In three days I’ve gone through the first four seasons of Parks and Recreation for some bizarre reason and now all I can think of is that show. What a terrible idea I’ve come up with
Spoilers abound! Usually I don’t care much about spoilers (and I usually mock people who do care), but this show has a twist so amazing, so great, that it would be a tragedy if you were to read this and see the twist before watching the episode. So watch it first!
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has always been great with cultural satire, taking our current society and taking it that one step further. We saw this last series when the programme poked at our society’s love of social media, turning a serious news story into an incredible phenomenon that snowballed into the prime minister of a country having sex with a pig on live television. We saw society’s love of talent competitions and our inability to see beyond the confines of our television screen culminate in the most bizarre near-future world where ‘talent’ is loosely defined and anything goes as far as pushing the definition of the word ‘entertainment’. We then saw technology intrude into our lives, more so than we let it today, and we saw how that affects everything about us as people.
This series continues in that tradition, with an okay first episode, but what I’m writing about is the second. The one that was broadcast only a few hours ago. I honestly think that is the most amazing episode of television ever. Anyone who watches TV can often guess what will happen in the end through the subconscious memory of the contents of the TV Tropes website, but this? You’d be hard pressed to see the twist coming.
The adverts and the first two-thirds of the episode centre around a group of people who appear to have not been affected by a strange signal coming from a transmitter called ‘Whitebear’, and everyone is either a dumb voyeur with an iPhone or people who have not been affected and use this to their advantage. They kill, torture, and basically do very unpleasant things to people, just because they can. Essentially a commentary on today’s voyeurism and our tendency to film and share anything that has ever happened with our phone. Not a single event will go unshared with the world, and Charlie Brooker takes this one step further. Imagine when the only thing we can do is film stuff. Imagine when we are oblivious to events and take them for what they are, events, and simply film it all just for the sake of it. Brooker tries to use this to tell us, the viewer, that this makes us no longer people, let alone human. We are supposed to immerse ourselves in an event, be it tragedy or some sort of blessing. We are not human if we just post a picture to Instagram.
This idea of voyeurism is everywhere in our society. If we don’t share everything we’re seen as the weird ones. It reminds me of that person who tweeted (unknowingly) the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. People just share whatever. They film whatever. They photograph whatever. It has its advantages, but we also see the downside. Why is it okay, the programme asks, to put our lives out in the open? Why must others see what we are doing? Where did this unwritten rule come from?
All very well and good for a 42-minute programme, but we then see the second layer of what this episode is trying to explore. About two-thirds in, we see our group of unaffected survivors Victoria and Jen, trying to destroy the transmitter. They’re being attacked and it looks like they’re about to lose. And then suddenly, the lights come on. The walls open up. It’s become some sort of weird entertainment show, with the audience sitting on benches and applauding like sycophants on a talent show. Their attackers take off their masks and Jen straps Victoria into a chair and reveal themselves to be in on the performance. Then do we see what is going on. There has never been a signal that turns people into dumb voyeurs. There has never been a transmitter called Whitebear. Everything has been staged for the audience’s pleasure. We see the circumstances that have led to this. Victoria was actually an accomplice to a kidnap and murder of a young child (the sort of thing Sun readers love, as it happens), and she filmed the entire thing on her phone. As punishment, she is forced to live her life as a caged animal, with her memory wiped, in a theme park, every single day, living out what she has done to that child, right down to the point of being filmed by others on a cameraphone. The end credits show how this plays out. We see eager tourists lining up to see the entire performance play out, and we learn that these tourists are the ones with their cameras out, filming everything. They are the dumb voyeurs. We’ve finally learned that Victoria is basically a murderer, but even so, we cannot help but feel sad and somewhat sick that she is used in a form of mob justice (the sort of thing Sun readers also love, as it happens).
It reminds me of that Brass Eye episode about paedophilia, where it plays on the public’s reaction to things we can all agree are bad. It’s amazing how fast we can spew all the hate out of our guts towards a person, a real human being, if we are told beforehand that this person has done a bad thing. That’s all it takes. We don’t need the facts. We just need to know that a person has done a bad thing, and that’s all you have to do in order to get mob justice working. The amount of people who turn up to see this woman forced to relive the same thing is staggering, and even more so is the fact that for them, it’s fun! I suppose that’s a take on the idea of schadenfreude, or even simpler than that, the immense amount of pleasure you get from someone else being tortured, mentally and physically.
