By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm
For a little while now, I've struggled with military shooters and what they represent. Across all other forms of entertainment, stories about war have to be about something much more than combat to be widely accepted as fair, legitimate works of art. They have to discuss the large-scale collateral damage of war, explore the various perspectives of warring communities, or try and tease out some amount of sympathy for the opposition by imbuing in them a measure of humanity.
Throughout history, films that glorify war, like John Wayne's The Green Berets, have been maligned by popular culture for not portraying the horrors of war or the opposition accurately, and using the drama that surrounds it all as a cheap mechanism for entertainment. I think that no one who has the luxury of experiencing art and entertainment should be escaping to the brutality of a battlefield. And artists and entertainers shouldn't glamorize it.
But video games commonly romanticize war. It is almost never questioned. In many of the most successful releases to date, we take up arms and simulate the killing of faceless, nameless enemies in the name of some flimsy premise. We absorb bullets and retain our lives. There's no concern in the slightest about what that might represent. There's no concern about the amount of care these sensitive subjects need when discussed. And there's no sanctity in the mil-sim genre at all -- it is built to exploit and excite, regardless of reality.
Last year, I reviewed Call of Duty: Black Ops. One initial complaint of mine was the unlimited enemy spawn gameplay mechanic. As I fought the North Vietnamese Army, they would pour over hills and out of forests in droves, and as my bullets tore through the tan, brown-clad soldiers, they would crumple to the ground and be replaced by hundreds more until I could maneuver my way to cover or call an airstrike or what have you. I thought this was a cop out that got tired quick when I first played. That instead of building intelligent AI or clever situations, Treyarch just loaded on bodies to make the game challenging. And it may have been, however I think they were trying to emphasize the aggression and the brashness of the populous NVA as they attacked the precious, talented few American troops on the ground. Since, I've thought about what that means in a realistic context.
Black Ops never once portrayed the Vietnamese as living, breathing people. In the storied history of the Call of Duty franchise, or in the Battlefield or Medal of Honor franchise for that matter, never once have we seen the opposition as people. We shoot them as people, they stumble and roll across pavement as people, yet their humanity is categorically absent from our encounters with them. The opposing forces in video games are always hyper-hostile, dark-skinned drones that shoot without question and answer to some ridiculous ideal that we, the heroes, must silence. War isn't that way, though. And it shouldn't be portrayed that way.
As hard as it is to stomach sometimes, we have to recognize that those people our country systematically bombs aren't deserving of it across the board. As we cut down North Vietnamese soldiers in swathes on a digital foreign battlefield, I think we're obligated to note that what we're simulating is the extinguishing of human lives, over and over. When we forget that, we lose a bit of our own humanity.
Just to be clear, I'm not trying to apologize for any of these groups -- they can be some of the purest manifestations of evil in existence. But if we're going to explore the topic of war, which we do often in games, we may as well do it with our intellect in tact and not with the lens of the propagandist. It is an adult topic, and that's what adults should do. Wars are fought by people, and all it takes is a small notion of the other side to begin to foster an amount of sympathy and understanding.
I think about Gillo Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers. It is a fictional look at one of the most contentious revolutions of the modern era -- the Algerian War, which took place between 1954 and 1962. It details French occupation of North Africa, and gives two distinct perspectives on the guerrilla warfare that saturated the streets of France as the conflict played out. The horrors perpetrated by the insurgency are looked at honestly, but we see how they are motivated by the atrocities that came with the invasion and societal stranglehold of the French government. We aren't made to pick a side, but we're meant to see both sides of the coin and sympathize with the people who follow these contrary perspectives. Civilians are hurt, something that no game narrative addresses, as a result of the clashes. That is art, and something that marks it as genius.
Video games haven't ever reached that level, and yet they build massive franchises around the premise of modern-day war, putting us in the boots of soldiers entrenched in conflict with real representations of enemies. They are marketed with military spokesmen at conventions and through interviews, with promises that by telling the story of these brave people, we're all doing them justice. I don't think that is the case, though. Wars aren't fought by supersoldiers who, in almost godly recovery, rip knives out of their legs and hurl them at antagonists to save their mentors. They are fought by humans who rise above the majority. These people are vulnerable and fragile like everyone else, and what makes them heroic is that, despite it, they put their lives on the line for a cause. They are people who come away terrorized by what they've seen. People who can't readjust to society. People who return in body bags. Thousands of them.
A year ago, a good friend of mine planted his shoe in the warm Iraqi sand and disappeared. On the side of an undisclosed road deep in the desert, he rushed from the safety of his Humvee to aid his fellow soldiers in a hot zone and only made it as far as the IED stepping stone. Calls traced through Baghdad to Germany to England back to the US and finally to the Seattle area where his family was informed of his death and news spread as fast as electricity could manage. In just days, his parents fashioned the most beautiful ad hoc memorial service I'd ever been to, on the football field where he'd set state records, in front of the hundreds of people who were pleased to have known and loved him. His best friend carried a small box down the aisle and delivered it to an honor guard, who fired off rounds in a salute.
That is the narrative of war. And you'll never see it in a modern shooter video game. Because as much as enthusiasts try to argue that it is something more, and as much as developers tout its respectfulness, what we're experiencing is a game. These storytellers only take what is convenient and easy for them, and eschew hurt. You don't get art by doing what is convenient, what will net you the biggest revenue.
It took me a long time to pick up a modern war game again. As some friends of mine continued to play Battlefield: Bad Company 2 every weekend, I felt sick firing it up. Friends of mine that knew him felt the same. It was a pivotal point in my relationship with this entertainment medium, and when I first realized how fucked up and scary it was that developers were trying to simulate war without really acknowledging the nuances of it. There's immeasurable hurt that accompanies war, no matter who the subject is, and we never get to try and understand it.
As excited as I am to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for the same reason everyone else is, I'm nagged by this feeling that it is doing something elicit. It is exploiting the visceral aspects of war and ignoring the stuff that really matters. Maybe I've become hypersensitive. But maybe I'm right.
If we're given a chance to see video game war as it should be seen, and we explore the subtleties of the subject matter to learn about our own humanity, we may hesitate for a moment as a trembling person stands in our virtual gun sights. And maybe our index fingers won't tense over the triggers. And maybe we'll be experiencing the foundations of interactive art for the first time as we're made to wait for a minute, and actually think.
Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.