War, is Bad. A general criticism.
All the more devoted computer game players would have played a wargame of some sort. An FPS, a Strategy game, anything that tickled our fancy. I am not an exception to this rule, but I am also a hobbyist historian, with a great focus on the 2nd World War, though any conflict sparks a lot of interest in me. On one hand, War is a fascinating topic. The methods of war, the strategies, the tactics. But on the other, rarely does any computer game even touch the truth that “War is Bad.”. War in computer games solves a lot of problems, apparently. It is hard not to deny that war shaped the world. Countries have fallen, whole cultures shattered, people fighting each other in the name of their gods. Do we ever look into the implications of all of this? Or do we in the simplest possible way just say “We are the Good guys.”?
Let us kick off with a bit of an obvious hypothesis of mine. War is Bad. Where does this idea come from? Let us just say that once the bodies start piling up, war crimes start to be written down in tomes and the general effect of a conflict is deteriorating the local nation, I’d say it’s a start. Most conflicts in history have resulted in casualities. There are a few small exceptions to this rule, but overall war leads to people dying. It might seem trivial to all of us, but the reason alone that it is a triviality shows, in a way, how “basic” our understanding of conflict really is. As Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy, a million is just a statistic.”. I am certain some people are grinding their teeth in the background right now, but when we sit in our comfy homes, drinking warm tea, with our biggest issue is surviving through rush-hour when we look at all the wars raging in Africa over the past decade (and past century) it’s a “Passive Catastrophy”. Catastrophy due to the loss of life and passive because most of us honestly couldn’t care less.
But, holding this in mind, let us look at games. How people often think when designing conflict, how is it portrayed. Now, do not get me wrong, sometimes we all value cheap, reliable entertainment, but when I see no grounds for things to improve I get very annoyed. All the current Battlefield and Modern Warfare titles (among numerous other games) although trying to twist us into some fast paced intrigue outpace reason by a few miles, before they realise how little sense they currently make. When I think about War in computer games and how much it is thrown about I remind myself of this:
But, we got off the wrong leg here, and this looks less and less like a criticism. So allow me to take the stance of what I never see in War related games, that might make me a bit happier, and why do I consider those elements critical.
First of all, soldiers are, a lot of the time, treated as expendable cannon fodder. You spawn thirty thousand marines and throw them at the aliens, since, hey, you can also breed more (or whatever). There is no consequence of you spawning men madly and throwing their virtual lives away. The most common (and in a way, “realistic”) comparison to this is that if you throw away your troops it will take you time and resources to bring them back. As you can imagine somebody in the Pentagon is not just thinking “We might have to wait eighteen years for a new recruit.”, but rather “That is a human life, and we cannot let our boys die.”. In our realities, as in the case of games another reason why human life cannot be thrown away is experience, training, equipment. More complex games make it worth your while to keep your men alive, so that they can serve you better later. But, all of this is just the cover of what “reality” would be.
But, as we all know, we cannot throw morality into computer games.They were not meant (in the vast majority of cases) as “exams”, but methods of entertainment. You cannot be expected to give second thoughts when nuking your opponent’s capital city in Civilisation. Nor do you have much choice, for example, in Company of Heroes, when the last enemy troops will remain fanaticaly at their positions, no matter what you throw at them, leaving you with only the option of killing them off. But very few, if any games, even touch on the deeper notion of War, with a few exceptions. When I played Red Orchestra 2 Singleplayer campaigns the missions introductions, combined with excellent voice acting during battles made the experience mildly authentic. On one hand you are a German soldier, fighting for your Fatherland, on the other, a Soviet fighting for your Motherland. The initial kick is there, but during my personal charges and storms on enemy positions, when I heard the yells of wounded or dying Soviet/German soldiers all the “Motivations” which might had been with me from the briefing quickly dissapear, and turn into “I just have to win this”.
That is the effect I am after. Not the glorified soldiers, who stand shoulder to shoulder, with wide smiles on their faces. Not the awards, or trophies which might be handed out. Not the feeling that this fight, is for a Greater Good. But a fight for survival. Where your rifle is preety much your last friend, and the enemy in front of you equaly eager to get out of this place, as are you. Call of Duty: World at War did that mistake, in part. The mistake of making it all look like everybody honestly, and full heartedly wanted to fight for Stalin and Russia. The battle of Berlin, although depicted rather nicely, ommited a lot of facts. I am certain among you, those who have dwelt deeper into World War 2 know well that children and women took up arms in the Soviet Red Army, and women in part too, in the German Armed Forces. I can hear somebody screaming it’s not appropriate. I agree, but if you want to show how the final days of the 3rd Reich’s capital looked, you do not make it look like it was manned by clones of troopers. Germans believed strongly that once the Soviets would come everybody would be threatened (it was not that far from the truth, in Berlin’s case). As such, a lot of people did take arms, not out of fanaticism to the Fuhrer (he was not as popular as some might have you believe), but instead out of fear. Fear for themselves, their families, and whatever was left of their homes.