We’ve all had this. It calls to mind all those times in school when you’ve done your homework and the teacher calls out another student who hasn’t, and proceeds to shout and punish him in full view of the class, much to the glee and amusement of all the other classmates who laugh in their heads. We like to think that some of us are just smarter and superior to the unwashed masses who are idiots and read the Sun and only listen to commercial radio, but we’re not. Deep down, we’re all like this. Dumb voyeurs with a cameraphone, gleefully laughing at the misery of someone else’s tragedy.
My earlier post touched on realism in games and why it’s really important to have it. This is a continuation of that, plus a lot of things that I think really add to the argument of realism in games, in the form of what it is about realism we need and why we should find it more compelling than its more popular sibling, escapism. Let’s start with empathy.
Empathy. What is it? Well at its very core, it’s the idea that people have the ability to recognise and feel emotions of others, be they fictional characters in a game or your friends or people on the news. It’s important in keeping us human and in touch with humanity. Were it not for empathy, there isn’t much to stop us from beating each other with sticks. I mean, not unless we could really understand what it would be like to be beaten with a stick ourselves. Empathy is one of the pillars that keeps society in check. We mustn’t do that, imagine being on the receiving end of it. We mustn’t do this, imagine having that happen to you. Put yourself in their shoes for once. Again, if it weren’t for empathy, we would struggle to understand the way others feel, and that is a terrible thing to happen.
Now we must put this into fiction. Fiction thrives on empathy. Look at a novel like 1984, where a dystopia is portrayed in the eyes of someone attempting to rebel under it whilst conforming to the many rules and regulations, much of it unwritten, to the satisfaction of the faceless regime. For most readers, this could never happen. Unthinkable for a dystopia to ever happen in their country! And yet if you read it, reflected upon it, and thought about it some more, you would almost definitely feel the sense of creeping authoritarianism spring off the pages and into your eyeballs.
My dad had read 1984 not too long ago, and he could understand this story, probably more than most did in the Western world ever could. He grew up in China, during the height of the Cultural Revolution. He knew what it was like to live under a regime like that. Perhaps there were no telescreens in his house, but the Red Guards were enough to instill the fear in anyone. They were very much the “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of people. And so we come to the second point of empathy. Experience and context lends itself to understanding. We use memories and experience we have gained over our lifetime in order to feel a strong sense of empathy. We cut out relevant parts of our memory and paste them into a kind of collage that intensifies our feeling of empathy towards something. For my dad, it was the experience of living through the Cultural Revolution that really affected him and the way he thought about 1984. It could be just about anything for anyone else.
The idea of empathy in fiction is important especially when the fiction depends on the reader and his ability to suspend disbelief. In return for a reader’s willingness to forget that what he is reading is not real (hence fiction), fiction will give the reader something intangible to attach to as a sort of link to his own experience as a person in the form of empathy. As a link between fiction and reality, empathy helps to bridge that gap so that we know what we’re reading is fiction, but that we can reconcile this with reality, for example the idea that it could totally happen in real life (it just hasn’t yet). Empathy is important in this sense to make us engaged and to fill our own ideas and imagination in fiction.
Now, games. Games are strange. Games don’t seem to make you feel empathetic as much as say, a book will (depends on the book, of course) or a film (ditto). But games and the people who make them seem to think that in order to compete with film or books or other forms of creative media, it’s imperative for games to stand out and be ‘edgy’ and one of the ways to do that is to provide something others don’t do, i.e. not allow the player to feel empathetic for characters in the game. But there’s a reason why other forms of media do make you want to feel empathy. Empathy is good. It’s important. If you don’t want to feel like a total dick, you need it. Games don’t understand that.
Let’s take the example of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games. The idea is that you’re a soldier fighting a just cause or something and you’re killing bad guys. That’s it. That is basically the premise you’re thrown into. Ideally it should make you feel empathy. Perhaps for your character, being told to fight in a war that has caused so much destruction and spilled so much blood. Or the enemies, who are just low-level soldiers paid to kill what they’re told to. But you won’t feel empathy. It’s just not in you to do that. Why?
