I wonder if Northrop Frye played video games. It’s true that it’s difficult to imagine the doyen of North American literary criticism with his pouchy features shivering over the levers while the reflected white-line paddles of Pong tracked up and down his spectacle lenses; yet when it – the first true video game – hit the arcades, Frye was just sixty. Such was his longevity that before he died in 1991 he could have run through all the major platform games – Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros – and if he’d just taken a little better care of himself, and hung onto life a couple more years, his fingers might have twitched the course of Doomguy through the military base on Phobos, and manipulated him into killing the demons from Hell. I suspect Frye would have been more at home with Doom than with Pong. Doom was, after all, the first video game that featured immersive graphics, allowed for multiplayer gaming, and introduced the psychopathology of the first-person shooter to virtual reality.
Observing the garish vortices of debris, the laser gun flashes of his Doomguy persona and the ruptured torsos of slain and horned demons, Frye, I feel reasonably certain, would have felt that here was all the confirmation needed of his view that a true – and scientific – literary criticism should give rise to a typology of form and its mythic underpinnings. Video games, with their large resident population of evil archetypes, are ready made for Frye’s centripetal analysis, rather than a centrifugal one that might splatter their content onto the wider world of class, gender or ethnic particularism. It helps that the gamer’s proxy is always on a quest – for money, gold, any token that may have valuta if not intrinsic value. The numbers it’s necessary to lay waste to en route to these trinkets inflate according to the classification of the game, as do their character – poisonous spiders, hellhounds, Nazi zombies – and the graphic nature of their dispatch. Many games include as standard the ability to increase levels of blood-spatter and the volume of curdling cries, although if you want to incorporate simulated child-killing it will be necessary to download a pirate modification (or mod).
That I even know this can be done I owe to the good offices of my 15-year-old son, who has been an enthusiastic gamer for some years now. Every so often he’ll offer up these reports from the wilder shores of virtuality, in order, I think, to send me a message of reassurance: see what sick shit there is out there, obviously I wouldn’t tell you about it if I was actually doing it. In the same spirit he’ll retail some of the viler dialogue uttered by terminally arrested forty-year-olds slumped on couches from Seoul to Saskatchewan, but united by the glorious simultaneity of the multiplayer mode. That I am reassured is probably more a function of complaisance than complacency: it grinds you down, the rearing of boys, and in the end you just throw your hands up and take cover from the relentless fusillades of testosterone. With my three sons spread out over 11 years I’ve had a long time to get used to their professions of violence. I think the breaking point came when I found myself in the National Army Museum in Chelsea, for what felt like the thousandth time, yet again standing in front of the scale model of the Battle of Mons, and yet again futilely explaining to one of the little francs-tireurs that while war might look like a glorious thing, there was nothing remotely uplifting about the impact of .50 calibre machine-gun rounds on human flesh.
My eldest son had his time with video games: he bashed through many Mortal Kombats, and wheeled about the sandbox of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto III, but I never felt it really bit with him. He channelled his violent impulses through more traditional media, developing an all-consuming obsession with Martin Scorsese’s mafia movies, to the extent that when people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he’d say ‘a made guy’. Being the reconstructed man I am, I eventually took him on a monitory tour of Sicily that included plenty of famous hit sites and a walk through the sepulchral town of Corleone, followed in quick succession by the Palermo catacombs. I like to think that this thanatos aversion therapy did its job – but I’m probably kidding myself, and he simply grew out of the whole killing-is-cool thing.
With his younger brother it’s different. Allowed free rein – which he pretty much is – he retreats to what he calls his ‘man cave’, and there, confronted by the cyclopean stare of the video monitor, he does his killing. Taking the Northrop Frye line, I’ve always been happiest about this when the kill zone is decked out in the furniture of established Nordic folklore – dragons, frost giants, axe-wielding berserkers etc – rather than the inchoate mythology beloved of the creators of that all-time gore-fest Call of Duty (or ‘cod’ as it’s disconcertingly known to its devotees). In fact, CoD: Black Ops and its prequel CoD: World at War take place in a disparate series of environments – Kazakhstan, Cuba, Stalingrad, Makin Island – but what really exposes the fervid hypocaust of the average gamer’s imagination is the mini-game embedded in Black Ops that’s based on the original Nazi zombies game, Castle Wolfenstein. For months, whenever I happened to pass the mouth of the man cave, he’d be in there – either alone or with friends – liquidating Nazi zombies. With implacable logic they’d all point out to me that given that these entities were both undead and fascists, there really wasn’t any cause for conscience when eliminating them. But my view was – and is – that even perpetrating the second death of a zombie diminishes the game-player, because it necessarily exposes him to all the grotesque nonsense the game’s writers have cooked up out of Third Reich horrors – the concentration camps, Mengele, the Mittelbau-Dora rocket factories and so forth – and then spiced with anachronistic steam punk conceits.
