Recently I came across a Kotaku article that gave me cause to think back over my own military career… well, my fictional one. A good story requires conflict, which in gaming has always been most easily represented by combat. The first video games ever made simulated a variety of warfare from commanding missiles to fighting ghosts. As games became more advanced there came a greater possibility for experiences that would be difficult or impossible for the average person, and so it eventually came about that games allowed gamers to experience not only fictional campaigns against killer robots and space aliens, but simulations of real historical armed conflicts. As I’ve matured and studied martial arts (and by extension, the physical and psychological rammifications of conflict), my thoughts on such games have changed much over the years.
The first game I ever played was Frogger. We were at a family reunion in Missouri and the neighbor (or maybe an uncle, I forget now) had an old Atari. Something about that little box that made the flashing lights enthralled me. Here was something far more advanced than an action figure or a model car playset. I could explore alien worlds and fight robots and try to get a small amphibian to cross a street. If you were born in the 90s that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but to me it was something magical. It was also rather violent, at least when compared to my other entertainment options. Unlike cartoon characters who could get blown up or crushed and walk away mostly fine, the little frogs that didn’t make it were reduced to green splats with red blood beneath.
My days of NES gaming were mostly bloodless as was intended by the marketing department, but plenty of violence was still afoot. It was just generally against robot ninjas and space monsters and such, never really against anything that you could personify. Things didn’t really get messy for me until the 16-bit era and the SNES.
Two games in particular stand out for the purposes of this ponderance, one of them being Wolfenstein 3-D. It was the first game I recall playing in which the point was to shoot and kill (relatively) realistic humans. Granted they were nazis and therefore jerks, and later MechaHitler kinda stretches the realism, but it was still something way beyond what I was used to. Something about it was very offputting to me at a young age, and what I now find tense and exciting was at the time scary and not-very-fun.
Then there was Wing Commander (also mentioned in the Kotaku article and the impetus for this gig). I didn’t realize the full depth of it at the time, but it was the first game I’d played that dealt with the very real loss that occurs in real warfare.
In a tradition carried on throughout the series, inbetween missions you can hang out at the officer’s club (or an analog thereof) and chat with your fellow pilots. They share stories of home and life-saving tips. They can also die with little or no preamble. Any pilot you choose to take into a mission under your command might not come home again. It might be because you made a bad call and got them into more trouble than they could handle, or because an enemy pilot just got lucky. Sometimes it would just happen in the chaos of war for what seemed like no reason at all.
Should one of your fellow pilots fall, upon your return to base you’ll see a cutscene of a funeral for your deceased comrade. Short of reloading a save (a feature absent from my old SNES game), that pilot is gone forever. That seat at the bar is permanently empty. Someone you had a kinship with is irrevocably lost, and no matter how many enemy fighters you blow up it won’t bring them back. I think that was the first game I played that got me sufficiently emotionally invested in a character to cry when one of them died. There were enemy fighters everywhere and I was tearing ass around trying to save my comrade but I just wasn’t fast enough.
The next game to really get me thinking about fictional violence (and the first that I recall getting my parents’ attention) was the N64 classic Goldeneye. Although you could accidentally shoot the ocasional scientist or civillian (which usually caused an automatic mission failure), for the most part your goal was to shoot your way through legions of generic bad guys. This again was nothing new, but what was new (to me at least) was all the screaming and optional blood that now accompanied FPS games. Additionaly, instead of having a frame or two of animation and then vanishing, defeated foes would now fall on the ground and linger awhile. Once in a blue moon a guy would get shot and lay on the ground for upwards of ten seconds clutching his gut and rolling around in pain. Just a little occasional reminder, “Hey by the way, you’re shooting people.”
Some time later came Metal Gear Solid, my first real experience with the Metal Gear series (tried the NES one back in the day, couldn’t get into it). It’s also the first game I recall getting deep into in which you had the option to kill, but incentive not to do so. Even later on in the game when I’m carrying tons of armaments and have plenty of health and rations, you get a better score in the game if you make it through quickly and quietly with a minimum of bloodshed.
