Tom Sutcliffe: A massacre that may or may not be art

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The Independent Online

A few months ago the Mexican film-maker Guillermo Del Toro, the director of Pan's Labyrinth, gave an interview to Wired magazine in which he predicted that "in the next 10 years there will be an earthshaking Citizen Kane of games".

Del Toro went further. The PS3, he said, referring to Sony's most recent games console, was the Model T Ford of a coming revolution in fiction. Horse-drawn forms of linear narrative, such as the novel and conventional film, were going to be competing with the internal combustion engine of interactive storytelling.

Given the fuss over the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Activision, the company which released what is almost certain to be the year's biggest-selling game, might like to boast that Del Toro's prediction has already been met. One reviewer has already invoked Orson Welles' cinema classic, though it's possible that Activision's publicity department won't be using the line that the game is "the Citizen Kane of repeatedly shooting people in the face", which I'm guessing is not quite what Del Toro was looking forward to.

It's a neat illustration of the problem that continues to afflict computer games in their claims to art. On the one hand those who make them know that something significant is happening here – and may take comfort from the fact that every narrative artistic medium we take seriously today began its life as an intellectually despised popular entertainment. On the other hand repeatedly shooting people in the face is not subject matter that has yet leant itself to subtle or emotionally complex treatment. And it's hard to say right now how the gap between respectable fiction and discreditable entertainment is ever going to be closed.

I should declare an interest at this point. I'm someone with a foot on either side of that crevasse. I dislike the crudities of video games but I'm also fascinated by them. When I receive my copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, I expect to travel through it ("watch" is too passive while "play" doesn't quite do justice to the immersive qualities of these things) with a familiar blend of compulsion and self-doubt.

I was dismayed to learn that it features a sequence in which the player participates in a terrorist massacre of civilians – not because I think this has the slightest chance of provoking imitation in the people who play it but because it picks another hole in the tattered cloak of rationalisation I throw over my guilt at relishing these things.

My way round this is to decide that I'll skip that scene, as the game apparently allows you to do. Indeed that very fact has been deployed in defending the game against the outrage of politicians such as Keith Vaz. I wondered a little about this defence myself Either it has an emotional and moral point and can be defended, or it doesn't and should have been left out. But in thinking like that I may be like someone trying to control an early motor car with reins and spurs.

Here is a genuinely novel thing in an entertainment – a moment that asks you to make a moral decision about what you are prepared to imagine and watch. What's more, such choices can be made to alter what subsequently happens (though I don't know if that's the case here). It's as if you were to skip pages 65 to 80 of a novel and find that pages 80 to the end changed as a result.

I doubt very much that Call of Duty fulfils Del Toro's prediction – but if it ever does come true it will be because somebody's genuinely found a way to harness the fact that video games are books that can tell how they're being read, and films that can't proceed until you help them on their way.

I was tempted to lob something myself

I had mixed feelings about Morrissey's departure from the stage the other night. On the one hand the ludicrous idea that performers should put up with the occasional plastic bottle as an occupational hazard only persists because not enough people have followed his example – thus licensing the cretinous boorishness of some rock audiences.

It's hard to imagine a performer in any other field being expected to shrug off such an unprovoked assault. Can you see Jude Law, halfway through "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I", getting beaned with a plastic cup of chardonnay and simply pressing on without a fuss? On the other hand I saw Morrissey myself at Alexandra Palace the other night – and there were a couple of points when my own right arm twitched reflexively.

The most tempting moment came when he announced that the purple poppy he was wearing was in commemoration of all the animals who have died as a result of human conflicts. I'm glad to say I mastered the impulse to shy a bag of pretzels at him, because he was excellent. Preposterous, but excellent – and surely entitled to perform without a bicycle helmet.

It's not about how much noise you make...

It was easy to be distracted from the hard science in the story about the Tyne and Wear couple who were convicted of breaching a noise abatement order imposed because of their raucous love-making.

First of all, there was the fact that the Cartwrights' sex sessions would begin at midnight and last for two or three hours, according to neighbours – which suggests an unnervingly impressive staying-power on Mr Cartwright's part. Then there was the quixotic detail that Mrs Cartwright is appealing against her conviction on the grounds that the Human Rights Act gives her a right to "respect for private and family life". But the thing that really made me prick up my ears was the exact decibel levels recorded in a neighbour's flat by Sunderland City Council.

According to reports these ranged between 30 to 40 decibels with the peak being 47 decibels. The charts I consulted suggested that 40 decibels is roughly equivalent to "a quiet living room", "raindrops" or "a soft whisper at two metres in a library", while 50 decibels is "a suburban residential neighbourhood" and even 60 decibels only registers as "normal conversation". In other words, on any objective measure the Cartwrights weren't very loud at all.

Which doesn't, of course, mean that they weren't tormenting their neighbours – who were obliged to listen with ears and a mind rather than just a decibel meter. It was what they were doing, and when, and with what gasping indifference to everyone's feelings but their own – that made their groans so piercing.

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