Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Analysis: "Chasing Ghosts" and the Pursuit of Two Rabbits and Capturing None

I can't believe that teachers are using video games as teaching aids in their lessons; I mean, when I was a kid I would rush home to play video games - I don't want to play video games in school. That's work. Don't ruin my hobby my associating it with something worthwhile.

Still, the examples are out there. The University of Minnesota used the role playing game "Neverwinter Nights" (2003) as a aid to teach interviewing skills to journalism students. Minnesota middle school teacher Brock Dubbels taught a lesson that compared the classical works of Homer to Sega mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. In fact, Constance Steinkuehler, professor of Education Communications and World of Warcraft undead priest, wrote a paper called "Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds" in which she argued video gamers were applying the scientific method by postulating theories on how best to tackle bosses, gathering empirical data by first-hand experimentation and afterwards discussing the results with their lab partners/fellow paladins and clerics. Video games are a hobby that can be exploited for their logic and reasoning skills as well as a aide for teaching.

Back in my day, the Golden Age in which video games was still only considered mental cotton candy that would rot a 2D perspective of your brain, it would never for a moment be considered plausible that we could play video games for learning. We had "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" (1985) and "Oregon Trail" (1982); but all I learned from those games is that if you never go anywhere you'll never get lost, and that it isn't excessive to shoot cattle for a surplus of 3000 lbs. It prepared us - not well - for a life of staring blankly at video monitors.

Using computers was a way for us to familiarize ourselves with technology and the oncoming age of information. We all kind of knew that, probably because we'd rather play Donkey Kong than kickball. However, what I couldn't believe is that we would watch movies in class. Movies! The teacher would wheel in that giant trolley with the TV on top and the VCR in the middle, and all the students would know that we can slack off for the next hour without penalty. This was for me the equivalent of a teacher bringing in WiiFit to class because it's raining outside and we don't get to use the parachute (maybe I'll explain that later...).

I remember studying in high school the Scottish play by Shakespeare - you know, the one whose name you can't mention anymore, like Sarah Paylin or Leroy Jenkins. I remember thinking that it was crazy since we weren't reading books anymore but instead watching a movie, and as anyone can tell you: watching a movie isn't reading - it's fun.

I don't remember many details of the version we watched, but it was the one where the monologue was a creepy inner dialogue that wasn't actually spoken; instead, the character would putz around as he was thinking, walking from one dim room to the next. The other thing that I remember is that this movie version was much more kick ass than they book. In the movie, after all the lines are spoken and the play is over there is actually still more - the rocking big fight at the end. Mr Vaulting-Ambition is defeated and exposed, but he still has not received his comeuppance. Surrounded by enemy troops and left vulnerably alone, Mr Bad Luck Name challenges any one man to try and defeat him. Being a King, Mr Better Left Unsaid is fiercesome and too terrible for any of the common foot soldiers that surround him.

Of course, as all you Scottish play fans know, MacDuff has a can of whoopass on him and he brought he can opener with him. After studying the play for weeks, it was a real eye-opener to witness a kick-ass kitchen sink blow-out of a fight. And besides being so awesome, it was particularly memorable since the last few shots of the movie was a POV from his decapitated head as the victorious army carried it around mounted on a pike.

Video games may teach something to children; it may even be something worthwhile. However it wasn't a video game that taught me this: "Kings die hard." There are many themes and ideas percolating within the Scottish play, but that was the one thing that I was left with after watching that movie during school.

Kings die hard. That's why it's ironic that this central theme of the "Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade" (2007) isn't one I had learned from video games and their many bosses at the end of levels, although this theme is emphasized with scorn and yet pathos with all the characters depicted in this documentary by Lincoln Ruchti.

After watching the documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" (2007), the similarities between these two movies about competitive classic video gaming don't outweigh the many differences. Chasing Ghosts is more about video games than King of Kong, even showing most of a Pac-Man level using a pattern called "tunnel terror"; however, like King of Kong, Chasing Ghosts is not about video games themselves as much as it is about the people who play them.

Also, worth comparing is the fact that both movies are incredibly manipluative, with Chasing Ghosts being the more obvious of culprits. Chasing Ghosts chronicles the high rise to prominence of arcade video game high score champions of the early 80's as well as the spectular crash of the arcade industry that has left these people seemingly picking up the pieces ever since, some of them still to this day. Chasing Ghosts does a manic switch from emphasizing the skill and importance of these people as well as the fame they endured as "kings" of their domain to outright condescension of these people who are maligned as outcasts and extremists who require video games as an escape from the society to which they can't adapt. It's the old media trick done in a 90 minutes movie: you tear down the very same subjects you yourself built up.

