Naked in Nuhaka: Enter the Matrix

Published: Fri 2 May 2003 07:56 AM
Naked in Nuhaka: Enter the Matrix
By Leo Koziol
ONE OF THE SADDEST stories that came out of the Bali Bombing involved Sonic the Hedgehog. An article in the Sun-Herald last year reported how one of the victims of the terrible tragedy had a unique tattoo (1):
"He got a tattoo of Sonic the Hedgehog [a computer game character] on his arm about six years ago," [his brother] said with a laugh. "It became [his] big pick-up line, showing off his tattoo. He said 'Chicks dig it.' It got him out of tight spots with blokes as they always laughed as you had to be a larrikin to get that on your arm."
When the victim's surviving friends searched the morgue in Bali, they used the hedgehog tattoo to identify his body.
The above story was followed up by one I spotted in the San Francisco press a couple of months ago, about a young boy who was shot whilst sitting at home playing video games:
"Child Shot While Playing Video Games, Mon Mar 17, 8:02 PM ET KCBS News A 12-year-old boy was shot while playing video games inside an Oakland home Sunday night. Police say a bullet came through the ceiling and struck the boy in the back. Surgeons at Oakland Children's Hospital had to remove one of the boy's kidneys."
The article did not specify what game the Oakland child was playing.
* * * *
When war broke out in the Middle East (2) this past March, for some reason I couldn't help but think about Hollywood flicks and Silicon Valley computer games, and their ability to dehumanise and desensitise.
It made me squeamish to watch the filter of the US media happily mentioning (and displaying) the carnage of the uncounted deaths of "enemy" soldiers, whilst each death of US and British soldiers was mourned as a closed casket tragedy. As a subscriber to Time magazine, I was presented weekly with horrific images of anonymous Iraqi soldiers faces dead in the sand. I didn't like it.
It was trippy -- but not unsurprising -- when President Bush screamed outrage about the displaying of US POWs and dead British soldiers on Iraqi television. His harkening back to the Geneva Convention seemed particularly ridiculous given the current U.S. administration's lack of commitment to international agreements of any form (Kyoto, landmines, Earth Summit II, WMDs... the list goes on).
But what was particularly ironic was the sensitivity of US networks in not showing either the POWs or the dead soldiers on their national television (3). And the reason was not only because of the sensitivities of the average US viewer, but out of care and concern for the family and friends of the POWs and dead soldiers involved. Why no such sensitivity to the dead "enemy" soldiers?
I think two reasons.
Reason #1: Star Wars. Watch any modern American blockbuster, and the enemy "clones" are killed left, right and centre by the dozens (and hundreds, and thousands, and millions I guess when that Death Star blew) and nobody seemed to care, as long as the waspish trio of Luke, Leia and Han escaped along with their overgrown puppydog friend Chewbacca and fey comic relief robots R2D2 and C3PO (4). Watch prequel Episode II (which finally made it to the screens last year), and you discover that the clones are made from none other than a Maori, one Temuera Morrison. Thousands of white armoured Stormtroopers are all Maori clones, and they go forth and die in their millions in the four sequels that follow (5). Nice.
Reason #2: The Media Matrix. Is it just me, or is it really just an incredibly bizarre coincidence that reality television came bursting through just in time for the "unrealities" of 911, Gulf War II and the Bush Presidency. It took off with Survivor, and has expanded out in literally thousands of permutations (6). As a result, September 11 played out like an ultimate version of Reality TV (7). Gulf War II did pretty much the same thing, with managed sound-bites from the Federal Administration and the US Army. Andy Warhol said in the 1970s that we'd each be famous for 10 minutes; the reality is that a growing majority of people -- particularly impressionable young videogame addicts -- live their lives as participant/observers in a 24-hour Media Matrix already (*You* decide who gets voted off on Big Brother! *You* decide the next American Idol!).
Drawing the threads back together, back to the US POWs and the dead British soldiers.
Films like Star Wars have desensitised westerners to the mass-killing of the "others", the unnamed enemies of foreign countries. Even on the Simpsons, Bart once chanted "All war is bad, except of course World War II, and all three episodes of Star Wars." Furthermore, and most importantly, these "others" don't dwell in the same "Media Matrix" that we do. For Iraqis, there will be no Grandma on Oprah crying at home at the sight of her dead boy on television. No ex-NZ mom upset and ready to launch herself at two dozen different network reporters (8). The media melodramatically humanises the "us", whilst the absence of any "others" dehumanises the "them" by default.
Ultimately -- and most regrettably, in this instance -- we find that the rationale and basis of this most recent of wars has been as cartoon-ish, staged and oversimplified as the average Hollywood blockbuster.
Or, for that matter, the latest teen-targeted video game.
* * * *
On a recent visit up to Auckland, a friend of mine asked me, "Do you miss America?" I flippantly replied, "Not as it is right now!", but later on, I dwelt on the thought and had some interesting and serious reflections about this.
Over the summer, I bought my kid a Playstation 2. He's 12 going on 13, so still really digs "Kingdom Hearts" and "Final Fantasy" but he's also been nagging me madly to get "Vice City". So, a couple of months ago, I rented it.
