Friday, December 21, 2007

Once again, I harness the powers of public humiliation in order to finish* an article.

Graffiti is a very serious crime. More serious than armed robbery. More serious than murder. More serious than biting the heads off baby chickens.

Well, perhaps not in real life, but in my world it is.

In your world, elected politicians, judges and courts determine and determine the rules of crime and punishment. The system has at least a thin veneer of democracy. In my world, however, the world of "interactive entertainment", it is large corporations and state bureaucracies who judge criminals and prosecute crimes - crimes that take place within videogames

In 2006, the game Mark Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure was banned for sale in Australia classification by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification. The reason given was that the game featured and encouraged the illegal act of graffiti.

It really is difficult to follow the moral logic behind the banning of this game. Perhaps where we once feared for an entire generation of children growing up de-sensitised to violence (a wholly unproven yet nevertheless fascinating theory) we now face the terrifying prospect of children becoming desensitized to…graffiti.

The amount of property damage caused within Mark Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure is outrageous. After only a few hours of play you practically find yourself having to unscrew the back of your XBOX360 and start scrubbing away at the insides with paint-stripper.

Or perhaps the mere combination of these two great social ills – graffiti and gaming – is enough to incite whole new levels of censorious hysteria. A lethal cocktail of gaming and graf.

But how radical and anti-establishment is this combination, really? Radical doesn’t look so radical when a major entertainment corporation and a mainstream fashion label starts sponsoring and cheerleading your rebellion. The marketing spin is that games like this (and there have actually been plenty of games featuring the act of graffiti in gameplay) celebrate and legimitise graffiti as an art form. But I wonder if these terms are just euphemisms for “coopt and sanitize”. Graffiti in games and fashion could be like what punk was in the 90s: a style lingering long after the substance has evaporated.

Sega's Jet Grind Radio on the Dreamcast. Zooming around on rollerblades spraying walls to defeat the oppressive and corrupt government of futuristic city Tokyo-to.

It probably means a lot of different things to different people, but to me (as the friend who helps carry paint and looks out for cops, rather than actually doing the business) the soul of this street art form is in its blunt challenge to the sanctity of private property, and its unapologetic sense of entitlement to public expression. It is a hand-crafted, personal gesture that cuts across the soulless, slick fonts and computer-aided, mass-produced imagery that dominates public space. But once it’s been mass produced and sold to me by a big corporation in a conveniently sized box to be enjoyed within the comfort of my living room, I’m not so sure what it means anymore.

If only game development could be more like graffiti art. Within the urban landscape of a city like Melbourne it’s not too hard to go out and find a space to take control of for a while and make it your canvas. And as a mode of distribution for ideas, it’s pretty simple and effective. In the game industry, on the other hand, the biggest canvases – Playstation, XBOX, Wii, DS – are owned and controlled by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. You need permission to write on their walls. Your unapproved work could potentially damage their (intellectual) property, so they make sure it’s far from easy for you to create and distribute outside of their control.

Within game environments themselves, what may superficially like public, community space – for example a persistent world within a massively mulitiplayer online game such as the World of Warcraft, or even a fairly open virtual community like Second Life – is not at all genuine public space. It’s privately owned and policed by corporations. Within games, the actions of players are naturally constrained within hard-coded rules. And the rulers of these communities may often be benign dictators, but they are dictators nevertheless.

As citizens of online gaming environments our right to freedom of expression is token at best. While protests and demonstrations are held from time to time to send a message to the powers that be, but you could say the same of countries run by military dictatorships, such as Burma.

One great example of game space disruption was actually based on the use of in-game graffiti. In 2002, a group of artists initiated an artistic and political game intervention they called Velvet Strike. They provided people with anti-militarist graffiti designs and encouraging them to invade Counter-Strike game servers simply to spray these designs around the environment during gameplay. While this was mildly disruptive to the games themselves, it didn't break the rules, so the artists couldn’t be banned from the game servers.


But graffiti in real world space pretty much always breaks the rules. Out there on real walls it's still a very much an illegal, powerful act. May it continue to be so. May graffiti forever challenge corporate property, not become corporate property.



* "oh to sleep, perchance to dream!"

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2 Comments:

At 2:48 am, Anonymous Fi_B said...

I had a great conversation with a cop on Sat arvo about graffiti. He had just been out on a search warrant at some posh house in Twickenham for graffiti items. The kids he busted had been left alone by their wealthy parents who were travelling around the world, blissfully unaware of their little angels actions. The girl apparently didn't want the cops to go into her bedroom because the floor was covered with her crusty undies along with other charming paraphenalia...And in the games world...will someone ever stencil the white-washed wall of your rented Victorian house with Johnny Cash, just two weeks before he dies...It happened to my housemate who was doing a documentary on graffiti and street art at the time, immersing himself in the culture which was the subject of his film...so much so that he had his girlfriend, who was an interior designer and working in a tile shop, using her tiling knives to cut out stencils for him in the middle of the night...How does the games world, owned by corporations, put their own stamp on this? And will they ever get people riding the top decks of London buses just to admire the art, as is the case with Banksy's works around East London????

 
At 2:59 am, Anonymous Fi_B said...

Furthermore, graffiti in games will never catch the imperfections; the running paint from the spray cans, the lame tags, the unskilled hand hastily spraying at an impossible angle before being caught by the cops or hit by a train..as you say, graffiti in games is a 'style'. A decoration, and it might as well be flowers drawn in pastels

 

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