When Games Matter: Civilians in War Games
When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say about who we are and the world we live in.
In the next two months, two of the videogame industry’s biggest players will release new war games–Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. In light of these games, Michael Thomson has written an excellent article for Slate exploring the absence of civilians in war games. Given the hyper-realistic design choices made by these games its interesting that they have largely neglected to recognize the the unfortunate reality civilian casualties. Thomson reports:
In an interview with the website Rock Paper Shotgun, Battlefield 3’s executive producer Patrick Bach explained that he doesn’t “want to see videos on the Internet where people shoot civilians. That’s something I will sanitize by removing that feature from the game.” Bach believes that video games are serious business but that players’ irreverence is holding back the form. “If you put the player in front of a choice where they can do good things or bad things, they will do bad things, go [to the] dark side—because people think it’s cool to be naughty, they won’t be caught,” he said.
I sympathize with Bach as videogames are a common victim of false accusations by the media but I can’t help but feel he is selling his game and his medium short. His comments also patronize those gamers mature enough not to unload on a group of civilians just because they can. Additionally Bach’s comments neglect the responsibility of game designers to create systems that discourage malicious play.
Battlefield 3 could implement serious consequences for playing like a tyrant. The most obvious would be loss of the mission–games have done this previously. But I would like to see games go even deeper. If you kill civilians, the game could present you horrified remarks from other civilians and from your fellow soldiers. The game could show you news briefings reporting on the brutality of U.S. soldiers in response to your actions. Maybe even scenes depicting your character dealing with the psychological affects of committing acts of brutality.
I understand that none of this is pretty but neither is war. Certainly many gamers need to mature, but as Thomson points out, developers, “in sparing themselves the challenge of making their games deeper and more involving, [are] the ones holding back the medium.” The limitations placed on players in Battlefield 3 actually serve to make the game less realistic as the game refuses to let player grapple with their subject matter in a complex way. I understand the tension designers face, the types of consequences I would like see in game would certainly offend some people, but by refusing to grapple with the consequences of war, games like Battlefield play like just another shooter where war is fun. To me that is more tragic than what Battlefield is “shielding” the player from.
War is a sensitive issue and I suspect that Battlefield is attempting to avoid potential fallout with the media by placing such limitations on players. However, until developers are willing to take some risks in this arena–war games will continue to encourage the immaturity they fear rather than challenge it.
The issue here seems to be the medium. The most fun you can have in a shooter, is, well, shooting things. A novel is a much better medium for getting into a soldiers head, and jumping into multiple perspectives including the victim’s and even the innocent bystander. A movie also by the medium’s inherent nature involves sitting back and considering what you are seeing and contemplating those images. A video game by its nature throws you into the action, the worst possible place to contemplate what is happening around you. Especially when people are shooting at you. There’s no time for considering your actions. It’s kill or be killed. And if you’re like me you play video games to escape reality. To explore, to do things you wouldn’t normally do in real life. War is terrible. Video games should be fun. I, too, have lofty expectations of the video game medium, but it also has its limitations.
I would love to see a first-class shooter that gives little stories—eulogies—about every person who dies in the course of the game, whether enemy, ally, or civilian collateral casualties. It could be on the missions stats page or wherever a game usually stores things like miles walks, rounds fired, number of headshots, etc.
Kyle Mendez (28)
Husband to Melody and father of two (Sam, 9 and Eric, 7)
Kyle believed that voting was a civic responsibility, that believing in your dreams doesn’t mean success, and that the air near the coast tastes better than anywhere in the world. He was working on the final quarter of a novel that had occupied an hour before bed every night for the last six years. He hoped it would be a masterpiece and help his sons through college. He married for love and still believed in the stuff. He was killed when caught in a shootout between government forces and unnamed combatants at a warehouse near the pier.
Maria Hendricks (21)
The youngest of three sisters, Maria felt heavily the responsibility to care for her mother in the years after she was widowed. Maria skipped college in order to work overtime at a job that she wouldn’t have enjoyed if it weren’t for her co-workers. Distress over her responsibilities caused her to grow distant from her older sisters and she hadn’t spoken to either of them in over a year. She was killed in an explosion while jogging near the pier.
Ferel Green (34)
Father of one (Bennet, 2)
Socially distanced by having to work to care for his young son, Ferel took a night job working security at a warehouse in order to free up his afternoons so he could take his son to the playground at the park where he might get to meet so other people with small children. He wasn’t hoping to fall in love there but if it happened, he wouldn’t have minded. Ferel’s favourite sport was handball, his favourite author was Raymond Chandler, and his favourite animal was the otter. He was killed in the security station at the front gate of the warehouse.
@Seth Let’s make this game.
Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I understand where you are coming from. I agree that novels are better for “getting in people’s heads” and exploring the psychology behind our actions etc. However, that doesn’t mean that games can’t broach these subjects.
At the very least, given the hyper realistic design of these games, they should make some attempts to deal with the complexities inherent to their chosen subject matter.
I was honestly shocked by Patrick Bach’s comments above. They honestly made me not want to play B3 (a game I am excited about largely for its multiplayer) because I think he is selling the medium short. I understand playing games to escape reality but the best books I have read were not mere escapes but stories that reflect on life, the world, and my place in it. I guess I just think games can do more here. Not every game needs to be meaningful in that way but I would like to see them try. I have played a few games that moved me almost as much or more than some of my favorite books. All that to say, I think there is room in the medium for mere entertainment and thoughtful explorations of the world and our place in it.
@Seth – That’s an amazing idea. Perhaps even show a parting shot of the character before they left home that morning. Or when they kissed their wife goodbye before heading to war. Or holding a child as they fall asleep. However, doing stuff like that isn’t “fun” and whereas it would force the player to understand consequences I’m not sure it would sell millions of copies. Unfortunately, too often companies are more worried about their sales quota rather than causing change in the perspectives of their customers.
Great article, Drew.
Well, there used to be civilians. I just got there first and totally cleaned house. All Your Base Are Belong to Us!!!
Okay, seriously. I had a few reactions to this to throw out there. Number one, this unfortunate attitude from the developers is part of what keeps video games from being considered ‘art’. Secondly, it seems to me that these type of war games are more like playing Madden Football than simulating real war. By that, I mean this is basically a skill contest. What would be interesting is a game that had missions in which there was no way to avoid civilian casualties, like real war, and then have the characters have to deal with that sort of collateral chaos. If we know anything at all about war, it is hardly as precise as these games make it seem.
I also like Seth’s idea. It’s awesome, actually.
I agree with you that these games are basically “skill contests” in the multiplayer. The single player campaign is where they are shooting for something visceral and realistic.
But yeah I agree with you obviously about wanting to see something more meaningful in this realm.
I agree, it seems Bach is selling the medium short, and I personally believe videogames have always been art. But before we can make the best games, we have to understand the limitations of the medium. One of those limitations is choice; developers have little control over the player’s actions. Can you imagine if Shakespeare wrote all his plays as a “Choose your own adventure”? A good narrative has traditionally been wholly set down in stone by authors and the viewers simply takes it in. But with videogames, all of a sudden, Romeo doesn’t die at the end. He chooses the correct dialogue trees and saves juliette. It’s no longer Shakespeare’s story, but the viewers. But does that make it better?
I think Bach is saying that interactivity can become a limitation to giving players a great experience because we may not react the way we’re suppose to, ie shoot all civilians because we can, thus destroying their constructed ethos of being a righteous American marine.
I think he understands the weakness of the medium, but you’re right, developers should be doing more to try and overcome the weakness by maximizing the medium’s strengths.
But that opens up a whole new can of worms. And I don’t like worms any more than Bach. And do we really, really want those worms? Really?
Do we want a game where, for every soldier you kill, you are treated to a 10 minute cinematic showing the family coping with their loss, the funeral, the fatherless children growing up? Do we want to know their hopes and dreams for a better future after the war before a righteous marine “head-shot” them? Is that game more fun?
I think so. I would play that game.
But I am being extreme to make a point and like most things, the best solution is somewhere in the middle. Still, Bach could make BF3 better by writing a story where nothing is black and white, there are no “good marines” and “bad terrorists”.
Each have their motivations for picking up a weapon. And to guide the player, or give weight and consequence to their actions, maybe each time you kill a civilian, the sway on your scope increases, manifested by your artificial guilt. Kill 50 civilians and you can barely walk, your hands shaking, sweat blurring your vision. That creates an experience that Shakespeare couldn’t emulate in a play. That is the strength of the medium.
What games have you played that have moved you like a good book?
I think Metal Gear Solid games would be mine, so powerful.
If we have murder in our hearts – “the dark side” as Bach calls it – then what kind of effect does any killing have upon the end-user? And where do we draw the line? Civilians? Women? Children? Pregnant women? Do they blow up with all the same gore as Master Sergent? I think this one needs a lot more thought.
I am confused as to what you are trying to say.
Any killing with “murder in the heart” would be sinful but sadly civilians are present in war and sadly are often victims in it–whether intentionally or unitentionally. Are you trying to say any form of killing is sinful?
What I am arguing for is a more realistic portrayal of war. If these game makers are going to go for visceral, realistic portrayals of war, they are actually lying to the player if they merely make war look awesome because its not.
Another part of your comment that is less than clear is the bit about Master Sergent. Who is Master Sergent? Are you referring to someone in particular?
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