January 27, 2008 12:00 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
Shooting has always been, and will probably always be, a core game mechanic. Not that this necessarily needs to involve violence – we’ve shot bubbles, fireballs that turn plants into coins, and portals, to name just a few, without ever harming anyone. But in successful story-driven games, the cultural relevance of a given game mechanic is often extrapolated to create a story. And the easiest story that can be spun from projectile-attack game mechanics is war.
War is so often a component of video games not just because the mechanics lend themselves easily, but because, over centuries of humanity, war has often been a component of the human condition. The morality of war, or lack thereof, is an issue discussed and debated in every era, across every facet of global society. And sometimes, as a result, we end up discussing the morality of war video games.
What Should Games' Role Be?
It’s worth wondering sometimes whether games have desensitized us to violence, and I have done so in the past. We often say we want realism and empathy in our gaming experience, a fantasy world that we can really see ourselves stepping into. But when a game puts us in fatigues with a gun in our hands, we don’t really think about it, do we? Though, of course, enemy sprites aren’t people, to be fair – they’re just enemy sprites. Digital projectiles don’t really kill. But as war games become ever more complex and realistic, how to invest them with cultural relevance, their own kind of morality, becomes an interesting consideration.
Do game designers have a responsibility, when creating a war title, for treating war with gravity, ensuring that the game’s messages are consistent with the values of a healthy society? And if so, who determines what those values are? Or must they ensure they treat the subject matter with sensitivity to the current political climate, a careful lack of bias, or an avoidance of any actual touchstones to real-world scenarios that might be offensive? Or should it be an honest reflection of their own personal viewpoints, behind which they can stand with emotional integrity?
The best games don’t tell you what to think. Rather, through leading the player to empathize with the characters and invest emotionally in the game world’s circumstances, they encourage you to make decisions on your own. Many people believe that the right and wrong surrounding war are quite clear-cut – but pick out any two people who feel that way, and they may have differing views. For others, it’s not simple to draw the line between what’s good and what’s evil. And designing for all possibilities sounds like a serious challenge. On the other hand, gamers tend to resent having their emotions manipulated intentionally – even if this comes in the form of a game aiming to highlight a relevant and thought-provoking situation. So what to do?
What Could Games' Role Be?
War games are numerous, and some of them are even accused of propagandizing the young male audience to support killing in the name of patriotism. It’s up for debate whether gaming’s advanced enough yet as a medium to make the same kind of culture-shifting, thought-provoking and memorable statements on war – for good or for detriment -- as some films do. But the potential’s most definitely there. Even in wartime, the only direct look the majority of people get at a war is through film, and for better or worse, it shapes how they feel. Similarly, the only acquaintance the majority of people have with death is seeing it on film or television. If we’re fortunate, these are the images that govern our impression of the end of human life – since what’s often called “TV death” is much more sterile, much quieter and less visceral than even the mildest and most peaceful of real ones.
Given that, we’re entering an era wherein games are able to be considered seriously for their cultural effects. To take the usual sensationalized shortcut that the media often does – e.g, “war is wrong, ergo war games are deplorable” – is tempting, but doesn’t give the medium credit for its ability to present issues in their full complexity, or at least, in shades of gray. What should war games do and be, and given that one of games’ most compelling qualities is the ability to create empathy, how should they leverage this opportunity?
Taking a wide-lens view of human international conflicts throughout the years, though the nuances, the political, social and human issues have always been unique, complex and varied, one can reduce the history of human culture to the repetition of a few key themes. The key, it seems, to investing war games with cultural meaning is to tap into a few of those themes and use them to build user investment in a story and its characters. To make it at once personal, and relevant on a wider scale.
This use of war thematics is a practiced science in the Metal Gear Solid series. Those less familiar with the storyline might find it over-complex – but given the subject matter, it’s arguably appropriate. And when it’s simplified by isolating the key themes that repeat consistently in each series installment, it becomes clearer and more effective. Let’s take a look at just a few of these themes, to demonstrate some examples about how games can create relevant connections with human emotion, behavior, thought and opinion surrounding military conflict.[ NOTE: No specific game events or endings are discussed directly, but given it's a thematic discussion, there may be some spoilers, depending on what you consider spoilage.]