Once games decided that realism was too much and that gamers desired escapism rather than realism, was when the idea of empathy was thrown out of the window. Realism, as mentioned before, gives us a reference point to reality. Without it, the world we live in looks bland while the simplistic in comparison world of a game seems diverse and beautiful and lush, when it’s actually the other way around. Our world is better. It’s real, for one thing. It’s the one that’s diverse. Not a game that costs $60. That game pales in comparison to what we have in real life, the good, the bad and the ugly. But this gave rise to a side-effect. Once this reference point to reality was cut off in order to let players go wild and kill anything to the point of tedium, the point of empathy as a bridge between reality and fiction was no longer needed. And gamers were okay with that. They even justified it. After all, games aren’t real. What’s the harm in doing what you want in a virtual environment?
I honestly don’t think it’s possible to have escapism and empathy. Escapism wants people to leave this world and enter another, without any link back to the real world. Gamers willingly do this because escapism from what they perceive to be a boring and terrible world is a pretty good selling point. But empathy wants people to stay in this world. It wants people to feel something for others. One way it does this is by using what we know of the real world and its cultural norms, societal rules, boundaries we set around us to create a sense of empathy. We project not ourselves, but our experiences onto fictional characters. That is how we feel empathy. If a game tells us not to worry about the real world, and just enjoy ourselves and do what we like in a game, why bother with empathy? Why bother with our experience as living, breathing human beings? It’s not needed. It’s not required to have, as they say, “fun”.
So what am I saying? Realism in games is important. I’ve already established that. One of the reasons is because it allows us access to empathy. We need empathy to feel human and to retain humanity within ourselves. Escapism defies this by throwing out any reason needed for empathy. This means people do what they like without feeling anything, no matter if what they did in the game was good or bad. Once we lose the ability to empathise in games, we feel like it’s okay to do anything we want without fear of retribution. Is that really such a great thing? Or do we want some sort of moral and ethical compass guiding us, even through something as irrelevant and unimportant like video games?
The New Yorker recently ran an article about a man who had developed his own language, Ithkuil. The idea behind it was that languages and the way we think are tied together, and so if you had a language that utilised that bond, it would make for both nuanced forms of expression but also over time change the way you thought. You would have to be more nuanced in order to express yourself in Ithkuil, for a start. Complex sentences could be formed with only a few syllables, but that is, if you thought about how you would say the words. How the sentence flows. How meaning can be derived from the things you say.
This kind of language bond between the way we think and the things that come out of our mouth is somewhat related to “fun”. Not the band, but rather the word and the meaning we associate with it. Or rather, what do we associate with it? What is “fun”? Do we even think about the words we use before we use them? How does this define us as consumers of games?
As it turns out, the word has a suspect history. The etymology of the word is not clear (but evidence points toward a relation to “fon” meaning “to fool”, so take that as you will). The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery. Also, a source or cause of amusement or pleasure”. So that’s it, right? A source of amusement. Are we done here?
Well, no. While the word means something is a source of amusement, it’s pretty vague as descriptive words go. It doesn’t explain in detail what it is someone found to be a source of amusement, which is what you would almost always expect. When someone says “I played this game and it was fun”, it doesn’t go much further than saying “I liked this game”. Yeah, and? You’re not giving me much to work with here.
The word “fun” lacks nuance. It lacks depth. To say you liked a game is one thing, but once you’ve said that, you’re expected to say why you liked it, or how the game affected you to the point that you enjoyed it. Saying a game is fun doesn’t cut it. People need to think about the words they say and the meaning they are trying to convey before they say it. If they did, they probably wouldn’t use the word “fun”.
I’m guilty of this too. I sometimes say something is fun when I say I liked something and then I give no additional information as to why I liked it. Like many people, I fall back on the word “fun” like people often use the word “like” as filler: I say something is fun without thinking about the implication that comes with it (that is to say, not at all). And nobody has ever told me to clarify what I meant. If they did, they would probably be surprised to find that I would have a hard time describing what I meant.
When you say a game is “fun”, what do you mean? As mentioned, how did it affect you? What was it about the game you liked? From where in the game did you derive a sense of amusement or pleasure? I think that when people are forced to explain this, they would be surprised at what comes out of their mouths.
