A new generation of first-person shooter games causes players to reconsider violence and control.
Author’s Note: Spoilers. Spoilers. Spoilers. This article contains spoilers for BioShock, Spec Ops: The Line, and several Call of Duty games. Most of these are a few years old and you’ve probably played them already. But if you haven’t, you have no one to blame but yourself.
A lot’s been said about violent video games. Do they cause the violence responsible for all society’s ills? Is there no direct link between violent behavior and entertainment? As a parent, can you justify exposing your children to the violent games they so desperately want? Can we be a society that embraces guns as a constitutional right while at the same time condemning the depiction of using those weapons?
With the recent epidemic of high-profile shootings—from tragic Sandy Hook to ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner’s vigilante rampage—the scrutiny of policymakers and media outlets has once again shifted back to video games and their specific brand of interactive violence. But for all the examination of violent games, one aspect is rarely discussed: what the games themselves say about their content.
Roger Ebert once said video games can never be art. “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” It’s a statement Ebert eventually walked back, but it casts into focus the perception that games—particularly shooters—are unapologetically in favor of the seemingly mindless violence they portray. Killing bad guys. Big explosions. Super-soldiers. Wish fulfillment.
In reality this has more to do with the mechanics of games than any statement being made. It’s easier to design and render spatial conflicts that lend themselves to violence than it is to produce something more abstract like an organic conversation. Games are just systems, and all games have what developers call “winstates”—conditions that, when met, mean you’ve won the game. In shooters, for example, win states often come in two basic forms: 1) navigate from one end of the level to the other 2) eliminate all enemies. In this way killing in games isn’t so much about violence as it is about overcoming obstacles. At its core, video game shooting is the player solving a moving puzzle with the tools available to them—weapons.
In a typical military shooter franchise like Call of Duty—the most recent of which made $1 billion in the first fifteen days it was on sale—enemies are treated as nothing more than obstacles to the player. From the moment that group of polygons shaped like a human being enters your field of vision to the moment of its death, it has no other purpose than to be cleared from the your path so you can continue on. You don’t care about the person it represents or the implications of pulling the trigger. The game implicitly makes killing enemies a good thing because it moves you closer to the game’s winstate. All the trappings of a Call of Duty game—the Michael Bay inspired action set pieces, the gung-ho character bravado—all serve that core game mechanic.
Bottom line: in a shooter, you shoot people. That’s the point.
Rarely do shooters, RPGs, or other games that deal with violent conflict take the initiative to encourage players to think about their actions beyond the basic mechanics of the game system. It’s confusing, contradictory, and doesn’t sell very well.
But every now and then a game will throw players a bit of curve ball in the form of a thought provoking question or two. BioShock, with its clever “would you kindly” twist, in which the player is revealed to have been unwillingly controlled by the main antagonist through subliminal messaging, made people think about the nature of control in video games. Do we really have any, or are we just rats in a maze; a puppet of the developers as we go about our objectivist nightmare slaughter?
“A man chooses, a slave obeys,” would say Andrew Ryan, the architect of BioShock’s underwater city of Rapture. He in fact did, right before forcing the you to bash his face in with a golf club using the subliminal phrase “would you kindly”—a message of control repeated to the player by an assumed ally with his own sinister agenda.
This brings us back to Roger Ebert, who said after attending a TED talk given by Kelle Santiago of thatgamecompany: “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
While players were shown the limitations of their freedom in BioShock, they were still given the opportunity to take revenge on the one who manipulated them with an obligatory final boss battle. In the end, players were still able to win. Still able to fulfill that wish of wanting to be a hero. Winstate achieved, violence justified.
There are signs, however, that though games continue to rely on the same spatial-driven systems, there are ways for them to use those violent mechanics in a way that critiques their content, their rules, and even the players for playing them.
Spec Ops: The Line, a rebooted project from a forgotten franchise of mediocre military shooters from the late 90s, is perhaps the strongest critique of violent video games that’s ever existed. Worse than anything conjured up by cable news pundits.
And it does so by being absolutely, horrifically, violent.
