“Violence is not the answer” is a phrase that was repeated ad infinitum in our youths. Children in the Western world are brought up with the idea that discussing their problems is always better than talking with their fists. But for a society that claims to strive towards pacifism, violence is still remarkably ubiquitous. Violence continues to be a part of our society, a daily reality that we all have to deal with. Whether it is war, shoot-outs or general crime, violence enters our living rooms in one way or another every time we turn on the television.
More often than not, war is viewed as a case of Good vs. Evil.
However, while violence disgusts us, it also fascinates us. Why else would there be so many detective novels, documentaries about serial killers, and television series about police work? It is hard for us to resist a quick peek into the dark side of human nature, which explains why media focusing on violence continue to attract an audience of millions. Dutch comedian Hans Sibbel visualised our obsession with violence by means of a fence. In all of our minds, there is a fence protecting us from potential threats. Within the fence reside all of our pleasant, acceptable thoughts. But outside of the fence, there is a whole other world. A world of violence, murder and hatred: things that cannot enter our minds because the fence protects us. Despite this protection, we can still see through the fence. We can see what is out there, and it fascinates us. When someone tells us to not think of a pink elephant, all we can think about is a pink elephant. Similarly, whenever we are informed that violence is never an option, it triggers our curiosity. What is this thing so terrible that our parents want us to avoid it at all costs? Fortunately, in most of us, the fence is strong enough to prevent us from acting upon violent thoughts, but violence remains a thoroughly interesting topic nonetheless.
With our fascination with violence in mind, it really should be no surprise that video games reflect this by often including violence as a central element of their gameplay. Violence is present in many different types of video games, be they action RPGs, platformers or military shooters. Out of these genres, though, the military shooter is perhaps the most peculiar. As its name indicates, it does not just focus on violence in itself, but lethal violence on a massive, organised scale: war. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of war as a subcategory of violence is its reputation as a necessary evil. Because, contrary to ‘regular’ street violence, war is often (though definitely not always) viewed as a legitimate means of, for example, eliminating a potential threat or ousting a despotic leader. More often than not, war is viewed as a case of Good versus Evil, where one party has the right to use necessary force to subdue the other.
The perception of war violence as sometimes being legitimate is reflected by many military games, in which it is made clear that we are fighting for a noble cause. The advertisements for the recently released Medal of Honor: Warfighter, for instance, focus on the player’s role as a special forces team member fighting global terror. And it should not prove too difficult to find a link between this concept and real-world political rhetoric. In other military video games, the player’s violence is often justified a tad more subtly, but still clear enough to counter any moral objections that may arise. The most interesting example of this is the futuristic/military first person shooter Frontlines: Fuel of War, which sees the player invade Moscow as part of the American army. Rather than the Russian army, the main opposing force is formed by armed civilians. Anticipating the moral dubiousness of an organised army taking out civilians by the numbers, the game informs us that the civilians have been forced by their government to fend off the Americans. Upon closer inspection of this argument, it is nothing short of preposterous that we are supposed to be cleared of all moral objections by the information that they are not fighting out of their own free will. What is even more bizarre, though, is that we are to assume that people would not be prepared to voluntarily defend their country against a foreign invasion. History will attest to that.
It is still rare that video games dare openly question the actions of the player.
As such, the problem with many military shooters is not that they include violence, but rather that this aspect is handled in an immature and morally simplistic fashion. An armed conflict seldom boils down to a good versus evil juxtaposition, and while it is unrealistic to expect video games to include all of the intricate mechanics at play in a war, they should at least include some more nuances in their presentation of military campaigns. The relative immaturity of military video games in this department is perhaps best illustrated by the story of a family friend, whose 13-year old child was a fervent player of Call of Duty. At one point, the child was so impressed with the pseudo-realistic presentation of combat in that game, that he said he wanted to join the army when he grew up. This desire instantly vaporised, however, when he saw some of the gritty combat scenes in the mini-series Band of Brothers.
While the child technically should not have been playing Call of Duty at that age in the first place, it does reveal a lot about the utter lack of maturity of the Call of Duty games. And unfortunately, this series is not an exception. In fact, there are only very few, often very recent shooters that make a serious attempt at showing the horrors of war. In Spec Ops: The Line, for example, the border between right and wrong is so blurry that the player’s actions are not automatically justified. Sadly, it is still a rare occurrence that games dare take this route, and openly question the actions of the player.
Military video games should not necessarily condemn war, as for many of us it is a necessary evil. But they should be careful not to glorify it too much either. Not even because it sends us the wrong message about violence, but because it blatantly misinforms us on what war, or more specifically, the military actually is. There are many teenagers and young adults that buy into the idea that being part of an army means that you just shoot bad guys all the time. However, the reality of military life does not correspond with that image at all. It would thus be interesting to see video games offer a more balanced portrayal of an army’s activities, yet without compromising the attractiveness of the gameplay. Covering integral elements such as communicating with civilians, supplying remote areas, or any other activities that do not necessarily incorporate the use of deadly force could contribute to a better representation of military life, while also providing the subgenre with some much-needed variation. It is true that some military simulators already do this to an extent, but it would be interesting to see if some more mainstream games could mature a bit while retaining their appeal. It would be much more useful if military games could contextualise violence instead of outright excluding it. After all, we could never completely ignore what is on the other side of the fence.
“And then, suddenly, peace broke out.”