Saturday, September 04, 2004

Animator, 6 Feet, Shrinks from Discussion on TV Violence


By summer of 1993 [name deleted on advice of legal counsel, but it rhymes with "safari"] Games, the folks that started the electronic games industry, had so slipped from the pinnacle of success that they invited me to their HQ in Milpitas, California to interview for a job. When the flight from O'Hare stopped on the San Jose tarmac and the hatch opened to let in the warm breeze redolent of eucalyptus, I sucked in a breath and said, "I am not going to play hard-to-get!"

The flight attendant for some reason avoided eye contact with me as I deplaned.

As it turned out, by cleverly glossing over the dings in my record--- the reprimands from academic committees, the kick-backs from those Libyan "entrepreneurs," and the business about the sheep--- I got the job. The head of the animation department did tell me, as he was packing his things to take a job in the grocery business a few weeks later, that the decision had been close, as I had been the only animator ever to have shown up for an interview wearing a 3-piece suit.

Just months earlier in 1992 I was living in Chicago and looking for a new animation job. I’d been given the boot after animating for a studio subcontracting a bunch of half-hour episodes of Tiny Toons and AniManiacs for Warner, and I hadn’t yet connected with [name deleted on advice of legal counsel, but it rhymes with "safari"] Games. Knowing I had a little free time, a lady friend who was a clinical psychologist invited me to participate in a panel discussion on children’s television, scheduled as part of the 1992 Convention of the Illinois Psychological Association.

I showed up early to be sure to get my ID card and wandered around a bit steeping in the heady atmosphere. I eavesdropped discretely on highly intelligent conversations. I puzzled over arcane placards announcing lectures. Therapeutic and diagnostic modalities blaah blaah this and dissociative relational blaah blaah that and transpersonal pre-cognitive blaah blaah some entirely other thing.

By the time I’d located the room for the panel discussion, I was reasonably certain I had about as much business sitting on the stage as a poodle in the cage with Seigfreid and Roy.

Still, I couldn’t shake a nagging worry that the highly professional psychologists were going to confirm all the worst stereotypes of academia, using psycho-babble even *I* could dispute, to defend the eroding of basic decency in the broadcast industry.

Much to my relief and surprise, it was nothing like that.

Many of these practicing clinicians and therapists had young children, and shared the same concerns as the the rest of us about the flood of violence, sex, and trashiness of television generally and children’s shows in particular

One item that got a large discussion was the emergence of entertainment shows featuring a load of characters that were mainly crime-fighting adventurers, quick to use violence to answer every challenge. Didn't take a PhD to note that such shows were nothing more than half-hour flogs for the line of action-figure toys and coordinated accessories, clothing, cereals and vitamins. And that the commercials for the action figures and accessories were flashier and better produced than the content of the shows.

As my friend had surmised, they were actually gratified to have a panel-participant that had even a little knowledge of the industry. By that time I’d spent 8 years as owner/operator of a small studio, some 5 years as a supervisor/animator for a couple of studios producing commercials and entertainment for national broadcast, and I’d spent several years teaching at University of Cincinnati and Xavier. I had also worked on a number of bits for Children’s TV Workshop (Sesame Street and The Electric Company) early on.

It was a fascinating discussion, showing that these issues touched them personally, not just as academic triflings. The most reassuring thing to me was not how warmly they treated me, despite my pontifications and pronouncements, nor the fact that no one felt I was a legitimate target for some vicious denunciation for making evil commercials designed to convert children to product-zombies. Especially after I pointed out that the commercials that sponsor many children’s shows have production budgets for their 30 second running times that match the budgets of the 27 minutes for the show.

What was truly encouraging was to hear so many of these professional psychologists reiterate that the single most important factor in mitigating the corrosive effects of the nastiness and crud, is the parents’ guidance. Repeatedly, different folks in the audience and on stage said that although children can not be shielded from the crudeness and violence of life, parents can provide context, interpretation, reassurance, and comfort.

I wonder how differently things might have gone if I talked to’em AFTER I worked on those bloody fighting games at [name deleted on advice of legal counsel, but it rhymes with "safari"]...

That would probably have involved a lot more recriminations and name-calling. In the first months of my time at [name deleted on advice of legal counsel, but it rhymes with "safari"], we animators frequently took breaks from the croissants and $50,000 twin-station espresso installation to read newspaper clippings chronicling the worldwide consternation over reports of video-game-induced seizures among Japanese children. We laughed and dismissed the concerns of the parents, psychologists, doctors, and attorneys.

"Ridiculous!" we scoffed between nibbles of the delicate French pastries and sips of the Ethopian Primo (guaranteed to have been grown on the Eastern slopes of hills above 5,000 feet.) "There is no way our extremely wholesome and intellectually challenging games of skill and quick thinking could possibly cause seizures or other harmful consequences to young children!" And we went back to our computers to create further sequences depicting beasts slashing, hacking, chomping, and frying each other.

