We’ve been planning this blog for a few weeks now, but Kelsey’s post at his own blog, Plastic Manzikert, shook loose some thoughts in my head about the depiction of war in games like Call of Duty. Here’s how Kelsey describes a typical scene in a realistic FPS game:
The first video game I connected with on a gut level was Call of Duty. I was playing at a friends house, and he had me start on the first mission in the Soviet campaign. I took control, and for one tense minute could only turn my head and listen as the commissar told us how we were to be Stalingrad’s salvation. Then the Luftwaffe strafed our boats, and I had to reload the mission. I sat through the same speech a second time, knowing I could just as easily and arbitrarily die again. Several of my AI compatriots couldn’t handle the pressure, and jumped overboard only to have their backs filled with lead from the commissar’s PPsh-41. I looked the other way, and then rushed out of the landing craft, where I received only a five-round clip for the entirety of the mission. Unarmed, I sprinted between cover to draw fire so that a sniper could silence several MG-42s. It was an immersion into one of the hardest moments in any war, the darkest night before the long, grinding conflict would lead to victory.
Notice the lack of emotional cues beyond the “gut connection” with the game. There’s little to know reaction to the AI compatriots being summarily executed, even though this depicts actual events. This is certainly not because Kelsey is an emotionless automaton, he’s not. Rather it’s because most war simulation games have only a shallow narrative that produces no real connection between the player and the character. This is not true for all games. The best example of an emotional connection between the player and characters in a narrative about war is the Mass Effect series. Don Gomez describes the difference thusly:
Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.
The choices made by the protagonist across the Mass Effect series have real consequences for the player and the universe he inhabits. The dialogue choices made when speaking with teammates can either build or erode the trust and cohesion of the fighting force. The application of force is weighed against sympathy and aid in key decisions, when the ‘right answer’ is not usually apparent. Act too harshly and you risk alienating potential allies. Too soft, and you open yourself to exploitation.
He is absolutely correct but the difference can be taken further. The extremely rich and deep narrative of the Mass Effect trilogy produces emotion in the player. Players care what happens to the characters around them. Not only does the Mass Effect narrative produce emotion, it manipulates it. For example, in ME1, the player is presented with the choice to ensure a mission is complete or rush the rescue of a comrade pinned down by the enemy at another location (the Virmire mission, for those who’ve played it). This is the classic dilemma of mission versus troop welfare. Soldiers are trained to put the mission first, even if this means putting troops and themselves in danger. The consequences of this choice appear in the game. If the player sticks with the mission, their comrade is killed. If they choose save that comrade, a different character is killed. ME2 takes it further; players must assign characters to tactical tasks in accordance with their strengths i.e. whether they are a tech expert or a small unit tactician. The game doesn’t really tell you who is best suited for a task, it just expects you to have enough knowledge of each character’s background, gained through dialogue, to make the right choice. Choose the ex-military, ex-cop Turian to set up a blocking position, for example, or choose someone good with technology to hack a door’s lock system. Wrong choices don’t always produce failure, but do lead to the deaths of key characters. Balancing your team’s strengths and weakness against missions and the risks associated is prevalent in warfare. As Gomez noted, the player continues to be presented with the results of their choices. Characters that die in battle do not appear for the rest of the trilogy.
In contrast, more popular and “realistic” FPS games depict a sanitized version of warfare. The COD player does not care if AI allies die to outflank a machine gun. The Napoleon: Total War player does not care if his Hussars take 98% casualties charging the enemy line. Commanders in real life often care deeply about the men and women they lead. In my opinion, every good commander does. At the same time, they must make sacrifices. It is impossible to play through Mass Effect and save every companion the player meets and, unlike most other games, each sacrifice is fraught with emotion. This is, perhaps, why I have not been interested in modern military games or movies since experiencing war for myself in Iraq. I used to be an avid Counterstrike, Day of Defeat, and Medal of Honor player. Since deploying, I haven’t touched them and have no interest to do so. Mass Effect, however, readily captured my attention. I played through ME2 three times and am on my second run through ME3.
Surprisingly, the Mass Effect series has garnered little political controversy in the same vein as COD does even though the narrative deals with such weighty issues as sacrifice in combat, murder, free will, genocide, the ethics of bioweapons, post-traumatic stress disorder, homosexuality, and interspecies sexual relationships. Frankly, it’s impressive that Bioware managed to fit so many themes into a single coherent storyline, let alone allow the player to choose how to handle them. The science fiction setting seems to allow the Bioware producers and writers much more leeway to touch on deeply political and emotional concepts than do games in a more modern or historical setting. Imagine a Call of Duty game set in World War II where the player must choose between defending a position against an attacking panzer division and abandoning his post to liberate a concentration camp that has been mistakenly marked as an Allied bombing target. Now imagine the media firestorm once the game hit the market. That’s the level of ethical and emotional depth the Mass Effect series reached without the same criticism. Mass Effect 3 even offers a primer on the strategic level of war, which I will explore in a future post.
One can easily recall other works of science fiction that use their setting to explore controversy. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984 come to mind. Science fiction has long been a venue to explore dark or difficult themes in a “safe” setting. In part, that’s why we’ve formed this blog. War and warfare is prominent in science fiction and offers a rich garden for defense intellectuals and servicemembers. Here, we intend to explore that garden.