— My toilet broke yesterday, its flush lever dangling limply from the side of the tank while I frantically tried to remember whether my building’s outdoor dog-cleanup stations stocked toilet paper beside the blue plastic baggies.
I’m waiting for a professional to fix it, someone with a rusted toolbox and an hourly rate, which is disappointing because I spent most of my middle-school life pretending to be a plumber. I played enough Super Mario Brothers to score an honorary pair of white overalls and still can’t eat a mushroom without assuming I just earned an extra life.
I stopped playing video games about seven controller styles ago, shortly after realizing that Sonic the Hedgehog and I have the same haircut. But it doesn’t take a gamer to understand the appeal of the recent Call of Duty: Black Ops commercial and it doesn’t take an Xbox apologist to defend Kobe Bryant against the criticism he’s faced for his brief appearance in the spot.
The game, released worldwide on Nov. 9, is a first-person shooter described by the Entertainment Software Rating Board as one where “players control a U.S. soldier who works for the C.I.A. and participates in both well-known and secret events during the Cold War.”
The commercial, a brilliant 60 seconds scripted by agency TBWA, skips the obligatory graphics-and-gameplay sequences in favor of highlighting the average and not-so-average people who can lose themselves in Black Ops' action. The end result is like a United Colors of Benetton ad that swaps cashmere sweaters for SR-71 helicopters; it opens with an African-American businesswoman who balances a machine gun on the same shoulder as her purse strap and ends with a short order cook who accessorizes his paper hat with a pair of handguns.
Bryant appears at the :30 mark, wearing a barely concealed Nike Swoosh beneath an automatic rifle with the word “MAMBA” inked on the barrel. He fires a few rounds toward everyone’s common, unseen enemies before flashing a broad smile. Just about everyone smiles at some point before the tag line “There’s a Soldier in All of Us” appears.
And that smile — Bryant's smile — was the opposite of the reaction some reporters had. The American Language author H.L. Mencken once described Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy,” but the same might be said of middle-aged talking heads with lapel microphones and pancake makeup. Leading the “HOW COULD YOU, KOBE?” charge are ESPN’s Skip Bayless, who angrily rammed his eyebrows into each other for five minutes during a 1st and Ten segment, and ESPN columnist Tim Keown.
“[Bryant] is smiling while wielding an assault rifle in combat,” Bayless froths, wrong from the start. Bryant — along with the other actors in the ad — flash their incisors while they’re playing a game, engaged in “combat” that always ends when they mash the power button. They’re beaming because the game is entertaining, a kind of thumb-powered fun that doesn’t make them real military combatants any more than 1,800 hours of Mario Brothers made me a plumber.
Bayless’ outrage — and the fact that he sneers “doesn’t [Bryant] have a couple of daughters, the last time I checked?” — seem to imply that a group of unnamed, hypothetical children will be unable to separate Bryant’s endorsement of fantasy violence from real violence, whether it takes place in real cities or on real battlefields.
It’s not necessarily the strongest argument. The game is rated M for Mature, for what the ESRB described as “blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language.” That designation means that, regardless of how much fun Kobe, Jimmy Kimmel and the fry cook look like they’re having, no one under 17 should get any closer to it than a mashed nose against the TV screen.
Although the rating system isn’t perfect, a September 2010 study by the Federal Trade Commission discovered that 80% of underaged shoppers who tried to purchase M-rated games were turned away by retailers; a greater number of under-17s were allowed to buy tickets to R-rated films.
“[NBA Commissioner David Stern] can’t stop kids from buying video games,” Bayless breathlessly admitted. “But he can stop his most popular player from participating with an assault rifle.”
Columnist Keown had the same idea:
“The NBA has a dress code. Break it and get fined," Keown writes. "The NBA has a code of conduct. Break it and get fined or suspended. The NBA made an example out of Gilbert Arenas when he brought a gun to work.”
If these men honestly can’t discern the difference between participating in video game violence and participating in real-life violence, they need to be protected more than the imaginary kids they’re trying to shield. Gilbert Arenas brought an actual gun, a real-life, three-dimensional weapon to the Washington Wizards’ locker room and pointed it at teammate Javaris Crittenden.
A real gun. Aimed at a real person.
Although Bryant — and the other actors — were allowed to hold authentic weapons during the filming of the ad, he was in a controlled situation, on a commercial set, and not waving it in the face of another human being. The only way Bryant could hurt someone with Call of Duty is if he threw its hard plastic case at their head.
This kind of reaction to a television commercial, one that sells a $60 computer-generated environment, just gives another example of how willing we can be to shout "Wolf!" into any available microphone or peck it out on the nearest keyboard. When the minor issues more than outnumber the real ones, when smiling while you play a video game is enough to get you skewered in prime time, is it any surprise that Xbox-powered escapism sells so well?
“I don’t know about Grand Auto Theft,” Bayless said when asked to compare the street-style violence of Grand Theft Auto with the battleground scenes of Call of Duty.
That’s not all he doesn’t know. I just wish he knew how to fix my toilet.