In each Metal Gear incarnation, the hero is almost always set loose on a mission that’s both so crucial and so secret he can’t expect any support from his government. It’s a familiar paradox – the hero is assigned a task he’s told that only he can complete, with his country’s fate in the balance. And yet the initial sensation is always vulnerability. The mission is always so top-secret that the lead character must collect his own equipment from the bodies of the soldiers he eliminates on his course. And he’s told that if he fails, no one will even be able to collect his body from a hostile foreign land. The contrast between feeling like the individual is utterly essential and feeling as if he’s utterly disposable is bracing.
Another trait common to all games in the series is that the true nature of one’s supervisors and one’s mission never come out until later. There is always a moral ambiguity here; rarely is the hero manipulated by overtly malicious lies. There's no cackling evil lord overseeing the depravity. In the original MGS, for example, Snake’s trusted mission commander was forced to deceive him for the entire course of the mission on pain of his niece’s safety. We feel the hero’s anger and sense of helplessness upon learning that he – or someone close to him – was actually sent into a situation to die, a sacrifice in the name of an ambiguous “greater good.” And yet, as in the real world, it’s always hard to parse out where the blame belongs, as every angle is more complex than it first appears. It’d be emotionally relieving to be able to pin the role of wholly responsible malicious aggressor on any one of the hero’s antagonists – and yet that can never be done.
Though the hero in the games usually represents, at least initially, the United States, it’s always clear he thinks of himself as a mercenary. Idealism, or patriotism, is never the hero’s motive. In fact, in each installment of the series, many people assume or speculate about the hero and what motivates him to stand in harm’s way repeatedly, or to follow orders when those given them have been proven to be corrupt or unreliable. What’s most inspiring of all about the Metal Gear series is that, while you can palpably sense the hero’s sense of betrayal at having his tenacity, bravery and sacrifices used disingenuously by those with greater power, you’re always aware that his motivation never hinged on doing what he was ordered.
It’s clear, from the subtle lines in which the lead character is drawn, that he’s simply pursuing a personal value set at any given time – even if the game makes no statements either way about what that value set is. Some of the other characters that surround him theorize that he does what he does because he’s truly a good person, a hero by nature. Others tell him with surety that they know that he’s a prisoner of killer instinct – doomed, like an animal, to make war because he’s human and a soldier. But there’s never a way to know for sure.
The true genius of the Metal Gear Solid series is that how to interpret the hero is the player’s choice. You can kill everyone in sight with heavy weapons, if that’s how you think it should go. You can use only your bare hands to kill, if you’re so inclined. And it’s possible to win using only an ultimately harmless tranquilizer gun. Certain elements of the plot and dialogue will even shift with your behavior to recognize the character for the battle habits you’ve chosen for him.
Though the MGS games tend to widen the plot’s lens progressively until the player can see the faceless, politically or financially motivated leadership – always far, far away from the line of fire, but driving all of the action, making all of the ultimate decisions – the choices that the characters closest to the hero make are almost always driven by their relationships with their friends, loved ones, and family. It’s always revealed that, greater than ideals like duty, or orders, or even averting humanitarian or nuclear crises, each person is fighting for something deeply personal, a desire to protect, avenge or reunite with a loved one that trumps all of the mechanics of making war.
Even the hero becomes touched by those around him, if not easily. When morality is suspended in a high stakes climate of violence and deception, the storyline increasingly focuses on the individuals involved, and those emotional needs they have beyond the military objective – in short, the value of individual lives. And each nuance that evolves from the story’s characters makes the player think twice about the faceless, identical soldiers he has the opportunity – but not the requirement – to snuff out.
None of these themes instruct the player on how to think or feel about war, but they provide a watertight framework to allow the player to do so on his or her own, frequently relying on real-world historical facts or events to connect a plot that often has futuristic or sci-fi overtones to reality. And since each game intentionally and masterfully echoes repeating relationships, themes and situations from the title before it, the player is drawn in more completely, as familiar with the hero and his world as the soldier is with the circumstances, both tangible and intangible, of the battlefield.
When we think about what games can do to give us choices, to provide opportunities for learning and empathy, we look to story and character first. But while MGS is heavy with plot, its most successful achievement is that once the game is over, the player has created his or her own relationship to the broader, real story of humans at war.
[Leigh Alexander openly admits she's an unconscionably biased Metal Gear superfan. She is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer