58: Red Storm Writing

"The practice is called 'ghost writing, and it has been around as long, one supposes, as famous writers have had more money than time. Clancy, the man, has become a brand, and Clancy, the brand, has put more books in the hands of more travelers than perhaps even the Gideons." Russ Pitts speaks to the ghost writers of Red Storm in "Red Storm Writing."

Red Storm Writing

I enjoy most of the Tom Clancy games, but I sometimes feel that these games are a bit unethical. Like a war movie, these games carry political messages about real world events and factions. They ask you to identify with the heroes (Ding Chavez from Rainbow Six or Sam Fisher from Splinter Cell), their work, and their cause. They also exploit national fears towards foreign nations. I remember there used to be "Death Wish" films, which were made to exploit people's fear of urban gang violence (urban gangs being foreign to middle class surburbians). Are the Tom Clancy games really that different from the Death Wish films?

I certainly don't think films like "Top Gun" or "Red Dawn" were the best reactions to the Cold War, for example. If people are crying out for war, is it really ethical to fuel those emotions? The final Star Wars film took flak for making political messages, but at least it's a very fictional universe. Top Gun, Red Dawn, and the Tom Clancy video games are all set in their respective time periods, in the real world. The writer in the Escapist's article even says that he starts each day following current events. Isn't it just a bit unethical to use the fresh corpses of war dead to make a video game with? I mean, these people are literally getting killed a few days before this Clancy ghost writer guy is putting their situation into a game... for entertainment.. o_O Imagine if someone made a video game about 9/11 a month after the event. There'd be a huge ruckus. Remember when JFK Reloaded came out, the game that let you kill Kennedy? Big uproar there, too. For some reason we're happy to play games about foreign tragedies, but not ones about our own.

This all goes for the other route, too. In the Japanese animated series "Gundam" (which has dozens of games based on it), its young viewers are asked to identify with the anti-war messages of the protagonists. At least here, the factions are all fictional and allegorical. No nation is singled out as an enemy of the future..

To me, it's wrong to fictionalise the real world for the sake of entertainment. History should be history. To dramatise historical events is always to take liberties with the truth, so that things can be more entertaining, more biased. I feel like our culture has enough of a "infotainment" industry, and that this stuff isn't really helping things. History should be analysed in a classroom or a book, discussed with the community. Not something you eat popcorn with or hear orchestral scores to...

So yea.. I really don't think games or movies or TV shows should be entering the "Culture Wars". They should try to stay out of it as much as possible anyway. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_wars ). And the Clancy games definately seem like they're actively playing a role in the "Culture Wars". They're proud of it, even. Which just ain't right..

I disagree with that sentiment: I think that, in fact, there are only two things that can be unethical about the creation (not the distribution, just the creation) of fiction: plagiarism, and limiting the scope for the sake of ethical concerns.

All stories gain ntheir power through symbolism. Without that it's just a dry (if entertainingly written) list of events with no real relevance to anything. Add symbols to a story and the story becomes better. Better still if the symbols make any damn sense. A story has the potential to be extremely powerful if the symbols are taken directly from things that the reader is already familiar with - which means real countries, real technologies. And this is a good thing. You can bet your ass that most people react more strongly to "The United States of America" than to "Gondor." A good writer knows how to take advantage of this fact, when appropriate.

Realistic fiction is, more to the point, an effective means whereby the people can explore the issues of the day (or of the past), come to terms with them, and become familiar with the arguments and implications of any given position. Just because it's not read in a classroom doesn't make it any less valuable. Ideas presented in an intellectual sphere are solemn, severe, intimidating ideas; expressing them through fiction makes the ideas light, and it makes them easier to swallow (and I say, the world is tough enough to follow that it's plain cruel to not let people have their oversimplifications, entertaining trivializations, their catharsis and their straw men). The only real difference between this and any number of hypothetical suppositions made constantly in political and historical spheres is that in these fictions, more often than not, you get a fully developed character and a complete narrative in them. Which, really, makes them less politically driven than your average textbook. A textbook is based on the idea - and make no mistake, this is an idea that is politically relevant and even politically charged - that knowledge should be increased. A novel is not based on this idea. Maybe it advocates something else - but unlike a textbook, it is fiction.

All fiction takes place in the real world, with just a few changes made to it. In fantasy, there are lots of changes. In a military thriller, there's almost none at all. Some differences that a Clancy novel make are inventing the characters and the situations. All fiction - simply by choosing which parts to omit or which parts to leave in - makes a statement about the world. All fiction fictionalizes the real world. Where do you draw the line for what level of abstraction is "ethical" and does not excessively trivialize real issues? And for that matter, what makes it so wrong to trivialize the real world in the first place? Because it would cause controversy? Well, how many people have to be offended before it's called a controversy? I guarantee that at some point in human development there existed, or will exist, an entire nation that could be driven to outrage by, say, Star Trek or Super Mario Bros. In my opinion we should embrace writers bold enough to make an overt statement, rather than hiding them beneath layers of symbolism.

I'm not going to tell you not to read/play/watch them if they bother you that much, because that's not what you're talking about. I am going to remind you that reading fiction does not imply identifying with its message or protagonist. I am also going to tell you that it's plain absurd to expect all fiction to be fantastic.

Certainly you're not saying that Rambo is just as ethical as Schindler's List? Or that Top Gun is just as ethical as Syriana? Munich? Ethical issues in realistic movies is a big deal. And it should be a big deal in video games, too. I find all of the movies I just mentioned to be unethical on many levels, but I mention "Rambo" and "Top Gun" specifically because those two films are what Tom Clancy games most closely resemble. Was Star Wars more ethical than Rambo? Absolutely. Is Deus Ex more ethical than a Clancy game? No doubt.

It sounds as if I could murder your loved ones tomorrow, and then make a video game about it the next week, and you wouldn't have a problem with that. If you do, why would you have a problem with it? Maybe your loved ones deserved to be murdered and people wanted to partake in that experience. Or perhaps I murdered them in an especially grisly way, that was so grisly that billions of people heard about it and were fascinated by such evil. These billions could then, possibly, want to simulate the experience of my murdering your loved ones. So bada boom... "The Murder of Bongo Bill's Family: The Video Game".

That is precisely what is going on with these Tom Clancy games. People are being murdered, and entertainment is being made about those murders in the next few months. There's even an online war game called "Kuma War" which turns war deaths into gameplay missions within the same month. That is insane.

I still fail to see how fiction can be unethical at all. You're not establishing this at all, just trying to get me to associate "Fiction about unethical things" with "Unethical fiction" by using them in close proximity with emotionally powerful imagery. This is no way to conduct a debate at all.


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