Are games our escapist fantasies, or our outlets for dealing with reality? Either way, why is our most common gameplay choice the pursuit of war?
I remember watching a long stretch of television footage of the United States dropping bombs on Iraq. It was late at night, so the broadcast was dark green and bright green, pulsating softly. There was a sound like a throbbing heartbeat from far away, or like the distant rumble of thunder; it was explosions, successive explosions. I remember the government called it "Shock and Awe." I was both shocked and awed.
I hadn't seen anything like Shock and Awe in my life. I never would again, unless you count the GDC 2009 teaser trailer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the hushed admiration that overtook the onlookers at its debut. The green line of a heartbeat, the vague shapes of soldiers in an elevator, pulsing softly luminous. Gunshots. Distant voices. I remember thinking that it looked very real.
When I say "real", I don't mean it as a quality of the graphics, as a unit of technical proficiency, of resolution and of vivid game design. I mean it felt sharply au courant; from the marketing period until launch, it seemed to me transparently a reflection of our times, of anxiety and aggression, either a latent and wordless support of warmaking, or some kind of unspoken coping mechanism for the opposed.
I imagine others felt the same, but I never heard it. All I heard was "fucking awesome".
All I saw was that damn thing fly off the shelves.
All I heard of was people spending hours in the guise of a soldier, blowing each other away with a little trash-talk and a well-placed shot or two or five, rapid-fire.
It shocked and awed me that this fine-looking facsimile of modern warfare became a multi-million seller, made more money than God, and I felt alone in finding it a little bit of a strange thing to celebrate.
It's strange, regardless of your political views. I and many of my colleagues near and far – our ranks are innumerable – have devoted countless words and column inches and printer ink and blog space to the miracle of "play" as visualised through the medium of interactive entertainment. We've talked you all blue in the faces about how interactivity lends added dimension to human imagination, to experimentation, to escapism. How the swift and sudden advent of multiplayer has allowed us to share, to create and connect to each other, made a formerly reclusive and ill-viewed activity "participatory," "social."
The cousin of someone dear to me got all but one of his limbs blown off in Iraq. This is our most popular way to play together? And we are all OK with this?
It is, of course, driven in part by economics. Modern Warfare 2, widely touted as the "top-grossing entertainment product of all time," is a performance that many publishers are eager to repeat. Thus here we are in 2010, and the battle-royale to watch this holiday is among first-person shooters. Historical war. Modern war. Future-war. Reports of "Halo-killers." We all sit back and anticipate the fall-holiday first-person-shooter shootout shit-show. Hallelujah.
At E3 this year, all that presenters could discuss at press conferences as they touted their FPS-of-the-year was "immersion" and realism. We have 3D now, so it's even more in-your-face. I was in Sony's press conference when everyone put on stereoscopic glasses and watched an elaborate demo of Killzone 3 in three dimensions. The blood that spattered my view with each concussive blast seemed as if it could be from my own head. To my left, an observer casually commented on the technical proficiency of the demonstration – further to my right, scattered cheers and applause greeted every explosion.
I knew I was looking at a fantasy scenario. A future that'll never happen. Just a video game. But I still felt uncomfortable, I guess, with the net effect of E3 this year. Even the battle over new and innovative motion control technologies seemed time and time again to come down to one thing – "what good is Kinect when you can't hold a gun, and how are you going to play an FPS with that?"
It's not just money that drives the saturation of and heavy focus on these games. It's simple game design logic; first-person gun mechanics are among the easiest and most sensible to design, my industry friend tells me. His team is hard at work on one of the big shooters launching this year, so he couldn't let me use his name. "Projectiles have been part of gaming since forever," he says, and it's true – early arcades were all about shooting galleries. Think of old-school duels and kids playing cops and robbers; weapons have, in fact, been part of play for a long time. "When you get into the first-person view, shooting continues to be what feels most natural," he says.
But as games get ever more immersive and lifelike, it starts to feel less like healthy play and more like unsettling aspirational fantasy to me. And as the economic competition around the genre heats up, the push for bigger-bloodier-more seems especially opportunistic and shameless. I don't understand the continuing appeal; I don't understand the unquestioning audience.
I research evolutionary theories on the hard-wired instincts of males in hunter-gatherer societies, and how technology's eliminated the need for combat and aggression, but not the urge. When we play first-person shooters, we could be scratching an old, old itch that the comfort and complacency of modern living can no longer reach. That might explain why far more men are interested in war shooters than women, who under that same evolutionary paradigm, were supposedly geared toward keeping the homestead safe.
I try mining gamer culture for clues. Forum thread after forum thread makes it plain that most of these people don't even know how to speak to one another, let alone engage in what marketing copy calls "healthy social play." The Internet's vocal ranks have something in common with soldiers from Halo to Helghast – they're faceless. Behind the veil of anonymity one looks the same as the next, and the salvos they fire are brief and remorseless.
Has escapism desensitised core gamers to real-world consequences? The popularity of war simulators in and of itself isn't what's most alarming; it's the absence of emotional connection, of conscience and of discussion. Just as hardcore gamers online often deliver casual slurs without conscience, maybe they've forgotten that bullets cause wounds and that war causes deaths. Or maybe there was something wrong with the core audience to begin with: maladapted people seeking maladaptive coping, and the industry that rose up to greet it.
But these games wouldn't be the gold mines they are if they were limited to core gamers. Even the buyer who never goes online, who buys a game or two a year when the new-hot-thing comes out, is buying these up. The last time I was in GameStop, a pair of happy guys behind me struck up a conversation, and as it turns out, one was there to buy the other Call of Duty: World at War as a birthday present.
"I'm really into the history," the guy explained.
He looked excited, and sort of like a normal person, and not like the kind of person who wanted to wire up and plug in and glaze out on a virtual battlefield all day long. I thought being "into the history" sounded like a much more comprehensible reason to be interested in these games. In the end, nationalist war, faction against faction, has been part of the human experience since the very beginning. Like it or not, it's always been something deeply part of who we are; it makes sense that our simulated experiences, that our play, should seek to tap into understanding and experimenting with those concepts.
What continues to concern me is that we don't think about it and we don't discuss it. We're able to witness grenade-flung bodies, we're able to crush enemies under the treads of our vehicles, we're ourselves able to die in trenches. And get up again, and keep doing it. How far can we push things before video games like these stop being a way to interact with and process the human experience, and instead cross a line to where they're trivialising it?
[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]