Who Cheers For War?

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.]


Comments

    I've never regarded most videogames, least of all shooters, as "a way to interact with and process the human experience". Especially online, I just see it as a contest in the same way a sports game is. Whether I'm sniping a guy's head in Bad Company 2 or slotting a shot past the goalkeeper in FIFA doesn't make much difference to me - it's just a competition between me and the other guy. And it's the contest that attracts me, not the violence. Because ultimately the contest is the only real part of it. Whatever's on the screen isn't real regardless of whether it's modern warfare or a game of soccer. But the competition between me and the other guy IS real and THAT is the "human experience", regardless of whether the interface between us is Bad Company 2, FIFA or chess.

      I would agree with this point, while playing online games the violence and explosions are hardly what attracts me, it's the chance to interact competatively with other human players.
      The gore and destruction is essentially there to prevent the game from looking jarring, without it all these fancy graphics would just look unrealistic and ruin one's immersion.
      The violence, on the other hand, is exactly the same as it was in CS 1.5 or games before that, players are still shooting each other, respawning, and doing it again. The fact that there are no consequences makes these games just that; games.
      In online multiplayer games it is impossible to simulate the emotional environment which comes from such horrific conflicts, because people still see it as a way to have fun and interact with other people, whether it be the players who spout poorly worded, agressive insults and whine every chance they get or those who sit back, laugh at their mistakes (and those of others) and have fun.

      Although, I suppose it is likely that the vocal portion of fps players are attracted to the mindless violence, and it is these that the gaming companies pander to.

      Yeah, I don't think the author would disagree with you, however the main point is just WHY many games need to be so horrifically violent. If it's all about the competition, why are most of the forums (violent warzones) the same? Just because it's easy/lazy?

      "It's only a game" or "it isn't real" aren't valid responses, as it doesn't address the specific appeal of these violent scenarios (which IS there - gore and violence were key selling points in the hype leading up to the new AVP and Fallout 3).

      I mean, how many people complained about Left 4 Dead 2s Australian release? Yeah, "Gameplay's the most important thing to me, but I'll boycott if I can't see a zombie's head explode."

        That's because people don't like being dictated to about what they can and can't play. And mature adults in particular shouldn't have to endure the patronising bullshit our government spouts when trying (and failing) to justify why every work in one medium must be suitable for those under 15 years while no other medium is expected to comply with the same rules.

        Saying the violence is unnecessary is also, as you say, an "invalid argument". Whether it's necessary or not is irrelevant. The only things that are really NECESSARY are food, water and oxygen. What it does is provide a consistent setting to play in. If you compare the censored L4D2 with its magically disappearing zombies with the uncut version, the uncut one is clearly the superior gaming experience. And why shouldn't adults be allowed to play the game as the creators intended?

        And really, the article wasn't addressing blood-drenched games like Fallout or AvP in the first place, rather the warzone settings of COD etc. The likes of Call of Duty and Killzone feature minimal blood - you see a little splash of it when you shoot somebody, but it's not like people are getting realistically blown apart when hit by an RPG or airstrike or whatever. The graphic violence wasn't really a "selling point" for Fallout 3 or AvP, it just became the focus of controversy when people tried using it as an excuse to ban them. And it's worth noting that the violence in both of them was consistent with their source material (the original Fallout games and the AvP movies). AvP Requiem was every bit as violent a film as AvP was a game. Yet they never even considered banning the film, only the game.

          Game and film are different mediums, with different levels of interactivity and impact. But if you want to continue in that vein, where were these gamers when Ken Park or Salo were banned or re-banned?

          It's irrelevant, as every medium has arbitrary tiers in place. There's no real distinction between '15' and '18', so the best anyone can argue is that video games's current highest rating is set too low and needs to be increased independent of any comparison to other media.

          And you're right, people don't like being dictated to or patronised. And yeah, adults should be able to play or view what they want, within reason (snuff films are out, yeah? or are they?)

          And the violence was a selling point for those games. If people care about it, it becomes a selling point.

          But this is getting way off topic.

          The article does use real-world (and themed [MW2]) wars as it's main examples, but does also cite Killzone 3. The main point is the pervasiveness of violence as a theme in the majority of games.

          You mention that the violence "... provide[s] a consistent setting to play in."

          What I'm saying, my main point, is why is the setting overwhelmingly consistently violent and becoming moreso?

          L4D2s mechanics could be employed within some other narrative framework, but they intentionally chose to make it a zombie-themed, hyper-violent, gory massacre.

          Why did they choose this path?

          I'd say they did so because they knew it has widespread appeal, and would sell.

          But why does it have that appeal?

            Why do violent action movies have an appeal? To say this is an issue with gaming is bullshit. It's part of the human condition that people like there entertainment to be action packed. Action generaly results in injury and having that portrayed without the associated violence would just ruin the immersion.

              No one said it was an issue isolated to gaming, and yeah, the same phenomenon IS found in film - it's why there are 6 Saw films.

              "Why do violent action movies have an appeal?"

              You're asking this as a rhetorical question, but try it as a straight one. Why do they?

              "It’s part of the human condition that people like there entertainment to be action packed."

              That's pretty vague.

              The fact remains that most people would avoid violent situations in real life, yet violence is a consistent seller. The argument that "I can't do this in real life, so it's OK to pretend to in a game" is interesting - I'm not allowed to shoot someone in the head in real life, but it's normal behaviour in many games. I can't rape someone in real life, but I can in Rapelay.

              But then, from my memory of Kotaku comments every time Rapelay is mentioned, it seems that people recognise that game to be 'bad' in some sort of objective sense.

              From that, you could say that many gamers see player-controlled rape as being distasteful. But simulated extreme violence and murder are not?

              Why is there a line? Why is one thing fine but not the other? Why aren't both things acceptable, or neither?

          This is why I wish Kotaku had a dedicated forum.

          I entirely agree with you on all points that you've made (and just to clarify on the matter of consistency, we've now touched on 3 types: I talked of thematic consistency across most high-profile games, you mention consistency within a game-world, and I *think* Braaains means specific consistency between versions of a game; everyone in the world getting the same experience of L4D2 as example.)

          'Gore' and 'violence' are two separate things, and violence has featured in videogames almost from their inception, true. With technological advancement though, games are becoming ever-more lifelike and realistic from a visual standpoint, yet remain (for the most part) in a rut thematically.

          The death animations in the NES version of Metal Gear are practically non-existent, and when coupled with the level design and flimsy story create a more abstract sense of a Game with opaque Rules of which you are constantly aware (for example, three bullets kill one guy) that are specific to it. You can say that MGS4 (or MW2) also have their own specific rulesets, but these are intentionally often hidden (Bullets have numbers attached, guys have hit points, dice are rolled, etc, but this is hidden from the player to create immersion [Fallout 3 is an exception here, in that it displays the hit points taken, constantly reminding you of these rules]). My point on THIS specific issue is that saying "games have always been violent" isn't enough, when the method of portrayal has changed so drastically. I'm no longer guiding a little dot around a maze from A to B, eliminating rival dots on the way, I'm taking a first-person perspective, a gun in hand, and I'm doing inhuman things at the encouragement of the designers.

          I'm currently playing Assassins Creed 2, and last night I was in the first catacombs section. There are guards in this area, which is obviously off-limits to my character. When you pass a certain point, the guards are revealed through a conversation in which one mentions how happy his wife will be when he tells her how much money he earned that night. Now personally, I'd like to sneak past them. And maybe I could, but when you reach a certain point the family man sees you and makes a long run for the main guard room. At this point you're told you need to stop him. As far as I'm aware, the only option is then to kill the man, or get into a larger fight later in which you'll need to kill more people (including the first guard) in order to progress.

          So the game has made an effort for me to empathise (or at least sympathise) with this guy, and then practically forces me to kill him, for no reason apart from doing his job, which he took to support a family.

          'Action' and 'violence' are potentially exclusive things. You mention the multiplayer marine as placeholder for yourself in competition, and yeah, I entirely agree that there are no empathetic ties when in that context. But regardless of the fact that we know we don't need to care for it, we're still pointing a gun at it and pulling the trigger.

          (Main point alert) Competition and conflict can be portrayed in many ways - sportsfield, racetrack, whatever. But the majority of videogames, the high profile ones, both single and multiplayer, focus (often primarily) on the taking of lives. Why is this?

          "... it has to be recognized that in between those who say “farking awesome”, there are those who stay silent and actually think about what they are seeing."

          You're talking to one of them. I play most high profile games that are released, sometimes just for the ability to be able to have an educated opinion about said game. So just to be clear, I have no problem as such with violence in a game. I just sometimes question why most games I play make me kill things, often without consequence and without a second thought.