The word “fun” is used to hide inconvenient truths about ourselves, which is that games have made us into horrible human beings. Let us take for example, someone who has played a Call of Duty game (one reason I use this series of games is because it is a huge best-seller, so of course everybody has played it). He has finished the singleplayer and has around fifty hours of multiplayer on his belt. If I were to ask him what he thought about the game and if he liked it, he would likely say something like “I love it. It’s so fun!” Okay. Now if I were to ask him to elaborate (as almost nobody does), an answer I would likely get in this completely hypothetical scenario might be, “There’s all these cool explosions and the graphics are awesome and I get to kill all these terrorists and the story is amazing”. So we’ve established a number of things: this person likes Call of Duty, he likes explosions and he likes to kill people. In a game, of course. Because that’s where you’re allowed to do these things. In games. Legally. With fake guns. And fake bombs. And imaginary terrorists.
Then there’s also the Grand Theft Auto series of games, another popular series where there is no clear-cut moral high ground to speak of. As an open-world game at heart, these games allow for the player to do what they wish within the fairly broad confines of the game. It’s not completely out of the realm of imagination to consider that people who play such games are projecting themself on to the character they control, or rather, an idealised version of themself, free from pesky things like the law, social norms, morality and being a generally good person. And so you see people playing it who enjoy it not just for its expansive game world, but also because you can throw people off quays and steal cars and run over people. The question of whether this is a game that is even good is not the point. But rather, people who play this will likely consider these games where you can do almost anything you like to be fun, and these same people are also probably going to do what we consider in the real world to be things you mustn’t do. But ask them if they think the idea of stealing cars and running over people and shooting taxi drivers in the head is fun in general, and you’re probably going to be met with no. And yet that isn’t the case in games. So they find a game where that is possible fun (and almost undoubtedly will take part in such activities in game), but the idea of that in general (not in real life but as a thought exercise, it must be clear) would be abhorrent. So which is it? Are games where you can kill cops not less legitimate or less valid as a source of inspiration than thinking about killing cops?
I don’t think that was a very unrealistic picture I painted of someone who likes one of the biggest-selling action games of the decade. What bothers me is that people derive pleasure and amusement from gratuitous violence and the misfortune and death of others, but are perhaps unwilling or unable to express this to others, and so use the word “fun” and hope that’s the end of it. We don’t really want anyone else to know how we feel about certain games because it’s just going to disappoint ourselves once we realise this. We also just aren’t able to accurately pin down our true feeling with a game since we’re not really sure what to make of it, so we just say what comes naturally without thinking about it, even for a second. Hence the word “fun”.
Ultimately we should rethink our attitude to games and to examine why it is we derive such immense pleasure from the things we do. And yet that isn’t enough, because it still means that people will continue to use cheap filler words to describe their experience with a game that means absolutely nothing. When someone expresses something they have enjoyed is “fun”, ask them what they mean. Press for more information (politely, of course, but if all else fails, try waterboarding). Examine the reasons why someone has found a certain game enjoyable, because this is the only way of maintaining a discourse on games (and to a certain extent other forms of media even though the word “fun” is not quite as oft-used as it is in games). One of the reasons why this is such a big deal is because if you don’t say exactly why you like something, you’ll end up liking almost anything. And at that point, you’ll find exploding torsos and blowing the heads off Iranians “fun”.
Let’s go back to the first paragraph about Ithkuil for a moment. It was there to give an example of a language that by its very nature forces the speaker to think, if not just for a brief moment, before speaking. In the article, the creator of the conlang says Ithkuil is “an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression”. While it’s not possible to do a makeover of the English language overnight, it’s worth starting with a word like “fun” where it requires no thought to blurt the word out without detailing what it is you mean. And once people are capable of that, maybe then it’s possible to understand what it is and why it is we find what we enjoy so pleasurable. And why Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million copies on its first day.
Depending on your take on these things, realism is great or really horrible, especially when it comes to games (when games are by definition meant to throw control towards the player). Realism is what keeps fiction rooted in something we as the participant can relate to. Realism is, to paraphrase someone wise, the beef mince in the bolognaise of life. Without it, it lacks depth and texture.
The problem with video games (or not, again, depending on your view of this) is that much of it lacks realism. It lacks a reference point to which you can relate your own experience with the game. Instead games like to provide you with a shallow substitute which kind of resembles real life, but isn’t. It’s kind of like real life in that it might be set in a city called London, or set in a country called the United Kingdom, or set on a planet called Earth. But something about it feels off. It’s like in TV shows that have fake names for sodas instead of saying Coca-Cola.
