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The Changing Face of War Games: Allowing Victims to Speak?

A recent article in the Guardian Newspaper UK, ‘War games: POV switches from shooting to emotional impact’ raised interesting issues about whether or not the scope for videogames to offer alternative depictions centred on the human cost of war had moved forward a step with the release of the game This War of Mine.

The article contrasts the game with ‘mainstream’ military shooters such as Battlefield and Call of Duty, suggesting that This War of Mine offers an important space to reflect on the impact of war on civilians. This is not a space to debate the merits of this particular game – others have reviewed it with near universal acclaim elsewhere – rather, here I want to explore the importance of this game (alongside others) as an object which explicitly seeks to open up a space to reflect on what may be termed an ‘aesthetic of war’.

Both This War of Mine and the forthcoming game Sunset centre on representing war through the eyes of non-combatants. In this sense they give voice to those who are normally scripted out of military war videogames entirely. Furthermore, this voice takes on added impact as the player engages in navigating their (frequently harrowing) experience of war through gameplay. Such interactions are potentially extremely powerful, and it is here that these games offer an important capacity to open up affective experience and move us towards an aesthetic of war. But in doing so, these games become quite different to a conventional war videogame and are instead perhaps better thought of as a game about war/game within a war-based setting. Here rather than ‘doing war’ within a shooter-based gameplay dynamic where the player ‘embodies the soldier’, the player comes closer to embodying the victim who hitherto has been absent or silent within war-based military videogames. To this degree, such games are incredibly important and take games gradually towards the position occupied by film, which as Michael Shapiro has argued frequently offers a critical space to reflect on the efficacies of war by giving a voice to both a narrator, director and the victim themselves (see for example his books Cinematic Geopolitics and War Crimes, Atriocity and Justice. In the case of film, Shapiro emphasises that the viewer (or reader in terms of fiction) can gain some sense of the victim’s voice as they observe their struggles to navigate the warzone. In the case of games, of course, this potential becomes even greater as the player’s actions are integral to the very ‘success’ of the victim’s capacity to navigate this space. The potential for an empathetic encounter between the player and the victim of war is thus magnified.

These games are part of a growing (if hitherto minority trend) in which war games have started to think more critically about what war might mean for the soldier and to ask searching questions of the player and the implications of their engagement in virtual war. Four examples immediately spring to mind: September 12th and Unmanned – both of which were made by artists with the explicit intent of opening up critical space to reflect on the efficacies of a move towards drone warfare; Spec Ops: The Line – a critically-lauded commercial game which places the player in the role of a team of combat troops on the ground to show the traumatic effect of war on the individual soldier, and the Metal Gear Solid series which offer a more cerebral form of play, traditionally placing a focus on stealth that is in tune with the broadly anti-war message contained within the series as a whole.

The commercial and critical success of This War of Mine may thus mark a significant moment for the games industry and may be evidence of that industry’s growing maturity as it increasingly uses the power of the medium for critical artistic intent. The extent to which this proves to be a sustained pattern, however, is yet to be revealed.

 
 

Unmanned – reflecting on ethical choices

Spec Ops: The Line

 

Military Videogames – It is All a Matter of Perspective!

The recent release of Grand Theft Auto 5 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 has brought questions of perspective into sharp focus. What, in short, are the consequences of the move to play first person? Here I offer some thoughts on the question of violence and what the moves in GTA may mean for future depictions of war within military shooters.

Central to the reaction to GTA5, is the question of whether or not the move to a first-person perspective has a greater effect on the player in terms of how they respond to the in-game violence which they can perform? A column in Forbes entitled, ‘First Person Mode Makes ‘GTA 5’ More Horrible Than Ever’ is fairly typical of this media debate, suggesting that the move to first person does indeed make such violence more visceral and by implication has greater impacts for players (http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidthier/2014/11/17/first-person-mode-makes-gta-5-more-horrible-than-ever/).

Here I don’t wish to engage in the debates centred on the media effects of violence (see Robinson, 2012 for my take on the politics of this (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-923X.2012.02271.x/abstract), instead I want to reflect on how GTA5 may act as a precursor to more ‘realistic’ violence in future military shooters. GTA5 offers depictions of a ‘real city’, with urban citizenry walking around in their day to day lives, and the game offers the player the opportunity to attack them as they are texting, walking and chatting etc. In doing this, GTA5 exposes how sanitised (relatively at least) videogame depictions of war actually are.

Most players of war games will be familiar and highly experienced at playing first person – most military combat games such as the Battlefield, Call of Duty and now cancelled Medal of Honor series are framed from a first person perspective with the player occupying the boots of a soldier and engaged in killing waves of enemies with machine guns, hand grenades, remote guided weaponry and mechanised equipment. Yet what is striking is that most of these encounters are handled in a very different way to GTA5. First, civilians are seldom represented in the game, so preventing the possibility of civilian casualties. Second, Spec Ops: The Line aside, when they are represented the norm is for the game to present the player with a ‘fail state’ if they attack/injure civilians. Conflict and violence is only to be used on legitimate targets, namely those military combatants who threaten the player in his/her role as a serving military operative.

Such conflict is also invariably at distance – the player is actively discouraged from close up or hand to hand combat. Whilst military shooters frequently give the player the capacity to melee (and this is usually highly effective in that it neutralises the enemy in a single strike) it is normally only used as a last resort. Thus, reflecting back on the majority of war games having played GTA 5 reinforces the clinical, surgical and precise nature of war as depicted in military videogames. In fact, if videogame depictions of war were more like the brutal depictions in GTA5 then this would make such depictions arguably more ‘authentic’ and ‘realistic’. Yet the controversy over the game Six Days in Fallujah which Konami decided to withdraw from publishing in 2009 suggests that the industry (and perhaps even the players) are not ready for such depictions – may GTA5 (for good or ill) prove to be a first step in this direction?  (For more on Six Days in Fallujah: http://www.gamespot.com/articles/six-days-in-fallujah-the-untold-story/1100-6396567/)