Modern Warfare 3 Isn’t An Un-Game, John Walker. You Are An Un-Player (And That Is OK)

On Wednesday we posted this, an argument from Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker claiming that Modern Warfare 3 was an “un-game with a core of nastiness”. We asked Brendan Keogh, of Kill Screen magazine and Edge fame, to respond…

Dear John,

I don’t think we’ve ever talked before so I want to begin by saying that I have utmost respect for your opinions and for the endlessly awesome writing you produce over at Rock Paper Shotgun. You are an alright guy!

With that in mind, I have to say something in response to your alarmingly negative editorial on Modern Warfare 3. I say “alarming” as, reading your post, it seems as though we played completely different games. Modern Warfare 3’s single-player campaign is currently sitting atop my Favourite Game of 2011 list. Bar none. I found it exhilarating, dramatic, and heart-pounding. I was fascinated with how it directed me so beautifully through its set pieces — I always did exactly what I was meant to do without feeling coerced. I finished the entire game in one sitting, not including the few times I had to take a break to slow my heart palpitations and stop my hands from shaking. I know we game critics aren’t meant to use these words but gosh darn it my experience of Modern Warfare 3 was utterly visceral and utterly immersive.

So I want to be clear, I am not saying that you should love the game because I love the game. You are more than welcome to dislike it. It would be a sad, sad world if we all loved and hated the same games.

But there is something in your critique that rubbed me the wrong way. Something I couldn’t let pass by without remarking on. Your issues with the plot and the cliché Russia-bad-America-good scenario are totally valid. I have not experienced any of the glitches you mentioned in either of my playthroughs, but perhaps that is because I played on 360, so I won’t challenge you on that.

No, it was something else. Something in the way you seem to use player freedom as a metric for the game’s quality (or lack thereof). Something about how you classify Modern Warfare 3 an “un-game”, as though it has (or lacks) attributes necessary to be a videogame. I could not disagree with this more and, as such, I don’t say what I am about to say lightly: something that might shake broader videogame criticism to its horrible, player-centric core…

You, sir, played the game wrong.

That’s a pretty big claim, I know. Not only that, it is a provocative claim. Is it even possible for a game to be played “wrong”? Isn’t the player always right? Isn’t that the beauty of videogames, that the player gets to decide what to do, and that they have the freedom to make choices and do whatever they want?

Well, no.

We humans sure do like to think we are the most important thing ever (remember when we thought the entire universe spun around us?). As such, it is easy to think the player is the be-all and end-all of everything in a videogame. Of course, when we do put ourselves at the centre of things, we tend to miss what is actually happening: a much more complex relationship of player and videogame.

Us videogame critics do it all the time. We always talk about how important it is for the player to be able to do whatever they want and have freedom and make choices and all that. We always say “emergence” as though it is inherently good and “linear” as though it is inherently bad. But think about it. What actually makes videogames pleasurable has far less to do with freedom or mastery or control and far more to do with being controlled.

We play videogames by participating with them as equals, not by becoming some god-like master over them. We enjoy entering a game, suspending disbelief, and voluntarily giving in to its limitations and restrictions and doing what is asked of us. This is as true of Modern Warfare 3 as it is of Minecraft.

In this vein, you mention how you are baffled that the Modern Warfare 3 player doesn’t want to be the hero or the leader but merely the follower. In your player-centric critique where freedom is seemingly paramount, you are bewildered that people can get any enjoyment out of following orders. That’s because you were too busy trying to master the game when, really, to enjoy Modern Warfare 3 you need to participate with it. You need to do what it asks you to do, when it asks you to do it.

And if you can bring yourself to do this, Modern Warfare 3 is an absolutely breathtaking experience. Each level is so perfectly, carefully paced and scripted so that you always have just enough control over what is happening to forward the events of the plot. And sure, that plot is absurd, but you feel so engaged in it, you feel so present in it that its absurdity hardly matters while you are playing.

But if you don’t participate with the game, if you stubbornly refuse to do what the game asks of you, how can you expect to enjoy it? The beauty of the Modern Warfare series is that, unlike so many other linear games, it doesn’t lie to you. It never pretends you are in charge. “Follow this man!” say Nikolai and that is exactly what you do. You aren’t calling the shots. You aren’t in charge here. You are following orders. You are just one man participating in a conflict much bigger than yourself. In short, this isn’t about you.

And for me, that was thrilling. I gave in to the game and I did what it told me to do. I followed. I kicked down doors. I took cover. I manned the gun. I held position. On several occasions, I died. To bastardise something Edge Magazine’s Feature Editor Jason Killingsworth said on Twitter, I got on the rollercoaster and I didn’t once stop to wonder where my steering wheel was.

You, on the other hand, played it wrong. What you have essentially done is walk out onto a soccer field with a cricket bat and gotten outraged when the referee told you you couldn’t use it. Certainly, you are more than welcome to try to play Modern Warfare 3 any which way you want. Go for it. Further, you are certainly entitled to not enjoy the kind of participation Modern Warfare 3 requires of you. That is all fine! But labelling it an “un-game” simple because you refuse to cooperate with it is patently unfair. And saying it is just “brainless fun” for “consumers” because it doesn’t let you feel special with some arbitrary amount of freedom is simply insulting.

Modern Warfare 3 isn’t an un-game, John, you are an un-player. And that is okay! You own the game; do whatever you want with it! But when you un-play the game, when you refuse to suspend your disbelief and to participate with the game in creating the kind of experience that game requires of you, you can hardly criticise the game for not working.

So this is what I ask of you, and of all videogame critics and players alike: stop using “freedom” as a metric for a game’s quality or, even worse, for a game’s gameness. Every game is a dance between player and code, but that doesn’t mean the player always gets to lead. A game that leads the player can be just as meaningful, significant, intelligent, stimulating or exhilarating as a game that lets the player do whatever they wish (within the games confines). The player is not the centre of the equation, and neither is the game. It’s the interrelationship between the player and the game that matters most.

Brendan Keogh once sat through an entire 48-hour Game Jam in Brisbane, just to watch himself die. You can follow him on Twitter here

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