In Chasing Ghosts, this manipluation happens again and again. Director shows some of these people in a terribly poor light, but reporting the sad truth isn't as effective as manipluating these events for maximum effect. Jeanifer, the girlfriend to Leo Daniels who is suggested to be a pimp and been extremely promiscuous, says despondently, "Yeah, he's met alot of people... but that's okay." Mark Robichek is depicted as being afflicted with compulsive-obsessive behavior, and both folds a t-shirt on camera as well as relaxes in a massage chair to "Wild Thing" by Tone Loc to comedic effect. Walter Day's assertation that he will embark on a musical career after retiring from scorekeeping is followed by a pastiche of his songs, which show them to be nonesensical and has him making mistake after mistake. Todd Rodgers is shown to be a shut-in who amasses a overly large collection of spiders who has such a long life story of tragedy and loss it is edited down to a verbal collage for tragicomic effect. We are teased with Robert Mruczek's status as an art collector until we find out he collects pin-up art of women in explicit poses, which alongside
the fact that he still lives with his parents and doesn't have any other interests besides playing video games colors him as being a hopeless loser. Steve Sanders' admission he lied about his Donkey Kong high score is miraculously accompanied by a shot of Sanders asking for forgiveness during a church service. It goes on.

I always go overboard with the examples, but I admit it's fun to be excessive when it proves your point. And anyways, it's the internet.

Chasing Ghosts is much more manipluative than King of Kong, but as I said this is to be expected as documentaries and media in general all have a bias. This isn't the truth, this is somebody's version of the truth. You can't just stick up the truth on the screen; it can't possibly work that way.

So what is the truth of Chasing Ghosts? If you were to infer from the title, the idea is that these are people who are chasing the glory of a by-gone era that won't return, pursuing nothing but the etereal remains of relevance important only to themselves and not the society that they can't fit in with. This could very well be the message, since the film casts such a disparaging light upon them. However, the title Chasing Ghosts can also mean the search for acceptance that was never afforded this culture and its heroes, even though they got a fleeting moment of prestige and fame back when it started. The film has no more tragic hero than Walter Day, who is suggested to have wasted a life babysitting other people's children and had not capitalized on fame like other video game champions.

That's how the film ends, on a sad tragic note with Walter Day mailing his retired referee jersey to the Smithsonian Museum's Video game history department, though no such department exists. A tragic and sad ending that happened after affording laughs at their expense, such as suggesting with a montage of girls from the 80's that aren't flattering to look at that their priviledge of "video game groupies" is a hollow sham, or suggesting the lengths and measures required to be a video game champion isn't worth it to the normal human being: some high scores require 20 to 40 hours to complete or even more, not to mention the social disadvantages to playing video games by yourself constantly.

So at the end of the movie, that's how I feel: manipluated and exploited for my sympathy. Director Ruchti plays both sides of the morality fence to equally exploit his subjects to be both hero and loser at the same time. And that's my issue with this movie: what are you trying to say? Are they kings? Or are they losers? They can't be both, and that's what this movie winds up doing since it maniacally veers to both ends of the spectrum.

This isn't a case of presenting two sides to an issue and letting the audience judge for themselves, something excellent documentaries can do with controversial issues that don't beg for simple explanations. Chasing Ghosts is an exercise in manipluation that foregoes objection, so when the two extemes of comedy and pathos are mined again and again Chasing Ghosts becomes a movie that says everything and nothing at the same time.

That's why King of Kong is a much better movie. It says something. It does play hard and fast with the facts, but it's about something. And being about something, the movie has something to say - something important, and in this case, something affecting and involving. Chasing Ghosts might have you believe its a movie about tragic heros who have fallen on hard times, but on watching the movie you realize that much of the victimizing comes from the machinations of the movie itself.

It's a closed fist; it's a welcoming open palm. And as a zen koan, it's both at the same time attached to somebody who can't make up their mind. As much as I've picked on Billy Mitchell in past writings, classic competitive gaming needs a image like his to transcend all this compulsiveness and loser-ism. And if he's going to do it with long hair, an American tie, and a thumbs up well I guess it better than the rest.

Me? I'm ambivalent towards a movie that describes someone who uses an electric turkey carver as "genius", or Jerry Garcia's "Pac-Man Fever" as the "best song ever". However, the movie had me when they were all discussing each others skills as though they are special ops mercs or ninjas belonging to a secret sect. It's as though they should shout aloud their special move when performing it like movie kung-fu practicioners do.

But why blame me for my ambivalence? I just watched ambivalence as though a two-sided coin and Charlie Brown had a love child in international waters. So, I'm still waiting for that great, elusive video game movie. Well, other than King of Kong.

Rated: Two out of 3 stars. 3D renderings of classic 2D games may make it more accessible to non-gamers, but mostly preaches to the choir. Mitchell shown giving the thumbs up again. May have the contrarily desired effect of encouraging the gamer audience to seek a world record high score - maybe.

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