/played

There comes a time in a man’s life when he needs a dose of perspective: a look back on where he’s been and what he’s done with this life so far. While it would be easy to throw a thought-provoking movie into the DVD player or take a gander at an inspiring novel, I find one of the shortest paths to insight into how I’ve been living my life is seven simple keystrokes: /played. Those of you who play World of Warcraft know that this command brings up the total time spent playing a character, and for WoW players who have been logged in since the game launched in 2004, that number can be quite significant.

Games today seem to revel in the amount of time they have been played. Nearly all of the ones I’ve played include a time stamp on the save file (200+ hours on the increasingly aptly named “Oblivion”; 2 days of my life spent playing Call of Duty Black Ops; and don’t even ask me what number I get with “/played” in WoW….). It’s a metric that no other medium has been able to measure as accurately, or has been that concerned with displaying to the audience. While the game may be reminding you how much we love it, it is also forcing us to take a good, hard look at our lives. And perhaps we don’t like what we see.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not, but it suddenly seems like there are a lot of studies showing the inherent value of video games as a means to improve oneself. For every Supreme Court argument trying to ban the sale of violent games to children, it seems as though there are four studies preaching the value of the medium as a way to sharpen our reflexes, hone our thinking skills or spread the milk of human kindness. Have a child play a video game for five minutes before taking a standardized test, and that child will score higher in the test than non-gaming children. It could be that said test was sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association, and, in fact, tested how long it took the child to shoot 20 virtual dudes in the face, but the point is that defense of this particular new medium is reaching new levels.

Which is not to say that the industry does not need defending. Video games are frequently assailed by the popular media, having been linked to multiple mass shootings, and many Americans have made it their life-long goal to make sure no child under the age of 17 can play anything more violent or titillating than Tiger Woods Golf (*cough*). Visit the forums of any game-friendly web site and search for Jack Thompson, Leland Yee or even Fox News (some well-known critics of video games) and you’ll find some of the most colorful and vitriolic language English speakers have yet devised. Are we that passionate about video games, or do we feel personally under attack by these critics? There’s defense of our right to play games, and there’s defensiveness.

This defensiveness implies an insecurity: that part of our minds that reads the hours played number the game so gleefully presents us with and asks, “Have I really just spent 16 hours straight playing a video game without eating, sleeping, bathing or pooping?” It’s nearly impossible to admit I’ve spent more than 200 hours playing a video game, but not nearly that amount of time reading a book, or staring deeply into the eyes of my loved ones or building homes for starving orphans.

It’s this defensiveness that quotes the inconclusive pro-game studies, posts the typo- and expletive-rich forum rant against whatever talk show host is criticizing games and even, to a degree, argues that video games are art, a topic I won’t pretend to answer here.

Game players, myself included, need to admit that video games are ultimately entertainment. Proving to the big wide world that they provide value beyond that will take a level of proselytizing even the Spanish Inquisition failed to achieve. And really, it’s no one’s business but your own how you spend your free time. So before you post that angry forum post about how Kathy Lee Gifford (or whatever TV personality is bashing video games at the moment) is a meddling cow, remember two things: Run spellcheck and remember that life is more than gamerscore.

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War Games

 

“War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.”

–Erasmus

I have to admit. Erasmus has me there. Ever since Star Wars, I’ve been drawn to anything about war. As a child, I hoarded GI Joe action figures and adored the ½ hour commercial that was the animated series. I watched the A-Team every chance I got. I dreamed of flying fighter jets into battle. I paid rapt attention in every history lesson that featured armed conflict. I could probably tell you a lot more about the Pilgrims or the women’s suffrage movement had they involved automatic rifles.

