In the commercial, a young man is standing in an alley contemplating a picture of his family, when suddenly he is surrounded by a group of muggers; a sports star is having his injured hand bandaged in a locker room; some dangerous-looking men are bullying an old man on the subway while everyone looks away; and a burning building explodes as the fire department tries to put out the fire. Cut to a close-up of a lone fireman with a resigned look on his face sliding his protective visor down over his face. BE SELFLESS, the caption reads, before he charges into the burning building. The sports star walks down the passageway to return to the game, and we are told to BE DETERMINED. A bespeckled man gets up from his seat on the subway to defend the old man: BE COURAGEOUS the ad tells us as we see a close-up of his angry face, while other passengers stand up behind him in a show of solidarity.
Up to this point, I thought it might be a public service announcement about standing up to bullying, or maybe an NGO trying to empower youth to fight violence and poverty in their communities, to volunteer, or to have the courage to pursue their dreams despite the obstacles. But as it continued, I began to have my doubts. From the positive messages of being “selfless,” determined,” and “courageous,” the ad cuts back to the young man in the rain-drenched alley surrounded by his aggressors and a close-up of a fist being clenched, as he prepares to fight what looks like a losing battle. BE FEARED we are told as the camera zooms out on the impending melee, and we are left wondering not only at the outcome, but also about what the ad is really promoting. Then, abruptly, it cuts to a video game batman standing on top of a building in the gloomy urban night, and we have our answer as we are told to: BE THE BATMAN. Batman then jumps from the building and a series of images of mayhem ensue, finishing with the batman logo and information on how to order the new video game.
Is it just me who is tired of this advertising BS? Let’s take a moment to analyze this clever piece of propaganda. The first storyline is patently absurd. What person ends up in dark alley in a big city in the rain contemplating a family picture? While I am aware of the fictional backstory of Bruce Wayne, AKA Batman, I am also aware of how the ad, like many Hollywood movies, uses the threat to family to justify its message of vigilante justice, as expressed by the BE FEARED exhortation. Meanwhile, the other storylines tell us to be selfless and courageous (like a fireman or a stranger on the subway coming to the rescue), or determined like an injured athlete returning to the game. The reward of this selflessness, courage, and determination is honor from protecting the public good, and glory for the athlete who helps his team to victory. So somehow we can resort to violence and be unaccountable for our actions to the point that we are feared, much as dictators are feared, while also being good citizens who protect law and order, and famous athletes. In sum, we can be a fictional superhero, good citizens, and accomplished professionals, all without leaving the comfort of our living room couch.
The problem with this ad, and video games in general, is that it promotes the exact opposite of citizenship, courage, and determination. Again, it is the problem of a product (like the automobile or social networking) trying to insert itself into our lives as the source of value. But what video games really do is rob us of value and our values. They consume our time and money, and prevent us from interacting with each other as citizens in the public space. Let's get it straight: playing video games is not an expression of selflessness, courage, and determination. When we talk about determination (such as that of a professional who spends their entire life working to reach the pinnacle of their field), we are not talking about relentlessly pushing buttons in a controlled computer environment. As for selflessness, you would be hard-pressed to find anything more selfish (and meaningless) than playing video games. Finally, what is courageous about living life isolated from society staring at a computer screen trying to gain status in an artificial world?
Most people realize that playing video games is an alienating waste of time, or at least the industry does, seeing that it sees fit to tell potential customers that by buying the product and playing it they will BE FEARED. For what the gaming industry is really selling is the illusion of control, and by extension power. Because power is control. It’s a seductive message in a society with few jobs, extreme inequality, exploitative business, and unaccountable government where most people have little control over their lives. By exhorting gamers to BE THE BATMAN, the gaming industry is in fact taking control away from the people who play its games, by co-opting the values they inherently possess as human beings and enabling them to channel their frustrations through the proxy of a digital illusion. Unfortunately, the scam seems to be working. The gaming market is estimated to be worth more than 100 billion dollars, and what once was the domain of teenage boys, has become a demographic that includes middle-aged adults, and almost as many women as men.
In my opinion, the growth of the gaming industry is part of a worrying trend of social isolation abetted by technology that results in political apathy and a lack of social empathy. Increasingly, we seem to seek the escape of entertainment to avoid acknowledging the growing problems of our society. Meanwhile, gaming companies continue to sell their products through dishonest advertising messages of empowerment. In such an environment, I feel a different message is in order: I encourage people to BE SKEPTICAL. Be skeptical of businesses selling you useless baubles and mindless entertainment. Be skeptical of wasting your life playing games (particularly the material status game) that offer false achievement and consumer servitude. Instead, have the selflessness to participate in your community, the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and the determination to work hard toward your goals. Only then will you find that you can BE A CITIZEN who has a positive impact on other people’s lives.