Monday, November 22, 2010

Gameplay systems and depicting reality.

War games are nothing new. They range from first-person action games to real-time strategy games to grander strategic scales - entire theaters, or even fighting an entire war. How many war games do you think take place in "the real world", using real locations, wars, and weapons?  World War 2 alone has dozens of games, and even more movies. How many of them can say they accurately attempt to depict the conditions found in that war? There, the list is much smaller.

In real life, everything from "warfare" to "engineering" to "economics" is an attempt to obtain the maximum efficiency from existing systems. For example, the concept of tactics (from individual soldiers all the way up to armies) is based almost entirely on trying to get the most results out of different maneuvers. The carnage and death of World War 1 was the result of a failure to adapt to a new system - namely, trench warfare and the advent of the machine gun. It took some intellectual overhauls to overcome the old, outdated mode of thinking and adapt to the reality of the situation. In video gaming, attempting something similar (trying to get the most out of the rules) is considered standard conduct (ranging from "min-maxing" to "pro gaming"), but is also considered very unimmersive. That is to say: you can do well at a game, or you can play a game as though you were a real person living through those experiences, but not both.

One glaring example of this effect is Metal Gear Online, the multiplayer component to MGS4, which uses modern warfare as a backdrop. This can be seen in the use of real gear and guns to try to make the universe seem more plausible. However, there are many changes that affect how well this can be carried out. Body shots do roughly 1/10th the damage of a headshot, and damage does not negatively affect the capabilities of the player-character. The aiming system is very precise, even as the player is being hit by gunfire. Some actions are much faster than others - for example, leaning is almost instantaneous, while "popping out" from behind a wall is slower. The camera is third-person, which (for example) allows players to look out from behind a wall without actually exposing their body. Grenades do minimal damage, and are really only useful for knocking people around.

The result of these simple changes (and a few more) is that the game is tactically dissimilar from real wars, despite the attempts to make it "believable". In real life, firefights are conducted through the use of things like suppressive fire and flanking. In MGO, firefights consist of acrobatic mercenaries rolling at each other, then popping up to try to get a headshot. The leaning ability's effectiveness will allow some players to "duck and weave" like an expert boxer; while their legs remain stationary during leaning, they are also basically immune to damage - while the vulnerable head is moving around too fast to be hit. In short, trying to use "real" tactics in Metal Gear Online will end up poorly because the system of MGO differs from the system of real life.

Here are some general examples of ways in which "realistic" games will often differ from the world they're trying to depict.

In real life, medics are protected under the Geneva Convention due to the fact that their role is humanitarian, rather than tactical. Soldiers saved by medics are often incapable of returning to combat, and while this is not always the case their inclusion in the Geneva Convention is based on this concept. In videogames, of course, this is hardly ever the case. Medics exist in a very active tactical role - that is, healing people while you try to shoot them. In addition, they are usually carrying weapons of their own (which is itself strips them of their protected status under the GC). Both of these things elevate the medic from a background humanitarian to a foreground tactical element that must be dealt with.

One notable example comes from Company of Heroes, where it seems at first like the medics are "accurately depicted" (players build medic stations, medics automatically run out and bring wounded soldiers back to the station). Of course, once enough wounded men are brought back to the station, they're formed into a new infantry squad - which, again, elevates them from "humanitarian" to "tactical", and justifies shooting medics and blowing up medic stations.

MGO is certainly not the only example of guns behaving differently in real life and in games. Even if things like "operation" and "statistics" are given accurately, guns still behave differently in games because of how characters respond to them and how they can be used. For example, guns rarely act like a "held" object. Instead, they're essentially bolted to the character's frame, with little to no swaying or shaking. The rare exceptions to this are games like Red Orchestra and ARMA, where the barrel of the gun moves around with the mouse cursor. This also neccesitates the use of iron sights or scopes for the same reason they're used in real life. In games where this is not the case, reflexes become much more important as firing from the hip is just as accurate as actually aiming.

Another difference is the connection of injury to suppression and covering fire. In real life, the threat of being hit is what actually causes the effect of "suppression"; soldiers will avoid exposing themselves if it means they're very likely to be hit by machine gun fire and so on. In most games, especially games with regenerating health, it's usually okay to take a bullet or two if it means that you can use a sniper rifle to hit the guy in the head instantly (something that's fairly simple due to the point-and-click interface and the lack of interfering factors like bullet drop or wind). Company of Heroes includes suppression, but generally underestimates the effect of normal rifles to the point of near-uselessness except in massed groups.

