memorable characters, a strong story line, high-end voice acting -- and rewrapped them in a game that the company clearly hopes will be rated T for Teen rather than M for Mature.

The game sanitizes many aspects of the modern prep school experience. There is no mission to sneak into a girl's dorm at night and have sex. There is no plan to hide drug use from the authorities. There is no quest to find a liquor store in town that will sell to you.

In short it's not really a boarding-school simulation, and that may be a good thing. Compared with real life, Rockstar has totally played down sex, drugs and alcohol. But as befits a game called Bully, it has certainly blown out of proportion the amount of real bullying that goes on these days.

In terms of the prevalence of actual physical intimidation, what Rockstar has done (perhaps unawares) is to take the reality of an all-boys school and shoehorn it into a coed environment. An all-boys school can really be like ''Lord of the Flies'' or a prison, combat brigade or any other all-male environment: brutal and physically hierarchical. But one of the miracles of coeducation is that as soon as girls are around, the boys often start treating one another in a more civilized fashion, even among themselves. As soon as there are girls on the campus, it's not cool to be a bully anymore.

Bully the game does not capture that. The fictional school is coed, but among themselves the boys act as if they haven't seen a girl in months.

In the end, though, that is what the public expects of its boarding-school vision. In the end it is irrelevant whether Bully is truly realistic, just as it is irrelevant whether ''The West Wing'' is a truly realistic depiction of the White House or if James Bond is a realistic secret agent. What matters is whether the material up for sale fits into the public's idealized image of the subject in question. Bully certainly does that.

This year, Rockstar has also produced another NYT well-reviewed game about Table Tennis, and has even seen Grand Theft Auto's graphic sensibility incorporated into a recent Coca Cola ad, despite having been denounced by Congress at one time. However, there are still foes of Rockstar's products.

Debate has been renewed about whether or not Bully should receive the adults-only M rating, despite having content comparable to many teen movies about physical and emotional intimidation in educational environments. The Bully website now shows two trailers; the latter makes it clear that this is a game that glorifies heroes not antiheroes.

One of the spokespersons leading the charge is Jane Hitchcock of WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse). WHOA has a very mixed digital rights agenda: it champions the use of encryption software like PGP by private citizens to protect their privacy, which is strongly opposed by many government agencies and corporate entities, but there obviously isn't enough advocacy for the importance of free speech. Furthermore, their position on Bully seems to be downright censorship, given that their criticism concerns acceptable subject matter not the representational choices that might convey certain anti-social messages. Hitchcock even admitted in an interview that her actual knowledge of the game itself was limited to the trailers.

Particularly odd, is the organization's marketing of their figurehead's PowerPoint presentations, which are available for sale and can be customized for your own local anti-cyber-harrassment event with the addition of different wording. PowerPoint mash-up anyone?



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