One of the reasons for this is that gamers don’t like realism. Realism is boring. If you wanted something resembling the real world, you’d just go outside. You want to escape from your dreary life as a photocopier salesman. Instead, what you want is escapism. And so developers provide this in the form of games that are surreal and far removed from our current reality. We end up with games like the Modern Warfare series, where we apparently live in a world where people can just walk into foreign airports and murder innocent civilians and then suddenly Russia invades the Eastern seaboard of the United States. We are treated to games like Splinter Cell: Conviction where you can throw any sense of humanity you have left out of the window and throw people into mirrors for information. We can go on one-man battles armed with nothing but an assault rifle with a bottomless supply of ammunition and kill anyone who speaks in a foreign language. None of this is permissible or possible in real life, but it’s accepted in video games. Why? Because escapism.
Escapism’s problem is that it provides a narrow view of the world through the lens of improbability. It seems that anything is permissible so long as it’s a video game, because it’s not real and so you can do whatever you want and if you don’t like it, go play Katamari Damacy or something. And to an extent films and television do have this same form of escapism (if you want proof of this, watch the last season of 24 when Jack Bauer disembowels a man for a SIM card). But it’s not interactive. You aren’t the person disembowling a Russian assassin. In games though, you are. And that makes a huge difference. Because while games are getting more and more surreal and far removed from reality, games like to tout “realism” as a selling point. So games are both escapist entertainment but also realistic. Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it, and why is that okay in video games?
Now, the reason why escapism is so popular and well-received is, as mentioned before, gamers don’t really like realism (I’ll go into that in a moment). Escapism provides people with the ability to do something they would not do in real life, for all kinds of reasons. Eight hours of not being a decent human being is a willing price paid by millions if it means getting away from a boring job or a shitty week. It’s also worth pointing out that one of the best-selling games are the Modern Warfare series which, as the title implies, puts you in a contemporary-themed war. So essentially what people are escaping into is from an okay life with decent job security and health insurance to being part of an intractable war in a foreign country where anyone with a Russian gun is to be shot on sight, and there are bodies everywhere and fighter jets fly past to drop bombs on cities. Yeah, that does make sense, doesn’t it?
Realism can be found in games in only the most superficial of details. Perhaps the game itself is so fictionalised that it might as well have a sticker saying “bullshit” on the cover, but there are details that try and hide that fact. An obvious example would be weapons. They’re real guns that do exist. And then there’s the setting. The setting is sort of plausible (Middle East). And finally there’s the “hell yeah, patriots” theme to games like Modern Warfare, where you feel just like a card-carrying patriotic soldier. The reason why I consider that realism is because everyone supports the troops. Everyone has a bit of national pride in them. Escapism lets us be part of the military, but realism lets us feel proud of the military.
And so, the question: Well, what’s the harm in escapism? What’s so bad about losing ourselves in a surreal fiction? Do we need realism? I would argue yes. As said before, realism provides us with a reference point to reality in games. I am not saying games should be non-fiction, but rather when creating a fiction, games must be mindful of the fact that realism has to guide its creation. Realism also has the added benefit of being slightly thought-provoking (something that games resist while at the same time demanding legitimacy as “art” while forgetting that art and being thought-provoking are related in some capacity) by making us think about what we have just played and how that can be compared and contrasted with the world we live in. Because the world we live in stretches far beyond your crappy job. The world we live in is huge. It’s diverse, it’s full of spectacle and wonder, and some of the things that happen in real life are worthy of being made as a video game by themselves. For all the hate I have for Zero Dark Thirty, I give it credit for being somewhat realistic. The film provides a sense of realism to the War on Terror (which has been made into a kind of farce if you play the video games) that games have never come close to achieving. Torture is seen as a necessity and a last resort in the film, and not something done for fun. Everyone is very dour and nobody looks like they’re having the greatest time fighting off international terrorists like fraternity brothers.
So that was a long way of saying this: we need more realism in games. Realism is our connection to the real world. The real world, as it happens, is really, really amazing (go hiking, it’s great). People escape from this world to another because they can’t handle this immense, wonderful, real world, but would rather immerse themselves in a simplistic caricature of the world where everything is black or white, right or wrong, and American or everyone else. The simplistic view that escapism provides insults the intelligence of anyone who plays games because it not only degrades the true meaning of what it is to be part of the real world, it also means that whenever something surreal or bizarre happens in the real world, we liken it to said simplistic fiction in video games. How is it that we can watch the news and be okay with people comparing events as “like Call of Duty”? How is it that we can watch Collateral Murder and the first thing that we conjure in our mind are the “death from above” missions in the countless modern warfare-themed games today?, and be okay with that? We shouldn’t be. We should see those events and either compare, contrast, and connect them to other real-life events or consider them to be completely new events that have never happened before, rather than to find these deep and often controversial events as somehow similar to video games that fail to express the depth and complicated nature of things.
