By leebmx 44 Comments
What is it like, I wonder, to be a German, Russian, or Middle Eastern gamer? To know that purchasing a game in the huge selling Military Shooter genre, will at some point call on you to wield your weapon against advancing hordes of your own people?
As an American or British gamer, of which I am the later, this issue never really arises. You might have to take out some American troops if playing as Op-For in a Deathmatch, but the character in your sights in multiplayer never really feels as identified with its supposed nationality as do the enemy in single player. Divorced from any storyline, your opponents online always seem more representative of the real person in control, whether friend or faceless Internet foe, than the uniform they happen to be wearing.
In single player, or story mode, things are different. If the story is good you feel invested in the character you represent and take some of his motivation into your actions in the game. Your computer-controlled opponents become the “baddies” and you feel righteous in your culling of their number.
Or so I thought.
Playing through the recent Call of Duty, Black Ops, I came to a scene where I was required to sink and then escape from an ice-bound warship filled with a chemical weapon sought by various warring parties. I had no problem filling countless nameless Germans with bullet holes on the way onto the boat and spilling Russian blood all over the decks on my way out. However, then something strange happened.
Suddenly British commandoes arrived on deck, also seeking to capture this terrible technology for their masters, and suddenly faced with foes of my own nationality I was strangely reticent to fight back.
This series has tried before, generally in an incredibly cack-handed way, to try and make us “think” about our actions. Witness the infamous “No Russian” mission in ‘Modern Warfare 2.’ Maybe this was one of those moments, but it seemed too short a section, and also unlikely, in that it would be strange to just target British gamer’s perceptions.
Whatever the intentions of the designers I was weirdly jarred by this section. I wouldn’t claim to be strongly nationalistic in anyway, and think patriotism is more of a curse than a virtue but I really had trouble turning my gun on virtual representations of my own countrymen. I fired as few shots as could get away with and still progress but mostly ended up using sprint to barrel through the short section.
Now, if I had trouble with this five-minute slice of game what must it be like to play this game as a Russian, German, or Vietnamese? What must it be like to play this whole genre of games if you are from one of the countries or religions regularly portrayed as the bad guy? Don’t misunderstand me, I realise that there must be enemies in shooters and it is enjoyable to recreate History for fun but it must be strange having to swallow down on that nationalistic instinct most of us have to play the world’s most popular game.
I suppose as a German shooting SS or Gestapo in ‘World at War’ one could look on them as Nazis before Germans, but for a Vietnamese playing Black Ops? The Vietnamese War is far less black and white than WWII, and recent enough that there might just be some combatants from the Viet Cong side who have sat down, controller in hand, to find themselves slitting the throats of their former comrades.
This isn’t a plea for change, for MW3 to be told entirely from the view of a jihadist in Afghanistan, or a Communist special operative cutting swathes through Cold War N.A.T.O forces. It is obvious who makes these games and what markets they make them for and I can’t imagine the next edition topping the charts if Treyarch, Infinity Ward or whoever takes any of my examples as their starting point.
At its heart this is just another example of the hegemony of the western entertainment industry. What makes it so interesting is the way it forces foreign gamers to take side against their own people and literally wipe them out to take part and succeed.
Maybe that is stretching things too far, however it is true that these games don’t just sell by the bucket load in the US and the West. Gaming is a worldwide phenomenon now and there is no doubt that Russians, Germans, and Vietnamese have spent the last few weeks gunning their own people down in pursuit of achievements and the secret of “the numbers.”
I would love to hear how gamers whose nationalities or religions are normally represented as the enemy in videogames deal with having to take arms against their own. Maybe my fierce reaction was due to the scarcity of situations such as this for a British gamer and those used to these scenarios have become inured to the nationality of those they fight against, although if this is the case it must be quite hard to care about the narrative and feel motivated by a game’s storyline.
This is not an issue that needs to, or will be tackled any time soon. Our modern military shooters are still going to feature the US as the good guys and their historical foes as the baddies. I suppose if gamers find this arrangement distasteful there are plenty of aliens and other strange beings to kill when they feel the virtual bloodlust rising. However there are many new potential lucrative markets coming on line around the world. The vast number of non-gaming fingers in China must be interesting companies like Activision and if the worlds most populous country liberalises and wants new ways to spend its burgeoning wealth they will no doubt be looking for ways to repeat the success they have had in the west. Would this mean a new approach with games such as C.O.D? Will developers have to find new protagonists to tell their stories, sell different games to different markets or will Chinese gamers follow the rest of the world and surrender to the American cultural juggernaut?