So I grew a lot happier when last November he abandoned the Nazi zombies and took up residence in the province of Skyrim on the continent of Tamriel, on the planet of Nirn, where he – or his avatar – was charged with the task of defeating the world-destroying dragon Alduin. If you were Paul Trout, the author of Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination, you’d have no difficulty in seeing Alduin as a zoomorph compounded of three of the most fearful predators of early Homo sapiens: the jaguar, the snake and the harpy eagle.According to Trout, we should look for the basis of our earliest mythologies in the experience not of being hunters, but of being hunted. As works of palaeoanthropology go, Deadly Powers is on a par with a slasher movie. Trout, with what seems suspiciously like relish, exhaustively details an array of flesh-ripping beasts and analyses the precise wounds their claws, talons and teeth can inflict; then he retails the myths of traditional peoples associated with them: ‘the Native American hero Szeukha kills a vicious man-devouring eagle, bringing back to life “all the people the great eagle had abducted and killed” … In Cree myth, “a huge blue bird” devoured people until it was killed.’ Trout’s thesis has a definite appeal – especially for those of us who are fed up with seeing Nazi zombies profligately slain in our living-rooms – because he displaces humans from our role as alpha predators, and relocates us considerably lower on the food chain. (Apropos of Nazi zombies themselves, it would be interesting to solicit Trout’s view. His inclination is to view anthropomorphs – like zoomorphs – as compounded of an assortment of ‘deadly powers’, the better to arouse our essential life-preserving reflexes. But as the denizens of the man cave would no doubt point out, Nazi zombies, while being ideologically reactionary, are slow-moving and stupid. I did earn considerable points from the denizens by observing that all the Nazi zombies are in fact Waffen SS officers, but where this fits in the greater – or, more pertinently, lesser – scheme of things I have no idea.)
Compared with the shattered industrial infrastructure that formed the backdrop to his Black Ops game play, the pinewood pixelscape of Skyrim seemed positively bucolic. Gone was the crazy yawing about of the adrenaline-fuelled first-person POV, and the crackling radio comms informing him of more homicide lurking round the next piece of warped corrugated iron. Although when first seen, girt in his ebony Daedric armour, my son’s character was beating a bogie-beast to death, there was still a refreshing lack of bloody splashback. (Apparently ‘gore packs’ are downloadable for the PC version of the game – but so are higher resolution graphics that bring definition to every blade of mythic grass.) It could be because the nomenclature of Skyrim – Aela the Huntress, Malacath, Yngvar and Windhelm – is triply derived (out of Norse sagas, by way of Tolkien and his film adapters) that the scenario seems so cosy. Even after my son’s proxy resurrected the bogie – ‘I do that a lot. I bring him back and then I punch him to death again’ – I still kept faith with the game, which also involves the reading of quite large chunks of runic text. I was right to, because eventually, once we had defeated various frost trolls and sex-changing lizard men, and reached Windhelm, it transpired that my son had built a gabled house in this Arctic community, and even acquired a wife. ‘My wife is a very nice lady,’ he told me, as a rather cowed-looking figure in a rough woollen dress shuffled about in the background. ‘She runs a store and gives me money every few days.’ ‘Oh, really,’ I said, desperate to clutch at these straws of domesticity. ‘And what’s your wife’s name?’ Without pausing in the ceaseless toggling of thumb-on-lever he said: ‘I don’t know.’
I suppose if my video-gaming period – which coincided with the UK launch of Space Invaders and my first term at Oxford – had occurred when I was a little younger, I too would have been more interested in beating bogie-beasts to death than in the names of potential mating partners. As it was, I spent many absorbing hours in the Kings Arms zapping the invaders to that iconic ‘lumpa-lumpa’ soundtrack, and then lost interest in the whole enterprise. The truth is that I was pretty crap at Space Invaders, and while I could just about eliminate the descending masonry-chompers, when I got on to the next level – and multicoloured asterisks began whistling out from the sides of the screen on random and oblique trajectories – I was done for. The narrative of Space Invaders, such as it is, does conform to Trout’s view of its mythic origins: vicious predators seek to destroy vulnerable people (or their proxies). On Trout’s analysis, other thinkers who’ve focused on the joys of the chase have utterly neglected the fears of being chased – fears that he believes went on being the prime experiential reality for proto-humans and then Homo sapiens for many millennia.