Do you think about your privacy a lot? Does the thought of someone knowing where you live, stealing your identity, tracking your movements through CCTVs or your phone or your credit card purchases keep you awake at night?
There are plenty of good reasons why “if you nothing to hide why bother about your privacy” is a terrible argument in favour of more government reach, but that’s really not what I care about. What interests me and affects me is not that, but rather the positives of not having the same amount of privacy that came before the Internet, back in the days when you could sneak into Canada and nobody would ever know.
It’s all relative for me. One reason why I disagree with Google’s detractors who dislike their creeping influence on almost everything you do on the Internet is that I like it. Take over the world if you want, Google! I won’t stop you. But I am extremely wary of giving Facebook any more information than they need, and I keep my information close when it comes to those bastards.
The reason is quite simple. Google gives me things in return. Google Now on Android is simply the most intrusive thing ever put on a mobile device (it only seems to work with location services turned on). It knows where you are, it goes through your email, and it harnesses the power that is the wide range of Google services for your benefit. Put it this way: I’m only willing to give up my privacy if I’m getting things in return that are equal in value (in terms of convenience). Google does this and that’s why I stick with Google for pretty much everything (email, mobile, news, search). Facebook doesn’t do this. So why should Facebook need to know my blood type if I’m not ever going to see that information used to benefit me? Google uses my location to tell me when the next train is coming. Facebook uses my location to serve me more ads. Yeah, no thanks.
It has a sense of selling my soul, I will admit. But I think that most people are willing to settle for this tradeoff, whether they know it or not. Almost everyone has a smartphone with GPS on it, and they walk around with what is essentially a beacon telling someone where they are. Sure, you can turn it off, but then why would you do that? You’ve just lost one important component of your smartphone. And so it stays on, sending your rough location to servers somewhere, and throwing the location for the nearest bus stop at you. People are definitely okay with this.
So I’ve established that I don’t mind Google butting into every single thing that I do. But what about the government? It’s argued that the government does provide services for you (not always competently), but the question is this: Could those government services like healthcare, pensions, insurance, child care and others be provided without giving them a huge mass of information (relatively speaking, because they basically know everything they want to know about you except where you are at this exact moment). And the answer to that is know. It’s not like Google where you’re giving them some of your personal information, coupled with the willingness to view non-intrusive adverts in return for a wide variety of services. The government is run differently. It’s run by taxes. You pay your taxes and hopefully you get things in return. There is no need for any more information than they already have (which, as stated before, is a lot).
The government’s new excuse for invading more of your privacy is not so they can deliver healthcare faster, but rather to stop crime. Or terrorists. They put up CCTV cameras on streets so everything is captured. They threaten companies with subpoenas for access to emails and they bully others for the identities of bloggers for anti-Semitic behaviour. Not quite the benevolent, all-caring, generous faceless entity known as government you thought. It’s definitely pointless, especially if you realise that crime rates have gone down since the 70s, and that terrorism isn’t really that huge of a problem is most Western countries (hence fighting them over there instead of over here and blah blah blah). It’s all about control, which is what the government wants more of. And that is where I draw the line.
Battles - Wall Street
Talking Heads - Road to Nowhere
Nine Inch Nails - The Beginning of the End
Flight of the Conchords - Business Time
Broken Social Scene - It’s All Gonna Break
Fitz and the Tantrums - Dear Mr President
Tears for Fears - Everybody Wants to Rule the World
I could not resist. I was powerless. I clicked on the purchase button.
I am now the owner of this.
I have always been pretty terrible when it comes to learning French. I think the first time I had to learn it, I was in Year 2 and I can’t remember a single thing from the learning material. It didn’t go well, and I stopped after a few years, without knowing how to conjugate verbs.