For the first couple of hours, Spec Ops is basically the bastard child of a Gears of a War/Call of Duty mash up. Third person shooting. Cover mechanics. Delta Force soldiers shooting foreigners in the desert. Nothing new there. But it’s not long before the player starts to see a bit more of the Heart of Darkness that inspired the game’s plot.
Captain Walker, along with two squad mates, is tasked with searching for survivors of a rogue U.S. army battalion that stayed behind to help evacuate civilians from Dubai before it was swept away in devastating sandstorms. For months everyone was thought dead and the city abandoned, but when a distress signal penetrates the storm wall, Walker’s Delta squad are the tip of the spear in search for the Damned 33rd.
In typical shooter fashion, a simple recon mission is quickly forgotten in favor of shooting and the game’s generic trappings transform into a relentlessly bloody slog that leaves you weary, scattered, and disgusted with the acts you’ve committed.
Spec Ops uses your expectations to subvert what you’ve come to expect from a modern shooter. Almost all games are built around a hero fantasy. So when the game has Walker ignore orders and go off mission, you assume it’s the right thing to do. When it tells you to shoot hundreds, thousands of enemies (most of which are fellow American soldiers) because they stand between you and the objective Walker has created in his mind—to find Konrad—you oblige without question because that’s how shooters work. The developers use the mechanics against you to make you think.
The game itself isn’t very fun. But it’s absorbing.
A couple of hours in, Spec Ops inverts a shooter cliché ripped directly from Call of Duty and essentially tricks you into committing a heinous war crime.
Modern Warfare 2 had a similar mission, “No Russian”, that had the player gun down an airport full of civilians while infiltrating a Russian terror cell. But the experience was ultimately hollow and exploitive for not forcing consequences onto the player beyond shock value; much in the way the nuke blast stunned millions in the first Modern Warfare. But Spec Ops uses the tropes popularized by other shooters, then makes you witness the horrific outcome of your actions as civilians and American soldiers lay writhing and burnt under the glare of white phosphorous.
Walker insists he had no choice, insists that no other options but violence exist as he continues to railroad his squad, and the player, into committing more and more atrocities with each passing minute. Squad cohesion breaks down. The execution animations, so clean and neat in the first hours of the game, become more brutal and repulsive as time wears on. Walker and his team become bloodied, burned, scarred. Kill orders degenerate from “take out that sniper” to deranged screams of “blow his fucking head off!” Walker blames Konrad for everything he’s experiencing, just as the player blames the developers for making them complicit in such acts.
Spec Ops is a game that puts you in a no-win scenarios at every turn, then forces you to confront the outcomes directly. Scenarios such as firing on a crowd of angry civilians, choosing between executing a thirsty man who stole water or the soldier that killed his family while apprehending him. It’s a game that breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges the player. Loading screens start to say strange things.
How many Americans have you killed today?
This is all your fault.
Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously.
You are still a good person.
As the squad moves deeper into Dubai the psychological effects of the mass murder they’ve been committing—first in the name of rescuing Konrad and the 33rd battalion, then in the name of making them pay for perceived crimes—start to distort Walker’s senses and those of the player. You find yourself shooting at soldiers in a strobe-filled shopping mall that turn out to be mannequins, seeing the faces of your squad mates on enemies you execute, having full blown hallucinations, and reliving events you’ve experienced before. In a very meaningful way, the game is using the repetitive, unfun shooting mechanics to make you feel the disconnect between Walker’s mental state and the horrible actions he’s committing.
It screams “something isn’t right!”
When you reach the game’s winstate by confronting Konrad, it’s revealed that the only one to blame was Walker all along—a misguided hero fantasy, lack of good intelligence, and bad judgment all combined to doom every survivor still in Dubai.
“You’re here because you wanted to be something you’re not—a hero,” says Konrad to Walker, though he might as well be saying it directly to the player.
You’ve “won” in the traditional sense, but it’s a type of winning that hits closer to what Ebert described, one you experience rather than play. Nobody really wins in Spec Ops.
Such powerful statements about game violence are a rarity in the games industry. Gaming is a business. Violence sells. But perhaps when examining game violence and its effect on society, it’s best for everyone to keep the definition of cognitive dissonance in mind. When you compare the reasons for violence in gaming with the reasons for violence in the real world, you should feel in the back of your mind that something is amiss.
Image courtesy of the author