4 min read

An Open Letter to Tom Bissell

Or, Why are You such a _____?

[please refer to , a piece by author Tom Bissell, to know what I'm ranting about]

Dear Tom,

Why are you such a ____-hole/bag?  See, normally I like what you write - it's usually interesting and often entertaining in that hipsterish way common to so much of's material.  But your latest piece was absolute trash that made me sick on several levels.

First you take a shot at Splinter Cell:Blacklist.  It's the newest installment of a franchise that has always sought to expose the very sinister underbelly of intel/counterintel work, even that of our own beloved US of A.  Depicting on-the-fly torture is as such completely within the bounds of realism, plausibility - and furthermore, for a game insistent upon making that world as real as possible for the player, it's emotionally necessary.  

Heaven forbid that the player base realize that some people, some American agents, actually enjoy inflicting pain.  Let's all pretend that's just a fantasy, a deranged sick fantasy with no basis in reality.  There, aren't we all morally superior now? Good.  

Yet instead of assuming that lots of players might get the emotional nuance of how fucked up this situation is, you paint it as simple torture-porn gratification.  Then you show us all how *important* and *deep* you are with the following:

 I know people who've been tortured. Someone I know was tortured because of something I wrote about him — a cold little bibelot I'll take with me to my grave.  

You are seriously a #*$%!.  For those who don't know: 'bibelot' means trinket, bauble, knick-knack.  So yes, torture victim, your horror and pain are an EMOTIONAL TRINKET to the man who publicly claims to have been a vital link in the causal chain that lead to your torture. The same man who then goes on to decry a game for being so 'casual' about its depiction of such an awful event.  

That's the most egregious and disgusting facet of the article, but it's not the only 'misstep'. Bissell also combines backhanded complimenting and humblebragging when discussing the ostenisble subject of the article, Spec Ops: The Line.

His backhanded compliment of the game is basically this: yeah, it does what it promised, but I didn't think it was going to get there at first so it seemed not to accomplish its goal, until it did.  That's some faint fucking praise right there.  He couldn't come out and say a bald face lie, like: No this game failed to make me or any other player think about violence, death and war.  Instead we're told that the premise is super implausible, down right impossible - only to have Mr. Bissell concede that the ending brings it all together, oh and the characters' dialog is 'too glib' and they are the "chattiest ever".  Insightful stuff, really.

The humblebrag involves his own (narrative & game) design on a canceled game about Vietnam (presumably - he's fashionably coy about refusing to spell out Vietnam, using somewhat oblique references instead).  We're invited to see how deep and thought-provoking it was and thus how inevitably doomed it was as a commerical product in the Shooter market.  Here's the world's tiniest violin...

Why am I so angered by Bissell's article?  Because it's a navel-gazing self-aggrandizing piece of crap that frames a highly complicated issue in a self-centered and forcedly naive way.  He gives an extended quote about the intrinsic nature of violence within human behavior, but rather than fully explore this he moves on after a few glib and psycho-sociologically vague statements.

On the related topic of shooters as emotional vents, "blowing off steam", he again takes a naive csikszentmihalyi-ignorant view of game playing and describes his own experience of shooters (which he plays a lot, apparently) as "taking in steam".  See any discussion of flow to understand why this is not accurate for *skilled* shooter players.  

But go ahead, Tom, dismiss their experience in favor of your own.  Getting into the flow of a competitive environment like multiplayer FPS is very much about relaxing emotional tension, it most definitely is about release - even if that release is often couched in a pseudo alpha male context wreathed in bong smoke.

So yes, Mr. Bissell, your latest article left a bad taste in my mouth.  But we're all human, and after your next good piece I'm sure I'll no longer see you as a total hole/bag.

Yours Truly 

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