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.
Homefront. Six Days in Fallujah. Medal of Honor. Operation Flashpoint: Red River. These four games have several things in common. They are all shooters set in the present day, feature modern weapons, and require large budgets to produce and publish. However more than that they also share the fact that they each present either a current American enemy or a nation considered in some way threatening to the United States or her interests. The much talked about but never seen Six Days would have featured the Iraqi Army. Medal of Honor of course pits the United States against the Taliban. Homefront speculates what would happen if a united Korea invaded the Western United States. Lastly, Red River has the US Marines in Tajikistan opposite the Peoples Liberation Army of China.
This notion of having players test their gaming skill against present day enemies is nothing new. Shooters from the last console generation (Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and others) allowed players to kill Russians, Mexican rebels, and of course terrorists. There is something thrilling about taking a current headline and weaving it into an action game. For some reason, the excitement intensifies when you replace a fictional conflict in an imaginary country (Full Spectrum Warrior) or a speculative battle (Close Combat: First to Fight). The idea that this is either happening now or that it could happen sometime in the near future adds the sense of authenticity to the conflict.
Take Red River for example. Like it’s predecessor, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Red River features the PLA as the enemy force. Dragon Rising took place on the imaginary island of Skira after an elaborate tale that created a scenario where the US had to aid ally Russia against the Chinese. In the trailer for Red River, the Chinese are again painted as aggressors who have their own agenda to fulfill by securing their border with Tajikistan. The Chinese are to be feared because they field a large, modern army and the will to use it against the Americans. So like the latest Tom Clancy thriller, the player can now experience possible real-world events in foreign lands that allow the United States to combat a fierce and possibly real enemy. In fact, the scenario in Red River does not seem all that plausible. The same for Homefront, but given the condition of current US relations with both North Korea and China and the size of their respective armies, some clever writing can now produce a gaming thriller. Plus there is the added benefit of not telling the tale of a current US war and thus avoid the controversies that swirled around Six Days and Medal of Honor.
The list of possible US enemies is short: North Korea, China, and Russia. Who else can field an army to match the United States? Recent titles Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Battlefield Bad Company covered the Russian angle, including an invasion of the United States in Modern Warfare 2. It is interesting to see how a former Cold War enemy still appears threatening years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Old fears of communism live on as these three nations continue to present a military threat (at least in the game world). The communist nature of China and Korea allows game publishers to skirt the race angle by reminding us that these nations are always aggressive against their enemies. However they do that because they are enemies of democracy and freedom, not because they are people of color. In a world where the main US adversary is a shadow network of terrorists, game developers and writers need to create enemies who are dangerous while at the same time somewhat realistic. The easiest way to do that is to draw upon old fears of communism and the modern version of Yellow Peril (even if the writers do not voice this fear). It serves as a reminder to that the United States does not entirely trust these other nations. We know that while things are fine now but they can deteriorate at a moment’s notice. And because these countries are so powerful, to lose their good will means to invite armed conflict.
In the case of Russia, often times some old party member seeks to reinstate the Communists, while both Korea and China seek to settle old hatreds by securing their borders and the surrounding territories and thus present a launching point for war. All these scenarios become possible since these nations continue to be demonized by American government and media: Russia and North Korea for their aggressive political and military might and China for its economic power. In turn they become natural choices for virtual conflict.
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’ve been playing and studying video games long enough to know that a major release like Call of Duty Black Ops will cause controversy. However sometimes I am surprised as to the path it takes. The hot issue this time is the advertisement where Kobe Bryant and Jimmie Kimmel are among dozens of people participating in a live action multiplayer match. I admit I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal until I saw my old professor, Dr. Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, on ESPN’s Outside the Lines (OTL). Well technically I saw it over Xbox Live’s ESPN channel (ironic, I know).
So Prof. Thompson and four other gentlemen whose names escape me were having a rather vigorous debate about Byrant and the messages his participation sends. While Bryant’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the NBA have been silent on the issue, there must be parties or groups who feel that Bryant should represent more wholesome entertainment. Thompson correctly pointed out there is, though there shouldn’t be, distinction between actors in a game and those in film. If Bryant is to be condemned for his involvement in Black Ops, then why not condemn actors for participating in violent films? However I will take it further: if Bryant were to play the part of a villain in a summer action movie would there be controversy? Would there be such a discussion if Bryant were to take on Bruce Willis in the next Die Hard movie? The implication here is that video games, especially the more violent ones, are not as acceptable as other media such as television and film.
