|When does it become "real" to us?|
Yet at some point there must be an acknowledgment that games aren't war. It's not possible to make a game that is anywhere close to being like war; at most, you'd just get accurate physics simulators like ARMA. You cannot get an understanding of the complexities of war by playing a game because the game separates you from all the things that make war what it is. Games aren't war, and players don't want them to be war. If they wanted to be part of a war, there are plenty of actual wars available. However, a problem arises when game developers try to tell a game's story as though it was a war - as though players ought to be treating the game seriously, and learning something about war from the experience.
This was the noble, but perhaps misguided, goal of "Six Days in Fallujah", a game designed by a team that included an actual participant of the battle of Fallujah. The goal of the game was to depict a harrowing, harsh reality - a "survival horror" game, rather than an "action" game like Battlefield or Call of Duty. Players would be immersed in a highly lethal scenario where their player-character is as vulnerable as any real soldier would be. The nature of the game was meant to reflect the actual battle and teach players about the nature of war, as opposed to being a politicized, glorified shooting gallery. However, the game saw opposition (and was ultimately canceled) from groups who saw the game as exactly that: a game, not an immersive learning experience. The fear always exists that even if the game has good intentions, it can be played in a manner not supported by its concept. You'll always be able to "get frags" and "own noobs" because ultimately it is, in fact, a game. The way that the information is framed prevents players from truly understanding the experience and opens up problems related to the necessity of a game being "fun" or "amusing". Here are the things that separate games from war, and in essence explain why the former can't really be used to teach about the latter.
|This would make a good ad for an MMO.|
A defining trait of a game is that you choose to play it. Games are fun. Games are designed for recreation and enjoyment. Games are something that you play when you want to entertain yourself. If the game wasn't fun, you would not play it - or at least you wouldn't do it very often. War is sometimes, but not always, voluntary. Even when it is voluntary to enter military service, it is not voluntary to exit it. Being in the military is a job, a calling, or a duty, not usually a "fun activity to pass the afternoon". Even people who enjoy war and enjoy being in the military are committed to it more than gamers are simply because regardless of how they feel about it, they're still stuck in it.
What's lost in the transition between "war" and "game" is that you, as a human being, have one life. When you die, that life is over. Your experience in this world is complete, and depending on what your beliefs are about the afterlife, you may not even exist anymore. Soldiers come from all sorts of walks of life and, like any human being, have years of experience behind them, and all that can end violently, suddenly, and decisively. It can be a sniper's bullet or a random mortar or an IED, but that human being's life is now over. As a soldier, they are in a situation that they may not get out of. Everything they are ends in this war; everything is at stake for a cause that may not even be that important to them. This is something that games simply cannot convey, unless you are willing to spend a huge amount of time getting to know every single participant in the conflict as a human being. Games are about soldiers from faction x and soldiers from faction y and they might as well be henchmen in a James Bond movie.
Think about the fact that Six Days In Fallujah had to brand itself as "survival horror". Theoretically, any realistic game featuring combat would be "survival horror", and yet they're not. Games about war are "action games" or "tactics games" but almost never "survival games". Relatedly, survival games have an interesting effect based on their very premise: they're interesting and immersive until you die. This is something I've noticed in many players - once they've died the first time, there's less incentive to actually try to stay alive, and less visceral reactions to fear. Why should you? It's just a game. You might get killed and have to go back a bit. Big deal. But before you die, you're able to put that aspect out of your mind and get immersed. Of course, the problem with that in a game about modern combat is that your death will almost certainly be something you can't see or avoid, like the aforementioned snipers, IEDs and mortars. It's hard to connect to that emotionally except in a very immediate "wow, I just died and basically couldn't do anything about it" sense - a sense more useful than "ugh this game sucks and it's too hard", but a more difficult sense to consistently evoke.
As an aside, in the list of "things that are misandrist about games" (which is really more of a joke than anything), one notable inclusion is the fact that men are often "forced" to go to war while women don't have to. Barring historical games (which don't even bother to convey the reality of conscription), I actually can't think of any games where actual male-only conscription is a factor. Valyria Chronicles had conscription, but for the entire population. Most other games are about voluntary or hired soldiers, including Mount&Blade, a game that by all rights should see you calling up the sons of landowners to fulfill their duty to fight. If anyone has an actual example of a male-only conscription in a video game, please be sure to mention it in the comments.
|Some aspects of war ARE like a game, to the detriment of personal responsibility.|
2. Games Are Remote
It's a simple point, but it's worth mentioning: when you're playing a game, you're not there. The conditions that combat occur in are not the same as the conditions gaming occurs in. The sensory overload of a combat situation is rarely evoked in games because it would be too frustrating and disheartening to players. Instead, players are often thrown into loud, confusing situations, but are given guiding instructions and relative invulnerability to help them get through it. The stress and immediacy of a combat situation are not modeled accurately for the sake of ease of play, and this necessity of "fun" deteriorates from the game's value as a learning tool.