            I never implied that we weren't in agreement, but good to know for certain we are.
            The Assassin's Creed example is a good one in the way that it treats death with a bit more maturity than other games would, or at least drives the point home that killing someone has more of an effect than simply removing an obstacle from your path (even if gameplay wise it does treat them simply as obstacles). As a result of humanising the potential victims I found myself trying to find alternatives to killing the guards whenever I could, and often regretted it when I couldnt.

            This actually reminds of of Red Faction: Guerilla and why I didn't like that game. Everything that the "enemy" owns, from power stations to millitary installations had to be destroyed in order to progress through the game, in order to "liberate" Mars. This struck me as complete bullcrap, why would removing a faceless millitary presence strictly require that you destroy infastructure which could be used to rebuild after the dictators were driven out? Everything and everyone was treated as entirely disposable and yay happy ending even though there's nothing there to support life, with the future survival of Mars ignored completely. I found myself completely detached from the game and not caring about the fate of either side, because none of them seemed to have motivations beyond "kill the other guy".

            By comparing those two games it's clear that videogames are capable of treating death with some degree of seriousness, but the question of why so many games tend to centre around life taking (and why we still like playing them) is a hard one.
            Perhaps it's been done that way for so long that no-one seems to want to find an alternative? Maybe it's not thrilling enough without a risk of death? I would suggest Portal as a successful and relatively violence-free game but mortality is still a factor.
            The only other type of game I could think of which provides a genuinely enjoyable experience are those where you build things (Garry's Mod, Minecraft, and who could forget The Sims?).

    Ape, I'm not sure if you're misinterpreting the statement about consistency as having to be conistent with other games or not, but I would like to make the following point anyway:
    In L4D2 the grapics are on the more realistic end of the scale, and in order for it not to seem rediculous the gore is neccesarry, without it you're just left asking "why are the corpses dissappearing for no visible reason?" (There's also the issue of censorship which causes most of the outrage but that's another issue). But in Wind Waker, for example, there is practically no gore and enemies disappear in a cute puff of smoke once killed, this however is nothing to complain about because it fits in with the visual style. I personally find both of these games equally appealing, and the depiction of violence (in my opinion) is simply dependent on the style of the game, newer generation graphics in a realistic style necessitate more realistic gore.

    Now that that's done, onwards:

    I see "violence" and "gore" as two seperate entities, violence itself is the act of being agressive and huring someone/something, while gore is simply how the designers choose to show the result. And I'm not exactly sure what the issue is here, is it that games are violent (as they always have been) or that this violence is accompanied by blood?

    In multiplayer, our little generic marine dude doesn't have a life, parents, siblings, friends or children, they are a placeholder for us and a tool which we use to interact with the world laid before us. Any other character is the same, and any damage done to these little marine dudes doesn't actually affect them or their loved ones, because they don't have any and in essence don't actually exist.

    The depicion of, say the screaming in something which sounded like a massacre in that first trailer, is disgusting in the way that we imagine innocent people who through no fault of their own were killed or debilitated. This is horrible because we think of the concequences of these actions, we imagine these people as those who have loved ones who they will never come home to, these thoughts are what make it real. I wouldn't describe such an event as "awesome" by any sense of the word (and think that anyone who would doesn't deserve to live) I take issue with the idea that if these are depicted in videogames, then those who play videogames must endorse the killing of innocent people. Yet if someone were to watch a movie with say, exactly the same scene in it, it is assumed that they empathise with the victim, and not that by watching it they suddenly and unquestionably endorse massacres.

    A single player game is there to tell a story, like many other forms of media. And like other forms of media these narratives could be about war, peace, chocolate factories, whatever. There are many other games out there nothing like COD, medal of honour and killzone (which are practically identical anyway) and I don't think the fanbase for this narrow range should be seen as the cream of gamer culture, much like how you wouldn't assume that the fanbase of Paranormal Activity reflects on everyone who has ever laid eyes on a TV screen.

    Now I don't want to defend the legions of morons who are unable to communicate without the consistant usage of "faggot, bro, yo, etc" who these games undoubtably attract, so I won't.
    But it has to be recognized that in between those who say "fucking awesome", there are those who stay silent and actually think about what they are seeing.

      OK, I accidentally posted as a response to a previous post. See above for actual response, if anyone's still reading this.

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