Recently Leigh Alexander wrote an article for Kotaku questioning the popularity of war games. She asks, “why is our most common gameplay choice the pursuit of war?” but then confesses, “I don’t understand the continuing appeal; I don’t understand the unquestioning audience” (“Who Cheers For War?”, Kotaku, 30 June 2010) As someone who enjoys shooters, perhaps I’m in a position to answer her question, though I can only speak for myself. It’s not something that I’ve ever specifically thought about, but I now ask myself—why do I love shooters?
It should be noted that between bouts of Bad Company 2 that I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIII and loving it as well. I bought enough point and click adventure games during the recent Steam sale to last me well into next year. I also love the strategy of Risk: Factions, the arcade racing of any Burnout, and the platforming of Prince of Persia. With that said, does my love of shooters stem from some innate tendency towards violence, “maladapted people seeking maladaptive coping” as Leigh puts it, or is my love of the genre just an extension of my greater love of gaming in general?
If I do have a tendency towards the violence that consistently plays itself out in shooters, I’d expect to see this tendency play itself out in other games as well. After all, it’d be a fallacy to excuse myself by saying, “I’m not violent in real life so that can’t explain my violence in games” because there’s a clear difference between the real world and virtual worlds. A better measure of character is to compare my actions across multiple virtual worlds.
My renegade bar in Mass Effect 2 never got past the first block, and despite my love of Achievements, I’ve never been able to bring myself to stick a live grenade in some poor sap’s pocket in Fallout 3, let alone blow up Megaton (though I did get the Dastardly Achievement in Red Dead Redemption). So when given a choice, I’m usually nice in virtual worlds where evil deeds have no real consequences. I therefore feel justified in saying my love of shooters doesn’t stem from innate violent behavior, or I’d be acting more violently in games more often, which means that my love of shooting probably stems from my greater love of gaming. However, that still doesn’t explain why fake war seems to be so much fun.
In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare various quotes flash on the screen when you die. I believe one such quote by Winston Churchill explains the appeal of war games succinctly: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result”. It’s not the shooting that’s inherently fun; it’s the being shot at. Shooters allow us to feel all the rush of a real battle with none of the dangerous consequences, like dying. The violence isn’t appealing by itself, but more violence implies more danger, which creates more excitement. This is a common line of reasoning, “it’s fun because it fake,” so rather than just regurgitate that opinion I want to follow it to its logical conclusion. If shooters are fun specifically because they’re fake, if a game felt real, would it cease to be fun? Since current shooters are nearly photorealistic and are still fun, is it even possible for a shooter to feel too real? Ironically, the one game most criticized for its bombastic action movie portrayal of war is also the one game that makes any real attempt to answer these questions, Modern Warfare 2.
At the start of the infamous “No Russian” level, the player isn’t in any danger. We control a terrorist attacking an airport lobby full of civilians. They run, they scream, they die, but they never fight back. Without that element of danger this sequence isn’t exciting or fun. From a gameplay perspective, it’s just boring. But from a cultural perspective it’s not fun to play as a terrorist because we all know the consequences of terrorism. World War II is such a distant war that most gamers have no historical context for their actions in any WWII shooter, but a fear of terrorism is ever present in today’s media and we bring that cultural knowledge into the game when we play. The fake violence ceases to be fun once we understand the greater context of the violence we’re committing.
However, the “No Russian” level is only disturbing because it taps into that cultural fear of terrorism. On its own, this sequence is just a short interactive transition from one shootout to another. This begs the question—can a game make war disturbing all by itself, or does it need that historical context? Put another way, can a sci-fi shooter ever be as disturbing as a modern day shooter? If Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was renamed and took place in a fictional school 100 years in the future, would it have generated the same level of controversy that it did? Personally I doubt it, and this is the challenge facing developers of war games (at least those that don’t want to go the “action movie” route). Is it possible to provide enough context for the violence in the game itself that said game is still relevant 50 years later?
I like to think that it’s possible, as someone who believes in the narrative power of games, but that’s really another topic entirely. For now, I understand better why I like shooters. They give me the rush of battle without the danger. Though now I also recognize the potentially disturbing fact that no matter how gritty, violent, dirty, bloody, or realistic a war game gets if I can respawn it’ll be fun. Nothing more than entertainment. War may be hell, but fake war is fun as hell.