Another tasty item for discussion, and one slightly more interesting than bemoaning the current DLC woes! War and violence, their representation in video games and what we’re to draw from them – if anything. Should we be worried or concerned, or take this as an opportunity to examine ourselves and what lies within and without?
If I had to, I’d break down the strengths a particular genre has when tasked with conveying warfare.
FPS – An intimacy unrivalled primarily between you, your combat equipment and a representation of a foe. Combined with, at least recently, an incredible aural conveyance (case in point: Bad Company 2’s “War Tapes” sound effect option), a battlefield of varying degrees of realism (ARMA to Modern Warfare) has become the primary and easiest genre of choice to fit the “game” notion to. It’s all a question of movement variables coupled with quota degradation and accumulation, but the sheer immediacy of the genre – at least thus far – has lacked any sort of thought-provoking ideas, moral musings or concepts outside of shock value. Interestingly, horror is traded for roller-coaster ride. A Hollywoodification of a genre where, instead of an intense examination of not why the enemy is firing at us but rather why we’re firing at them and what that means to us as individuals; we get perhaps a cappuccino-froth scoop of the cream, where the obvious rush and intensity are emphasised over the psychological ramifications of combat.
Grognardian Operation-level War gaming – The traditional hex-based games, like Steel Panthers and The Operational Art of War, deflate the humanity of war down to cold statistics. I’ll take a punt and say more veterans and combat servicemen – at least up until this generation – would prefer to play games such as these than representational games in other genres. I know of a few old veterans who enjoy a light-hearted bout of Squad Leader or anything of the old Avalon Hill-esque wargames. Violence is masked as simple depletion of chits or stacks, something either more palatable or preferred to a somewhat overbearing and perhaps unnecessary addition to not so much a representation of combat, but an abstraction of combat used as one would the pieces in chess.
Simulation Management – Anything from T-72: Balkans On Fire to Full Spectrum Warrior, Combat Mission to Close Combat and A-10 Tank Killer, these aren’t games that run on any particular glorification of war, simply to use it as a platform for examination of the hardware, logistics or capabilities of their specific core components. Much like the traditional war gaming, maybe even more so, these types of titles appeal to either service members or hardware enthusiasts. If I may share a personal anecdote, Full Spectrum Warrior was the first game I ever played that made me truly consider the notion of the many levels of urban combat; the complexities of fields of fire, ballistic trajectories and squad logistics; particular weapons systems’ strengths and a vague idea – as I’ve not had the harrowing experience myself – of what it means to lose a squadmate right next to. If anything, I’d say the simulators of this world do a far better job of conveying the intensity of war and combat than the big budgeted Medal of Honors and Call of Duties.
Grand-Strategy – The Hearts of Iron series, Making History, Gary Grigsby’s World At War etc., involve one key aspect within their abstractions…the “why”. I think that’s an important distinction, because it’s only genre where the levers of statecraft – the political machinations that send the young farm boy to the front – are given over to the player. The abstraction itself is a two-edged sword – much like hex-based war gaming – whereby the firebombing of Dresden and the entailing death and destruction occurs, but in ever-shifting quotas relating to population, to industrial output, to dissent, to capacity to supply garrisoned forces. Perhaps this only highlights the ease at which we’ve waged war throughout history – it is the grand leaders in their capitals that cast their armies into campaigns and march under frivolous cassus belli, it is the boots on the ground that feel the arrows, the bullets and the IEDs. Something a thorough grand strategy game does well is showcase the lasting ramifications of waging war, though being essentially conveyed through charts, graphs and numeral indicators. Not only do you fight your enemies, but you fight your own population and the will of the people. And once the fighting is done, your annexed territories continue to harass and plague through peoples within that territory. Uprisings, dissent, a complex equation the result of primarily post-Westphalian ideology. America and her allies know only too well the cost of the aftermath.
The moral implications of pushing your virtual nation to war and seeing casualties listed in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions if we’re talking of the USSR, is one to reflect upon. Stalin did suggest that one death is a tragedy, but one million is a statistic. Oh, ol’ Joe.
Oddities – One game springs to mind, and that’s our favourite title DEFCON: Everybody Dies. That’s one particular game that really hits you like a freight train despite being a Spartan abstraction of thermonuclear war. Fair enough, Wargames and all that, but the deeper reflection is the use of civilian population centres as bargaining chips in the brinkmanship dance of nuclear deterrence. Ever since Guernica, the thought of a civilian population centre being considered a viable target and one way to undermine an opponent’s administration is chilling to say the least. There’s something about DEFCON’s subtle conveyance that really gives me goosebumps. My carrier fleet in the frigid North Atlantic slowly making its way for the Norwegian coast, polaris subs slipping silently into the warm waters off the Andaman group. And that first calm voice telling you a nuclear launch has been detected; that first city disappearing in a radial flash accompanied by a muted detonation and those words…New York Hit. 9.5m Dead…at least for me, I felt a pang of horror and pity, but it showcased just how easily man lusts for retribution and revenge soon thereafter.
It’s a very intriguing discussion topic, war and violence within the gaming medium. On one level, guns make the perfect “game piece”, by their direct nature and ability to augment a player’s standing with his or her surroundings – and military engagement features a concentration of such articles. On another, it’s incredible to see the entertainment medium on a whole be so quick to represent current conflicts with productions like HBO’s Generation Kill and its axed spiritual predecessor Over There, not to mention movies like The Hurt Locker. Half of it appears to American social reflection – but that’s an Australian’s perspective – whereas the other half is a mixture of being true to its current servicemen and women as well as, at least, culturally lengthen and support its traditional militaristic might and the ever-present war machine.
Anyway, just some initial thoughts. Apologies about the length!