Just for a moment, while Britain nurses its raging crush on Lara
Croft, let us remember that an entire nation of teenage boys trundles home
from school every day and assumes the persona of a leggy female commando
with cleavage to die for. Yes, it’s true that a well-engineered marketing
campaign can make anything seem de rigeur. But this is pretty radical. Or
so the postmodern theorists would have us believe. A number of French
literary critics are currently frothing about the ability of gangly,
testosterone-driven adolescents to morph into the entire cast of Mortal
Kombat 3. In the context of a fighting game, you can play anything from a
sumo wrestler to a Japanese schoolgirl whose dainty limbs belie her
formidable kung fu skills.
Walk into any arcade and you’ll see monster arcade cabinets
featuring a panoply of virtual gladiators in all shapes and sizes and a
rainbow of colors. And the teenagers in front of these machines will
blithely select from this cartoon smorgasbord without regard to race or
gender, discriminating solely on the basis of signature combat moves.
They’re doing it in North America and Western Europe and Japan. And
they’re doing it in Mexico and Russia and Taiwan. And this is supposed to
represent some kind of pluralistic global post-ethnic high-tech youth
culture. Hooray, three cheers for the 21st century. Here’s to the Net
And yeah, videogames rock.
And sure, the characters are great. They’re beautiful and fast and
graceful, and they capture the imagination. Without a doubt, they’re
fabulously designed, and design is tremendously important – especially in
(cough cough), Cool Britannia. But breathtaking design also happens to be
a very sharp and versatile tool in the hands of major corporations. Style
is distractive. It’s a good way to make consumers think of a mundane
commercial transaction as something bold and rebellious (paging the Spice
I mean, let’s not forget what these videogame characters really
Lara Croft, for instance, is a very pretty package designed to
sell software. Guess what? It works. Not only do people buy thousands of
copies of Tomb Raider 2, but they also get a warm tingly feeling about the
Playstation. Lara becomes the face of a large multinational corporation
based in Tokyo, and we’re all really psyched about her – and about Sony.
Who knows, maybe if Bill Gates looked more like Lara Croft he
wouldn’t have so many problems with the Justice Department. When someone
mentioned Microsoft, you wouldn’t imagine some evil nerd at the helm of an
expansionist empire. You’d picture a fabulous babe blazing her way into
the digital future, squashing her craven opponents under the heel of one
stilettoed boot. Bill Gates should jump the first plane to Sweden,
because even he can’t buy that kind of public approval. Lest we forget,
Lara Croft was splashed across the cover of The Face last summer, which
amounts to a free full-page ad for Sony. Not that anyone would perceive it
as such. Therein lies the beauty.
One could argue that Hollywood has been doing this for decades,
and in a sense it’s true. We’re back to the 1930’s star system, where
stars were properties and a studio would control every aspect of a
celebrity’s persona, from speaking parts to personal grooming. Studios
created the idols, and the idols sold movie tickets. The system worked
fairly well, until it was shattered by the glittering monsters it had
Fast forward fifty years. The stars are fully emancipated. Jim
Carey gets $20 million per picture, Drew Barrymore pouts in her trailer,
and the studios are loathe to repeat their mistakes in the brave new world
of interactive media. Solution? Digital celebrities. You create the idols,
except this time you do it from whole cloth, from the toes up. Skeleton.
Hair color. Skin. The way they talk. The way they move. And this time, the
stars really are properties They don’t wreck hotel rooms, overdose on
drugs, or join the Church of Scientology. They’re always available for new
projects, and they have no aspirations to direct. They’re 100% compliant,
and the public drools over them as if they were real live vapid Hollywood
Essentially, the videogame studios have found a way to harness the
power of celebrity, minus the headaches. They’ve managed to completely
commodify stardom. Which of course means lots of licensing and leveraging
and brand extension and everything else that MBA larvae are taught in
Information Economics 101. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Isn’t Lara great? Isn’t Sonic great? Aren’t the new characters in Virtual
Fighter 3 just super-cool?
The answer is definitively yes. But let’s not get carried away
here. It’s packaging. It’s wrapping paper. And it can be used to wrap
anything – computer software, albums, high-concept movies, and all kinds
of merchandise, not to mention people. Because that’s what you’re really
doing when you assume any sort of virtual identity online. You wrap it
around your mind (which pretty much explains why those teenage boys are
panting for a copy of Tomb Raider 2 – they want to spend as much time as
possible under Lara’s computer-generated skin, even if it means assuming
A videogame character is the impermeable, infinitely thin membrane
that lets you swim in the digital world. It’s your submersible in this
trippy virtual ocean. It’s your skin. And since it’s all made of ones and
zeroes, it’s easily tailored. Whatever your preferred shape, size, color,
or species, there is a digital character to suit you – or will be, if
market research has anything to do with it. Hence the menagerie of martial
arts contestants on arcade machines and store shelves everywhere. It’s
like breakfast cereal. People like variety. People like novelty.
People also like exoticism, which is why so many Apache braves,
Cossack marauders, and Himalayan mercenaries are romping across the
screen. Videogames are packed with highly pigmented foreigners, mixed in
with the demons and mutants and other kinds of aliens. And a player
feeding the machine doesn’t know if people really look that way in the
Amazon or in Tibet. But the images generate a sense of excitement and
adventure. And that’s part of the design brief. Encounter strange-looking
people, explore colorful new worlds. It’s the digital, animated version of
a nineteenth century diorama, with models of far-flung people in native
dress. And again, the people consuming these images are the ones who are
“advanced,” in this case technologically advanced.
Sure, it’s great that kids who speak different languages can play
the same videogames. There may be some cross-cultural bridges built, but
only between the cultures that can afford Sony Playstations. The rest are
just tapped for cheap labor to assemble the hardware and for visuals. A
rainbow of skin tones notwithstanding, videogames are multicultural to the
depth of one pixel. Under the skin, all of the characters are uniform,
proprietary code – exquisite simulations created under the auspices of a
large corporation, not unlike the replicants in Blade Runner. And they’re
so real and so gorgeous that when you tear off the skin and see the
machinery, it kind of breaks your heart. Sorry.
None of this, by the way, makes Lara Croft any less magnificent.
It only makes her slightly less attractive as a love interest.
Copyright © J.C.Herz 1998
J. C. Herz is the author of Surfing on the Internet and Joystick Nation.
She has written for Playboy, GQ, Rolling Stone, Wired, and the Miami Herald,
and has been profiled in People and the New York Times. J.C.Herz can be
emailed at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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