War Games: Military Shooters as Modern Myths
Military shooters are some of the most popular forms of the FPS, with its most financially successful entries in recent years. What makes them so popular? Why do they have such a mythic draw on our collective imagination? In the first entry in a multi-week features series called War Games, I first tackle the idea of the modern shooter as a myth-making device. When I think of the modern military shooter, I am reminded of the following quote:
“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by mythmakers- historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state- all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty.”
~ Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
To the above quote, we can now add video games as a source of war myth-making.
I love the FPS as a genre. I took a long hard look at the games I spent the most time with (1088 hours in Team Fortress 2), talk about the most (Call of Duty), and encourage others to play (Minerva and Among the Sleep). I am an unabashed fan of the genre for its immersion, sense of agency, and gleeful variety of experiences and different styles of gameplay the format can present. Post 9/11, a grim, brown-colored shroud has fallen over the FPS. The question stands: what does the modern military FPS say about combat and the military lifestyle? What myths do they tell us?
Before we get into that, we need to define what I’m going to constitute a “modern military shooter”. Any game I talk about is going to have all of the following characteristics:
A singleplayer narrative campaign. (I’ll explain this later)
FPS or third person perspective.
A contemporary timeframe, post 9/11, either set in the current day or near future.
Plausible weaponry, both handheld and vehicle-based, with actual real-world counterparts (such as the M1A1 from Call of Duty)
Plausible rank assignment and military protocol surrounding rank.
Contemporary military imagery, such as uniforms, insignias, and flags.
Military language and vocabulary (“Frag out!”, “Contact!”)
An interesting factoid: Medal of Honor (2010) is the only game that I have ever played that actually took place during a real, ongoing military conflict, our current quagmire in Afghanistan (soon to end this spring). A truly surreal experience. Is it a commercial for our continual involvement? A shameless cash-in on real destruction and death? Or a noble endeavor to make an ambiguous conflict more tangible for a large audience? The interesting thing about these questions is that none of them actually question the legitimacy of the war act itself. Any discussion about the game is never about “should we be in Afghanistan at all anymore”, but rather “is this the right depiction that paints our armed forces in the most positive light?”
War is an act of myth-making, and the power of war myth pervades even into the digital realm. The power of war is that it unites, excites, and motivates us to support what is, by its definition, the act of government-approved organized murder. You can sugarcoat nation-building, peacekeeping efforts, humanitarian missions any way you want to, but the core function of the military stays the same: to be efficient killers. That sounds like I’m taking a dump on the military, but I’m not. Sometimes that’s a necessary evil, but it’s something we have to live with. I feel comforted by the fact that America has the greatest military power in history, yet I also often disapprove of its use. Every American lives in a precarious place: wanting to respect the soldier as a person, but not necessarily what they do. The myth of nationalistic pride is copied in digital victories and successes, with a sense of patriotic pride swelling when a beloved character dies in a cut-scene.
One of the largest conceits of the military shooter is its claim to so-called realism. They appropriate warfare’s excitement and tension to a fever pitch, but not its sense of responsibility, frailty, and absolute fear. The modern shooter, for all its self-proclaimed aims for “realism”, is no more realistic than Doom or Quake. The basic fakeness of the military shooter is pretty evident from the fact that it’s a game: an intentionally artificial environment designed to create a sense of play and enjoyment through a series of important player choices. That’s what games are. You’re probably shouting at me: “It’s just a game, asshole! You’re supposed to have fun! Lighten up!”
I guess the difference between a modern shooter and Mario stomping Goombas is that Mario isn’t rendered with a licensed fully automatic SCAR-L rifle and engaging in a sweep-and-clear operation in Fallujah. We don’t have a modern analog for Mario’s adventures, but we can see imagery emulated in Battlefield 3 on our news screens almost every day. America’s Army 3, licensed and produced entirely by the US Army, is quite literally war propaganda. Those games, despite their claims as entertainment, have a special responsibility to not cheapen the act of warfare. The game that only emphasizes the action is a type of pornography: sex without the responsibility of a relationship. When our video games are attempting to put the “thrill” of real life battle into our living room, what does that say about us? It says that we want to vicariously enjoy the excitement of combat, that adrenaline rush, without any real sense of personal danger. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing: I much prefer adrenaline junkies to get their fix in safe ways. However, it’s not wholly positive either, as it paints a perverted, simplified view of the modern battlefield.
The video game places the viewer into a special position: of actually participating in the false emulation of constant combat. The war shooter creates a very specific type of false experience about a topic, the modern act of war, that needs nuance, complexity, and broader perspective that they simply don’t and maybe even can’t deliver. Modern war shooters create myth, a magical type of storytelling that creates one central message: that Western military power is sexy, omnipotent, and almost always positive. You the player are always the hero, the savior, the messiah. You’re not just a soldier, you’re The Soldier.