When I first read John Sutter’s CNN article detailing how Anders Behring Breivik used Modern Warfare 2 to train himself to kill 77 people in Norway last year I thought “here we go again.” We could now lump this with countless other reports and studies linking video games to violence. As a game scholar, I know that the results of previous studies on game violence and its effects on players have been very mixed. As a former soldier, I know that shooting a weapon in a game in no way prepares you for firing the real thing. By the time I finished the article and read some of the comments, I had already filed it into the nonsense folder.
But then I realized the article missed something.
This is not about how to fire a weapon. That involves aiming, breathing, and trigger squeeze. Neither a mouse nor a controller can teach you to do any of those. Nor can a game in any way provide the feel of actually killing another person. But what it can do in a superficial way is simulate a sense of control when killing many people. In this case, only Modern Warfare 2 could do that. Had the news report mentioned any other game, I would not have given it a second thought. But MW2 is unique among modern shooters for one reason: “No Russian.”
Modern Warfare 2 is one of the games I used in my dissertation. Specifically I used the now infamous “No Russian” scene where your character is deep undercover and forced to participate in the massacre at a Russian airport and I used it because it caused so much controversy. I spent a lot of time analyzing that scene and what I found is that if nothing else, those few minutes allow the player to listen to the panic of “people” fleeing for their lives. In “No Russian” you can gun down dozens of people in a few short minutes. You can even watch the wounded crawl away. Some cower in fear in various corners while others lie dead in pools of blood. MW2 is the only game I know of where your character enters a closed environment with scores of people and systematically guns them down as they try to run, help wounded bystanders, and try to hide behind shelves and columns.
So I ask you: if you planned to commit a massacre, what better game and scene to use? Not Grand Theft Auto. The NPCs in that game can get away as they have open streets to run through. However the airport is a closed space. The people can only run so far. And they never, ever get away. Worse still, another CNN article states that Breivik planned to film the killings on his iPhone. Had he done that, it would have been from a first person perspective, just like MW2.
Of course I don’t know the motivation behind his thinking, but I can imagine him playing that one scene time and again and listening to the screams of people trying to live. Now most of the people in my study dismissed the terror of the “massacre” as simply graphic fiction, something that had no bearing at all on their feelings about violence or their sense of identity. However there were some gamers who would not play that scene because it felt real. And this is the catch: if games are not real and the people we “kill” are not real, then why are some of us bothered by what we do in the game world?
Perhaps to Breivik the idea of cornering helpless people in an enclosed space and killing all of them was the ideal preparation for the real thing as he methodically killed 77 people. I can’t say, but it troubles me to think about him comparing the deaths of game characters to real people. What I do know is that it is a mistake to dismiss violent games because they are games. Obviously most gamers can play shooters and function perfectly in the real world. Other realize that games do affect them and stay away from the violent ones. However there is the third group, small in number, who we should pay attention to when they demonstrate that violent games influence them.
Not that any of this is the fault of Infinity Ward or Activision, the makers of MW2. Ultimately how we use and react to our media is up to us. There is a reason Infinity Ward gave players the option to skip “No Russian.” However I doubt MW2 was the only reason Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder. I do think, however, that the airport scene allowed him visualize how his real-life victims might react.
This is certainly not the end of the video game violence debate. Our medium has the unique distinction of allowing consumers to interact with the virtual environment and because of that many think the influence is greater than the passive media of television and film. What the research has revealed is that still more research is needed. Yet this case and this particular game show us that we should pay closer attention to the most graphic examples of violence that while extreme, should not define our medium to those who do not play video games.
In a digital game market flooded with military shooters, Kaos Studios’ Homefront might just stand out. As a gamer, I look forward to playing something different from a stilted campaign and the standard team deathmatch in multiplayer. As a game researcher, however, I wonder if a strong, character-driven campaign might raise storytelling in this medium to a higher level while simultaneously engendering unwarranted animosity toward Asians in general and Koreans in particular. Now you might think that is a stretch, but it seems that many of the needed elements are already in place.
If the title Homefront doesn’t ring a bell, you can check out the information on wikipedia and a brief interview with Kaos Studios head Dave Votypka. In the piece Votypka said he and his team looked to Half Life 2 for inspiration. Regular readers of this blog know HL2 is one of my all-time favorite shooters. HL2 resonated with me because I cared about the characters, particularly Eli and Alyx Vance. If Homefront can make me care about its characters, then I might just come to hate their enemies. That’s the problem. Yes, we can debate the likelihood of a Korean invasion all day, but the real danger here is that making a connection with Americans under the heel of a brutal foreign power may very well cause hatred for the enemy. In addition, there is also the risk that some gamers may begin to agree with positive representations of the good guys (the Americans) while agreeing with the negative framing of the bad guys (the Koreans). After all, it is only natural that we promote and support positive portrayals of those we identify with (known as the in-group) while at the same time harboring negative perceptions of those not in our group (the out-group).
Now in-groups and out-groups won’t really matter all that much if the single-player campaign is simply about herding the player from large battle to next while killing as many enemy soldiers as possible. Those faceless, generic enemies could be Koreans, terrorists, Covenant, Geth, whatever. It makes no difference. That is exactly what you will find in most games: enemies that try to keep the player from his/her goal, but it’s just business (the business of winning). But if I can revisit HL2 for a moment, I really don’t like the oppressive Combine. Not only do they threaten “people” I care about but the setting developer Valve created was quite convincing and thus I decided to immerse myself in it.
