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Or Are You Just Pleased To See Me

By J.C.Herz

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 Generation.

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 Girls…)

I mean, let’s not forget what these videogame characters really are.

They’re packaging.

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 created.

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 actors.

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 her identity).

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 <[email protected]>

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