Friday, July 15, 2005

Virtual misdeeds and nonvirtual deaths

I meant to comment on this Los Angeles Times article weeks ago, when Organic Matter first brought it to my attention. In March, when I first learned of John Lockwood's online business venture, I wrote "Hunting JFK." Fortunately, LA Times journalist Nancy Vogel wrote an informative piece entitled, "Online Hunting Firm Is Now The Quarry."

Lockwood's ingenuity, if you want to call it that, allows, say, an obese, potato-chip eating kid in New York City to "virtually hunt" online. With a click of his mouse, this sedentary urbanite can kill a real animal in Texas. This assumes that the kid in question is a responsible individual. He or she could just as easily opt to "kneecap" the deer, much as an adolescent gamer might "jack" a cop car or beat a prostitute to death in "Grand Theft Auto." After all, there are no consequences in the "real world" when you flaunt Mosaic Law in the virtual world.

But Lockwood has created something far more sinister than "Grand Theft Auto." "GTA" is merely a video game that encourages licentious behavior. Lockwood's "game," on the other hand, is real life-and-death. The knowledge that the "virtual hunter" is remotely firing an actual bullet at a living creature might actually increase the twisted delight some gamers feel when doing something terrible in the virtual world.

I used to love video games and, in virtual worlds, my avatars regularly engaged in unethical behavior. Playing the "Ultima" series, for example, I often resorted to thievery to keep my bag o' gold full and my armor strong. In the "Civilization" series I frequently made international treaties only to buy time enough to position my navy and army units. Once ready, I would stage simultaneous attacks on allied cities, wiping out their culture, burning down their churches and stealing all their science advancements. Most recently, playing "Fable," my character preyed on innocents who seemed (to me) corrupt in some way, not unlike Kevin Spacey's serial killer in the movie "Seven."

All of these virtual misdeeds do have a negative effect on the "real world" me, whether I like to admit it or not. "Oh, it's only fun and games," gamers say with a smile, but such immoral role-playing is more "real" than we realize. Part of the appeal of creating a "bad" character in a video or role-playing game is the knowledge that such actions are unacceptable in this world. You are acting out, but doing so via 1s and 0s rather than glocks and nuclear launches. What happens, then, when you combine the two worlds?

In "Hunting JFK," I wrote:
"Murder, even for our soldiers in Iraq, is becoming an abstraction. From fist to blade, blade to spear, spear to arrow, arrow to bullet, bullet to...what? How can you describe a system whereby the man-boy assassinating JFK on the computer screen might as well be gunning down Iraqis with a SWORDS [unit] or knocking off a big buck on a Texas game farm? For that matter, is not the murder of the pixel proxy similar to the pricking of a voodoo doll? A clear association is made by the gamer; the digitized image on the screen - your quarry - represents a flesh-and-blood human. When you pull the plastic trigger and assassinate JFK, that's that. You can turn off the gaming console and hit the sack. No police will show up at your door. No posttraumatic stress disorder will accompany your return to civilian life. No bang. Just a click.

The disconnect between animal and meat on the plate is but part of the problem; with every passing month, the disconnect between hand and killing becomes more ingrained in our culture and, as I see it, such a trend does not bode well for empathy. With less empathy in the world, abstraction of the 'other,' already a natural inclination, becomes that much more easy. This leads, of course, to more violence."
The concerns I described in that post are deserving of rumination, but there is a more immediate problem with Lockwood's scheme, though it can easily be extended to all "ranch hunt" scenarios, virtual or otherwise. Lockwood tells Vogel that, "The only difference between an Internet customer and one who visits the ranch to that the electronic customers can't walk the land and their view is limited to a narrow camera viewfinder." As I see it, this ignores the most essential difference; the individual is "hunting" for thrill rather than food. Of course, I am giving too much credit to any yahoo who would opt to hunt on a "real world" Texas "game farm," but as I see it, hunting is about the relationship between the animal, the killer and the exchange of energy that comes from eating a creature you took the life of. Predation should be a humbling experience for humans, not a cause for high fives or triumphant photo shoots.

Lockwood is quick to defend his arrangement, pointing out that "meat processing" is available. Theoretically, you can use your mouse to kill an animal and have the meat shipped to you in clean, plastic-wrapped containers. In fact, Lockwood says "he has received inquiries from soldiers in Iraq and Spain, including one who said he was less interested in hunting than in getting meat to his family." Oh, really? Unless this soldier shares my dietary restrictions, I don't see why he couldn't use the money he would spend on the "virtual hunt" to buy his family some dinner.

Anyway, rather than my rambling on about this infuriating subject, I recommend linking over to the Vogel piece and reading about Dale Hagberg's experience. Lockwood uses Hagberg's case to justify the business. For me, Hagberg's ecxperience is absurd and sad. In fact, the picture painted is a thorough condemnation of our base desires. Hell, if Hagberg and Lockwood were characters in "Fable," I'd behead them and steal their money.

Photo credit: screenshot from "Fable" courtesy; John Lockwood photograph, Jack Plunkett /AFP/Getty Image

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