Where do stories come from?
How much about the games we play is made up of our sense of cultural identity and how much is driven by creative urges?
I wondered this the other day when I saw a piece about Iranian videogames; the report itself wasn't that amazing – it basically documented (in a few short minutes of video) the attempts of some Iranian games developers to break into the increasingly profitable Western games market, but it got me thinking about issues of national identity in games when it touched on a much bigger phenomenon: Battlefield 3.
Battlefield 3 came out not too long back and the plot – though rather tame by Western standards - has created something of an uproar in Iran, primarily because of what it entails. For us in the West Battlefield 3 is just fun, going down the tried and tested path of 'big bad foe appears, America saves the day'; to Iranians however it's something different, after all it's their country that's being singled out as the source of all the trouble.
What the issue seems to centre on is the fact that as Iranians they feel offended that their country has been picked to play the rogue, reinforcing the contrived picture a lot of people have about Iranians as little more than evil Arab stereotypes. To some extent they have a point, a lot of 'these' types of stories – read: Military Shooters, revolve around very simple notions of right and wrong, 'them' and 'us'. It's not a conflict between two parties with differing fundamental ideological differences and power bases, it's a battle between goodies and baddies and you've got to pick a side.
But are stories like these truly the products of creative minds or merely products of a culture?
Typically both of these are inescapable elements of one another, in order to have creative minds in the first place you must have language and literature – and therefore culture, which is then imprinted on people from a young age and helps to create their identity and thus direct their creative impulses; yet at the same time without creative minds, without the impulses – the thoughts, the desires, of everyday people, you'd never have that culture. The two are interconnected.
When we talk of what's popular what we mean is what resonates with people, and what resonates with the majority of people are issues they're familiar with, issues that affect their 'world'. Iran's an easy target because over the last thirty years there's been a rich history of hostility that America hasn't had with, say, Canada or the Philippines (Though if games had existed in 1900 the Philippines probably would have been a hot topic!) Iran could have just as easily been replaced by Russia, some sort of Islamic terrorist group or the Taliban – or possibly even China. People are used to associating those states/organisations with being the bad guys, because it's a part of the cultural psyche. It's not necessarily accurate or true, it's just something that exists in people's understanding so it makes sense when it's in Games, movies, books or on TV.
What made me stop and think about these sorts of games is the gap between the reality and that fiction, between the sort of narrative which this sort of Gung-ho culture seems to embody and how the real world works, because it's a large gap. Going back to Battlefield 3 for a moment, probably one of the biggest reasons why the Iranians don't have that same perspective on themselves that's presented of them in America and the West in general is because, well - they're Iranian: it sounds like an obvious and rather superfluous thing to say, but we often forget that cultural and national identity form a big part of how we see the world, nobody wakes up in the morning and decides they're going to be 'super evil today darlings!', no, even if they're particularly evil they usually find some way to justify what they do and believe they're a good person on some level. Attitudes and positions on the world around us are couched in numerous layers of self-supporting attitudinal propositions, which allow us to live our lives no matter who we are with some level of comfort.
Often games or even movies of this sort of size overlook these sorts of facts because it takes away from the power the movie or game has – sure you want to see hundreds of guys get killed on-screen or gun them down yourself, but do you want to meet each of their families and hear why they get up in the morning and do what they do? Probably not, because it would make them too human. You might grow to empathise with them and the story would lose the poignant thrust that just being a 'good guys vs bad guys' story would give it. The result of this though is that one side becomes the bad guys, and nobody wants to feel they're the bad guys – even if they are. So rather than it just being another 'action story', with the kind of throw-away storyline we associate with big budget movies, games, or even books, to them it feels like they're being singled out and targeted.
The problem there for developers though is that there aren't that many bad guys in the world - atleast not ones who could offer any resistance to America, so developers tend to stick to what makes sense, what people talk about a lot, rather than, say, painting Spain as a 'villain' or Canada 'going rogue', because it would take too much effort to make either of those situations plausible. If you're familiar with a lot of 60's/70's TV, movies and books then you'll know how much effect the cold war had on entertainment and the types of stories that dominated – a good example being the James Bond series: earlier Bond films often involved some sort of climactic battle between American forces and the henchmen of the main villain (usually clad in red costumes of some description) and the plots tended to focus on global organisations of evil, whereas more recent (post-soviet era) bond movies focus more on terrorism and small-scale events. The focus changing because what made sense to the audience as the cause of trouble changed to mirror the real political situation at the time.
