What Quentin Tarantino can teach us about how to handle the “violence in games” debate
There has been an ongoing debate about whether representatives from the video game industry should meet with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss things like gun control and America's culture of violence. There are points to be made on both sides, and I don't want to wade into the debate, but what I find so demeaning about the whole thing is that we're talking about trade groups and industry organizations who will speak about this broad thing called “video games,” as if the industry was a monolithic entity that simply produced content, as if it were making pants. The implicit idea is that all video games are the same, that they're contributing to an unwanted part of America's cultural identity, and someone, somewhere has to answer for them. It's both reductive and dismissive to talk about an entire art form as if it were only made up of first-person shooters, or infantile representations of sex and violence. There is an ongoing lack of understanding and respect for what video games are, what they excel at as an art form, and what they do for the people who play them. The problem is that no one has been willing to stand up and reject the narrative that's become so prevalent in the mainstream news and political discourse when it comes to all content, much less video games. Until Quentin Tarantino came along.
This will make sense, I promise
I'd like for you to watch this fascinating interview, where the director refuses to accept blame or responsibility for anything outside of the movie he created. When asked why he makes violent films, he brings up the fact that question is much more loaded than asking Judd Apatow why he makes funny movies. It goes on from there, and it gets obnoxious in places, but the overall argument is amazingly sound. He's said his piece on violence, and the violence in his films, he's not interested in revisiting the conversation due to events that have nothing to do with his film, and that's that.It's fascinating to see an artist simply refuse to engage the question of popular culture's responsibility in terms of showing and profiting from violence. He made a film, which is by all accounts a very good film, and it's violent, and entertaining, and that's it. He doesn't have to engage into a long conversation about the whys and whats as an artist. He removes himself from the equation, and shuts down the interviewer trying to make a link between two things that may or may not exist. The way he makes the argument for not answering the questions is childish, but his stance is remarkably mature: I've spoken about this before, I don't need to again. “No, I don't have any responsibility to you to explain anything I don't want to,” he says, and it's an amazing statement. You're allowed to just create a work of art, and allow it to speak for itself. You're allowed to use violent imagery in order to further your artistic pursuits without jumping into a larger conversation about what it all means. Films, and video games, are an artistic medium. Why the hell do we feel like our go-to stance is defense when someone doesn't enjoy a film or game? That's fine. We don't have to convince them. You're allowed to simply create. In some ways Tarantino is being exploited in this interview in a more insidious way than his film exploits violence. He's spoken on the issue numerous times. His movies are enjoyed by millions. The interviewer simply wants the director to repeat well-worn arguments about art for this particular program in order to create a larger narrative about culture and violence that Tarantino isn't interested in participating in. Tarantino may have been playing with racial politics when he claimed the interviewer isn't his master and he won't dance, but the fact remains the interviewer expected him to dance.
“They have nothing to do with each other”
Listen to this interview with Terry Gross, where she brings up whether there are times working in violent media isn't enjoyable, due to external events. “Not for me,” he says simply. He brings up how he felt “after the tragedy,” referring to the Sandy Hook shooting. The conversation begins around 20 minutes into the interview. “Do you mean on that day would I watch The Wild Bunch? Maybe not on that day. Would I watch a Kung-Fu movie three days after the Sandy Hook massacre… maybe, because they have nothing to do with each other.” He admits to being annoyed at the question. He goes so far to say that the conversation is disrespectful. “Obviously the issue is gun control and mental health,” he says. That's it. It's a simple, real-world response, which is not what interviewers are interested in. They want the show, and they want Tarantino to answer for his work, to justify it. To place it neatly in a box. Here's the amazing thing about being an artist: You don't have to answer for the work. You can allow it to speak for itself. I don't find the idea of speaking to the government or the media about games and the violence in them to be repugnant, what I reject is the attitude that after every tragedy we need to haul video games up in front of someone and have them justify their own existence, or to make the case for themselves. That's what's disgusting; the idea that the only time we talk about these things is in the wake of death. That we ask certain art forms to answer for real world events. I'm offended by the idea that the M-rated game the worried-looking news anchor holds up for the camera represents an entire industry that is filled with talented individuals making vibrant, unique experiences. I've always said that we need to talk about violent games, but that's a conversation I trust to take place between the artists who make them and the people who pay for them. It should take place between parents and their children. I believe retailers should make reasonable efforts to not sell adult material to children. I also believe we have nothing to be ashamed of as an art form. The next time an individual picks up a firearm, commits an act of violence, and returns the country to a state of questioning and causes a politician with a thundering voice to point his finger at the video game industry and demands us to explain ourselves, I hope we look up with a unified face, and with a firm voice say a simple, powerful word: No.