11.22.2014

The Pleasures of a Victimless Crime

When I was 10 years old I went on a Men's Fishing Trip "Up North" with a group of 30 men and their sons for a weekend of fishing, bonfires, laughter and getting socialized into manhood.

I wasn't really that into fishing at the time, but I caught a big pike and the trip was awesome.  Beginning to end: I loved it.

One night near the end of the long weekend the men announced that there would be a snipe hunt after dinner.  I'm not going to spoil how a snipe hunt works, but it is a well-rehearsed prank that plays out amongst outdoorsmen everywhere.

The adults prank the kids in an elaborate quest that includes mystery, elaborate hunting rituals and a big reveal at the end.

Kids who go on their first snipe hunt?  Know nothing.  And afterwards?  They know everything.

Before the hunt actually started  I suspected deception from the faces, eyes and smirks of the thirteen and fourteen year old boys on the trip.  They were excited about the snipe hunt and while they were trying to hide it -- I could see that they knew something I didn't.  This fact made me edgy and suspicious as the late night hour approached, but by the time that I was walking through the pitch black woods with my friend Tom?  Otherwise alone?  In the woods? Carrying pots and spoons?  At night trying to flush the snipe out of the bushes and into the trap with noise?  I forgot about my suspicions of those adolescent smirks because I was SCARED TO DEATH.

My childhood included plenty of scary games in the dark (Bloody Murder, Ghost in the Graveyard) but there was something uniquely terrifying about being two kids deep in the woods alone, hearing other (also frightened kids) walking nearby and knowing that teenagers with possibly misanthropic motives could also be near.

And it was awesome.  Later, after the snipe hunt, I understood the slight smile, the slight scorn, the slight feeling of superiority that those thirteen and fourteen year olds must have had.  I understood what it meant to be an insider.  I understood the perverse pleasure they took in our initiation.  And a little bit?  In retrospect?  I see in this gentle hazing -- a rite of passage -- an invitation to join the ranks of manhood.

I hadn't thought about this experience -- The Big Snipe Hunt -- for many years until I started to think about this video that my son showed me last week.

My son is thirteen on the verge of fourteen and I'm grateful that even though he's now playing first shooter games (which I don't like and prohibited for many years), he still wants to share them with me and have me understand what he thinks is cool about them.  He also has been parented  by youtube as much as me -- not because of any abdication on my part -- but because youtube's omniscience overwhelms any parenting skill I have.  Youtube has taught him to master yo-yo-ing, to successfully hack every computer and computerized device in the house, to solve Rubik's Cube in close to a minute and to replicate every soccer move Messi ever made famous.  So "Dad, lookatthis!" live-sharing of youtube punctuates every unexpected mundane task at our house.  Rarely do the fails(!), tricks(!) or pranks(!) rise above the quotidian level of my engagement.  This one was a different.

In a  contemporary subdivision rendered in a bland iconic animation, heavily weaponized mercenary contractors engage in one on one killing duels.  Nothing new there -- this first person shooter ritual is repeated in houses all over America every day.

But instead of just hearing the sounds of warfare, in this youtube vid, we hear the sound of a whining, crying 6 year old.  This kid probably plays Modern Warfare in a cluttered ordinary dull living room untouched by any kind of war.  And we get the sense from his protests that he's getting pwned by an older, silent, merciless player.

My son held the iPad in my direction: Dad, Listen to this it's hilarious.  He's crying.  It's so funny. 

The six year old cried, he complained, he begged, he threatened to tell his dad.  And I understood right away that the video was "funny" because of the juxtaposition of these "manly" violent actions with such childish whiny vocal tones.  Begging and pleading by an over-indulged, over-entitled, under-skilled random kid both felt ridiculous (the juxtaposition!) and a comic come-upance (bratty kid! deserves it!).

The title of this video was "Call of Duty Kid Cries [So Hilarious]."  The 2000+  thumbs-ups below agreed.

Hilarious.

I'm a big fan of rites of passage, rituals in general, the history and performance of gender, but the longer I thought about this video, the less I liked it.  Youtube provides an endless plentitude of this genre -- I don't know if there's a name for it yet -- so in the absence of knowing, I'm naming it:

the Little Kid Cries: LOL Genre.

Later in the video, as the kid's rank is downgraded and he watches as we hear him lament at length.

"Why did you do that?"

Dramatic music swells, the ranking texts are displayed over honorable looking military monuments and the kid continues his whine:

"I worked so hard!  And now I can't even play!  Why did you do that!?  Answer me! Why!"

And then he starts to weep.

I admit it: the weeping feels overwraught and overplayed.  A part of me suspects that this kid throws fits at every department store where his parents won't buy him a new toy machine gun or plastic machete.

