Saturday, October 14, 2006

Monkey see not monkey do

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Last night there was a fight in my house. Well, not so much a fight as a pretty brutal piece of abuse. One guy decided to show his chops by terrorising this girl. He got his cronies to pin her down and started taunting her that he was going to cut her tongue out. Someone had even found some tongs, and they were grabbing her head, forcing their fingers into her mouth, trying to grab at her tongue so they could get a grip on it. He was laughing and miming like he had a pair of scissors. She was screaming, trying to not scream, trying to keep her mouth closed as the men pried and pulled at her jaw. It was horrifying.

It wasn’t real, of course, but it was in my house. It was a trailer for BBC1’s new feelgood Robin Hood drama. The man was everyone’s favourite lovable rogue Keith Allen, and tongs were quickly knocked out of his thug’s hand by an arrow from our hero in Lincoln green. The trailer didn’t give the ending away, but I’m pretty sure the rescued girl, now flush with desire rather than terror, will have offered rakish Robin a kiss for his trouble. Probably not French, under the circumstances.

I’ve spent the week booting people in the nuts in God Hand, causing mass extinctions in Un Goro crater and executing armies of goons in Scarface, and this was still by far the most violent thing I’d seen. And that’s fairly common. Flick on the telly mid-evening and it’s very likely that you’ll be thrown straight in to some voyeuristic rape courtesy of Robson Green’s dismal Wire In The Blood, or some cockle-warming domestic violence round Albert Square. But that colossal discrepancy is appropriate, right? Because TV is passive, and games are participatory, so it’s only reasonable that we have standards with such a gulf between them that calling them ‘double’ is a joke in itself.

I’m not so sure. What changed my mind was the scene in Syriana where George Clooney has his fingernail ripped out by a horrified torturer. Watching it in the safety of my bedroom, the appalling violence of it physically propelled me to my feet. I instinctively hit the mute button, stepping away from the screen to distance myself from his pain and terror. Even in hindsight – and it’s months ago now – it makes my throat close. In fact, in hindsight it’s even worse because I now know he chipped his spine when filming the scene, so his spasms of pain were genuine. It made the idea that this was supposed to have less of an effect on me because I wasn’t an active participant seem bizarre.

It’s bizarre because, watching Syriana, there’s nothing to tell me this isn’t really happening, no physical cues to prove it’s fictional. The camera-work is intrusive and intimate. Your point of view is trapped in the room, watching everything. In the film, your role is that of an observer; and in reality you’re an observer too, shifting in your seat as uneasily as the camera shifts round the scene. There is nothing physical to tell you this square of light in front of you isn’t a window – a weird periscope which starts in your house and finishes in an air-duct in the wall of a real room where real people are torn open with pliers. I may intellectually know that George Clooney isn’t really a CIA agent, and that this square of light means something different from the square of light in the wall through which I can see rowdy students get kicked in the stomach by angry taxi drivers in the early hours of the morning, but you have to agree it’s a fairly esoteric distinction.

But in a game, you have a constant feedback that this it isn’t real. In order for someone to get booted in the nuts, you have to press the boot-in-nuts button, and the very act of doing that proves that this isn’t real. The screen may show you that’s what happening, but you know as a matter of physical, verifiable fact that it isn’t. You’re wearing slippers and drinking some coffee that’s gone a bit cold, not killing a man with your fists.

The real answer for the double standards, of course, is that after 50 years of TV we’ve accepted, as a society, that screen-violence doesn’t have a direct or decided effect on people’s behaviour. Whether that’s true or not, and whether or not the question of its insidious influence isn’t taken seriously enough is up for grabs, of course. But the collective decision was taken some years ago that that time I came home and found myself, unannounced, trapped in an MRI scanner inches away from the bursting, bleeding eye of a man being cooked alive by a psychotic lab technician who’d turned the whole thing up to 11 has done me no harm at all. Wouldn’t it be funny if, in another 50 years, we realised it was game violence that was the safe stuff?