Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has six stars on GTA but no cheat codes!! #BostonBombings
—Barry Grant (@BarryFGrant) April 19, 2013
The above tweet is an example of one of the jokes that trended on Twitter while police and other law enforcement agencies hunted for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the most important cultural issue that emerged from social media – that would probably be the various racial digs motivated by, at best, jingoistic ignorance. But I had at least prepared myself for that problem (which isn’t to say it doesn’t matter). Turning a very real danger into a video gamer’s inside joke, however, caught me utterly off-guard. At its best, the tweet is pointless and crude; at worst, it casts a known terrorist in a harmless and even gleefully positive anti-hero light. Either way, the tweet is born of a generation that leans far too heavily on media to interpret the world.
My conversations are often dominated by shared media. In fact, one of the first comments I heard at work the morning after police first encountered Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for example, attempted to put the chase in perspective. “The last manhunt I saw like this,” my coworker said, “involved Tommy Lee Jones and The Fugitive.” I chuckled, because I love Tommy Lee Jones and because it’s true. The last manhunt I saw was Harrison Ford running from Jones’s dogged US Marshal on AMC this last month. It’s the only “experience” I have to compare with what I read on Twitter and what I saw on a local Boston news feed. Some might point out that books, movies, and narratives have always helped us to interpret the tragic, the surreal, and the hard to watch. And that’s probably true. As a writer I even hope that’s true, because if narratives both tragic and comic can’t aid us in very real ways, people like me are wasting our time.
The difference in the last 80 years or so (make it longer or shorter if you need to), is that more than ever consumer-based media are drawing us into their simulated experiences. The distance between the users of media and the content is smaller than ever. IMAX and the latest 3D rave, for example, are perhaps the current competing nadirs of this descent into ever greater immersion; at least, as realized in cinema. There’s also Netflix or Hulu, which encourage us to “binge watch” and thereby enable artificial closeness with our favorite characters. We share hours upon consecutive hours with them, the “real world” kept at bay for what sometimes feels like days at a time. I am guilty of such activity. I speak in Bluth or Battlestar Galactica when I’m trying to find an analogy that can help clarify, amuse, or comfort. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but for Millenials, for those close to 30 and younger, the desire for and the interaction with immersive media seems almost pervasive.
And so: video games. The one form of consumer media that is most concerned with simulating experience. Games like Grand Theft Auto depend on our choices, our “actions,” and for many of us such games offer the only parallel for otherwise rare circumstances. Because of this, it became a go-to paradigm for a terrorist on the run, a situation that deserved something like solemn assessment or minor shock, not (implicit) anti-hero praise. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not cool. He is not “insane” in an admirable way, as one tweet suggested. He’s a terrorist, like Timothy McVeigh, Eric Randolph, or the myriad 9/11 perpetrators. Those comparing his position to the player-character in a video game know this. And yet, Grand Theft Auto is still invoked. Which doesn’t make sense because it is the shallowest prism one could use to understand the situation, and while it’s “just a joke,” it’s also unproductive drivel that makes me think even less of a franchise I always felt veered far too easily into a murdering rapist’s escape fantasy.1
But then, I relied on The Fugitive to enlighten me about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and laughed when I did so. Not a long laugh, and I certainly reflected on how foolish it was to reduce the current situation to movie references. But reducing it in that particular fashion was still one of my first reactions. Another was to compare it with Homeland, and while that analogy was more solemn, I was nonetheless using the crutch of media to interpret an event I don’t understand but which (appropriately and, perhaps, otherwise) fascinates me. Most damning of all, maybe, is that I started writing this very article as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was still being chased. Some of my first thoughts in the midst of tragedy circled around media, and that was partly the case because others on Twitter forced media into the conversation. Of course, I had chosen to use Twitter.
The tweet that opens this article is most distressing because of the ending hashtag: #BostonBombings. Having used Grand Theft Auto to contextualize the event, the short dispatch then consigns the tragedy to a media experience in and of itself. And the latter fact relies heavily on the former. Plenty of people used that very hashtag and others like it to connect themselves to a conversation intent on relaying news, offering prayers, and asking questions. But the joke in this tweet colors the tag that follows it, and #BostonBombings is reduced to just another meme.
Personally, as I sat up late on Thursday night reading the hundreds of tweets about #MITShooting and #Watertown, I found Twitter enlightening and engrossing. I couldn’t turn away, the local live feed from a Boston news station playing in my ear then and as I wrote this piece the next morning. I felt like I was experiencing this kind of event in a way I never have before, almost like I was close to it. And I was, because that’s the wonder of modern technology. But I also wasn’t – obviously – and others on Twitter weren’t, and that mixture of actual distance and artificial proximity is the only reason I can see for such jokes to spread like sophomoric wildfire. We’re all plugged in, watching, so the joke has an audience with which to land. But we’re not there, so we can belittle the situation without the accountability of stray bullets or city-wide lockdown.2
Before I move on from Twitter completely, I should say that the tweet in question and others like it very much support Marshall McLuhan’s much-quoted aphorism “the medium is the message.” Twitter is capable of plenty that is constructive or entertaining, much of the coverage and conversation surrounding the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev being an example of the former. But Twitter and Facebook far too often encourage even the most thoughtful person to turn every political thought into a one-liner. There’s room for this, maybe a need in some cases, but when every political thought must be capable of reduction we’re left with a series of jokes responding to jokes, and anyone who wants to disagree is dismissed as simply “not getting it.” I’m thinking specifically about when you respond to a friend’s hurtful or insensitive (or simply short-sighted) meme and are cast off into the waters of the overly sensitive. I don’t think we need to do away with humor or Twitter, I just think we’re letting the most prominent media control the conversation, letting them dictate how we dialogue (in short bursts) and therefore driving what we’re able to say within a dialogue.
To return to the more pressing issue, I play violent video games and I do not think they are solely responsible for school shootings or any other kinds of terror. But acknowledging their impact on the conversations surrounding terror, at the very least, is becoming more and more necessary. If you watch programs like The Wire, The Sopranos, or other profanity-laden shows, the f‑word loses its sting. I know this because I was raised in a family that thought the “f‑word” was “freaking.” Now the harsher iteration hardly surprises me at all, and while I try to maintain a certain disdain for it, I’ve lost a vital sense of outrage. At least, most of the time. Part of my sense of outrage was lost within the normative desensitization that is growing up, but part of it was the shows I watched in college.
It would seem that some players of Grand Theft Auto have undergone a similar evolution in regards to violence. Maybe not if it was in their face, in their own neighborhood, but from the distance of Twitter, through the distancing analogy of simulated violence, they have tried to reduce the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to another chapter in their own unreal world.
Unfortunately, or perhaps thankfully, their reductivist analogies have made me reconsider my own.
- Harsh words, I know, but I didn’t say that it was necessarily such an escape fantasy. I play games others might dismiss as crudely (if not in the exact same fashion), but GTA has always seemed particularly problematic to me. [↩]
- Even those in Boston may have been physically distant enough for such humor, given the city’s disparate neighborhoods. But I imagine most of these jokes came from other parts of the nation and world. If not, the distancing effects of technology are perhaps more potent than I initially thought. [↩]