Virtual war is worrying
Hu, yeah, what is it good for?
Somewhere in the world right now, someone is getting killed in a war. Probably in Iraq, I suspect. As the casualty list grows higher every day, the death of many soldiers - and many Iraqi fighters - is reduced to an ever-diminishing footnote by Western administrations and news conduits.
As I sit comfortably in my living room, people are dying around me, too. Nazis, mostly. My team of not-quite-battle-hardened soldiers is rallying around me and we're surging through the streets of France, taking out The Hun and his gun emplacements as I go. As the music swells to a triumphant brass climax, I can tell that victory is within my grasp.
My cries of victory are vaguely derisory and even as I celebrate, I wonder exactly how my grandfather would view all this. As a man who fought through the horror of World War Two, memories of the chilling stories he told me of the era cause me to contemplate for a moment - is this game really in good taste?
War films have always come under fire, if you will, for glorifying man's fight against fellow man, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan, which romped to critical acclaim with its no-holds barred portrayal of the great conflict. That film encouraged us to contemplate, to reflect and to sympathise with the plight of the characters, evoking strong emotional responses. So far, I find the Xbox 360 rendition rather less mature and certainly less subtle.
There is certainly an argument that all this is in bad taste. To make light of death and war can be insensitive to those who feel its effects. Yet war and violence is inextricably embedded within man's consciousness and there isn't a man alive who hasn't wondered what it would be like to be a soldier, to be on the front line, to be fighting for your life. How would you react? Could you kill a man? How would it affect you? Would you be an instinctive soldier, a brilliant commander, or a grunt?
This series of 'What-ifs' led a girlfriend of mine to compare war games to female rape fantasies. The contemplation of how she would react to such a horrific and life-changing situation, she suggested, was as equally embedded in her psyche as innate violence was in mine. The difference was, she morbidly concluded, that she didn't play out her thoughts on a 28in HD TV. I wondered if her admission made my war games any more ethically satisfying.
I have been wondering whether World War Two games are in better taste than games based on more recent conflicts, such as Vietnam or either of the two Iraq wars. Certainly, the temporal gap adds a degree of distance from the actuality of the violence. There is also the fact that the Nazis are incredibly easy to de-humanise.
Bearing in mind what we know now about the horrors they enacted on their own people, it is not difficult for me as a player to distance myself from the emotional and humanitarian consequence of their death, en masse, at the hands of my skillfully-wielded machine gun. With that said, Conflict: Desert Storm was a fairly popular Xbox game based on the original Gulf Conflict, and a new episodic title called KumaWar appears to be an intriguing game based on the latter.
Offering realistic depictions of such incidents as the capturing of Saddam Hussein and the storming of Fallujah, the game offers testimonials from Americans serving in Iraq as to its authenticity and enjoyability. Without being able to put my finger on it, the whole episode seems in rather bad taste.
Back in the World War Two days, combat was respectful and life was valued, at least in public - I somehow cannot contemplate Churchill pronouncing publicly that he'd "Smoke out" Nazis, "Hunt 'em down" and reward their defeat "Dead or alive". Victory might have been sweet, but the loss of life on either side was never trivialised and a sense of humanity was always maintained. In an age where the enemy is a Combatant, deprived of any rights - rather than a prisoner of war with a basic right to respectful treatment - the KumaWar game seems more about enacting the propaganda of victor's justice than it does about offering the chance to step into a pivotal part of history.
There has been a lot of talk of the gung-ho attitude of soldiers in Iraq, the kind of de-sensitivity to violence that leads to prisoners being tortured and humiliated on camera. Is this violence spawned by a lack of regard for the enemy - a feeling that they are not, in fact, people or prisoners, but merely objects of violence - a two-dimensional picture of opposing forces re-enforced by an attitude spawned by three-dimensional shooting games? Does our interaction with war video games make us more accepting of violence in everyday life, and does this spill over into a failure to understand its consequences?
The American military uses video games to recruit kids into its ranks, and the game features realistic scenarios, weapons and visuals to introduce gamers to the idea of military service and real life combat. We might say that this is reducing real combat to the inconsequential level of a video game, and blurring the line between real war and virtual war to an unacceptable level. It surely can't be wise to teach kids that war is just like a video game.
None of these questions have definitive answers, since the answers - and to some degree the questions - are all defined and explained by a point of view, which is necessarily subjective. It is hard to define the line between a game which represents war in bad taste and one which might be considered to be harmless, especially since that line will vary from person to person.
It's not inconceivable that a game based on the current Iraq conflict will be released and will reach critical mass before the decade is out. If that happens, I will certainly look back at my feelings today, as someone worrying about friends and colleagues fighting out in Iraq, and wonder if I'm trivalising their experiences, just as I wonder if I trivalise my Grandfather's now. ®