Can the same thing happen with an occupied United States? Kaos brought in former CIA field operative Tae Kim to add authenticity of the invasion scenario. Add to that noted screenwriter John Milius (Red Dawn, The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger) and you have all the elements for an engrossing story. In fact, the assault has already started. Early promotional images of Homefront typically have the enemy soldiers towering over the camera; the viewer has to look up at the occupier, who is the authority. From the beginning we are made to see the invader as large and intimidating. When you compare that to images of the Combine from HL2 you will see the propoganda machine from the world of Homefront already engaged and doings its best to imitate the atmosphere of a masterpiece.
Of course there are readers who will dismiss this as nothing more than entertainment.
Those who support that point of view will argue Homefront is simply fiction. My response would be that even digital games carry certain messages embedded in their content. One of those messages here is that a nation and a people most Americans barely know or understand has been written into this game as a merciless enemy who now sits on our shore. While all known intelligence suggests the North Koreans are in no shape to mount such an invasion, because they are (to us) so mysterious, can we really know what they are thinking and planning? We believe they are aggressive (look at the recent artillery attack on South Korea) and we know they have nuclear ambitions. What else are they capable of? They are the classic “other.” It is too easy to demonize and hate that which is other. Fear and oppression are often-times the consequences of categorizing groups we don’t care to know as “other.” The phrase yellow peril is not used that much anymore; it has since been supplanted by fears of communism and terrorism, but all that can quickly change. A triple-A release like Homefront can expose millions of Americans to a hostile Korea. It also happens that the upcoming Operation Flashpoint: Red River features possible conflict between the United States and China in Tajikistan. However Red River is a niche shooter for those who love realistic tactical military games. Homefront has broader appeal by far and the from the looks of reaction so far should steer clear of the outrage surrounding Six Days in Fallujah and Medal of Honor. Those games centered around present US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Homefront represents a fictional war. To be more precise, Homefront presents a fictional conflict between the United States and Korea and is therefore more acceptable to the American public than those other two games. However it also embodies cultural conflict with the last cold war enemy, which is also dangerous, albeit in a different way.
I have to admit there are some beautiful characters in video games. Not only do they look great but if they were any more photo-realistic and good-looking I might just develop a complex. The men and women running around saving the nation/world/galaxy from evil are not only fearless, but the finest physical specimens you will ever see. And that’s a shame. In a media world where so many of the people we see have atypical body types we find that even our games display this skewed notion of what is beautiful.
Do you remember when the first Tomb Raider came out? There was a large outcry over Lara Croft. Simply put, she had very large breasts and a tiny waist. She was agile as a cat and mean with a shotgun. Over the years her body has come more in line with the rest of the (real) female world but if you look at her last major release, Tomb Raider Underworld, it’s clear she remains (nearly) as curvaceous and sexy as ever.
Croft is far from alone. Many main and secondary game characters all exhibit this same notion of what is beautiful. When I first played Dead Space, I found myself spending way too much time staring at Kendra Daniels. Darn EA (the publisher) for putting such a beautiful, and distracting, character in the game! There is an up side however to having so many characters in this category: more content is now available for study.
Thanks to this notion of body image and its effects on media consumers, there is quite a bit of research in mass media texts on this subject and rightly so. However it’s not just the women. The male body image has also been distorted over the years and there seems to be a marriage of the over-aggressive male with the hyper-masculine body type. From a 7-foot tall Master Chief to an overly muscular Marcus Fenix, gamers know some of the greatest heroes in game lore by their physical attributes. Now as a mass media researcher, I have ask what effects, if any, these beautiful people have on gamers. To put it another way: to what extent do these distorted images effect gamers perceptions of male and female bodies?
I am always cautious about using television theory for video games, but there have been a few studies involving cultivation theory and gaming that may be relevant to this discussion. Simply put, cultivation theory says that heavy television views will begin to believe that the real world resembles the tv world. Well, it is not quite that simple, but that is the gist of it. Now this theory has been applied to violence, racial and gender stereotypes, and body image (to name a few). The scant few studies available on cultivation and gaming have produced mixed results. Some reveal minor cultivation in subjects while others only see the potential for it. And while I do not want to go into details about those studies here, I will offer some thoughts about this whole discussion.
First, does genre matter? For television, cultivation theory asserts that all content carries the same messages. What matters most is how much someone watches television. If we translate that to video games, then playing a shooter should be same as playing an adventure game. Likewise, a role-playing game should have the same effect as a racing game. To be honest, I am not sure if some sports games are applicable but I will table that thought for now.
Second, the intense, visceral experience of game play is such that many times, there is no time to observe much of the environment or characters because we get swept up in the action. Gamers spend much of their time trying to “survive” in order to beat the level or finish the game. If you have ever played a few minutes of any recent Call of Duty game, then you know what I mean. How much might the fact that I spend most of my time shooting or trying not to be shot play into or mitigate the possible effects of cultivation?
Third, I read where the uncanny valley may also diminish the effects of cultivation. The uncanny valley (as it relates to video games) is the notion that when game character models reach the point where they look human, people will notice the little things that are not human in them and be turned off. However when the characters become human in all areas, then they are accepted again. Conversely, if game characters only look somewhat human, it is their human qualities that make then endearing to consumers. So do I need characters that are nearly human in order for cultivation to kick in? Or is it the case that the inhuman appearance and qualities of these characters leads me away from thinking that the game world is like the real world?
Of course like any other theory, cultivation has its critics (I won’t get into all that here). However I think it is certainly worth while to explore this issue. While race and violence may vary from genre to genre, it could very well be that body image could be the constant across genres. However consideration must also be given to the engrossing nature of game play, the uncanny valley, the aforementioned genres and other factors.