Even beyond this, though, there are factors that simply cannot be replicated. Things like adrenaline, defensive chemical responses, and even lack of sleep cannot be adequately modeled into the game process in a way that helps the player understand the thought processes of a soldier in the field. This is not only a problem for games, but across all mediums of understanding combat: the reality of existence "in the field" is not the same as the reality of existence in normal conditions. While this sounds like it's only making excuses for poor behaviors ("it's okay that he shot those civilians, you don't understand what it's like in the field"), this aspect is ALSO important because the weight of decisions has more impact when you're standing right there, as opposed to thousands of miles away flying a drone. This isn't just something related to war - any life-or-death situation is going to carry a weight and emotional impact that cannot be fully understood by someone who hasn't been part of it.
|This is what "enemy" boils down to.|
While I've already distinguished the gap between "the player" and "a soldier", this point is more about the gap between NPCs and soldiers. NPCs in games have more in common with shooting-gallery targets than real people; they're there to play a mechanical role, not to "be real". In a shooter, enemies pop up to shoot the player, and in return the player shoots them in the face. At no point is there any real potential for a reaction other than "pop up, shoot, be shot at". They don't surrender, they don't flee (though they do "tactically withdraw"), and they don't negotiate. They don't behave like human beings, who would most likely be concerned for their lives at least to some extent. While it's true that many soldiers fight to the death in war, it's ridiculous to say that all of them would, or that they would continue to assault given the near-suicidal circumstances that most enemies face in shooter games. The behavior that NPCs frequently demonstrate in games is not congruous to the idea that they're supposed to be actual people. This becomes an incredibly volatile issue when the enemies in question are real-life groups like Arabs or Russians - the idea becomes "they're not human, of course you have to kill them all".
|FFT had an entire class based around|
non-lethal options and negotiation.
|"Obviously some sort of suicide tactic"|
|It's fine, just wait for the respawn.|
Even in the case that a game is immersive or has mechanics that support non-violent resolutions, it's still generally too easy to "undo" things that go wrong. That is, after all, the nature of most games - injuries can be cleaned up, mistakes can be fixed, teammates can be revived. The game must go on, and if all the pieces are broken, how can that happen? There must be some way for the game to continue being played. There must be more pieces, or the pieces that exist must be mended. Whether this manifests itself as regenerative health or infinite enemies, there is certainly a precedent for games that ignore the realities of a situation in order to deliver a more "cinematic" experience. And, of course, there is the almighty "save/load", near-total control over time itself within the constraints of the gaming experience. The coherent narrative of a game's story, even if it is vicious and realistic and grim, can be ultimately undermined by the simple fact that it is a game, and games can be negotiated with in ways that reality cannot.
In real life, there is a feeling that I think almost every person has experienced in some way. This is the experience of "this can't be undone". This is something that has such permanent consequences, and there is the immediate understanding that this will accompany you for the rest of your life. Wars, of course, provide thousands of these moments - whether it's being crippled, watching a friend die, accidentally killing a noncombatant, accidentally killing someone you were certain was armed and proved not to be...war is defined almost by its post-experience effect as it is by the actual time spent in it. Games intentionally lack such experiences. There's always some way to start over - yes, it might take a while, and choices can be given some weight, but nothing is permanent. It can't be. It's not technically feasible to do it and it's certainly not financially viable.
|In a game, this is just a background.|
While many people disliked Heavy Rain, and for some fairly good reasons, my experience playing it was marked primarily by ignorance. I played the game under the (mostly true) assumption that failure would actually result in bad things happening - the death of a character, the loss of evidence, etc. I also assumed, based on the auto-saving nature of the game, that I had one shot at this (well, at least "one shot before I'd have to start over"). As such, the decisions I made felt like they had as much weight to them as I think it's possible to give a game, and the game was designed in certain ways to attempt to model stress, fear, and even insanity. In one section, a protagonist has to chop off his own finger. Is this the right thing to do? Is it worth it? The conveyance of fear, anxiety, and pain was among the best I've seen in games (and I've seen a lot of games). Yet many people played it casually, laughing at the overwrought nature of the trial. And why shouldn't they? It's just a game.
This is an article about war, and about games, but I hope you can see that the lessons go far beyond both of those things. Experiencing anything in a diluted media format is just not going to be the same at all as experiencing it in real life. This doesn't mean that games, movies, and art shouldn't try to convey educational information through their particular medium, but it does mean that it's just not going to be totally possible. Yet to me the real lesson is this: games should either be informative, or they should be games. The bizarre hybrid of "serious" and "not-serious" ruins both elements, whether it's meant to be a fictional story or a representation of reality. People praise GTA4 because its cutscenes are serious and mature and then don't stop to include its gameplay. People praise Uncharted because its protagonist is likeable and well-written and then dodge the issue of "he's killing hundreds of men". People praise Metal Gear Solid because it tells a serious story with serious elements like the usage of technology and the nature of war and then they also laugh at it because it's a comedy game for children. At least I think it's for children, I can't imagine who else is supposed to laugh at the monkey in MGS4.
Either teach us something or give us good gameplay. If you can actually do both, great. But it's so much more likely that the conflict of interests between your different priorities - "artistic value" and "fun value", "storytelling" and "gameplay", "technical limits" and "budget limits" - is just going to make it all break down. The rules for "making a good game" and "depicting a convincing reality" are so different that you really have to ask yourself, as a developer, if it's worth it.