In Year 6, my parents learned of Alliance Française, which teaches French and exposes people to French culture all over the world. So I went there, having to relearn everything (or in my case, “learn” everything). I don’t remember much of the course, but I do have the textbook somewhere. It’s about a girl from Québec who visits her penpal in France, and they discuss the different colours of Renault Twingos (I’m serious) and some other stuff. It was possibly the most boring thing I have ever done.
In secondary school we had to learn Chinese and another foreign language, and so I chose French. In the class you are assumed not to have any prior knowledge of French, which wasn’t a problem for me since I clearly hadn’t learned anything before, and I probably wasn’t going to start now. The textbook we used had something to do with the city of La Rochelle, and that’s basically all I can remember (Chinese was much easier, mostly because I am, well, Chinese).
The biggest problem I have with French is the verb conjugation. It’s incredibly detailed and I can’t wrap my head around it. I’m sure there’s some perfectly good rule of thumb that lets you grasp the concept, but I can’t find it. It’s not like German, where the rules are simple and make sense. It’s not like Norwegian, where the verb stays the same for all pronouns. How simple is that!
Most of this trouble with French had to do with me, since anyone who was in any French class with me will know how much of a damn I did not give (or the one time I was thrown out of the class and given a stern talking-to by the head of the languages department). But I also think that the usual language teaching concepts don’t work anymore. It’s too slow, too boring, and it’s just not engaging enough. There are all these self-study language resources that are much better. Last year I was learning Norwegian all by myself, using Pimsleur Norwegian, and then bought Teach Yourself Norwegian. Every so often I visit the NRK website to try and read and understand some Norwegian text, to varying degrees of success. I can now understand 40% or so of whatever I’m reading, all thanks to learning by myself.
I’ve always harboured regret for not sticking with French, though. I do live in Canada. An entire province speaks French. France speaks French. I’ve always admired French culture and their society. Everyone likes to make snide French jokes, but I’m sure they would like to live in a country with a 35-hour workweek and have lots of orgies and smoke cigarettes and drink Campari. Not to mention the fact that the surrounding countries have sizeable French-speaking communities. Surely it’s worth a shot to even bother to learn it, right?
I’ve always resented the fact that the only language I can really communicate in is English. My Chinese is pretty terrible for someone like me, which is pretty embarrassing for me whenever I’m in China. I don’t want to be the idiot who only knows one language. Sure, it may be good enough for Americans, but it’s not for me. The only real way to get to know a culture and a country is to communicate with them, and that’s not going to work if you only speak one language. Not to mention the benefits of knowing French, which is the improved chance of getting a job if you know more than one language.
And so I have decided to order a $50 French course which is apparently the most popular one according to the Internet, which may or may not work. But this time I’m going to suffer through it until the end.
There is a New Yorker article (blocked by paywall) from a few weeks ago about Danish television and the increased popularity from not just inside Denmark, but internationally. I am of the opinion thatThe Killing is probably the best TV show ever made, and I love Borgen very much. The article goes into some detail about the writing process at DR, the public broadcaster in Denmark and the level of creative freedom the writers are allowed (a lot). What interests me was the American view of the shows, especially Borgen.
Most people see Borgen at first glance as extremely similar to The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s political drama about a centre-left president. The West Wing has always been seen as one of the best American dramas of the past few decades, winning more Emmys than you have digits on your limbs. The reasons are extremely superficial, so much so that you can pretty much guess what they are if you’ve seen both shows.
That’s not much to go by. Borgen is incredibly nuanced, more than I think the New Yorker could explain in the five or six pages devoted to this new trend of Danish television (which the article seemed to explain in a way that almost resembled newspapers trying to explain this “punk” thing in the 70s). Borgen is not really about the prime minister of Denmark, even if the writers put a spin on it by making it the first female prime minister of Denmark. It’s about what Guardian readers would like to call the estates of the realm. Not only are we given a guide as to what’s going on in Christiansborg Palace, but we see how this has affected everyone who has even the most peripheral link to the prime minister. There’s the other political parties, of course. There’s also the media, who are forced to juggle their responsibilities of balance but also of telling the truth.
In Borgen, a favourite character of mine is the intrepid reporter Katrine Fønsmark, who I imagine is sort of like the female Tintin. She only goes after the truth, even if everything in her world is collapsing faster than a skyscraper made out of Jenga blocks. I can’t really think of a character like this in The West Wing, especially with the sort of influence and importance a character like Katrine commands. She embodies this sense of truth and the media that you don’t see in The West Wing, making the drama seem even more real. Characters like Katrine exist in Borgen to make it clear that the show isn’t about putting the politicians in a massive bubble. The politicians are accountable to the public and Katrine and the rest of her fellow journalists are there to make sure that happens.
