Culture Bytes: War in Video Games

Due to the need for action in a medium as interactive as video games, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that they seem to have an obsession with war. With games such as God of War, Call of Duty and Battlefield all selling consistently well and in their millions, all referencing the theme in their titles, it seems quite an overwhelming tide. But does this theme of war glorify or condemn it?

All fiction thrives on conflict - a story is impossible without it as every protagonist needs something to overcome. This conflict changes from story to story, genre to genre. In a Crime story the conflict is the battle of wits between the detective and the criminal; in a Romance the conflict is the obstacle stopping the two characters being together (usually that the man is a tremendous arsehole); even in hard to place stories such as Catcher in the Rye we see Holden Caulfield conflicted both in who he is and with his place in the world. War takes this to the next level, raising the stakes of the conflict to include a great many more characters, lives and individual tragedies. With this in mind, it isn't surprising fiction has let it feature so heavily within its pages. In terms of literature we have Dalton Trumbo's classic anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun or Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. In film we have Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Apocalypse Now. Though there are many works of fiction that don't condemn war as these titles do. Many books written during the time of the British Empire condoned colonialism and many films made during World War II were little more than flag-waving exercises for the countries involved. Even now in the cinema we have Clint Eastward's horrible (read: racist) American Sniper, celebrating a nationalist psychopath and justifying a war many of the public and international community view as illegal. We can see that war has been explored in a variety of ways by different political ideologies. Do video games follow this tradition?

Though the series has dropped in popularity recently in favour of Call of Duty or Battlefield, Medal of Honour was at one point a major contender on the Playstation 2 and one of the most popular first-person-shooters of its generation. Lauded mainly for its depiction of the D-Day landing, Medal of Honour: Frontline was a critical and commercial success, though at no point does it raise any questions about war. The cutscenes based on historical background are an excuse for blind patriotism, treating every American death as a tragedy and every German death as a victory. The German soldiers are dehumanised in the gameplay too, dying in exaggerated (bordering on comical) ways. The games manages to get away with this as World War II is largely seen as a just war, few being able to argue that Hitler could be left to his plans. Yet the game treats every German soldier as, essentially, a 'mini-Hitler' - a symbol of evil only All-American-Hero Jimmy Patterson can overcome. Though, despite documentary style cut-scenes, this is hardly historically accurate. The Germans were conscripted and forced to 'fight for their country' just as the Allied soldiers were. Many soldiers would have disagreed with what they were 'fighting for', but were thrown into the battlefield and forced to fight for their lives by the global political system. Though the Nazi government was abhorrent, portraying the German people as little more than target practice is both historically inaccurate and insensitive. These were living, breathing human beings and pretending to history that they were not serves only backwards thinking and hate: the very things the Allies were fighting against.

Many other First-Person-Shooters treat war as a playground. Games such as Borderlands and the online features of many other console games take war to the next extreme, making it almost cartoonish with exaggerated explosions and avatars surviving onslaughts they never could in real life. There are a few ways to look at this: 1) The game developers wanted to portray war as a bit of fun. 2) It's a satirical statement pointing out just how ludicrous war is. 3) They just wanted to make a video game... Whatever the reason, the theme of war is present and it is explored in a way that could not be done in any other medium. Cartoonish violence has been done in film and television for years, such as the film Starship Troopers, but the video game makes it more immersive, throwing the audience into the action. Whether this playground approach dilutes any anti-war sentiment is up for debate. To my mind, it takes away the shock of war's grit and horror, though I am well aware there are others who play video games for very different reasons to me. Perhaps the audience is forced to bring their own ideas to the game and decide its allegiance accordingly? One thing is for certain, whatever the point of this style of game, it's an exploration of the theme of war that could only be truly successful in this medium. 