In Fallout: New Vegas the conflict between Ceasar’s Legion and the NCR was rather interestingly shown. To me it felt like the closest games have gotten to showing how inhumane war is, on so many levels. I played on the side of the NCR (think of that whatever you like), but when I went from camp to camp, treating soldiers who lost their limbs, or suffered serious injuries, tried to organise more men for the protection of a refugee camp, or found out how Ceasar’s Legion turned a whole town into a radioactive hell-hole that rang a lot of bells. The NCR soldiers are often young boys, with inadequate equipment, poor training, and helpless against the Ceasar Legion’s guerilla tactics. It does not help at all that the Legion’s machetes often do the talking, or when a Legion patrol turns another small town (as rotten as it was) into a spectacle of a graveyard, killing off all but two people. I certainly felt for the NCR back then, and I did side with them for the sake of helping them out. I was certainly not on the side of the mixed group of honorable yet brutal (and by most standard, barbaric) Legionnaires.
If you cannot provide me, with a campaign which throughout shows a struggle at least try doing so via cutscenes. One cutscene specificaly set in my mind, from Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts and I would wish to show it to you now:
At least in this case, we do not have the image of soldiers being mindless puppets, but instead one man questioning the sense of the current state of the war. In turn, in World in Conflict: Soviet Assault we have an interesting contrast of “philosophies” and personalities. The Colonel Orlovsky being one of them, Major Lebedjev and Captain Malashenko. Although being on the same side each of them appears to have their own idea as to how things must be handled, and the view on the conflict, in general. In the basic, World in Conflict, although there being a slightly smaller disparity on the conflict itself there is some stronger mention on how war is waged, as we can see here (it’s not all rainbows and sunshine):
Relating to the video above, whatever happened to consequences? Some games try to signal to you that prolonged war is bad. You might lose the support of your population, your industry could be crushed, your cities turned into nuclear wasteland, but there really is no “long-term” of war. Know what I am referring to? People just saying “No.” when you declare war on your neighbour after the last conflict failed miserably. Or when the war you declare appears to have no chance of succeeding. Although we could assume that the populace is on your side fully, let us be honest, even the most devout followers know when time is up. Somebody now might get up and ask “Where is the fun in playing a Strategy game if you are blocked off like that?”. Well, it wouldn’t be a strategy game if your decisions did not hold some sort of negative downside. Losing a war should hold with itself a lot of downsides. Not just “Well, all right, you beat us this time, but we will get you next time!”.
The last statement might ring a few bells. Such as, the fact that in both World War 1 and World War 2 the aggressor was the same. There is a key element however which a lot of people might not see. At the end of World War 1 the vast majority of people felt that Germany signing the Treaty of Versaille were stabbed in the back by somebody in their country/government. Germany as such was not “Defeated” since on the Eastern Front the war was “won”, while on the Western Front German positions were still lodged mildly well outside of their own territory. As such the feeling was that Germany was not beaten, but somebody made it surrender. The case was entirely different in World War 2 because Nazi Germany was utterly crushed. So on one hand, you have a nation which surrendered before a tragedy happened (but the people did not like it) and one where only after the tragedy happened did the nation surrender and I can imagine the people were more than happy when it ended.
Allow me to say, I have nothing against the portrayal or usage of war in computer games. But a lot of the time people never leave with the impression that war is not the best solution. A lot of games treat war as a sort of sport between two big players, and everything in between is just petty decisions. Whether you are a careful planner, sending your men in such a way as to quickly beat your opponent, or a fan of the “Zerg” strategy war in games is much an issue within our games, as it is in real life. We might wave our hands and say “Oh, of course, war is bad.”. I do not feel that being the truth. Perhaps I reached this conclusion based on one element in a lot of online games that I had. The feeling of “Why won’t they surrender?”, “Why do I *have* to kill all of them?”.
To some reading this, you might think I am taking a lot of “life” morality into a computer game. Yes, I am. I am not concerned that video games will train mass murderers. People had such concerns with the movie industry, and although there were some cases suggesting to that, let us be honest, when somebody is already mad or insane a game, or movie might be a stimulant, but it would not light the fuse. But, unlike the movie industry I did not find my “Downfall” (movie), in computer games. Nor was there a Schindler’s List. The computer game industry might had developed its graphics and styles of gameplay, but when compared to the movies it is still a toddler on many other levels. Until some people realise, that computer games are not just “Action Games”, and could be as deeply moving and blunt with facts, like the two previously mentioned films I am afraid all the criticism surrounding computer games will persist.
Alexander “WriterX” Bielski