This is one of the hardest issues to avert in a game. The nature of supply - starting at resource collection, moving to processing and production, and ending up in transportation to wherever it's needed - is complex enough to be a game in and of itself. However, there needs to be a system in place to govern the availability of things like personnel, vehicles, and ammunition. Many FPS games use a ticket-based/reinforcement system for personnel, and have vehicles be infinitely respawning, but limited in either how many can be on the field at once. RTS games, in contrast, have either a simplified resource system (collect gold, use gold to train soldier) or an abstracted system (capture points, get resource, use resource to train soldier). Either of these systems changes the tactical dynamic.

In Company of Heroes, for example, there is specific buildup from infantry to light vehicles to heavy vehicles, with the "fuel" resource necessary to upgrade status. This means that, rather than being solely about tactics and deployment, CoH is also about an abstract sort of resource management so that you have enough "fuel" to deploy anti-tank weapons before the enemy can start producing vehicles. While this is perfectly logical as a game system, it's also a (somewhat necessary) departure from real life. This means that, rather than emulating World War 2, Company of Heroes is a separate game that just happens to take place during World War 2 and use many similar things from it.


These are not the only ways that tactics differ. The key point here is that real-life tactics and weapons are the result of optimization and finding out what works in real life. In fiction, these generally-ineffective tactics are still brought to bear; there's no creation of weapons that would actually be optimized for the setting. For example, fantasy games show individuals running around with swords and armor while there's mages lobbing fireballs across battlefields. This generally necessitates a change to the sword-wielder to make them "balanced", which also helps to destroy the setting's believability. While things like this are almost a necessary part of game concepts, they must also be recognized for what they are: ways in which the rules of a game differ from the rules of reality, even when the game attempts to depict reality.


  1. "The carnage and death of World War 1 was the result of a failure to adapt to a new system - namely, trench warfare and the advent of the machine gun. It took some intellectual overhauls to overcome the old, outdated mode of thinking and adapt to the reality of the situation."

    Just no.

    (1) The carnage of the Great War was still less than that of WW2.

    (2) The machine gun was not dominant, far from it. Artillery was dominant (and this was obvious as early as 1914).

    (3) Trench warfare was easy to adapt to. Most armies had used trenches before. Throughout the entire war every side found it very easy to capture the enemies trenches (even on the 1st day of the Somme many British units captured parts of the enemy front line).

    (4) Far from being worked out by intellectuals the war-winning methods that gained victory were largely the result of on the spot commanders such as Haig and Joffre. (Joffre did have an academic background though). These methods were understood by some as early as late 1914 (and certainly by many in 1915).

    (5) The great problem of trench warfare was the 'operational gap', by which tactical success could be turned into strategic victory. Both sides won numerous tactical victories on the Western Front but the lack of an operational art meant that these were never decisive. This operational art had been developed by 1918 by the Franco-British forces who used it to beat the Germans, forcing them to sue for peace.

    There is now an extensive literature on this. For a beginner I recommend Gary Sheffield's 'Forgotten Victory' (it's where I started). It's Anglo-centric but explains the revisionist case pretty well.

    Whilst you make good points here they are too few and too short. Each subject (Guns, Medics, Logistics) could really be the subject of a whole post. I think these points would benefit from further analysis.

    For instance, whilst real life tactics are about optimising the results in reality the soldiers might well decide to ignore them in favour of hiding, staying alive and waiting for something/someone else to deal with the problem. The concept of 'friction' (i.e. troops not doing what you want them too) is one largely ignored by videogames.

    1. "The concept of 'friction' (i.e. troops not doing what you want them too) is one largely ignored by videogames."

      I've been in the gaming industry for a few years now and I can tell you that great game design is making playerd do what you want them to while the player is still wanting to follow your rules. What your asking exists in games like Assassins Creed or Skyrim. The video game industry is a business, making games like you say are only fun to the few hardcore players. To maximize profit one has to create a game that fits a larger audience. That's why they hardly any games set up enemies near the player that the player is not supposed to interact with, almost a wasted asset. Statistically speaking the casual gamer will shoot at any enemy that appears on his screen just to see what happens. All I'm trying to say is, designing a game where the player has to follow certain rules like not shooting enemies is absurd and simply just not fun to play.

  2. I'm specifically talking in terms of "groups of guys get out of trench, walk towards enemy trench" there. Obviously I didn't have time to really get into the depth of the situation, and I thank you for providing further insight for anyone who wants to learn more about it. But the basic concept of the statement was: This is a new war. They're using old tactics.

  3. Not wanting to distract too much from the work you're doing here but I'm afraid you're still inaccurate.

    The vision of men walking towards the enemy (usually in waves) is largely a filmic construction. It certainly happened, especially with green units, but was swiftly replaced with rather complex infantry tactics. The French had largely developed modern Fire and Movement tactics by 1915 and these were quickly adopted by most nations.