Developers tend to stick with using countries like Russia or organisations like Al-Qaeda because for the moment they're well fixed in the cultural psyche of the West, and using them causes a lot less uproar because they're a tried and tested subject – I mean how many films and books have there been about Soviet or Russian aggression? How many books about potential wars between America and the Soviet Bloc? The answer is enough to keep Tom Clancy in work all these years. It works because people are used to it and it makes sense. I can't imagine many people would be offended about a game in which America invaded the UK to stop an extremist group that had gained power and threatened to detonate nukes, but there'd probably be a lot of people sat scratching their heads wondering what the hell the developers were thinking.
There's also the issue of political sensitivity to consider, granted games aren't state sanctioned but they can become emblematic of their country of origin, and then subject to bans or restrictions because of their content, which then affects sales. This is true mostly in the more conservative and authoritarian regimes of the world but even Western countries have odd restrictions on what shouldn't be in videogames. Big publishers put a lot of thought into trying (I say trying because it doesn't always work out) not to offend the majority of people because it can hurt potential revenue.
Not only does this apply to offending different nations but also any organisation that may be in a game; especially since there may be a media uproar as a consequence of any 'unfair' depiction. If a game focuses on a particular nation or organisation and paints them in a particularly deplorable light – say the Red Cross is in a game that has members of it decide to go mad and kill people in the street whilst laughing maniacally, then it's going to get a lot of media attention. Even if the portrayal isn't that bad it can often be twisted by those with an agenda - like tabloid journalists - to smear games. In that sense using countries like Russia, China or Iran as in-game enemies - or atleast centres of activity makes sense because they're easy and familiar targets, they're also safe subjects because it's well-trodden turf and most people have given up finding them a contentious subject.
But this raises the issue of whether or not games should stick to safe territory so much, and whether games should focus on familiar 'big bads' or try to be more imaginative with their storylines?
The point of games is surely to explore possibilities, and to be entertaining by exploring things that are just on the edge of our consciousness rather than entrenched in what we know – obviously this is not true all the time and not with all games, some games are just meant to be fun and not be about messages or have themes. But when developers do try to focus on story, or put themes and messages in their games surely there should be atleast some attempt to try something distinct, something that hasn't been done over and over again by everybody else. Obviously that's not to say all games have to be fantastical to be games, they can be close to history/real-life just like Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare are; but rather that being a game, being fiction, allows a lot of creative license, with which developers can do interesting things. If stories are to be anything more than just cultural wet dreams or naïve war fantasies then there need to be more depth to them, flesh out the 'enemy', make them real people with real motivations.
I think part of what annoyed the Iranians so much was that it seemed almost as if they were being picked on and presented as a bogeyman of sorts, when really the concept behind Battlefield 3 was simply Dice's attempt to do something slightly fresher with the Military Shooter genre while keeping the game about something Military Shooter fans could get into, building on the canon established by so many shooters, movies and books before BF3.
In the end the issue of where these stories come from comes down to where in us they come from, they're not products of a conscious national – or international effort to enforce a certain interpretation of world events but rather it's just the fact that what entertains us most is usually what resonates most with us – i.e. the things we think about a lot tend to be the things we buy products to do with, and the things we tend to think about the most tend to be our biggest fears, so they end up making 'good' stories. The shame is however that we miss out on a lot of potentially interesting stories, simply because they don't resonate with the state of politics today.
I quite like military shooters myself, despite their failings, but I still feel as though they, like most games, revolve around a very closed market, in which very little change actually takes place, too many ideas are left to become stagnant then used over and over again because they still sell and because nobody wants to try something different. I imagine things will change in time, no doubt more independent developers will spring up to tackle the gaps in the market and consumer tastes will change, which will lead to wanting fresher stories from their games, but what we really need most of all is new ideas. And for that we'll need a lot more creativity.