I actually ran out of red pixels on several occasions, from the buckets o' blood that we had to animate in great rippling splashes for each character's attacks, when they connected. We had extended brainstorming sessions, to toss about and contemplate ever more frenzied moves and injuries the characters in our games could inflict on each other.

In the evolution of electronic arcade games fighting games had full hegemony. They ruled by rewarding the twitchy reflexes of young teenage boys, suddenly aflood with testosterone, and ready to sell their parents' golf clubs and china, to pay for the game tokens that would let them see their names as high scoring WINNERS!!!!!!!

After sneaking my name into the credits of one game that made the company a fair return, I took training at Wavefront in the latest 3D animaton software (the same as had been used, we were told, to animate the dinosaurs for "Jurassic Park!") A team was formed of us intrepid 3D whizzes, and we proceeded to work up a new fighting game featuring Buff Guys and Beautiful Women in Skimpy costumes, thrashing each other senseless.

The women's costumes were so skimpy that the lone female animator on the team called their thongs "butt-floss." Even us guys were a little skeptical, but Management, with the unflagging cheers of the marketing geniuses who had assisted in the company's scaling from 20,000 employees to 200 employees, forged ahead. The lady fighters' costumes were finally made more suitable for combat when a focus group of thirteen-year-old kids asked, "Why are these ladies dressed like 'ho's? They should be wearing armor or padding or something..."

We studied martial arts movies, and applied those moves to the 3D characters. Hundreds and hundreds of kicks, and shoves, and pushes, slashes with chainsaws, whips, and scalpels, and leaps, and crouches, and snakey, drunken, bird-like, shao-lin priestly, and Caribbean slave-dancing styles were animated, rendered, and plugged into the game.

We even were given a video of voluptuous women in bikinis firing automatic weapons, to inspire us. That gem was a real hoot. It came to us from a woman in management who had been hired away from her job as chair of the film department at a reasonably well-known state university. I'm really sorry I never got a chance to chat politics with her.

The software was tweaked. The hardware, created by our sister company, was NEVER documented for us by their engineers. The characters were redesigned, re-named, re-costumed, and re-choreographed six different times, while the engineers tried to get the hardware to display the graphics at anything better than a halting stutter.

Four months before our target release date, a British game company debuted a fighting game with a similar 2D sprites-from-3D-software approach, similar characters, weapons, and costumes, and did everything ours would do, except that it actually worked. It was an instant sensation.

I remember a meeting in which our producer came in and told us he'd just gotten word from upper management that we needed to make our game more insanely violent than any of the competition. "There is no other factor," he crowed with an insane grin, "that can give us an edge. Not better animation, or sound effects, or music, or snappy dialog. We need to do totally demented things, like have the winning character mutilate himself and fountain spurting blood all over the scenery. That'll get their attention!"

The next day I was on the phone to a children's educational CD-ROM company, accepting a recruitment offer they'd been dangling for several months.

No, that's a lie. It actually took me another six months to work myself up enough to leave the twin-station espresso machine, giving me time enough to sneak my name into the credits of a real-time 3D driving game that was actually pretty successful.

Then I quit and went off to corrupt the minds of even younger children...

In the meantime, several events had been going on in the alleged real world that bear on the electronic games industry.

Beavis and Butthead, of MTV fame, had spawned scores of lawsuits from parents whose idiot children had injured themselves copying the antics of the animated turdly twins. And growing crowds of parents were gathering pitchforks and torches. They were calling for an end to fighting games that were clearly causing open running sores on the souls of their teenage children. The violence of the arcade games was so vicious and widespread, it MUST be causing violent behavior by the kids playing the games

Well, I would LIKE to agree with that, but...

About that time, REAL ACTUAL slaughter was going on in the former Yugoslavia, where Serbian militia were busy with "ethnic cleansing" of muslims who had shared their communities for several centuries.

I'm reasonably certain that those Serbian murderers were not driven to their crimes by having spent their afternoons feeding tokens into games in an arcade in Sreberniça.

And if you go and scratch among the piles of femurs and ulnas and carpal bones mouldering in Rwanda, you will find garden implement handles, NOT shiny little integrated circuit chips from Game-boys.

Just a quick reality check is all that's wanted.

Violence in e-games, movies, television shows, cartoons, nor toy guns and arrows, nor boxing gloves, nor even the horrible images of carnage conveyed in the news---- those are not the cause of violence in our society. If anything, those are more catharsis than cause. You might as well claim the speedometer is responsible for car crashes.

Humans have been beating and murdering each other as long as we've been on this planet. To change that you'll have to dig a lot deeper. But I suspect we're talking about a process that will be measured in millenia.

Now I'm going back to animate some more exploding slacks.


Blogger Bobby said...

you are a loser

2:56 PM  
Blogger Patton said...

Loser (see comment above)? On what basis, I ask myself, as I must be missing something really witty and ironic.

Good story, with a good point. My daughter is a Looney Tunes freak, and she's known since she could put a sentence together that it's not real. That was my job, not Chuck Jones'.

9:41 PM  

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