Ferguson police 2

A few nights ago at the movies I saw a trailer for the last installment of The Hobbit, and caught a brief glimpse of a scene in which someone is driving a cart — pulled by mountain goats? Were those mountain goats?? — along a frozen river, sliding around and knocking into rocky walls. Oh right, I thought, that’s like the glacier track from Cro-Mag Rally.

It’s probably like many other video games as well — I don’t play many, so I couldn’t tell you — but I noted it as a reminder of the extent to which Peter Jackson’s once-excellent filmmaking instincts have been subjugated by video-game aesthetics. I say that as someone who doesn’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with video-game aesthetics, in video games; but movies are a different animal and need to be treated differently.

I’m being imprecise, though, and should take more care. What I’ve been calling “video-game aesthetics” is really drawn from a subset of games, primarily side-scrolling games (think of the hobbits running through the caverns of the goblins in the first installment of the series) and first- and third-person shooters. These are appropriate visual styles for certain kinds of game, but I think generally constrain and cartoonify the visuality of cinema.

But because those games are so popular and (especially the shooters) are so utterly central to the experience of above all males under forty, we should probably spend more time than we do thinking about how immersion in those visual worlds shapes people’s everyday phenomenology. We do talk about this, but in limited ways, primarily in order to ask whether playing violent games makes people more violent. That’s a key question, but it needs to be broadened. Ian Bogost wants us to ask what it’s like to be a thing, but maybe we need also to ask: What is it like to be a shooter? What is it like to have your spatial, visual orientation to the world shaped by thousands of hours in shooter mode?

I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces — the “warrior cops” that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about. Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances — but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games. Consider all the forest-colored camouflage, for instance:

AP/Jeff Roberson

It’s a color scheme that is completely useless on city streets — and indeed in any other environment in which any of these cops will ever work. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay. It’s as close as they can come to Modern Warfare 3:

2058078 call of duty modern warfare 3 xbox 360 1318517434 024

The whole display would be ludicrous — boys with toys — except the ammunition is real. The guns are loaded, even if some of them have only rubber bullets, and the tear gas truly burns. And so play-acted immersion in a dystopian future gradually yields a dystopian present.

What is is like to be a first-person shooter? It’s awesome, dude.


  1. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay.

    Someday, Alan, I aspire to be half as pithy and wisely observant as you. This is sharp, even fierce, but also a dead-on match for what so many are seeing and feeling. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Russell, for the kind words and for the link. I'm not on Facebook so I can't see Tim's full comments, but I agree 100% with the passage you quote. The nasty racial politics here are absolutely central — certainly more central than what I am describing in this post — and are rarely and insufficiently confronted.

    But that's a larger-scale analysis than the one I am offering here, which only concerns one small aspect of the modern American policeman's self-performance. What I say doesn't rival Tim's point or diminish it. I'd say that it complements it.

  3. Great observations. As I watched the movie Edge of Tomorrow, it was hard to think about it without making the video game comparison: die, start over, keep trying until the big boss is defeated.

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