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 this information age college departments encourage instructors to incorporate different media into classroom teaching sessions. So we strive to mesh more traditional class discussions, group activities, and lectures with relevant web sites, television and film clips and anything else we deem appropriate. You will notice I didn’t mention anything about games and that is because none of my old instructors or present colleagues use video game clips in their classes. At least that I know of. A few years ago, a professor mine mentioned the Medal of Honor series in a lecture about World War II, but that is about as far as it went. Of course as a video game researcher, I have used game clips in my classes on many occasions. In communications classes it is a bit easier. However non-mass com texts too often refer to video games as only violent, addictive, and popular.
Still, recently I have even begun to use them outside of communication classes, which presents special challenges. Those other media are fairly easy. You can always record television programming on a digital video recorder, pull the program off of network website, use Hulu, YouTube, and so on. Likewise you can rent or buy a DVD or use Netflix in order to play a film in class.
Games are no so easy. Yes, you can find clips on YouTube. However those clips may or may not be what you need for the class. So what you could end up with is a selection of cut scenes from various games and some segments of game play. Again, that may not be what you need. Likewise, you can search the Internet for other clips from games. Good luck finding that part you need. There are, however, a few studious gamers who have recorded not only the cut scenes, but the play through sessions as well. I found an entire play though of all episodes of Alan Wake on YouTube. They were great quality with no player commentary. Sweet.
Compare that to movies. Last semester I showed most of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled from YouTube. This semester YouTube pulled the clips due to copyright infringement. I have yet to see a video game clip removed for that reason, though publishers have every right to do so.
If a teacher wants to use game footage in the class room and cannot find what he or she needs on the web, then the alternative is to play the game (or have someone else play) and record the sessions, something I did for my dissertation. This presents another set of challenges. If you wanted the class to watch the airport massacre scene in “No Russian” (Modern Warfare 2), then no problem, since that is at the beginning of a level. However, what if the scene you want resides in the middle of the game? Are you willing to play for hours just to get to that section? Probably not. If the scene footage were unlocked during game play, then perhaps you can go into the features section and play in again while recording. However, there are only a limited number of games that provide this feature (Alan Wake for example).
There has to be a better way.
If consumers can buy or rent DVDs of their favorite films and television shows, why can’t they for games? Obviously the first hurdle is that except for PCs, most games contain a single disc that is not compatible with standard DVD players. They only play in game consoles. Publishers could sell a separate disc for cut scenes or it could be included with the limited or special edition sets that are frequently available.
It may seem like I am asking a lot, but games are texts that have just as much cultural value as television, radio, and film, yet the bulk of those texts are lost to the player after the game ends. How can I go back and view a section of Alan Wake I played last night? I can’t unless I replay it. That’s not good enough. There is so much value to viewing cut scenes and game play. For example, I played “No Russian” for my writing students this past week and asked them to free write about it. The week before that they wrote summaries of a YouTube clip about the controversy over Six Days in Fallujah. There is no reason even assignments such as summaries, synthesis, outlines, and essays cannot be based on video game texts. Those texts just need to be available.
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.
Once I finish grading final papers and exams, I plan to sit down for a few weeks of hard-core gaming. One of the perks of teaching in academia is the solid month off between the fall and spring semesters. Oh the gaming! Of course, I have some ulterior motives (read: research) in mind for some of these games. On the top of that list is The Orange Box, but I also plan to start (and complete) Splinter Cell Conviction, Halo Reach, and Call of Duty Black Ops.
Valve’s The Orange Box contains one of the finest first-person-shooters ever crafted in Half Life 2. I simply loved it the first time through and have been waiting to play it again. While the games characters, especially Eli and Alyx Vance, shine I also want to more fully explore the various settings and the pace of narrative. To me, HL2 is a game that does more with less. Yes, the game engine is old, but it still manages to create wonderful environments and mood.
Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell Conviction presents a different challenge. I have never finished a Splinter Cell game, though I really enjoyed Splinter Cell Chaos Theory on the original xbox. I can’t seem to get the hang of stealth games, no matter how I try. At least Conviction offers a co-op suite as well and a friend has offered to go through it with me. I would rather play co-op than adversarial multiplayer anyhow.
Similarly, Halo Reach also has a co-op mode called Firefight where you and some buddies (or strangers even) team up to fight off waves of alien bad guys. This is where co-op is at its best. You either work or “perish” together. Unlike adversarial multiplayer where people don’t really communicate, co-op modes like Firefight (and Horde mode from Gears of War 2) force players to talk to each other in order to survive and advance to the next round.
My goal for Call of Duty Black Ops is simple: finish the campaign. I spend most of my time in the game playing team death match or combat training (both online). I think I’ve been a little lax regarding the single-player campaign since I have played a Call of Duty game every year since ’05. It’s gotten a bit old now.
My hope is that aside from having a lot of fun, I will gain some insight or epiphany that will, in turn, produce some good blogs (and perhaps a conference paper).