Bruce Chatwin put forward a similar thesis in The Songlines, inspired by the stratigraphy of the Sterkfontein Caves, but he wanted to loop back the predatory lope into his Grand Theory of Universal Ambulation. Trout, on the other hand, is absolutely fixated on human experience of predation as the selective pressure that led not only to mimesis – and hence narrative – but even to language itself. It follows that almost all subsequent human cultural manifestations – including, most obviously, religion – have bite marks in them. For Trout, what makes us us is that we were borne down on by them: the horrific mega-fauna – the sabre-toothed tiger, the dire wolf etc – that chewed their way through the Palaeolithic, the Neolithic more or less unto the present day, where their fossil remains are to be found in movies such as Jaws.
Trout concedes that exposure to some predator fictions can induce in some people an ‘affectless state’, but nonetheless maintains that they are valuable as a ‘cultural alarm system’, to remind us of the continuing potential lethality of our environment. He even gives the rather grotesque cri de coeur: ‘If only the victims of Ted Bundy, Ivan Milat or Frederick and Rose West had exercised the same survival instinct.’ Perhaps Trout isn’t cursed with sons the way I am – possibly he has three lovely smiley blonde daughters like Chris Patten, a once bullish Tory minister, who, or so I hypothesise, has gradually mellowed into BBC-ish liberalism thanks to the humanising effects of living ‘à l’ombre des jeunes filles’. For while Trout considers the essential passivity behind movie predator fictions, he doesn’t expend much analysis on the dominant narrative medium of our time, one in which far from being predated on, boys of all ages perpetrate serial killing (and spray shootings) on an unparalleled scale.
On any given day last year at our house you could have the slightly deranging experience of standing in the basement man cave watching Nazi zombies getting wasted, then walk up a flight to where a smaller killer was laying into blood elves and spring-jaw stalkers. World of Warcraft – despite its name – has none of the Hitleriana or queasy overlapping with real-time conflicts that make Call of Duty so disturbing, and the environment through which my ten-year-old’s avatar skips is even boskier than Skyrim an ochre and golden realm, with rocks, trees, waterfalls and the occasional giant stalk of animated celery. Nevertheless killing – and occasionally getting killed – is still the order of things. One day I saw the screen suddenly leached of colour. ‘I died,’ the smallest boy said matter of factly, ‘and now I’ve got to walk and get my body back.’ As he propelled his manikin through the now grey and disenchanted forest I asked him if he ever found the game disturbing. ‘Well,’ he conceded, ‘it can be quite a bit scary, but the graphics are so bad it doesn’t really matter.’ As nice a destruct job on the ontological status of the simulacrum as you’re likely to encounter.
Yet the fact remains that these players – unlike the poor infantrymen at the Battle of Mons – rarely encounter their own death, and if they do they’re speedily and electronically resurrected. Policing the conflict zone like some leisure time Ban Ki-moon, I’m probably just as ineffectual as the UN, what with my feeble admonitions to be mindful of the distinction between Nazi zombies and sentient beings. Because although it is just a game, and merely involves feats of eye-hand co-ordination measurable in millimetres rather than the application of brute homicidal force, when it comes to this kind of predation my boys are right at the apex of the food chain. The 15-year-old in particular excels at all gaming, and having outgrown the man cave last month has moved his command centre upstairs, from where he now directs operations from in front of a battery of VDUs that would put Nasa – c.1969, admittedly – to shame. He switches from game play to web searches for so-called ‘cheats’ with effortless fluidity. In terms of Trout’s universal theory of poiesis, the gamer’s free-ranging throughout cyberspace, gathering up what he needs to hunt down those troublesome and totalitarian undead, ought to be an adaptive activity. But my suspicion is that today’s sweaty-palmed togglers will be woefully unprepared if and when space invaders come lumpa-lumping down through the ceiling. A resurrected Northrop Frye would probably be quicker on the draw when it came to the real thing.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.