What is it Good For?

Imperial Guard

"In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war." – Warhammer 40K.

In the grim darkness of the games industry’s concepts and design department, why is there only war? Western narratives have become centred around conflict, genocide, homicide, nuclear winters and opposing forces, and yet any games we cannot find some form of military subtext in suddenly becomes redundant in its lack of aggression.

The Call of Duty titles are a prime example of the obsession with war. Admittedly, it’s already happened; the first three games were based on World War Two, and the series has also focused on the recent war in Iraq as another background for its ongoing franchise. But why are we only comfortable in a video game when we’re holding a gun?

It could be argued that we’re no different to anyone else in the world; that the East aren’t strangers to military conflict, and yet, most of their titles don’t seem to revolve around an epic military struggle; they focus more on mushroom kingdoms and giant monkeys in barrels than death, war and destruction. But even their titles that do attempt to tackle the issue of the eternal bloodbath fail to promote war as a positive thing.

In the Final Fantasy series, war is common. Rebellions are abundant in titles such as Final Fantasy VII; even Final Fantasy Tactics is based around war on a large scale. Even chocobos can be fairly aggressive to outsiders in most cases. But there’s a difference between their wars, and ours; the protagonist is never prone to causing conflict and violence, and ours are. We don’t question Marcus Fenix as he gleefully carves his way through the locust horde in Gears of War. We don’t wonder why Master Chief doesn’t feel like a nap by now, or maybe building a log cabin on one of the Halo installations and calling it a day.

Explaining this to someone who focuses their attention on titles such as Call of Duty and Counter Strike proves to be very difficult. Not many of them think about the implications of preferring a Terrorist over a Counter Terrorist player character. It’s all to do with aesthetics, they claim. And yet, is it really? Does something attract us to this sense of wanton violence and destruction, dropping morals as often as we do empty clips from an AK-47?

To delve into the psyche of someone who plays a lot of war games in the Western hemisphere, we must first realise that, in the case of most of Europe at least, they are far removed from areas of military conflict. Someone living in Gaza at the current state of military affairs may prefer to play Super Mario Bros 3 over Call of Duty, because they want to escape from the horrors of real gunfights, explosions and death surrounding them. But we’re different. There are no wars next door; the only real conflict we see is on Sky News or CNN around six, and it makes us curious.


CoD: WaW

Is it really desire to put ourselves in that mindset? It makes me wonder what the soldiers in Iraq think of these military heroes who can take out fifty battle tanks in half an hour, while the soldier next to them dies from a small flesh wound. Are they insulted? Are we making the ones who don’t make the news and the honour roll feel useless, forgotten about, inadequate? Their reasons for going to join the Army are varied, some out of desperation, some out of financial insecurity. Their reasons for going to train are never disputed for the most part, but our willingness to let them go into the same fire fights as we see on our Xbox 360 is indeed questionable.

In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore approaches senators, asking if they’ll sign their children up to the war effort, in an attempt to illustrate our separation from the army on the television, and the army in real life. He makes an interesting point; why are we so willing to throw ourselves into battle on a screen, knowing what it represents as a medium and a genre, and at the same time, so terrified to take a real rifle to the trenches?

We use escapism to, for want of a better word, escape. We become heroes, villains, fighters, monkeys, Italian plumbers. Anything that removes us from the monotony of life and excites us is ample reason for time invested. But the only heroes we know of throughout history who suffer challenges conforming to our militaristic ideals are those in war. Why not Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama? What stops us from wanting to play as these brave men, and draw closer to John Smith, staff sergeant of the Planet Nukem First Army?

Recently, the games industry has churned out title after title surrounding the premise of the inevitable Nuclear Winter. Perhaps our developers have suddenly realised they need to drive home what happens after war? Perhaps they simply think it would be cool to run around Washington DC after it’s been blown to smithereens; the Fallout 3 discussion threads on the Internet agree, for the most part, with the latter view of the coming apocalypse. Just another set of textures to some, but a horrifying conclusion to millennia of global conflict to others.

Hiroshima was a devastating massacre on a scale not even comprehensible to the average human being. And yet, the bomb itself has become less threatening. Twenty years ago it would still make people cry. Yet, nowadays we throw even bigger weapons at people in Worms and no one bats an eyelid. That whistling noise and the big mushroom cloud don’t intimidate us anymore, because we don’t deal with it, we don’t see it in real life, and the only time we’re reminded of its existence is through the games industry or a degree in history.

It worries me that the Western games scene has an obsession of this degree with war and the military, but what I find myself troubled by, more than anything else, is what impression this gives of us as a people, in Europe and America, to the East. Maybe through games, we are the monsters, glorifying combat and death. Sun Tzu once said that the best conflicts are those that you avoid. I think he stuck to Pokémon.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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