Print Screen: "Gamer"
"Prepare to get played."
"Gamer" was released earlier this month to the jeers of critics and yawns of audiences. Scottish hunk Gerard Butler and "Dexter" star Michael C. Hall chew the scenery in the story about Slayers, a shooter game where all the avatars are real people manipulated by gamers through a mind-control device. The avatars are death-row inmates who would die anyway, so why not give them a chance to fight for their freedom?
The problem is, "Gamer" doesn't really understand games or gamers.
The idea behind Slayers' appeal is an obvious one. Writers Mark Nevaldine and Brian Taylor assume that there is a bloodlust in humanity that is drawn to violent sports and activities. In this reading, all the talk about the sweet science of boxing or the mixed martial artistry of "ultimate fighting" is meant to mask the desire to watch someone get beaten within an inch of their life. The use of nanite chips and a human controller directing a flesh-and-blood avatar in "Gamer" may be interesting sci-fi, but the result is confusion over what makes games -- even bloody ones -- appealing.
See, Slayers is the central game in the plot, but there is another. After all, if you have a mind-control device, the first obvious step is to create an online world full of living dolls that can act out fantasies -- a Second Life played with real people, dubbed Society in "Gamer." The idea of controlling other people through hypnosis or mind control is the ultimate power fantasy -- and in these fantasies, no one ever uses hypnosis to force people to become better cooks or wiser citizens. The nanite implants in "Gamer" give the master physical control of the subject, while the slave loses control of their body, but not their desires. It is a deep and dark impulse to force adults to do something against their will.
But games aren't only about control. Though power fantasies are certainly at the core of most popular videogame designs, they also work to help you identify with whomever or whatever you are controlling. In Team Fortress 2, you are the Spy or the Heavy. In World of Warcraft, you are a Night Elf cleric or Tauren fighter. In The Sims 3, the family you control is your family -- even when it rebels against your influence.
Would this game be viable if your avatar had a mind of its own?
The thrilling thing about shooters is that you are taking risks with an extension of yourself, an extension of your free will, to defy death and risk humiliation. In a world like that of "Gamer" -- where the avatar has its own will, if not its own agency -- this connection cannot really exist. The game, I would argue, would be less compelling.
In an online game, the link between the avatar and the gamer is even tighter. Second Life's success is completely predicated on the player acting out their fantasies with an avatar they can identify with. The upcoming movie "Surrogate" -- about a world where people can live their dream lives via a robot -- is more like a massively-multiplayer online game than "Gamer's" Society.
To its credit, "Gamer" references the link between gamer and avatar when Butler's killing machine has to persuade his controller to give him freedom. However, the core of both Slayer's and Society's design is not that the character is an extension of the gamer, but that the gamer is controlling a real human being -- someone who is slaying and raping or being slain and being raped. Gamers are certainly capable of very sadistic things when they play, but they usually do them to non-player characters or noobs -- not to the avatar they control.
Even a shooter's sense of risk depends on a mental connection between player and character.
"Gamer" is, I think, trying to make some sort of point about how the coarsening of entertainment leads to a diminished respect for privacy and freedom. It's a point that movies have been making for years, and all "Gamer" adds is the indictment of videogame players as sociopathic puppet masters. Slayers looks like the ultimate first-person shooter -- but the movie's understanding of the relationship between the game character and his "sport" is no more advanced than anything we've seen in "Gladiator" or "The Running Man." And despite the evil corporation run by Hall's character, "Gamer" has none of the teeth of the original "Rollerball," a movie that posed real questions about the connection between the "bread and circuses" world of pro sports and corporate fascism.
Ultimately, "Gamer" is a shallow action picture that tries to capitalize on widespread suspicions about what online videogames and gamers are really up to when they log on. But by conflating the power fantasy of mind control with the power fantasy of being the toughest guy on the block, the movie shows that even a game-friendly title can't mask how poorly Hollywood gets the gaming mindset.