But sometime around my 18 birthday, my idea of war changed. I got a glimpse of what happens in real war–the physical and psychological scars it can leave across entire generations. I realized that, in spite of what happened on the A-Team or the GI Joe cartoon, bullets actually can hurt people, even the people you’re aiming at. What changed my mind? It was Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. While Apocalypse Now strove more for surrealism than realism, the movie taught the price of killing. One scene in particular ran a chill down my spine. It was the scene in which a young soldier panics and guns down a boatload of villagers, only to discover they were harboring nothing more deadly than a fuzzy puppy. The scene was so compelling since Coppola spliced in frames shot in a first-person perspective. Suddenly, you were the one pulling the trigger. You were the one who spilled innocent blood. Those few seconds of film undid a lifetime of propaganda.

Coppola is hardly the only director to recognize the power of the first-person perspective; it’s one of the best ways to immerse viewers into the medium and increase empathy with the characters. But, for every Apocalypse Now, there are 17 Rambos that use the first-person POV as a way to make you the hero. With first-person POV, you go from watching Dirk Slamfist to being Dirk Slamfist as he machine-guns his way past drug dealers to rescue his girlfriend. It’s what Tom Wolfe called “pornoviolence”–providing the viewer a kind of arousal when the protagonist deals the hurt. Let’s just say that first person POV can be entertaining, as well as meaningful.

So here we are: at the intersection of entertainment and meaning–the difference between a “movie” and a “film”. Now that we’re almost a century beyond the development of moving pictures, we, the audience, are lucky to have both. Stroll down the Drama aisle in Blockbuster for when violence is your enemy; wander down the action aisle for when violence is the friend and savior. Both have their share of critical and commercial success, and neither is going anywhere anytime soon.

But what about video games–or “interactive media” as the cognescenti like to say? This youthful medium has not only the first person POV, but also engages the viewer in a way no movie can touch. You aren’t just watching through a character’s eyes, you control him. You pull the trigger. You swing the fist. You wield the blade. There is seemingly no limit to the level of empathy this could produce in the hands of the skilled artist. Video games should be the best place for immersive and effective art.

But it’s not. Your average video game played in the first person (commonly known as a first person shooter) is pretty standard action fare: you’re an invincible war hero turning the tide against the Nazis; an armored alien-killing machine; or even a space marine killing demons. In other words, more Chuck Norris than Marlon Brando.

It’s not like the opportunity hasn’t presented itself. First person shooters have an entire sub-genre devoted to games set in World War II. In fact, we’ve been fighting Nazis longer in the digital world longer than we have in the real one. Many of these games took cues from Saving Private Ryan, a film that used violence to dismantle the “glory of battle” (and reportedly sent combat veterans into shellshock). After the release of Saving Private Ryan, every WWII video game featured the same intense Normandy invasion scene. They captured the intensity, sure, but missed the message. And, perhaps the most egregious omission on the part of these games: these games never mention Hitler and they never mention concentration camps. The price of hate could never be more plain, nor made more evocative. But it’s swept under the rug.

To be fair, there are reasons why we haven’t seen compelling drama in a video game. To begin with, the conventions of the game rob any digital situation of effective drama. Imagine that scene from Apocalypse Now in a video game. Our protagonist runs into a boatload of villagers. The situation is tense. These guys could be “Charlie”. You see a flinch. A villager runs toward a basket. What’s in it!? Guns!? Look out! You, the player, pull the trigger and lay waste to the entire boatload. Cut to puppy reveal. Curse under breath. At this point, you can reload the game and watch the scene play out the “right” way. Hold your fire. Save the people. Feed the puppy. And maybe, if you follow the correct conversation, get a date with the comely young village girl. Long story short: no consequence, no drama, no empathy.

Another challenge the media faces is sheer saturation. The shooter genre has been around for nearly a decade. By design they are full of targets; players pull the virtual trigger millions of times just in one game. LIfetime players, such as myself, have become completely desensitized to digital violence, meaningful or otherwise. And, as realistic as games have become, they cannot fully emulate human life. Part of you just knows it’s not the real thing (though that’s debatable).

I think the biggest reason we have yet to see a useful depiction of war in a video game is this: cold, hard cash. Game publishers know what sells and who their audience is: 18 – 34 year-olds who aren’t looking for art, they’re looking for entertainment. These buyers don’t want a preachy sermon (they’d be reading this blog otherwise), they want hours of fragging fun. They want a game. Until the game portion of the video game equation is removed we’ll never get beyond the conventions of the genre into something meatier and possibly meaningful.