It's deathly hip. The game intros with a Commodore 64 screen and an 80s music soundtrack, and the nostalgia of slow-load tape games came grooving on back to me. I must admit, it made me smile. Then the game bursts into full on 21C-ness, full on soundtrack, fast-cut MTV visuals that -- eventually -- lead you to the actual game. Reviewers of the game have highlighted one big success factor in Vice City -- its open-endedness. You can run around a virtual Miami, and do pretty much whatever you please. Carjacking, mass murder, running people down behind the wheel of a bus -- all is possible. (9)
And, as expected, that was what I found myself enjoying the most. It sent a chill down my spine to hear the conversations on the street from the people around you, the sound of the wind blowing, garbage on the street. Memories of half-lost street forays in San Francisco, New Orleans, Tampa, Portland, New York and Oakland came flooding back to me. Aggro grumblings of the poor old homeless dude. All that was missing was the smells. The sight of a gorgeous Florida sunset. Then a tropical downpour taking me back to Louisiana.
It creeped me out. I didn't get into the game, wasn't interested in the "plot progression" nor the interesting little side games (i.e. Find gun; Kill as many gangsters you can in five minutes. All the gangsters are Black or Hispanic. Your character is white). But I was drawn in almost like magic into the semi-reality of an actual reality I had experienced for a number of years. The same aimless wanderings I did in San Francisco. It was wickedly addictive, with me only flicking it off -- and officially banned my son off it -- when he found a machete and I saw what he could do with it.
So a little bit of that creep came back to me when I read the story of the Oakland boy shot whilst playing a video game. Was it a PS2? Was he playing Vice City? Most likely he was, given its the hottest game on the street, worldwide. But isn't it just too much to think that he might have been playing a game that makes fun out of simulating what goes on daily on the streets around him? Trying to escape the nasty reality outdoors by playing its simulation on a screen inside?
* * * *
In fifteen days, The Matrix: Reloaded explodes across the world's screens. Simultaneously released will be Enter The Matrix, the video game, for Playstation 2. One intelligent writer has picked up how the themes of the Matrix trio are becoming a sad reality in the US. Writing in New York City, Farai Chadeya (10) states:
"Every morning I walk past a scene straight out of The Matrix. Remember those cops, the ones on the roof, with the helicopter? Full riot gear, dorky helmet ... yeah, them. They're on Wall Street just off of Broadway, guarding the New York Stock Exchange. Every morning I walk down Wall Street to work, I expect Keanu and Carrie-Ann to jump out in their nouveau bondage gear, tha-thwacking the riot cops on the head and using up a zillion rounds of ammo. But these cops are the good guys, not the bad guys. I think."
When I watched the Matrix in 1999, it blew my mind. It was full of hip postmodern references and reality slips that exploded the preconceptions of an anxious fin-de-siecle pre-Y2K audience. It redefined film. Though clearly a piece of "suspension of disbelief" sci-fi, it hit on a number of deep and important themes at a very anxious moment in history. Themes I've touched on in this weeks article.
Today, we find ourselves in more anxious times. The threat of war in North Korea and SARS outbreaks from Toronto to Hawke's Bay are but two examples of how I predict this will likely soon be dubbed "The Fear Decade". At the end of her article, Ms. Chadeya states her excitement at seeing the next Matrix installment because "Frankly, I feel less scared in the theatre." And, unfortunately, I have to agree with her.
Later this month, after immersing myself in two lush lost hours of Matrix II, I will walk out on to the street and blink my eyes at the brightness of a day and breathe in the air of a crisp Autumn day. It will be the streets of Gisborne; not San Francisco. And the reality of the world of today will sink back in again.
The cheeky smile of a hedgehog tattooed on the arm of a young Australian whose life and vitality was cut tragically short.
The reality of a young boy shot in Oakland who was just trying to escape from the world outside by immersing himself in the media matrix of video games.
(1) Original names removed.
(2) I'm not referring to any actual countries in the Middle East, as a "nod" to "24" which I am obsessively watching at present. It's intriguing, and clever, how they refer to "three countries" and "Middle East" without actually naming any names (Axis of Evil, anyone?).
(3) I watch ABC News from the US sometimes on TV3 weeknights.
(4) A more serious blockbuster warranting discussion is Black Hawk Down. This film was set in wartorn Somalia where thousands of Somalians were killed in a rescue effort for a half dozen US soldiers. This notion of real events meets movie meets real events played itself out once again as reality in Iraq. And now there's a video game:
(5) Particularly ironic, don't you think, given there's barely half a million Maori in the world? Also, ironic, don't you think ,that Tem looks kind of Middle Eastern?
(6) We can thank heavens it wasn't as big in 1998, or else we would have had to have suffered through nine months of "Monica Lewinsky Uncut", complete with Presidential Kneepad-Cams.
(7) Why no-one's thought to release "911: The DVD Box-Set" (all first 24 hours x 4 network channels + CNN) yet is beyond me.
(8) That is, of course, discounting the emergence of Al Jazeera. Did that channel show crying mothers of dead soldiers? Did it provide the names of unnamed dead Iraqi soldiers on display in the pages of Time and Newsweek?
(9) Even women (shock, horror!) like this game, they just drive around for fun, reported the press. I particularly enjoyed driving the bus.
ABOUT NAKED IN NUHAKA Leo Koziol ( writes on identity, culture, and place in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century. Nuhaka is located on the East Coast of the North Island of NZ. Back issues available at:
All content (c) Leo Koziol & Rautaki Group Consultants 2003.

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