GEARS OF WAR's Clayton Carmine: Death in the Family Redux?

As the designated red-shirts of the Gears of War franchise, the Carmine family has endured more then their fair share of tragedy, even on the beleaguered world of Sera.  In the original game Anthony Carmine let a moment of frustration with a jammed weapon break his concentration and his cover, opening him to a fatal volley of Locust sniper fire.  In Gears 2, his brother Benjamin survived a fall into the gaping maw of a Riftworm, only to be mortally wounded by a species of symbiotes that make the massive creature their home and then digested alive.

Now with the release of Gears of War 3 appearing on the horizon, developer Epic Games has decided to leave the fate of a third Carmine brother, Clay, up to the fans.  Starting July 29, 2010, Xbox Live users can purchase T-Shirts for their avatars, declaring their choice whether or not to spare Clay from a grim destiny.  These votes will be added to those cast by the sale of real-world versions of the shirts sold online and those that were sold at the recently concluded Comic-Con International: San Diego 2010.  The final tally will alter the Gears universe appropriately.

While at its heart, “The Fate of Carmine Campaign” is pure promotion for the release of Gears of War 3, Clay’s life is being put on the line for a good cause.  Revenue from the sale of both the real and virtual T-Shirts will be donated to Child’s Play, a charity that buys toys and video games for hospitalized children all over the world.  

“Microsoft and Epic have both always been some of our most supportive contributors, and we're always trying to cook up new fundraising ideas,” reports Robert Khoo, the President of Operations and Business Development for Penny Arcade, the founders of Child’s Play.  “For this one, Microsoft/Epic approached us wanting to know if we'd like to do the Fate of Carmine Campaign.”

If all of this feels familiar to comic fans, it is because it echoes one of the most significant events in recent comic book history, the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin.  A retcon in the wake of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the character of Jason Todd became aggressive and emotionally unstable.  He was even suspected of using lethal force in an incident that he classified as an ‘accident.’  Perceiving fan dislike of the character, DC Comics saw an opportunity to engage their community in a franchise-shaking event in the “Death in the Family” storyline.  

In the four-part storyline which ran in Batman #426-429 in 1988, Jason’s search for his birth mother lands him in the clutches of the Joker, who beats him severally with a crowbar and leaves him locked in a warehouse with a ticking time bomb.  The reader is then presented with a choice.  DC had setup a pair of 900 numbers, and for 99 cents a call, they could vote to decide if Jason would survive.  Reportedly, over 10,000 votes were cast and by a narrow margin, Jason died in one of most shocking and long-resonating events in comic book history.  Rumors of vote jamming and auto-dialing, in conjunction with criticism of what turned out to be a macabre spectacle, kept such a vote from happening again. The whole story even became part of the just-released Batman: Under the Red Hood direct-to-video animated movie. The DVD/Blu-Ray includes a documentary about the death.

However, the concept of the fan vote has been used in other media, to a peculiar kind of success.  The long running reality completion American Idol has made tens of millions of dollars off of fan voting in each of its nine seasons.  The democratization of talent appraisal has led to what on the federal level would be considered ballot stuffing by groups invested financially or emotionally in the outcome.  This practice has in turn led to a form of culture jamming by groups seeking to counter popular will with organized “vote for the worst” efforts.

According to Khoo, in regards to the “The Fate of Carmine Campaign,” Child’s Play will be considered the ‘publisher’ of the virtual T-Shirts, and then be paid the revenue generated at the end of the business quarter.  He puts it into perspective, “It’s hard to gauge what the response [will be], so we really didn't know what to expect.”  

Whether this charity campaign signals a change in the practice of enticing fans to make financial commitments to affect fictional outcomes remains to be seen.  What can’t be determined is how this campaign’s success might impact future storytelling, when plot elements are left up to those with the time and money to make their voices heard.

So, will you vote? Will Carmine live or die?

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