In fact, video games reside at the lower end of popular culture. Yes, we know that in the United States, the gaming industry out-grosses the domestic box office. But if anything, that speaks to how popular gaming is and that sometimes leads to the argument that because games have broad appeal, they have little cultural value. When compared to books, film, radio, and television video games cannot match the cultural appeal mainly because this newer medium is still viewed as “games.” As such, games sit on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder, somewhere between monster truck racing, Jerry Springer, and pro wrestling. The message here is: “it’s okay to sit and watch violence in the movies, but it’s wrong to pick up a controller and kill someone.”
Now unless I am missing something, nobody actually dies in a movie. It’s fiction. We say characters die, but the actors who portray these people are very much alive. Likewise, nobody dies in games. It’s fiction, however interactive it may be. Yet one type of violence is more acceptable than the other.
So while the gamer in me may be offended that such a debate even takes place, the researcher in me continues to be fascinated by the struggle of this medium to reach a higher level of acceptability in mass culture. Over the past three years, I have watched debates swirl around Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto IV, Six Days in Fallujah, Medal of Honor, and now Black Ops. In this last case, the message from the commercial was supposed to be that Kobe Bryant is just like you and me: he loves hopping into a MP just like the next gamer. However the lasting message might end up being that Bryant risked tarnishing his image by signaling that he approves of violent games and that would be a sad commentary indeed.
Reading Michael Thomsen’s “Games With The Power to Offend” brought me right back to the whole Medal of Honor controversy I wrote about last week. Now I have no plans to buy MoH but not because of the controversy. As I wrote before, the idea of playing a Taliban fighter doesn’t really mean anything to me but I’ve been thinking about it for the last week so I thought I would add to my last post.
Let me use MoH developer EA’s current game as an example. In Battlefield Bad Company 2 you can either play as an American or a Russian soldier in the multi-player suite. Of course the relationship between Russia and the United States is better now than it was during the Cold War, but the fact is as a Russian soldier, I have plenty of opportunities to kill Americans with knives, bullets, tank rounds, and mortar fire. However when I play as a Russian, I don’t see Americans in front of me. Nor do I see Russian soldiers when I am on the American side. Why is that? Because both sides are exactly the same. The only differences are the uniforms and the weapons you enter the match with. I know that on some MP maps US forces have access to Apache attach helicopters while on others the Russians can fly the Hind attack chopper. Americans use this type of assault rifle while the Russians use that type. I remember that the two sides have tanks with slightly different capabilities. However the soldiers on both sides are interchangeable.
I’m betting that when MoH releases in October, gamers will find the same MP concepts as in Battlefield and other games in the genre. As far as the game play and objectives of the match go, there is no difference between the two sides. Yes, the weapons are different but that will not give one side an advantage over the other. Balance is important in MP.
This notion of identifying with the different MP factions borders on the absurd. If the tactics of one side differed from the other than perhaps it would make more sense to vilify EA for including the Taliban. Maybe if part of the game were to hurry up and construct an improvised explosive device (IED) and bury it in the road all the while reminding each other why we hate Americans, then perhaps gamers could experience why that role is abhorrent. But gamers don’t have time for such things in MP. Everyone is in a rush to get to the killing. In the real world, we know there are differences in ideology, tactics, and objectives when comparing US forces to Taliban fighters, but those differences don’t make it into MP. In MP gamers are not forced to listen to Taliban propaganda, ideology or religious doctrine. There is no talk of American oppression or the righteousness of their cause. We don’t see what happens to American prisoners nor do we witness how IEDs are constructed and planted. Images of Taliban fighters celebrating the deaths of Americans never becomes game content. And so we don’t see those differences highlighted in the game. How can we attach any type of meaning, and therefore hatred to those “Taliban” in the game? As a gamer striving to kill all the enemy players or grab territory, I have a hard time doing anything else.
In order for me to have that type of hatred, I need to see that these characters are real Taliban. I need to be able to demonize them for their heinous acts and their anti-American fervor. On the other side, I need to be reminded that the Americans fight to protect their homes and families from terrorists and those who harbor them. Without that I feel nothing when I gun down an “American” or a “Taliban” except that, for a moment, I was better than the other guy. I need that connection so that when I kill the Taliban I know that now there is one less person who can attack America. Without that I feel no shame when the match starts and I see that for the next five minutes I will play as Taliban. This is part of what’s missing from all the news coverage of the Medal of Honor controversy, but it certainly need to be part of the conversation.