In all honesty, it’s not that I don’t want the games. My game collection is full of digital action movies. But I know there can be more. Video games are teetering on the brink of art–they’ve dabbled in artfulness and artistry, but there has yet to be art. Wall Street Journalist games blogger Junot Diaz said it best:

“Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human.”

The FPS has a long way to go before we get that, but I think it’s possible. And I think the day may come when Erasmus, were he to play an FPS, would sing the praises of video games as the device that conveys the horrors of war without the bloodshed–the device that robbed war of the delight for those who have not experienced it. Then he would frag you.


 
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The Boonie Hat

 

Several months ago, I went to my local Army Surplus store to buy a hat. Not just any hat: a boonie hat. One of those sweet cloth hats you see army guys wear. I got the idea from, of all places, a video game. My character in the game wore a boonie hat and I thought it would be cool to have one of my own. My own fashion sense could be a great place for the real battlefield to meet the virtual one.  I found the hat I wanted, looked in the mirror and tried it on. What I felt next came as a bit of a surprise.

Before I get to my feelings, I should begin by pointing out there are a few key differences between my virtual and real world selves. In the virtual world, I am a battle-hardened veteran, faithfully serving my country in many conflicts. You name it, I have been there: I stormed Normandy Beach (35 times and counting), witnessed Pearl Harbor, held the line in the Battle of the Bulge. I patrolled the perimeter at Khe Sanh, sought and destroyed Charlie at Hue during the Tet Offensive. I am this evening shipping to Afghanistan to help America win the War on Terror. In the real world, I am the veteran of one afternoon paintball war and the occasional laser tag border skirmish.

Peaceful and mild-mannered I may be in the real world, but my virtual self has personally racked up over 600,000 kills: Nazis, "Charlie", terrorists; all have died by my hand. I am knowledgeable in every firearm, from Civil War-era muskets to modern assault rifles and rocket launchers, both foreign and domestic. In reality, I need help loading a BB gun even felt weird shooting at human-shaped silhouettes. Actual persons injured or killed by me on the field of battle: 0 (unless you count the guy whose tooth I chipped playing football in the snow).

In the virtual world, I have received enough injuries to make the guy from Johnny Got His Gun look like Gene Kelly. I have been shot, fragged, incinerated, dismembered, decapitated, stabbed and crushed.  My real world "Purple Heart"? A cut chin sustained when a paintball fragment penetrated my facemask.

My virtual self can carry up to 10 weapons at once (plus grenades) all while running at full speed. In video game wars, I can outjump, outrun and outmaneuver any enemy. I am deadly accurate with everything I use; I could kill you with a hurled fork at a 1000 paces. Strength, stamina, resilience, accuracy: I am (virtually) the Complete Soldier.

In reality, I can run 20 paces without stopping, carry a small briefcase for a half-block and, if I've been practicing, hit the wall with a rubber band at 10 feet. But, don't expect me to do these things in battlefield situations: under stress I am barely capable of operating a ballpoint pen, let alone an automatic rifle. In other words, put me in a real battle and you'd have a corpse (with soggy trousers) in no time.

So, it really shouldn't have surprised me so much to learn that the boonie hat didn't look right on my noggin. Anyone who has seen cosplay knows that virtual fashions rarely look as good on real people. But this was different. It's one thing to wear something that's not becoming; it's another thing to feel so completely out of place and even ashamed. I felt real shame--the kind of shame any poser gets when he's called out for what he is. I suddenly couldn't bear the thought of an actual veteran seeing me--a pasty, squishy civilian whose idea of Basic Training is a 10-minute tutorial--try on a uniform hat. That hat was an instant reminder that, no matter what I've learned about war from video games, they'll never teach me what it is to be a soldier. Military video games strive for realism to be sure, they're even used as recruiting tools, but they prepare you for battle about as well as a merry-go-round prepares you for horseback riding.

 
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