Now that I think about it, I think the reason I continue to love the Metal Gear series despite the storyline’s heaping helpings of banana sandwich insanity is that Superman conflict: the power to destroy, but the responsibility to refrain. This was a mainstay of the series, featured most directly in MGS3. There’s a sort-of-dream sequence where you’re walking down a river and you have to trudge past the ghosts of everyone you killed in the game up to that point. Usually I was super-stealth guy so there would only be one or two guys on the river. But then on one playthrough I got stuck on the prison escape sequence dying over and over again and I was getting frustrated, and I happened upon an M60 machine gun. I then proceeded to run around the base gunning down everybody I could find to ‘punish’ the game for giving me so much hassle. That river took a looong time…
Inbetween a man who controls bees and humorous misunderstandings leading to crotch-grabbing, the game also finds time to deliver what I found to be a very moving message on what war does to the people who have to fight in it. The idea of the game (and the two PSP sequels, but in my opinion this game is all you need) is to show how Big Boss came to the decision to create Outer Heaven, his ‘soldiers’ paradise’. I won’t spoil how it goes, but suffice to say by the end of the game I think maybe he had some good ideas (well, the soldiers’ paradise part at least, not so much the hijack nuclear weapons and hold the world for ransom part).
Halo, unsurprisingly, is not such a great game if you want to be nonviolent. In the second game there’s a side story about the Elites being bumped out of the spotlight by the Brutes, and there’s a part where you bust into a room while the two clans are fighting each other. If I had my druthers I’d rather have fought the Brutes first, on account of they were bigger jerks than Elites, but the moment I entered the room everybody wanted a piece of Master Chief. Probably a limit of the programming, as I recall at the time the dev team said they had a heck of a time having more than two factions (you vs everyone else).
Sometimes interesting conflicts happen because of the programming with no need for scripting. One time I was just goofing around playing a FFA round of Starcraft with a mess of computer opponents. Playing as the Terrans I was flying a fleet of big bad Cruisers into the enemy base when I see a swarm of CPU Ghosts rolling in. At first I think oh great they’re gonna use Lockdown and mess up my Cruisers and I’ll just have to sit here while everyone blows up my stuff. But then something strange and awesome happened; the Ghosts and allied troops completely ignored my Cruisers and just went into the base taking out all the anti-air defenses. I followed up by blasting the carp out of anything that could endanger ground forces. Together we laid waste to the enemy base, and at the end my Cruisers flew home and their troops marched back out, neither of us firing parting shots at each other. One of my favorite random moments of gaming and it happened totally by accident.
Later in the 360 era I embarked upon the adventure through Rapture in Bioshock. When I first arrived I was hounded by murderous splicers and had to scramble for supplies and defend myself by any means necessary. Some time later in the game when I had significantly more power and resembled some kind of gunslinging lightning-shooting Super Jesus I found a pair of splicers inexplicably ballroom dancing. I stood there watching them for a bit, thinking about how for once maybe we didn’t have to fight. For an introspective moment I realized I had become one of them, hunting and killing because if I didn’t they’d get me first. If only there was some way to communicate with them… But I needed to get past them, and I knew if they spotted me they’d turn violent, so unfortunately I had to toss a grenade into their midst and move on.
Turn the dial back a bit to Shadow of the Colossus, a game in which you have to kill even when later on you may not feel good about it. At first you hunt the great lumbering colossi to revive a girl for reasons that are never explained to the audience, knowing only that in order for you to succeed they must die. The first few are triumphant David vs Goliath battles, but as it goes on you begin to feel more monstrous as you kill off this race of giants, committing genocide for the well-being of just one girl.
