[Warning: there are links to some potentially disturbing material, and distressing images, within this piece.]
I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about my distaste for calls for “realism” in military first person shooter titles, both in comment threads and in my own, original work. What’s somewhat disheartening is that the conversation usually comes down to arguments like “Do you know what getting hit with a Squad Automatic Weapon would actually be like?” or “You understand that modern infantry tactics bear absolutely no resemblance to Modern Warfare 2, right?” or “Even mil-sims like Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising have medics that can heal missing limbs with their magic syringe.” It’s all a very clinical conversation.
EA premiered at GamesCom a video of a new Apache helicopter gunship level from the upcoming Medal of Honor, and in doing so have given me a golden opportunity to make my point in a more direct, human, and hopefully poignant fashion.
First, I recommend that you watch the GameSpot video. It bears some resemblance to the WikiLeaks helicopter gunship camera footage and audio we’ve seen from Iraq, albeit without the same level of flippancy from the pilots and gunners. The thing is, one can see EA’s attempts to be more “authentic” in their depictions of war if we contrast this with the HIND gunship level from Call of Duty: Black Ops shown at E3 this year.
Take a look at the following frame taken from the referenced Medal of Honor video:
I call your attention to the structure which is exploding and on fire. If several men with RPGs are firing at your Apache from inside a house in an Afghan village, engaging them with guns probably isn’t an option, nor is allowing them to keep firing at you. So, under the Rules of Engagement, taking down said house with rockets is perfectly legitimate. There would be no foul on behalf of the fictional Apache gunner.
However, consider that we have no idea who else was inside that house. There could have been several civilians in there. Women and children. People who really don’t deserve to be blown to kingdom come on account of some Taliban fighters deciding to hole up among civilians in the hope of staying American combat action against them.
That’s the reality of war. Civilians die. Estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq go as high as 100,000. There’s no way to confirm that, but when you’re dropping high explosives on urban targets, civilians are going to get killed. Don’t buy the mythology about “precision weapons” as though “surgical strikes” prevent the death of innocents. Our weapons are just less random than they used to be, but there will always be some aspect of randomness when one drops bombs onto, or guides missiles into, cities, towns or villages. There’s no way around it.
From a certain point of view, this conversation is ridiculous, because there are no civilians inside that house from the Medal of Honor gunship level. It’s a video game, and that’s the point. Military FPS games have to be action movies and abstractions, precisely so that we don’t have these sorts of conversations about “Who else could have been in that house?”
Let’s consider what military FPS games might look like if they weren’t abstractions; if they tried to handle their subject matter more realistically, and honestly. Let’s say that, in Medal of Honor, you take the role of a Tier 1 operator scouting the village that the Apache gunships attacked earlier that day. You’re hoping to uncover some intel in the ruins of the village, and you encounter this:
That’s a picture of a child who was wounded in May of 2009 in an apparent U.S. missile strike on a party of Taliban trying to cross the border into Afghanistan. Not quite the same thing as an Apache unloading rockets into a house, but metaphorically it’s a valid comparison. This is the reality of war. Whether the war is just or not doesn’t really matter, either. Civilian casualties in even the most just and righteous wars that a nation could ever fight are still never, themselves, just. They’re part of the awful reality that war represents – and this is a picture of a child who was wounded but will live. I could find plenty of Afghan children who didn’t, but I think I’ve made my point.
This is what a “realistic” military FPS title has in store for us, if we ask for such a thing. This is what a video game that discusses “the deeper issues” of war will be throwing at us on a regular basis, because other than the political questions that arise from war, the deeper issues revolve around human tragedy. Is that what you want to deal with in your military FPS games?
The mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq complained on FOX News that EA was inappropriately setting its new Medal of Honor game in Afghanistan because that war is still taking place – and when EA comes back with “It’s just a game,” it’s easy to feel that they’re blowing the question off. Others may take issue with the implication that all games “are just games” when they want the medium to mature into something better.
No, video games don’t always have to be “just games.” They can be legitimate vehicles for serious discussion of serious issues. When it comes to military FPS titles, however, yes, they are all “just a game,” because they need to be.