Other games, however, are distinctly anti-war. In Final Fantasy IX, the main heroes set out to bring a war to a hasty conclusion. They do this not by joining the war, but by attempting diplomacy with the main agitators. War, for these characters, is the worst possible outcome; this death and destruction cannot be justified. Before the war breaks out the game takes us to stunning cities (at the time of it's release being a graphical marvel) and we return during the war to see then almost entirely destroyed. The game shows war for what it is - murder on a grand scale and political manipulation; even the main aggressor turns out to be a puppet. The characters question their previous allegiances as the war outside becomes a war within, Steiner especially losing faith in the army he once had a hand in commanding. The audience is witness to both the personal and global cost of war - the sadness left in its wake. It's interesting to do anti-war as a genre piece as there's always the worry the message could be lost amongst the generic conventions. However, anti-war is a sentiment Final Fantasy has succeeded in continually, the epic nature of the genre combining with detailed characterisation to allow vast exploration of the theme.

Perhaps the ultimate anti-war game is Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The textures of the game; characterisation, plot, setting, gameplay; all make for an immersive and somewhat solemn experience. People who have followed the series from Metal Gear Solid will see a marked change in Snake, the main character. Chronologically he's only 42, but as a clone he's subject to rapid aging, leaving his body closer to 70 and older as the game progresses. Snake was created from the genes of Big Boss, the ultimate soldier, to be an even more refined soldier - his life has been one of war, and, in many ways, Snake is the game's major success. Snake has had everything stolen from him by war; his chance of a normal life, his friends (Frank Jaeger in particular), his family (pitted against his father and brothers at certain points), and his health with hints in this instalment that he's suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's easy for the audience to fall in love with Snake as he's a classic Byronic Hero - charismatic, troubled and, ultimately, tragically flawed - he's a hero on a grand scale, far away enough from our own lives to make him epic, but with enough emotion to make him human. To see this character the audience loves (especially if, like me, you grew up with Snake) torn apart by war is traumatic. Snake hates himself for what he's done, for the lives he's taken and families he's destroyed, calling himself 'a monster'. What's worse for him is that he knows he isn't done yet. Other characters we've grown to love have lost too: careers, family members, their lives, their humanity, relationships, limbs. Just in terms of character Metal Gear Solid 4 has a clear message; war is hell.
But Metal Gear Solid 4 doesn't stop there. It has a political point in its plot - a damning view of the Military Industrial Complex. The world of the game is one of the 'War Economy' where Private Military Companies (PMCs) make huge profits fighting proxy wars against rebel forces. The hugely immoral antagonist Liquid Snake/Ocelot is owner of one such PMC with the conquest of perpetuating this new world order, this Military Industrial Complex on an even grander scale. In times as conflicted as the ones we are living in, the game makes a valid point - how long can politicians and arms companies continue to place profits above human lives? With the world struggling to come to terms with the pointlessness of the Iraq War especially, this might be the game we need. 
The gameplay of Metal Gear Solid 4 is, for me, far above any other war game. The tagline of the series is 'Tactical Espionage Action' with te idea that you should use stealth and avoid combat. The game rewards you for harming as few people as possible and, frankly, it's probably impossible to complete it in the gung-ho fashion of Call of Duty. Your best weapons are sneaking and camouflage. However, during boss battles this becomes impossible, but it raises another point for me. I actually felt guilty fighting the bosses. Following on from the theme of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, all of the members of the 'Beauty and the Beast Corps' are suffering from it. These are tortured characters with strikingly complex characterisation considering their brief screen-time. They have a backstory every bit as heartbreaking as Snake's and, if it wasn't a life or death situation when facing them, I feel many players could quite happily leave them be. 
In short, Metal Gear Solid 4 is a game that shows war as a money making tactic for arms dealers and a power game for politicians. For everyone else, it's hell: stealing loved ones and drawing lines between people, nations and ideas that don't need to be there; the idea that the human and emotional cost will always outweight the profit gained by those few in power. 

In conclusion, war is a heavily explored theme in video games, both in patriotic flag-waving supremacy and sombre anti-war sentiment. This is perhaps surprising, not because video games are seen as grotesquely violent by the mainstream media, but because of the advantage the gameplay holds. By immersing the audience, video games have the power to send a powerful message that war must be avoided for the sake of life, happiness and the world's future. So, yes, there are anti-war video games, but, with the amount of conflict and division currently in the world, maybe there's a need for more. 

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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