The depiction of war in media has always been a fascinating reflection of society and its general views toward state-on-state violence. Generally speaking, depictions of war either leave the audience in favor of war–or at least the rationale behind it–or firmly against it. For instance, Starship Troopers, written by Robert Heinlein in 1959, tells a story that promotes the idea of war as being a fundamental and integral part of society. Indeed, according to Heinlein’s precepts, full citizenship should only be given to those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their state, i.e. soldiers.
On the other hand, books like The Forever War, published in 1974 by Joe Haldeman, talk about the futility and deep personal cost of war. To Haldeman, war is an exercise through which lives are destroyed for vague and ultimately pointless political objectives.
Both works are hailed as masterpieces in science fiction, but they have diametrically opposed concepts of the value and cost of war. It is this difference of philosophy and presentation that makes the concept of war so fascinating in literature. But what about in video games?
Most modern video games exalt violence in one form or another. Popular games such as Battlefield and Call of Duty are obvious examples of the “oorah” mentality that forms the base of many other titles. In those games, players, with nearly superhuman speed, strength and accuracy, take on and defeat endless waves of enemies. If the player dies, he or she returns to the battlefield quickly to run through this process again.
Needless to say, other games from other genres also reflect an affection toward violence–and I do not mean to flatly criticize this phenomenon. It is a natural consequence of the competitive nature of games. In games, we are confronted by opposition, as it creates resistance for us as we progress toward a goal. Fighting an enemy in one form or another is a convenient, and often satisfying, way of providing that resistance.
While I do not consider the violence in video games to be a bad thing, it does create an interesting situation for games as a form of media, especially with respect to the concept and execution of war. How does one make an anti-war game when so much of the fun derived from games comes from the mechanics of war?
Games with anti-war messages do exist, in spite of the challenges presented to the video game medium. Games like Fallout 3 use satire and contrasting imagery to mock war. Games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. use grim backdrops and heavy atmosphere to paint war as a frightening experience. Games like DEFCON render the concept of war abstract, reducing war to a numbers game where millions of lives represent mere pawns on the global stage.
Games with anti-war messages or themes can use a number of methods to get their point across, but the best way may actually be something marketers love to print on game boxes: realism.
ARMA 2 and its expansion packs are held up in PC gaming circles as being excellent, realistic military simulators. Far from games like Battlefield or Call of Duty, ARMA 2 is the most recent entrant in a series of games, which are difficult to call “games.” They are open world military “experiences” that pit players against realistic military technology.
My experiences with this “game” make me believe that it was inadvertently created as an anti-war game.
Most of the marketing surrounding ARMA 2 revolves around imagery of high-tech weaponry, smoking battlefields, night vision-enhanced battles and squads running around in heroic poses. Squint enough and the marketing materials for the game look like recruitment posters for the US Army. And for good reason. Some of the technology behind the ARMA series is based on simulators developed for the US military.
In one sense, ARMA 2 is supposed to be a recruitment tool. Players are given the opportunity to experience modern war against a virtual force from the safety their own homes. Vehicles move about the battlefield, transporting soldiers and providing fire support. Artillery booms in the distance as forward observers call out targets. Enemies and allies alike fall to the effects of realistic ballistics.
In other words, ARMA 2 is as realistic as it gets (to say nothing of the mods for the game, which increase realism even more by incorporating battle fatigue, better ballistics and various health effects). The game is designed to be immersive and non-scripted. Multiple factors act together to create a dynamic and evolving battlefield situation, similar to the way in real life, modern military forces employ a combined arms approach to successfully achieve objectives.
Playing through ARMA 2, both in singleplayer and multiplayer, I felt intimidated by the number of things that could kill me on the battlefield. Gamers have been spoiled by the aids they regularly receive in games: regenerating health, the ability to run quickly for long periods of time, technological and physical superiority over foes, ect. In ARMA 2 however, the player is stripped of these abilities, meaning the experience of war is significantly closer to reality than it is in most games.
Therein lies the anti-war message.
In one session of ARMA 2, I can be killed by one errant shot from a friendly squad member. I can be caught in the shockwave of a vehicle explosion. I can break my legs falling from a roof and be forced to crawl around until either I find a medic or I am killed by enemy fire. I can die instantly if I’m trapped inside a tank as it is destroyed or a helicopter as it crash lands.
Games often try to make the player feel powerful, but in real war, the “player” is subject to the whims of his or her environment. This is why ARMA 2, in spite of its pro-war intentions, actually comes across in many respects as an expression of the frailty of the human condition. In war, you are mortal. At least in ARMA 2, you can respawn.
Do I think we need more anti-war games? Not necessarily. Again, I do not think the developers of ARMA 2 believed they were creating an anti-war game; they were creating a simulator for people who wanted to play around with military equipment in a virtual world. The exposure to realism however, left me with a clearer understanding of the fact that war is less about bunny hopping around a generic Middle Eastern village, and more about the fact that in war, you can die in decidedly unglamorous ways with no recourse. These are the things they do not tell you in recruiting commercials.
We don’t necessarily need more anti-war games, but it is important that games continue to push against concepts which are so easy to perpetuate in the medium. When you can respawn, war is actually a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use tools like satire or horror to explore the topic of war. The same line of thought applies to things like the depiction of women or racial stereotypes in games. That however, is likely a topic for another essay.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue playing soldier in virtual worlds and pray no one hands me a real rifle in the near future.