"Violence is not the answer" is a phrase that was repeated ad infinitum in our youths. Children in the Western world are brought up with the idea that discussing their problems is always better than talking with their fists. But for a society that claims to strive towards pacifism, violence is still surprisingly ubiquitous. Violence continues to be a part of our society, a daily reality that we all have to deal with. Whether it is war, shoot-outs or general crime, violence enters our living rooms in one way or another every time we turn on the TV.
However, while violence disgusts us, it also fascinates us. Why else would there be so many detective novels, documentaries about serial killers, and television series about police work? It is hard for us to resist a quick peek into the dark side of human nature, which explains why media focusing on violence continue to attract an audience of millions. Dutch comedian Hans Sibbel visualised this fascination by means of a fence. In all of our minds, there is a fence protecting us from potential threats. Within the fence reside all of our pleasant, acceptable thoughts. But outside of the fence, there is a whole other world. A world of violence, murder and hatred: things that cannot enter our minds because the fence protects us. Despite this protection, we can still see through the fence. We can see what is out there, and it fascinates us. When someone tells us to not think of a pink elephant, all we can think about is a pink elephant. Similarly, whenever we are informed that violence is never an option, it triggers our curiosity. What is this thing so terrible that our parents want us to avoid it at all costs? Fortunately, in most of us, the fence is strong enough to prevent us from acting upon violent thoughts, but violence remains a thoroughly interesting topic nonetheless.
With our fascination with violence in mind, it really should be no surprise that video games reflect this by often including violence as a central element of their gameplay. Violence is present in many different types of video games, be they action RPGs, platformers or military shooters. Out of these genres, though, the military shooter is perhaps the most peculiar. As its name indicates, it does not just focus on violence in itself, but lethal violence on a massive, organised scale: war. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of war as a subcategory of violence is its reputation as a necessary evil. Because, contrary to 'regular' street violence, war is often (though definitely not always) viewed as a legitimate means of, for example, eliminating a threat or ousting a despotic leader. More often than not, war is viewed as a case of good versus evil, where one party has the right to use necessary force to subdue the other.
The perception of war violence as sometimes being legitimate is reflected by many military games, in which it is made clear that you are fighting for a noble cause. The advertisements for the recently released Medal of Honor: Warfighter, for instance, focus on the player's role as a special forces team member fighting global terror. And it should not prove too difficult to find a link between this concept and real-world political rhetoric. In other military video games, the player's violence is often justified a tad more subtly, but clear enough to counter any moral objections that may arise. The most interesting example of this is the futuristic/military first person shooter Frontlines: Fuel of War, which sees the player invade Moscow as part of the American army. Rather than the Russian army, the main opposing force is formed by armed civilians. Anticipating the moral dubiousness of an organised army taking out civilians, the game tells you that the civilians have been forced by their government to fend off the Americans. Upon closer inspection of this argument, it is nothing short of preposterous that we are supposed to be cleared of all moral objections by the information that they are not fighting out of their own free will. What is even more bizarre, though, is that we are to assume that people would not be prepared to voluntarily defend their country against a foreign invasion (when history proves this wrong on many accounts).
As such, the problem with many military shooters is not that they include violence, but rather that this aspect is handled in an immature and morally simplistic fashion. An armed conflict seldom boils down to a good versus evil juxtaposition, and while it is unrealistic to expect video games to include all of the intricate mechanics at play in a war, they should at least include some more nuances in their presentation of military campaigns. The relative immaturity of military video games in this department is perhaps best illustrated by the story of a family friend, whose 13-year old child was a fervent player of Call of Duty. At one point, the child was so impressed with the pseudo-realistic presentation of combat in that game, that he said he wanted to join the army when he grew up. This desire instantly disappeared, however, when he saw some of the gritty combat scenes in the mini-series Band of Brothers.
While the child technically should not have been playing Call of Duty at that age in the first place, it does reveal a lot about utter lack of maturity of the Call of Duty games. And unfortunately, this series is not an exception. In fact, there are only very few, often very recent shooters that make a serious attempt at showing the horrors of war. In Spec Ops: The Line, for example, the border between right and wrong is so blurry that the player's actions are not automatically justified. Sadly, it is still a rare occurrence that games dare take this route, and openly question the actions of the player.
