The focus of this topic is going to focus on the cross section of art called “media.”  This encompasses books, radio, plays, movies, television shows, video games, sculpture, etc.

By inflammatory content, I refer to certain elements that tend to evoke a strong visceral response – violence, sexuality, foul language, religion, philosophy.  Specifically, whether and when it’s appropriate to include inflammatory content.

If you’ve read my past two posts, you can likely see the direction this is headed.

This is very much a case when you apply the principles of judging art in a concrete sense.  You identify the interpretation/function that most closely identifies with the art, and apply the nobility of the function.

Warren Spector recently made news with his claim that the video games industry is “fetishizing violence.” It’s no secret that video games have a history of violence, and that there have been some particularly violent and graphic games in recent history. The question becomes “to what end?” Is the purpose of the game to revel in the violence and gore? Is the purpose of the violence to carry the narrative? Is the violence simply there to “spice up” the narrative? Mr. Spector seems to imply that we are at best “spicing it up” and at worst revelling in violence in games. In competitive first-person shooters, this is particularly prominent, rewarding the player for headshots and kill streaks.
In all honesty, there is likely an element of all three in many recent games. God of War and Mortal Kombat are particularly severe examples of revelling in violence – the point seems to be to go as over-the-top as possible. On the other hand, we have the Call of Duty Series, or the Mass Effect series. In these games, the violence is primarily to carry the plot – the violence isn’t the raison d’etre, but it is a very real element.  Even in these games, however, there’s a push to use the violence as a stylistic flourish, to emphasise the “cool” factor.

But that’s all from the design side.  I would argue, in fact, that it is the design side that fetishizes violence.  I like to imagine that gamers played God of War because the gameplay was enjoyable.  I realize that many people played Mortal Kombat for the over-the-top violence, but I also note that it’s relatively unpopular among fighting games – it’s sold more on the name and controversy.  A game may get lots of attention for its inflammatory content, but few people seek out games for that reason, and the sales numbers tend to carry it out.  Violence won’t sink video games for the same reason that storytelling won’t elevate them – the core demographic remains focused on gameplay.

So the extreme violence in games doesn’t really add much to a game’s value, and actually devalues the game as it fetishizes violence.  But violence doesn’t necessarily hurt a game.  Half Life is quite violent, but the violence is in the surface of a greater narrative, executed in a manner that enhances the overall story.

Movies work the same way.  Guns and explosions-fests are recognized as cinematic junk food – a low value entertainment, though some argue that it’s actively detrimental to agency and self-actualization – Maslow’s highest hierarchy.  The catch, however, is that much of experience, especially the act of consumption, can eb argued as detrimental to this highest hierarchy.   While this argument seems to make sense, it is absurd.  Maslow’s hierarchy is illustrated as a pyramid for that very reason – you cannot adequately fulfill the higher needs without a base of the lower needs.  While one shouldn’t become absorbed in consumption, it is equally detrimental to neglect your basic needs in the pursuit of self-actualization.  So a little junk food can be okay.  In fact, as it can serve the lower needs, it is in it’s lesser sense a good.

And, of course, this carries over into foul language, sexual content, and all those other sorts of content.  Is it in the service of the greater experience, or is the experience in the service of the content?  In pornography, the entire product is directed toward sexual gratification.  In quite a large section of media, however, sexual content is directed toward a higher purpose – generally progression of the narrative.

And we then return to that third possibility – inserting inflammatory content to “spice it up.”  Generally, this is gratuitous violence, or a gratuitous sex scene, or gratuitous foul language.  In other words, it is unnecessary, and likely detrimental.  Unfortunately, it is often difficult to separate “gratuitous” from “contributory,” and there is often a difference of opinion on the matter.  However, the distinction between gratuitous and contributory is the key element in judging the value of such inflammatory insertions.  It is relatively obvious, by comparison, to determine if the inflammatory is in the service of the art, or if the art is in the service of the inflammatory.