Go Ask Alice

By Josh Mandel (November, 1999)
Sadism has, for years, been a theme rampant in electronic gaming. For every product in which the goal is to construct or solve, there are at least a dozen whose goal is primarily to inflict death or damage to as many opponents as possible.

Why does destruction seem so much more intoxicating than creation? One explanation (this one's my favorite, and I hope it'll be one of yours, too!) is that sadism mimics the power of life or death, a power embraced most fervently by the young ... and most game developers are not only trying to appeal to the young, but are pretty young themselves (psychologically if not chronologically).

Hurting people--physically or mentally--is a quick and easy way to assert power over them. As children, we rarely have power over others; hurting them, which is not hard to do, gives us this power. Fortunately, most people eventually find less destructive ways of asserting power. Or they somehow learn not to crave power over others. (Or, some would say, they satisfy that craving by playing games that provide the illusion.)

Certainly all children are not sadistic. But the cruelty of children is well-established, and among (say) junior high school students, you'll certainly find a high percentage of individuals who routinely go out of their way to torment others. Sadism with impunity, that's what we get from games like Doom and Quake.

It's easy to hurt people just for the joy of hurting them, and it gets an immediate reaction--gleeful delight from the young (unless you're the victim), and disgust from the old. Look at Adam Sandler, role model of 12-year-olds everywhere, poking fun at retardation and speech impediments; adults revile him, but 30 years ago, Jerry Lewis was pretty hot stuff among those adults (who, at the time, were children)--doing the same mean-spirited shtick.

The power one feels from offending audiences is very intoxicating. A young writer, or comedian, or musician, thinks, "Look at all the people I can offend just with my words. I'm better than they are, because I'm impossible to offend. I am resilient; they are inflexible. I am open, they are closed. I am free and comfortable with my speech. They are shocked and uncomfortable. I have the upper hand, and I'm enjoy it. I'm controlling the people who, until recently, controlled me."

This is the kind of thinking, bereft of depth or maturity, that I suspect has gone into the new "adaptation" of Alice in Wonderland coming from Electronic Arts (American McGee's Alice). A desire to offend for offense's sake, to find any desperate way to shock in a culture where it is increasingly difficult to be outlandish, and to find pride and a sense of accomplishment for achieving that low goal.

The game is a nightmare version of the Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Alice, we're told, will be doing her killing with "a variety of lethally transmogrified toys." On the website, we can rotate Alice wielding an immense, glittering carving knife, gazing at it lovingly, cleaning her nails with it, and considering its potential for mayhem. Her face bears an expression of restrained malevolence. She wears an upside-down cross. Blood drips from the scenery.

This is offensive on a number of levels. I'll try to enumerate them, but forgive me if I miss a few. I'm sure I will.

First, anyone who's read Carroll's works knows that violence played no part in his books. "Off with his head" was something the Red Queen may've shouted many times, but not a single character was ever bruised, let alone decapitated ... let alone in graphic detail. The book's gentle, intelligent good humor--filled with good-natured parodies of then-current literature--supported a theme of maturity (a point obviously lost on the designers of the game). The theme was not good versus evil. The book was brimming with witty wordplay and thinly disguised social and political satire; it was not an exploration of the naughty joy of murder by a demented antihero, as Alice now appears to have become.

If one is going to creatively "adopt" another person's invention, one should at least make a reasonable effort not to abuse that invention--to distort it beyond anything approaching the original author's intent--if one would ever hope for, or expect, the same treatment for their own invention. I'm sure the designers wouldn't like to see their own original inventions mangled by other authors; why not offer Carroll's work the same respect? Or did somebody imagine that this treatment would actually improveon, or somehow enhance, the original?

Carroll himself was a Reverend; it's difficult to imagine that he would actually approve of his heroine wearing an inverted cross. Just one of many images that this peaceful man, who abhorred little boys' violent games, would likely find objectionable. My opinion? Sure, that's all it is, but if one reads Carroll's letters and history, his intentions are pretty clear. And the concept of American McGee's Alice obviously ignores--or deliberately skewers--those intentions.

Second, such a perversion of existing classic literature only accentuates a designer's own lack of inventiveness. It's much easier to take somebody else's established world "riff" on it, to be led by existing boundaries, than it is to work with a completely blank page. Now, to be fair, this may not be just a matter of laziness. Based on my experience with Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, I know that sometimes designers are directed to utilize existing material as a basis for their games due to this industry's passion for licensing and cross-breeding. But if that's the case with American McGee's Alice, the designers could have at very least taken pains to preserve the integrity of the original, reinforcing its themes instead of discarding them in favor of gaming's lowest common denominator cliché: "Evil has come to this once-beautiful place, and your job is to carve it out by the roots! Lock and load!"

The book has always seemed to suggest nightmarishness by our standards. That's probably more due to our lack of context than to the book's real content. To casual readers of the book in modern-day America, the images in the book may appear arbitrary and foreign, disjointed like a nightmare. But even a cursory study of the work (Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice is a great, readable guide) reveals that, to the audience of its day, there was little arbitrary about it. This suggests that the creators of the new Alice,in playing on the undeserved nightmarish aspect, did not take the time to understand the work--or the author--they are exploiting.

Third, let's put aside the unanswerable question of whether or not Carroll would roll over in his grave if he could see how his world is being mangled (although I believe most of the evidence indicates it). That is not my overriding objection to this product. Let's instead ask: does the games industry require another black eye? Or is this an attempt to exploit gaming's negative image, worsening it in the process?

The fact can't have been lost on EA and American McGee that the industry has come under attack for promoting violence among children. That we use violence gratuitously in place of more worthwhile content, that we glorify it and present it as a legitimate problem-solving tool, and that we target children.

In light of American McGee's Aliceabove all others, how can we deny it? The very concept of the game embodies the substance of all of those accusations. Here we have taken a story with humorous, gently instructive content and replaced it with images of a prepubescent girl as an armed, cunning killer. The original Alice solved conundrums through logic, sensitivity, and imagination; in American McGee's interpretation, violence is presented as a seductive and legitimate solution suitable for prepubescent girls. By using one of the most famous role models in children's literature as the heroine of the story, the game is guaranteed to garner more attention from children than it otherwise would, in a realm already incredibly popular among children.

I'm not one of those fearful parents or grandstanding representatives who wants to legislate taste, but this product only serves to strengthen that sector's argument: it looks, and reasonably so, as if we are targeting children and trying to incorporate graphic violence into every last benign sanctuary of childhood. What is next from American McGee and Electronic Arts? Tom Sawyer gutting Injun Joe with a stake from the fence? (EA, take note: blood shows up beautifully against freshly whitewashed pickets.)

I'm disappointed that this product is being published by EA, a company that is not known for scraping the bottom of the barrel. This sort of astonishingly puerile entertainment could easily be expected to carry the Take 2 imprimatur, but not that of a usually responsible company like EA.

I don't like to put down other designers' work publicly, out of professional courtesy. But if ever a product deserved oblivion, it is American McGee's Alice.It takes a childhood hero, the star of one of the most clever, thoughtful, and nonviolent children's stories ever written, and gratuitously twists her into a weapon-wielding vigilante. It's a ham-handed play for profit through sensationalism and controversy. And I have little doubt that the creators and publishers of Alice will revel in the fact that they have managed to outrage people; they'll be gleeful about it in the same infantile way that a child is gleeful when he discovers the empowerment of four-letter words.

Copyright © Josh Mandel 1999. All rights reserved.