The writers of Borgen have taken great pains in making the government seem likeable, but also fallible. I think it’s partly because of the coalition politics that Denmark has relied upon for decades, where compromise is not a dirty word and that if you want to win an election, you have to work with other political parties, most of whom probably don’t agree with your ideology. This is the sort of egalitarian thinking that seems to have worked in Denmark and most other European countries, and exactly what the show attempts to portray in a realistic manner, with a little bit of creative Machiavellian spice added for flavour (it is a TV show, after all). This form of government makes the show seem balanced to all political parties and ideologies, and much of the episodes centres around the prime minister trying to get what she wants whilst knowing she won’t get 100% of what she wants, because there are eight other political parties in parliament who also want something totally different. She almost always gets her way, but with strings attached. Sometimes these strings are in the form of what you’d expect, political bargaining, but also in the form of her family. You see, in this show, family is not filler for a 42-minute programme, but has a direct impact on everything that happens (especially in series two of Borgen). Please tell that to Aaron Sorkin for me.
The reason why I dislike The West Wing so much is because of what some would call the typical Sorkin formula of writing. His dramas have always had a similar structure, from The West Wing to The Newsroom. It’s always about doing something great. The best you can. No compromises. It’s about an America that has never existed, and most likely never will. An America where the average American is smart, reasonable, and capable of critical thinking. Where liberals and conservatives can debate each other, acknowledge the other’s view, and perhaps have an enlightened view of the other side. And America where people put their differences aside to build a better future. If you ask me, that sounds like Canada.
It’s a long way of saying The West Wing’s problem is that it is too idealistic. Sorkin gives the audience a show, nay, an America that people want, not an America that is in any way, shape or form at all realistic to the real one, the one that was attacked on 9/11 and went to war twice. No, not that America. You will never get that America on TV. What you are watching is an America that Aaron Sorkin thinks you want, rather than opening your eyes to the sheer depressing reality that it really is. Sorkin doesn’t write a show about a president who feels like he is losing every time he goes to work. He writes a show about a president who is doing the best he can, and he does the best he can. Surely, he throws in a “struggle” here or there, but every time that happens, the administration comes out of it as a victor. This is in direct contrast to Borgen, where every time something bad happens, the prime minister, even when she does her best, knows she has come out of it worse.
Borgen’s other strength is that it is self-deprecating. It knows that nobody likes politicians. It also knows that Denmark is a tiny country in Europe with 5 million people. It’s a show about a country that never had any real power, and that’s probably why it’s so popular everywhere except the US. The United States still isn’t convinced that it’s an empire in decline. Shows like The West Wing try to maintain the illusion that it is to the average American viewer. This is doing the audience an injustice. You are lying to the viewer by showing them an imaginary, idealistic country that is very similar to the one you currently live in, except for the tiniest detail which is that it’s not actually real. Borgen does not do this. It simply acknowledges the lack of power that Denmark has and that the country has, well, nothing (the actress who plays the prime minister, Sidse Babett Knudsen once said that “our language is one of the most ugly and limited around” and that seducing anyone who is Danish “sounds like you are throwing up”).
It’s also worth noting that new Aaron Sorkin show, The Newsroom. I don’t like it at all, but I did watch every episode and I intend to watch every episode of all future seasons (please, please cancel it HBO, please). One of the positive aspects of it is that for a brief moment in the pilot episode, we see a brief rant of how America isn’t the greatest country in the world. And then we go into a little bubble known as a cable news department, where they have this strange vision of what the news should be like. It should be noted that no cable news channel has ever operated under a mandate of balance, only because every channel is owned by a corporation with an interest that they dictate through their media properties, and also because they are beholden to adverts. In The Newsroom, this fictional cable news network avoids this simply by, well, ignoring it. Again, we are treated to a vision of an America that never has existed and never will. Wouldn’t it be great if the news networks didn’t focus on sensationalism and worthless tabloid crap? Wouldn’t it be great if the news channels were not biased and have a mandate to tell the truth and to hold people in power accountable? It would be, but then, it’s just un-American.
The content is all mine, but if you would like to use it somehow, do get in touch.