But on the other hand, it doesn't matter to me: this is a kid crying.  He's been wronged and he's crying.  His humiliation has been repurposed for comedic affect.  And two-thousand + viewers agree:

It's hilarious.

In general I love texts that emerge from the work of fans -- remixed, mashed-up, sweded revisions that inflect mass culture with more personal and less official meanings.   So why do I feel so different about this dark corner of the machinima universe?

The straightforward answer is that this game, this video, this post and this genre thrive on a kind of dissociation that hurts people.  The title of my blog post is a lie: there are no victimless crimes and none of the crimes of this story are as innocent as they pretend to be.  This argument is more conservative than I want to be and not nuanced enough to account for any of the particular viewers or commenters or thumbs-uppers.

Possibly it's not even accurate enough to account for this particular youtuber who enjoyed trolling this kid enough that he decided to upload this episode to his youtube fans and followers and indicate with the title that a COMIC reading space was the point.

Our transcendence through his pain.   

I don't know this guy and I don't know what he was thinking, but it's pretty clear that this rhetorical move has become a common one, and I believe that dissociation is the shadow of all the laughter that these videos generate.

The pleasure of Modern Warfare does pose as a victimless crime.  All the thrill of heroism, murder and glory without any morticians, funerals, widows or orphans.

And the pleasure of trolling a whiny brat seems well-informed by thousands of videos of spoiled rotten children filmed and uploaded to the internets by their parents.   We don't even see this six year old.  We don't even know his name!  Victimless crime!  And so LOL Hilarious OMG!  Uploading this video FEELS like a victimless crime.

The most subtle pleasure though is that of the viewers, the commenters, the thumbs-uppers.  Our laughter feels as immaterial as it is instinctive.  Our contributions to big data pervade so much of our lives that this laugh, this click, this Ha!, this THUMBS-UP! hardly feels like a contribution to the rhetorical sphere.

But my argument is that these are not victimless pleasures and that these crimes victimize not only the users, but (more poignantly?) our life together.

I like Ian Bogost's arguments about the procedural rhetoric that video games articulate: modes that help players deliberate about particular questions relevant to particular spheres.  But the rhetorical moment that I'm focusing on here is an epideictic one.  Aristotle classified the epideictic genre as speeches to praise or blame (funeral orations, a comedy roast, an awards ceremony and, arguably, the entire field of public relations).  He argued that these kinds of appeals were particularly useful in helping a community share a particular value or recognize a common enemy.

The gamers who repurpose these trolling vids invite their audience to laugh at the childish response to violence and humiliation.  The viewers perform the value of hardened masculinity by laughing at a common enemy: the vulnerable weak girlish cries of a child.

This laughter offers them transcendence against the threats that still oppose them, threatening imminent loss and possible humiliation.  The laughter also offers transcendence internally over the memories they have of the times they cried, in public, as a child.  And then, surprised to find out that they were "too old to cry" (was it a taunt?  a sneer?), they soldier forward into manhood.  Repressing and ignoring emotions.  Embracing rationality and aggression.

It's not that I find rites of passage or even particular cultural articulations of manhood to be problematic.  Remember the snipe hunt?  There is a satisfaction and a beauty to knowing and understanding what is required of you and how you can accomplish it.  There is therapeutic salve in the laughter and the taunts directed toward one's own innocent past.

The difference between the snipe hunt and the crying kid LOL genre?  In the snipe hunt, the sneer and the taunt are just a part of enfolding the novitiate into a community of acceptance and maturity, accepting the forgotten naivete and innocence of childhood as a part of a never ending cycle of maturity and communal development.  Next year at the snipe hunt you will sneer with the 14 year olds.  You'll be one of us.  A man.

The experience of new media feels precariously disintegrative, though.  Games are played in latch-key living rooms, quiet bedrooms. Youtube vids are watched on small screens under the covers and the stinging humiliation and scorn we sling at the whiny brats we do not know cannot be accompanied by the same sort of re-integration or even self-recognition that multi-generational, geographically-contextualized communities provide.

I fear that the scorn and the taunts are insufficiently linked to our own development.  I fear the compassionate commitment that accompanies gentle hazing by friends or family dissipates in a world defined by such transient relationshipsand the anonymous feeling that the age of big data bequeaths on all of us.

1 comment:

jonathanjmontgomery said...

I really liked your thinking here--I never thought about what the snipe hunt would mean for the person in on the joke and the nubie, how the person becomes part of the group once they know. The kid in the video does not experience this, and worse, we become an audience to the kids frustration, but not in sympathy. In my classes in high school, we talk about the effects of anonymity on the quality of comments and discussion that happens under videos and articles online. You've given me more thinking to share with my students. Thanks.