Military games should not necessarily condemn war, as for many of us it is a necessary evil. But they should be careful not to glorify it either. Not necessarily because it sends us the wrong message about violence, but because it blatantly misinforms us on what war, or more specifically, the military actually is. There are many teenagers and young adults that buy into the idea that being part of an army means that you just shoot bad guys all the time. However, the reality of military life does not correspond with that image at all. It would thus be interesting to see video games offer a more balanced portrayal of an army's activities. Covering integral elements such as communicating with civilians, supplying remote areas, or any other activities that do not necessarily incorporate the use of deadly force could contribute to a better representation of military life, while also providing the subgenre with some much-needed variation. It is true that some military simulators already do this to an extent, but it would be interesting to see if some more mainstream games could mature a bit while retaining their appeal. It would be much more useful if military games could contextualise violence instead of outright excluding it. After all, we could never completely ignore what is on the other side of the fence.
The reason why we dont shy away from the horrific violence in video games is beacuse it's very impersonal. Most people only truely care about something if it can actually touch them.
If i see a head decapitated while the body is doing a backflip in a film or game i laugh my ass off but if i saw this in real life my reactions would be completly diffrend. The context changed and it got personal that is when i start to care.
When confronted with indirect violence all the time i get emotional detached from what i am seeing. my mind will not prioratize it as a threat anymore. However like i said before when it becomes personal again i will be alerted.
As for the fascination with violence. I think it comes from our basic insticts to hunt. A succesfull hunt satisfies us. Seeing succes makes us happy Therefor violence is justified.
I can write a whole article about how we are slaves to our instinct nomatter how hard we deny it but that would be too much text as for now.
Well written article, good points. I would suggest however, that social responsibility or accurate portrayal of military life probably never come up on the radar of developers when they are considering key factors in a new game. I would argue they probably never will. As a serving member, I can tell you that 90% of what I do isn't exciting. In fact it's so mind numbing and not exciting that I never mention it when I'm asked what my job entails... When the word "realistic" is tacked on to shooters I can only hope the developers are referring solely to the graphics.
I am reminded of the Onion News report from way back on the most realistic military game ever... including standing around waiting for orders, driving to one place only to turn around and go back...
@sometimesafish Haha, I actually had to think of that very video while writing this article. I consciously avoided calling for more 'realistic' shooters, because realism is often less exciting that what we can come up with using our imagination. Action would always have to be the central part of any shooter, or people wouldn't care about it. But military games could be a tad more balanced. And I mean balanced in the sense that it shows that the military isn't all about shooting hordes of scruffy terrorists. Putting just a little bit more variation in the game would do more justice to the job of a soldier and maybe even make the gameplay less monotonous. Basically what I'm saying is that too few developers capitalise upon the full potential of a military setting.
I remember playing Halo: Combat Evolved and caring so much about the lives of the my fellow soldiers when I encountered them. I would play with my cousin sometimes, who would kill the soldiers to take their weapons without a second thought, which in a way has changed my outlook on killing in games ever since. I like that idea that your squad mates are not invincible, as they usually are in all new games. Caring about the safety of the people around you is I think lost in today's games, but I like that element of war. It adds to the strategy of "winning" and makes the war/battle scenario more real.
If a game had a realistic portrayal of military life it would be boring as shyte, with about five minutes of being shot at and shooting at the enemy.
This is outstanding stuff. It's always great to see bloggers taking a more academic approach to these topics. That's what I try to do. Not sure if I'm succeeding though.
I would be extremely interested to know what percentage of people who have signed up for the military in recent years played Call of Duty or Medal of Honour as a kid. Just a thought.
@rapboy_905 I don't know. Even if a lot of them have, pretty much everyone who's into gaming has played one of those games at one point. What I do know, though, is that the US Army advertised here on Gamespot using an aesthetic that was awfully similar to CoD/Battlefield, and I really don't think that's a coincidence.
@DraugenCP Big business and military are always linked, that's what war is about nowadays, money. Robert Kotick of Activision is also the director of Coca-Cola which have made phenomenal amounts of money throughout many theatres of war, more recently with the help of Halliburton. Coincidences eh?
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@Bamul "live in a world without governments, without nations, without politicians - through the only true form of democracy: direct democracy." Are you talking about anarchy?
or are you speaking of direct democracy in the ancient Greek sense of the word?
Also "Slavs" are not a race so "racist" is not a good term to use and if you want to say Russians just say Russians I don't remember any recent games that had Czechs or Croats as the bad guys. I do think it is silly to keep going with the Russia vs USA theme in games seeing as the Cold War is long over but just like with Germans and WW2 I don't think Americans are going to remember the Russians for much more else then the Cold War for a while.
@pimpofdoom I was getting harassed by someone due to my first comment on here and I had to delete it. Won't be able to continue this conversation, sorry. :(
@Bamul Too bad you didn't get around to writing that blog, as the idea sounds interesting. When it comes to Chalk Talk, I see the topics guidelines rather than set boundaries. In the 'Big in Japan' edition, I wrote almost exclusively about Eastern-European video game development, so I don't think the rules are that strict.
