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Do We Have A Moral Obligation To Make War Games With An Anti-War Agenda?

SOCOM is supported by the Navy Seals. America's Army is funded by the U.S. Army. Modern Warfare 2 has one scene involving civilians, and stands alone in having civilians at all in a war game. Should we be making war games with actual Mature content?

Nick Halme, Blogger

July 11, 2010

7 Min Read

First, watch this Heartsrevolution video set to cuts of Waltz with Bashir.

In other forms of media videogames are often portrayed unjustly, right?  In The Wire we see young gangbangers mindlessly shooting in Halo 2.  In Neuromancer arcades are home to a game called Tank Battle.

I think I take offense because they're portraying videogames pretty well.  In our nascent medium, we're still trying to finish games where all we have to worry about is getting the guns to shoot right and to get the enemies to die correctly.

In the video someone mercilessly fires a model Browning .50 cal at a screen full of targets.  I've been moved to write about this topic before, and I think I need to get it out again.

While we admit we have technical limitations, business limitations, videogames are portrayed as one dimensional because, in the sense that we portray human conflict, they are.  We're like children playing Cowboys and Indians -- the cowboys kill the indians, and vice versa.  That's all.  Move on to the next game.  There are epic Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader combats. 

We have few of the moments Waltz with Bashir has.  We don't feel confliction.  We don't shed any tears for the digital warfighters that die beside us, and we have no reason to feel anything for the digital enemies we murder.  We look at a destroyed city scape and yell "FUCK YEAH!" and then move on to discuss how dynamic our destructible environments are.  We're never left standing at the edge of a burning city feeling remorse.

Some people think the reason is that none of this is fun.  Well guess what, if we want to talk about videogames like they're experiences now then we're not talking about football, we're talking about The Deer Hunter.  We're talking about Black Hawk Down (the real story, not the balls to the wall action flick).

In fact, we take every armed conflict and turn it into the film portrayal of Black Hawk Down.  In the book -- written in fictional prose but composed from interviews with U.S Army Rangers, Delta Force operatives who saw friends get shot in the head, Somali fighters, and recorded radio transmissions and reels of 24/7 colour UAV footage -- there is little to celebrate.  On that day 19 Americans died along with over 3,000 Somalians.  A group of Army Rangers spent an entire day and night fighting an entire city.  It's reported that the militias used all of the ammunition they had stored in the city.

In the film, Americans shoot the fuck out of the bad guys.  You could say it's like a videogame.  It's full of a lot of very cool scenes.

We make cool shit.  Not important shit.


I think there are a lot of obvious reasons - gamers make games for gamers; we don't want to think about real things when we're in our safe place; game companies are scared of having a hard M rating; some people feel uncomfortable modeling virtual worlds full of suffering.

But we should.  Videogames have to do one thing before we make another leap.  We made the leap from Pacman to Modern Warfare 2, and we need to make another leap soon.  I think it needs to be the construction of the most terrifying war game ever made.

Because it's not like we don't have the systems in place to attack this problem if we allowed ourselves to.  How do we make a player feel remorse for killing civilians?  We can do that.  Can we create characters the player cares about?  Yep.  Can we model gore?  Sure thing.  How about creating a mission structure that feels more like the botched battle plan of an armed force?  Hiring good voice talent?  Crafting exposition that makes the player wonder if he's on the right side?  The individual mechanics are there.

But maybe the incentive is not.  We're stuck in an arcane world where we make games for people we're told will buy it.  We don't make games for ourselves.  Screenwriters and directors can make movies for themselves and they sell because they're good stories.  Novelists write for themselves and become bestsellers because of it.  Videogame companies make either versions of games they liked, or games for audiences that people in suits assure them will enjoy it and: profit.

I've said this before, but once I asked the lead designer at a certain studio why they didn't have blood in their game.  The response: we don't make suffering.  He said it in a tone that implied "We are good people, not bad people -- so we will make games without blood."

What I inferred was "We will make a game where you kill men, but not show the suffering.  We make imaginary worlds where the men you kill deserve it, and they don't suffer because that's mean.  Death is PG 13 -- dying is rated R."

Make this game and it will sell millions.  Make David Jaffe's Heartland, and it will sell millions.  Make Six Days in Fallujah and it will sell millions.

In fact here's a section of the Wikipedia page on the cancelled Atomic Games project, Six Days in Fallujah:

"Atomic Games describes Six Days as a survival horror game, but not in the traditional sense. The fear in Six Days does not come from the undead or supernatural, but from the unpredictable, terrifying, and real tactics employed by the insurgents that were scattered throughout Fallujah.  Benito states that 'Many of the insurgents had no intention of leaving the city alive, so their entire mission might be to lie in wait, with a gun trained at a doorway, for days just waiting for a Marine to pop his head in. They went door-to-door clearing houses, and most of the time the houses would be empty. But every now and then, they would encounter a stunningly lethal situation... which, of course, rattled the Marines psychologically.' Gamepro has stated that for Benito, giving players a taste of the horror, fear, and misery experienced by real-life Marines in the battle was a top priority. Benito states 'These are scary places, with scary things happening inside of them. In the game, you're plunging into the unknown, navigating through darkened interiors, and 'surprises' left by the insurgency. In most modern military shooters, the tendency is to turn the volume up to 11 and keep it there. Our game turns it up to 12 at times but we dial it back down, too, so we can establish a cadence.'" 

Why did it get pulled?  The games media played the offense card.  Konami pulled the plug.

Someone needs to take responsibility for a game that means anything to anyone.  To a game that offends everyone by recreating the final scene in The Hurt Locker where the player tries to defuse a ticking suicide bomb, and failure at the task is the point.

Someone needs to make the game where you set fire to a village full of women and children under orders that they were collaborating with insurgents.

Someone needs to make it because they need to prove that doing so will not result in disaster.  They need to prove that a videogame can have balls and disturb people, and that people will enjoy the stimulation just like they do in other forms of media.  We have the invaluable tool of player agency -- we can make players do things.  We need to stop making them play toy soldiers, and start making them play real soldiers.  Real insurgents fighting the Americans to preserve their homeland and way of life.  Real Israelis causing collateral damage.  Real U.N. peacekeepers challenged with remaining passive while genocide is carried out.

They need to do it because someone has to.  We need to nut up and grow up.  And when it's proven that a company can continue business after making that game, more games like it will follow.  Maybe then we can stop recruiting soldiers and start creating protestors. 


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