Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ignorance is Bliss. Kill the Scientists.

As I’m writing this, several Italian scientists are going on trial for manslaughter because (if I am understanding the news reports I have read correctly), they failed to predict an earthquake that killed over 300 people. Not because they caused the earthquake; not because they knew there would be an earthquake and didn’t tell anyone; but because they didn’t know there would be an earthquake. Essentially (and again, assuming I am reading this correctly), the scientists are being charged with the deaths of hundreds simply because they were unable to do something they hoped they would be able to do.

Months earlier, Australia’s top climate scientists began receiving abusive phone calls as well as death threats because of the work they have been doing towards better understanding global warming. As opposed to the Italian scientists being crucified for not doing something the general public wanted them to do, these scientists are being threatened for saying something no one wants to hear.

These are two pretty extreme examples of the fall out of what I see as a recent, pervasive trend of wanting to shoot the scientific messenger. Scientists try to understand the world and sometimes that means discovering things we would rather not know, such as how we are responsible for a progressively warming planet and rising sea levels. Instead of dealing with the problems, we move to discredit those delivering it. After all, it is easier to assume the world isn’t warming than it is to actually change our behaviours and societies enough to fix it.

Not helping is a rise in the fundamentalist and conservative right in both the press and politics of many countries that have an interest in not just discrediting climate change but also evolution, stem cell research, and many other strands of science. As such, over the past decades, the authority of scientists on a vast range of subjects has been eroded down to the same level as newspaper editorials, footpath vox pops, and angry bloggers. Many people don't want to hear from the brainy, ivory tower intellectuals about a topic; they want to hear from the average Joe.

Of course, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Scientists have always been scapegoated for telling people what they don’t want to hear and not telling them what they do want to hear. It comes in waves, and at the moment, as we come to terms with just how unsustainable our first-world lives really are, we are certainly at the muddy bottom of the curve.

Personally, I find it all incredibly infuriating when I watch television and see creationism and evolution debated as equal ‘theories’, or when the secret agendas of a climate scientist's peer-reviewed findings are questioned by an oil company, but that is not an area I’m an expert in or tend to write on. What I find interesting, however, is how this general attitude to the sciences permeates and is reflected in our cultural texts. In particularly, two videogames I’ve played and loved in recent months I think could be seen as emerging from this culture that has become obsessed with discrediting and deriding the sciences.

Two caveats. One: There have been stories about well-meaning scientists making dumb mistakes and paying the consequences for them for as long as there has been scientists (Frankenstein, for instance), and I am not trying to say “Look at this entirely unique thing that has never happened before!”. Rather, I’m hoping to just point at what I see as a really interesting, recent emergence of it. Two: These games, I don’t for a minute believe, are intentionally forwarding some secret, anti-science agenda. Rather, they simply reflect the culture they are produced in.

The first game is Halfbrick’s amazing Jetpack Joyride. Jetpack Joyride is the definitive moment where Canabalt stopped referring to a group of games mimicking Saltsman’s game and started referring to an actual genre. Jetpack Joyride has a simple framing narrative set up mostly in the game’s trailer: playable character Barry is a down-and-out blue collar who is sick of his day job and decides to steal a machinegun jetpack from the top secret science lab. After blowing through the wall and sending scientists flying, Barry straps on the backpack and the player must use the jetpack (and a range of other contraptions) to avoid electric zappers and missiles while collecting coins and getting as far as possible. The gameplay is so simple, so intuitive, yet so compelling, so diverse, and so intuitive. It is a phenomenal game and if you own an iOS device and have yet to own it, you are doing yourself a great disservice. But what stands out most in Jetpack Joyride is the insane amount of polish that has gone into the game—something that Halfbrick is already well known for after their successful Fruit Ninja. The shockwaves from explosions, the “thud” of the Little Stomper vehicle’s footsteps, the thrust of the jetpack all feel so good.

One such detail is the little scientists running around beneath you. The little guys are panicking, helpless, and clueless as you destroy their lab and send bullets flying everywhere. It’s as though they have no idea how to react to Barry stealing their device. They run back and forward, they get in the road of rockets, get capped by your bullets, immolated by your flames, and zapped by the zappers. Sometimes, they just slip over.