These types of games can be an outlet for violence. Rather than taking it out on friends, family or some random person who just rubs you the wrong way, you can hop online and start blowing everything up. It is not always going to work, and it may eventually stop being a vaible option to release your anger and frustration, in fact it may even make you more so, but it is still better than taking out your anger on a real person. I am not saying that a 13 year old should be playing CoD, in fact I don't think anyone under the age of 16 should be allowed to play a war game for maturity's sake (and a few other reasons that are for another topic. Violence has always been around, it is one of the first things recorded, great epics were written about violence, and poems were written glorifying violence. They had writing to take out their anger, we have video games. I think writing is better and more productive, but video games will do.
Firstly, on the prevalence of violence in games: What is the object of a game (apart from have fun; I mean, the goal of the game)? It is to win, and usually this is done by defeating your opponents. This is a manifestation of our natural human urge to compete, and ultimately to dominate. Competition gets our blood up, our heart racing, and we enjoy that visceral feeling of engagement, while knowing we are really safe. It's like a rollercoaster; danger (in the form of speed and violent motion) domesticated. And no domination is more decisive than that from the barrel of a gun. I say this as a fan of both military video games and board wargaming.
Secondly, on the representation of war in games: I agree 100% with the article. Those of us who have played CoD will know how the games not only present war as simple, easy, and worst of all, cool, they also misrepresent military ethics. In CoD4 an SAS captain is depicted executing a prisoner for no reason, without penalty or even comment. In the next game, another prisoner is interrogated (offscreen) by an operative wielding a sparking electric cable. If these things happen in real life in a western military (and they sometimes do) the soldier responsible can expect criminal charges and a long prison sentence (if others do their jobs).
The account of the kid playing CoD thinking "I wanna be a soldier" is scary. How many soldiers are serving right now, who joined up for the sort of "coolness" exemplified not just by games like CoD, but countless movies and tv shows too? That's an advantage of board wargaming; it's not cool!
I love shooter games where I can blast my way through bad guys with all sorts of weapons and explosives, i love assassins creed where you can sneek up and assassinate targets or I love playing GTA 4 where you can just go on a murder spree and become public enemy number one. Does this make me a violent person ? No it doesn't, In real life I am calm ,friendly and pretty placid, well manered and honest. . Most people play games for fun and entertianment and to carry out things that would never do in real life, because most people know the difference between fantasy and NON fantasy. Violence has always been around us, its in our genetics wether we like it or not. People don't become violent because off video games or movies, they either are born violent or born into violence.
A lot of that is true. But then again, one reason to play videogames is to be able to do what you can't (or shouldn't) do in real life.
We play racing games where we go hundreds of miles fast through city streets and crash the cars as if it was a sport, but I doubt many will actually go and do the same thing in real life.
@Willy105 True, but racing games don't have this pretense of 'authenticity' or 'realism' as much as military first person shooters. Moreover, the ideological connotations of war are what makes military games a more complex and also more touchy subject. Racing games use a reality we witness every day (i.e. traffic), making it much easier to distinguish fact from fiction. Military shooters, on the other hand, use a reality that is much more distant to us (war/military life) and that we mostly only know from fiction, making us much more susceptible to believing that these games are somehow close to reality.
The world is a violent place ... we just have created a peaceful life without any natural danger. For every living creature of the world ( outside human and pet or domesticated animals ) it is violance everywhere. Everyday could be your last day ... maybe you won't find any food ... maybe the food you will find you will have to battle with another to get it and may die ... It is just natural, one of our most basic instinct.
You should read Nietzsche ... he fought everything is just violence, pain and suffering from the moment you are born to the day you will die. We just have created a society and for the sake of the human race we should condemn violence if we want to preserve the society.
A video game is just that ... depecting in a glorified vision of war or other violent act. Mario killing Koomba, to the Bugs Bunny turning every Elmer Fudd's weapon again himslef ( which explode etc ). Violence is everywhere.
So in all, since it is all fantasy of the humain mind, it is ok as long as you understand it isn,t real. Because reallity isn,t the same ... Everything need context.
What i would like to see is more 'complex' military shooters like ARMA with non-western storylines or storylines in which the US army just MAYBE aint the good guys all the time. I'd like to see the american invasion of Afghanistan from either civilian insurgency perspective or a Taliban perspective for example. Untill then i consider military shooters to be american war propaganda.
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Still though, it takes people to make great games be it with great messages or great gameplay.
You could focus test and try to cater to the current tastes of society but you could also make a game that will would impact society much like how some games are considered Grand Gems like GW2 in the gaming world or just another WoW clone.