This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Call of Duty series (the good ones done by Infinity Ward, now Respawn). In a counterpoint to competitor Medal of Honor’s action movie superhero methods of one man against the entire Nazi regime, Call of Duty games reinforce the point that open warfare is horrible and terrifying and you could die at any moment in any number of terrible horrible ways. Each of your comrades has a little note over their head showing their name so you can feel just a little bit more depressed when they die. The modern warfare missions Shock and Awe and No Russian are icing on a great big cake of why Call of Duty is the closest I ever want to be to being in a real war.
In recent history there was a game I may never play but I really wish I could called Six Days in Fallujah. Atomic Games was working on a simulator for military training with a couple of marines on staff as advisors, and during development the marines were called away to serve. When they returned they told Atomic Games that they wanted to redesign the game to tell the story of what they’d experienced on the mission. Konami was set to publish it, but when media pressure got on them they folded and abandoned the project. As of March the word on the street is that the game is finished and they’re planning on releasing it. Here’s hoping, because it could be exactly the sort of war ‘game’ I’d like to see more of: something that isn’t necessarily fun, but uses the interactive medium of video games to tell a story in a way beyond what you can get in a book or a movie, putting you right there in the thick of what these marines experienced. A game intended not necessarily to entertain, but to educate.
On the other side of the coin is real-world violence, which as you may imagine is far less glamorous than fictional violence. Real combat is brutal and graphic and not at all fun. Through the years I have become less and less ‘into’ destructive activities, yet throughout my life I’ve been engaging in violent games. I jumped around my backyard pretending to be Ninja Turtles. My friends and I whacked each other with toy lightsabers and anything shaped like a lightsaber. I later got into martial arts, which taught me all manner of ways to cause injury ranging from the mildly inconvenient to the ‘holy frack what kind of supervillain are we dealing with that I would have to do this to a human being’.
I have come to the odd realization that I enjoy violence, but I don’t enjoy suffering. I like video games with explosions and gunplay and swords and mowing down legions of morally unambiguous bad guys, but it’s not fun when they squirm in pain like real people would and when I see explosions on the news I just think about the misfortune of the people on the recieving end. Swinging assorted blunt objects at your friends is a hoot, but when someone gets cracked upside the head and starts crying the fun’s over. Sparring in class is an exciting clash of strength and skill, but injuring your training partner shows a lack of restraint and makes it harder for your partner to trust you next time.
In a situation where you’re locked into a real fight and have no choice but to do harm unto your attackers to make them unable or unwilling to continue there’s not much in the way of a happy ending. Someone’s getting hurt, and depending on the situation your opponent could be anyone from a random mugger to a homeless man trying to get money for his family to a drunk friend. Real combat is something to be avoided if at all possible, so why do we keep pretending to fight?
Perhaps it is because real combat is terrible yet seemingly inevitable, and both thoughtful and mindless wargames have something to contribute to the matter. In realistic wargames you can interactively experience the lives of allied and enemy soldiers, getting a new perspective on fictional, allegorical, or even real wars to see the bigger picture beyond ‘us vs them’. It’s not such a problem in clearly fictional games, but in allegorical and especially in historical warfare games to always demonize the enemy. In particular I’m eyeing the ones that pick ambiguous wars like Vietnam just to be more ‘edgy’ (and for the record 99% of attempts to be ‘edgy’ are terrible ideas), not only passing up the opportunity to educate their audience or at least mine the nebulous political situation for interesting story material but perhaps painting over the reality of the situation with a coat of misinformation. No doubt the reason we’ve been simulating World War 2 for longer than there was an actual World War 2 is because there’s a drastic shortage of ‘good’ wars. (Hint: it’s because there aren’t really any ‘good’ wars.)
By contrast, in most gung-ho one man army games the heroes are straight and true, the villains are irredeemable mustache-twirling unambiguous punching bags, and good always triumphs over evil. It probably won’t educate anyone, but it does serve a different important purpose. There’s a saying that we don’t tell stories to warn people that monsters exist; watching the evening news will tell you that. Rather, we tell stories to teach people that monsters can be defeated.