As a World War II history enthusiast and someone who is fascinated with the military, I prefer my first person shooters to be set in historical conflicts or some semblance of the modern world. I don’t ask for them to be “realistic,” however, because not only is it a fool’s errand, but also supremely disrespectful to the men and women who actually live through these conflicts.
Military FPS games are a ridiculous abstraction. Take, for example, light and heavy machine guns. Their job is to suppress the enemy and allow friendly troops to maneuver safely and flank the enemy. They are not meant for close quarter battle, and when someone is hit by a single round from a Squad Automatic Weapon or an M60 they are going down, and likely not getting back up until they receive medical attention. Yet in Modern Warfare 2
and Battlefield: Bad Company 2
we are regularly running around with SAWs and M60’s as we storm into buildings and potentially shooting someone with a submachine two or three times before said submachine gunner kills us. That this is even possible
is a testament to how preposterous it is to suggest that these games bear any resemblance to reality.
Everything I know of war and military tactics comes from having been a history major for a while in college, and now just an enthusiast of military history. Most of my regular FPS squadmates fall into the same category, with a few actual veterans among us, but even so when we’re playing a military FPS title in a tight, disciplined fashion, we have no illusions that we’re doing anything akin to what the real thing might be like. “Realism” as meant by developers and designers of military FPS titles usually refers to authenticity and immersion, getting the aesthetics, environment, composition of your kit, and language correct, but not the actual gameplay.
Only mil-sims like ArmA II
go to great lengths to try and replicate anything resembling the actual, tactical conditions of modern combat, and will therefore be very inaccessible games to most of the Modern Warfare 2
savants out there. Modern infantry combat is usually engaged in at ranges of 250 meters. That’s something that Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising
got right, and it was resultantly not an action-packed game, but rather a cold and clinical exercise of suppression, flanking, and engagement. A realistic military FPS game might actually be quite devoid of action the way we think of it as gamers, and so when people bemoan the lack of “realism” in military first person shooters it takes a lot of discipline to show respect for their opinion, because they must have no idea what they’re actually asking for.
Military FPS games are 1980’s action movies, not vehicles for moving stories about the human condition as expressed through the brutality of warfare. They are not appropriate venues for political discussions of imperialism or the justifications for use of force. They are escapist fantasy because they have to be. Any video game which purported to truly demonstrate a “realistic” picture of war would be a commercial failure, and critically slaughtered. If there’s a deeper meaning behind the existence of this genre at all, it probably has to do with the human fascination with violence, and an explanation for military FPS games specifically is likely tied to the glorification of warriors in almost every culture we could investigate. At a guess, no one writes about these topics in video game magazines or websites because the discussion would be academic, and furthermore quite obvious...so perhaps there's actually no legitimate conversation to be had here at all.
This being the case, I seethe whenever I see someone reading into these games, as a genre, past the obvious subtext noted above. Leigh Alexander’s “Who Cheers for War?” was some of the most ridiculous nonsense I’ve ever read. Her criticism was predicated on the assumption that the games she was lambasting actually had anything to do with war. She may as well have written a feature called “Who Cheers for Playing Guns?” about witnessing a gaggle of seven year olds cheering when their teacher tells them they’re to be allowed to go outside during recess and play “guns.” That’s all a military first person shooter really is, except we use control pads instead of sticks, and televisions and computer monitors rather than our imaginations.
I share the concern in some corners of the gaming community that video games are seen as childlike, but I attribute this problem not to the content of the games themselves, but rather the fashion in which Western culture in particular seems to view the concept of “play.” Play is a necessary and healthy aspect of the human psyche, but many people dismiss play as the realm solely of children. This issue is much deeper than peoples’ perceptions of video games, but rather an issue of whether or not adults are willing to accept that it is okay to play sometimes, and that all forms of play are intrinsically valuable inasmuch as they fulfill that purpose. Therefore, no one’s making a general statement about video games as a whole if they admit that military first person shooters are just games…and doesn’t the recent issue over the release of Six Days in Fallujah
indicate that this is all the audience really wants them to be? And is that a problem?
I do respect the idea of these games making someone uncomfortable, for the record, but those are usually reactions born of an emotional response such as closeness to the subject matter. I don’t think that a World War II vet is reading into anything or attributing greater depth than appropriate if he is offended by Call of Duty: World at War
. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for someone who has been touched by the war in Afghanistan to feel uncomfortable wearing a Taliban skin on his multiplayer avatar in the new Medal of Honor
. These reactions are not admissions that the military FPS games in question are honestly representing the reality of the uncomfortable experiences these games might remind some people of, however. When you’ve been through something properly traumatic, I imagine that even the palest shades of that reality are enough to call up ghosts.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a game is just a game. If military first person shooters were designed to be realistic, not only would they be boring as video games, but they would also become brutal, traumatic experiences that had to ramp up the gore and the horror in order to attempt approximating what combat might actually feel like, and even the most outrageous attempts to create these emotional responses in the gamer would still be nowhere near the actual impact of combat, because it is psychological as much as anything else. Soldiers live with the knowledge that death is always hanging over their shoulder, waiting either for themselves or the enemies they are about to kill. This is nothing we can replicate with a video game, and we illustrate our utter ignorance of the reality of these soldiers’ lives, and sacrifices, by even considering it might be possible.