    It was certainly a new style of war but far from using old tactics both sides constantly innovated; which meant that no tactic was ever war-winning because you could always develop a counter-tactic. Reading yesterday in the archives about one particular British general of the First World War I noted down some 20-30 major tactical changes between 1915-17.

    The other problem is that one could easily talk of WW2 tactics consisting of "guys getting out of foxholes, walking toward enemy"- which happened, frequently.

    One of the problems of WW2 FPS games and believability is that they reduce everything to platoon level skirmishes with plenty of cover. Yet reading memoirs it's not uncommon to hear descriptions far more reminiscent of our folk memory of WW1; artillery bombardment, a long walk over open ground, a brief tussle for defensive positions and no tanks involved.

    (The line about new war; old tactics also remains applicable to WW2. Some historians maintain that it took until around 1942 for the British to re-learn the tactical sophistication of 1918.)

  4. "It certainly happened, especially with green units, but was swiftly replaced with rather complex infantry tactics."

    "It was certainly a new style of war but far from using old tactics both sides constantly innovated; which meant that no tactic was ever war-winning because you could always develop a counter-tactic."

    Yes. This is exactly my point. Soldiers and armies adapted. Early on, they didn't even want to wear helmets - and then it turned out that if they don't they're going to take a lot of casualties from shrapnel, especially when everyone's down in a trench and there's explosions overhead.

    My point was that the situation started out one way and, due to necessity, was changed frequently to end up another way. This was the entire point of my post. Officers adopted to a new tactical situation by deploying specific tactics like stormtroopers and trench-raiders, as well as using old aspects like artillery for more situation-specific concepts like creeping barrages. They didn't just do the same thing the whole war. They had to change. This is why I stated that "It took some intellectual overhauls to overcome the old, outdated mode of thinking and adapt to the reality of the situation". I didn't mean "intellectual" like collegiate professors back at Harvard, I meant in terms of the way they thought about the situation.

  5. Do you think there is any relevance in the fact that most of the people currently serving in modern western armies have been brought up with many of these games and still heavily play them?

    Do you think their preconceptions and values would get successfully beaten out of them by army training, or do you think these sometimes persist?

    Do you think the misleading portrayal of war in these games has an effect on anyone pursuing a career in the armed forces? Is this unethical?

  6. Sorry, that last question meant to ask whether exposure to games like this has an effect on the *decision* to pursue a career in the army etc.

    If you do see an effect in any of these aspects, is this likely to get worse as people whose earliest memories of video games include Call of Duty come of age?

  7. I think while they may definitely have an effect (and I'd prefer more accurate depictions so they really know what they're getting into), there's some mitigating factors.

    Propaganda has always existed, and in this day and age there's actually a chance to use the internet to find out information to the contrary (which was less feasible when print was one of the few means of gaining information other than going somewhere directly and finding out).

    Really, an action game like Medal of Honor is the equivalent of a John Wayne movie. Of course, John Wayne movies are connected with a lot of recruits in WW2 acting dumb and getting killed (Wayne was famously booed out of a military hospital for this very reason), but I don't know how that translates for games. It probably takes at least some effort to "unlearn" what games have taught individuals, and there's definitely been a lot of reports of younger soldiers acting as though they're invincible attributed to the effect of video games.

  8. I see these types of video games as different from John Wayne movies in two aspects:

    1. The video games are obviously trying harder to appear realistic. This isn't Quake 3 we're talking about; Call of Duty sells itself on being similar to reality. I say that as facilitating a smaller leap between consuming the product and forming an opinion on what combat is really like.

    2. They are interactive. Both movies and video games might idealise war as something that is actually very different from reality, but video games train your physical responses as well as your emotional ones. Games are incredibly good at giving immediate feedback on actions, and reinforcing certain behaviours until they become second nature (after all, this is how you generally do well in any action game). As you say, these games tend to overemphasise snap reactions and underemphasise tactics, safety, and thinking. Are those values that we went people to be having when they enter a situation governed by reasonably stringent rules of engagement and the legal obligation to disobey illegal orders?

    I agree that propaganda has always existed, but how good of an idea is it for corporations to be doing this on behalf of governments?

  9. That should be I see that as, not I say that as

  10. That's true, those are both good points. I'd still say that John Wayne movies are in their own way trying to be realistic (which is, after all, why new recruits would emulate them), but the fact that it's the player making a choice is a pretty big deal.

    As a side note, it's funny to me when people have no problem playing GTA or whatever, but then when a game like Kane and Lynch or MW2 makes them do something unequivocally bad they tend to complain. It's okay to do it in GTA because GTA is a city full of jerks, it's not okay to do it in K&L/MW2 because those are "normal" civilians and they're actually scared and dying. It's all a question of depiction.