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   virtual auto mayhem
Sunday, July 10 2005
I try to stay productive and not piss away the precious finite hours of my life. This keeps me from watching too many movies or too much teevee, although sometimes I just need to kick back and be entertained. So today I found myself doing something you have rarely heard me write about: I was actually playing a video game.
Now just because I played almost no videogames in the last ten years doesn't mean I've never gone through game phases. In the early 1990s, after I got my first Macintosh, videogames comprised a large percentage of what I did with it. There was no internet in those days and there weren't many things you could do with a computer for hours on end except play games. I became something of a Tetris champion and then moved on to other puzzle-type games, since virtual reality wasn't too impressive on a black and white Macintosh running at 8 MHz.
When I graduated to a 20 MHz color Mac in 1992, I was able to play more visually engaging games, including some that took a stab at virtual reality. These included Prince of Persia (a gory maze game) and Spectre (a tank battle with an intriguing network mode in which you could play against friends, assuming you had any, on a LAN).
All the hype about supposed pornographic content in the latest incarnation of the legendary Grand Theft Auto had me doing what I'm sure a lot of people alerted to this tragedy did: looking in the P2Piverse for a copy. I didn't get working version of this new version, but I did the second newest version, "Vice City." I haven't played virtual reality games since the early 90s, so I've missed out on all the technological progress made in the last 12 years. I'm sure it's not news to anyone reading this how astounding the physics are in GTA, but to me it was mind blowing. Here you are driving some arbitrary vehicle (maybe an ambulance, a Porsche, or even a municipal bus) down the streets of some city, careening into things and gradually sustaining damage in all the ways physics would predict. Your doors fly off, your windows are smashed, and innocent bystanders are run over and your tires leave red tracks of blood. There are few glitches here and there, but it's all astoundingly realistic, and, in its own sick way, hilarious, particularly because you can decide to do really fucked up things like roll back and forth over pedestrians just for the hell of it. They don't freak out like real people and don't flee at the first sign of trouble, and they linger on the scene long enough for you to squash them like bugs. And even if you're not in a car you can go around beating the hell out of people and taking their money. The intimacy of being a violent pedestrian is sometimes what you want out of the game as a counterpoint to the violence possible behind, say, the wheel of a bus. After playing the game for awhile I actually sort of wondered what was wrong with me that I would take such joy in wailing on people (including scantily-clad prostitutes). It's obvious the pedestrians weren't real, but my enjoyment of attacking them was. Yet, consider for a moment, what if they were somewhat real, what if the computer, via the internet, maintained complex histories about each individual pedestrian, and my involvement in their lives really extinguished something that took years to develop? Would I kill them with the same wild abandon? Somehow I suspect I wouldn't.
The sheer violence of the game was a factor in GTA's being dragged into the media as a prime exhibit during one of the many waves of simulated outrage at the ongoing decline of American culture. That GTA is once more being decried, and decried as never before, simply for the inclusion of sex throws a spotlight on the foundational flaw of our culture. Violence has always been tolerable, even "for the children" but sex is beyond the pale. Yeah whatever. I think we'd be raising a much healthier crop of teenagers if there were more virtual reality games in which sex is the means to the end instead of violence.

I've been listening to the British band Placebo for the past few days, having been introduced to them with the song "20 Years" on one of my internet radio stations. The singer's voice gives me fond nostalgic memories of those nasal late-70s adult contemporary bands (Al Stewart for example) though the instrumental parts are typical modern rock, with their dark dirgey hints of metal and goth. Like AC/DC, they're a band that wrote one great song and then cloned it into a forest of similar-sounding numbers. The lyrics are replete with reference to hedonistic excess by way of heterosexist bravado, but somehow it usually avoids the trite of NuMetal and often comes with delightful wordplay. It's a good kind of mindfuck to hear the anachronistic voice of their vocalist singing "A friend in need's a friend indeed/A friend with weed is better," as in the song "Pure Morning." Based on some of their lyrics and their website, I'm sure the band thinks its a lot hotter and more mysterious than it really is, but at least they gave me something new to listen to for a day.

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