Much of the basis for my thinking about the language of gaming from this article by Matthew Sakey. There is, in particular, one portion of that text I want to focus on. He writes:
As [Steven] Poole noted, much of film’s critical language can be transplanted without alteration into the world of gaming. Concepts of narrative style, perspective, shot construction, and mechanics should be able to switch parties without too much confusion. But just as film couldn’t use theatre’s language as its own, the inherently more complicated medium that is gaming will need to find its own language for a significant portion – say, more than fifty percent – of its own academic vocabulary. The process will be an evolutionary one.
Sakey does a good job at filling in the history of film theory and how its history matches and diverges from the history of game theory. I want to look at a different aspect of game theory however.
Perhaps we could best do that by examining two games: Half Life 2 and Mass Effect 2. HL2, and its sequels episodes 1 and 2, allows the gamer to fill the shoes of scientist turned freedom fighter Gordon Freeman. HL2 has been hailed as one of the best shooters in recent years. I played it. I loved it. I finished it. However HL2 is linear in nature. The player moves from one point to the next, overcoming enemy soldiers, aliens, and aircraft all the while. To developer Valve’s credit, HL2 features some memorable characters, not the least of which is Freeeman’s companion Alyx Vance.
The NPC Vance, based on actress Jamil Mullen’s face, is voice phenomenally by Merle Dandridge. Vance comes across as quite believable and the player finds himself/herself concerned when she is injured. HL2 contains several other quality NPCs and one could say that the beauty of this game is that as you move though blasting enemies, you also find that you have become immersed in the world of Half Life thanks to the memorable characters you meet.
Many games are structured just like that. You move from place to place in order to find someone or blow up something or some other goal. Sometimes there are large set-piece battles and other times there are cut scenes where you receive your next assignment. Find problem. Solve problem. Find new problem. Now if all games were like that, then it would certainly make more sense to use the language of film to describe video games, at least for content, since the beginning, the middle, and end are always the same. However games have that one feature that will forever separate them from film: interactivity.
To use the term “interactive” is to use a word that is dynamic in nature. The meaning differs from game to game. In HL2 is means changing the environment slightly by moving objects, opening doors, or killing enemies. As long as you overcome and progress, you will eventually reach the end. That end never changes. If the programmers decided that an NPC is going to die, you cannot change that.
As we have seen, Mass Effect 2 is different in that by the end of the game you have decided, by your actions, which NPCs live at the end of the game. You can even lose Commander Shepard and will not be able to import him/her into Mass Effect 3 if you make enough bad choices. Likewise the ending will change somewhat in response to your actions. Yes, the bad guys will still lose, but there are several choices you must make that will play a significant role in ME3. Also, characters that die are sill dead for the final game in the trilogy. It is this different that truly separates games from film. The language must accurately express how the player can now alter his/her experience every time he/she plays. If you look at gaming in that light, then yes, the language of gaming is, as Sakey expresses, incomplete.
So how do academic researchers begin to create this language? The first thing we have to do recognize where gaming does and does not intersect with other media. One of my first papers as a doctoral student was to apply cultivation theory to video games. This theory, first made popular by George Gerbner, was one of the first we learned in communication theory; I used it because most of video game theory has its roots in other media, especially television and film. (If I were to write it today, I might very well ask if playing video games helps to combat the mean world syndrome instead..oh well.) The quote I pulled from Sakey reminds us that some conventions of gaming and film are the same and that’s okay. But we think of video games as little interactive movies, we do both media a disservice.
The second thing we must do is play more games. Or at least make sure our studies involve participants playing more games. How many studies have you read where participants only played for a few minutes? This may work if the researcher seeks information of aggression levels after a session. However if we want to know how players feel after completing tough objectives or how difficult it was to make a moral choice or even how they feel about the outcome of a game after playing for 20+ hours then we must be willing to play or watch other plays for extended periods and use our instruments accordingly. I believe these extended sessions will help us see how player input changes not only the outcome of the game and the virtual environment, but also the player himself/herself. And that will allow us to add to the language of gaming.