It’s meant to be funny, watching them run around and get zapped, and it truly is. The scientists also come into play in the games mission structure, with objectives such as high-fiving (i.e. running past) scientists and achievements for avoiding them. But, ultimately, Jetpack Joyride is a product of a culture influenced by politicians and the press determined to discredit and degrade scientists. Everything in the portrayal of the scientists and of Barry in relationship to the scientists is about portraying the supposedly-intelligent scientists as actually dumb and brought down to the same level as the supposedly-yokel blue-collar worker who is actually in charge. It’s a revenge fantasy, really. Look at how dumb the stupid scientists are. Not so smart now, eh? I have your contraption and you don’t have any answers as to what to do about it.

The other game is also an iOS title, but one that is probably far less known. This game is League of Evil, and you play a brawny cyborg who must punch the heads off evil scientists. Again, League of Evil is a great game. Despite the on-screen controls, it is one of the better sidescrollers on iOS and has a real Super Meat Boy Lite kind of feel. But, again, it is possible to read it as emerging from an anti-science culture. Unlike Jetpack Joyride’s scientists, the unquestioningly evil scientists of League of Evil just stand there, waiting for you to punch their heads off. It’s the brawn’s time to shine.

In fairness, this is part and parcel of being a videogame—it is easier to put the player in control of a character whose strength lies in physical abilities than intellectual ones. When you press a button on your controller, you generally want to see something tangible happen in the videogame’s world. It’s something that Half Life 2 comments on when Barney remarks how useful Gordon Freeman’s MIT doctorate was for pulling a lever. So usually, if not the bad guy, the scientist is rarely in a role more noble than sidekick, the one giving the brawny main dude his cool gadgets. Snake has Otakon, Bond has Q, Ezio has de Vinci.

So it is not as though Jetpack Joyride and League of Evil have made scientists the victims/enemies simple because “society hates science nowadays” or anything so reductive. But rather, the way the scientists are presented as dumb, degraded, and helpless offers an interesting lens through which we can see how the prolonged treatment of scientists and science within the media and by our politicians is perhaps starting to drip down into an everyday perception of science as untrustworthy, annoying, and dangerous.


Adrian Forest said...

Should we really be uncritically accepting the idea that "it is easier to put the player in control of a character whose strength lies in physical abilities than intellectual ones"?

Brendan Keogh said...


Yes, it is an assumption I am quite content to make uncritically. Not that it is always the case or should be the case but that communicating "you pressed A and the character punched that dude's head off" is much easier than communicating "you pressed A and formulated an equation on counting the number of bubbles in a glass of lemonade" or "you pressed A and now you feel sad".

Certainly, videogames can communicate other abilities and actions other than physical ones, but physical ones are easier and thus what most games allow the playable character to do.

zach said...

at least in the US, anti-science positions are pretty clearly linked to pro-religious positions (A lot of groups who attack the idea of global warming tend to also support attacks on evolution in favor of intelligent design, for example) - and for me that's the element that JJ is really missing to make me feel weird about it.

then again I play with the non-murderous jetpacks and I try to high-five as many scientists as possible so :3

Anonymous said...

Wanting to shoot the scientific messenger is a recent trend only because in a more distant past, the standard practice was to burn him/her at the stake :P

Jokes aside, while I share a concern that despite the impact science has had in our lives, fact-based decision making (as opposed as relying on religious dogma or just going for what appeals to the basest instincts of the people) is still very much an alien concept for many, I don't think games are the worst offenders in that sense.

In a way, even when the narrative of a game is definitely questionable, the act of mastering a game can be seen as a scientific problem, where the player has to figure out the ruleset of the game world and bend it for his/her own benefit. It is a pity that rarely this element is wrapped in a narrative that involves a scientist depicted in a positive light (apparently, Mengele works better as a game character than Salk) or wrapped in an abstraction with scientific meaning (and the potential is definitely there, given the recent news of a complex biochemistry problem being solved by gamers).

Last thing: the post contains factual errors related to the Italian scientists' case. The accusations expressly does not concern the fact that "they didn’t know there would be an earthquake". Summarizing a bit, they are put on trial because they said in a press release that there would be NO earthquake (actually, that there was no risk). The additional relevant facts are that the city was located next to a fault line, that they knew that most buildings did not have enough seismic protection (in fact, the earthquake also caused 70.000 people to lose their house), and that there is general consensus in the scientific community that while tremors do not necessarily indicate an imminent earthquake, but they are nevertheless a warning sign. Furthermore, they have been brought into trial because the relatives of about 30 of the victims claimed that they were planning to go and sleep in the car or outside the city and they then decided to stay at home after hearing the press release. It's quite a complex case, more related to scientific communication and negligence than scientific truth.