In war games, killing is fun

[I wrote this for the blog I contribute to for work, over on bit-tech. I don't generally cross-post stuff I write for work here, but the idea for it grew out of writing the Peleliu post, so I think there's a good case to be made that it belongs here, too.]

Konami’s recently announced Six Days in Fallujah game rolls into town at the head of a of convoy of outrage over the fact it’s based on a very real and very contemporary battle of an ongoing war.  In a well-weighted editorial on Eurogamer, Rob Fahey nails why this outrage is nonsensical, and why it’s particularly unpalatable when it comes from the tabloid press:

“It’s not just the fact that the [Daily] Mail and others are essentially calling for the worst form of censorship, the blocking off of an entire event and saying ‘this is off limits, and may not be portrayed’ – something which would stab to the very heart of the freedom of expression our media should be championing… the thing that rankles most about this situation is the fact that this is a tabloid newspaper telling another medium that the way in which it’s handling current events is insensitive. I won’t need to remind any reader who walks past a news stand on the way to work, or flicks on Sky News or CNN in the evening, just how ‘sensitive’ the news media is in its coverage of war.”

The whole piece is worth a read as it eloquently defends the right of games to portray reality. Fahey’s defence of games isn’t totally blind though – indeed, he challenges those making games such as Six Days in Fallujah to engage more fully with their subject material:

“If a game like Six Days in Fallujah is to have any value, it must come from adding something to that discussion [of the war]. This isn’t about taking a pro-war or an anti-war stance – although both are valid starting points, there are countless others. It’s about making people think, informing them through their entertainment experiences, and commenting, as creators, on the media we create and the events we portray.”

Games based on real combat aren’t uncommon – the Call of Duty series has been at it for longer than the duration of World War 2 – and Call of Duty 4 is the most notable depiction of combat in Iraq gaming has seen so far (although, bless its little corporate socks, Activision has decided to tell players it was actually set it in unnamed MiddleEastistan). What makes Six Days in Fallujah interesting is that unlike other ‘real war’ games, it’s not an FPS, or an RTS. Instead, it’s a third person ‘action’ game.

The problem previous ‘real war’ games have had is that none has managed to rise to Rob Fahey’s challenge. This is because of the problem of fun, namely that war games – and FPS war games in particular – make killing people fun. This is because killing is the central mechanic of the game. If there was no killing in CoD 4, for instance, there wouldn’t really be any game left. You’d be able to run, reload, crouch and open doors, but really, those actions are solely there to support you killing people.

It’s not unique to CoD 4. It’s there in every combat orientated FPS game because in every FPS you need to kill hundreds, if not thousands of people as you progress through the game. In fact, you’re not killing people: you’re removing obstacles, because single player games that aren’t primarily puzzle games or simulators are always about progress through the level.

To impede progress and to make it challenging for the player, you need obstacles. These can be puzzles, but since you’re not making a puzzle game, it’s better if these are enemies, and it’s better if these enemies can tax the player by fighting back. When you, as the player, eliminate the enemies, you’re granted power-ups, new weapons and keys to enable you to access more of the game (and in turn cope with more powerful enemies). It’s such a simple and recursive formula that it needs to be jazzed up – it needs to be made fun, because you need to do it over and over and over again. It’s work.

As such, while these enemies might take on a human form – two legs, two arms, toting an AK and a couple of lines of dialogue – there’s nothing actually human about them, which is why you as a player (and also you as a character) are able to kill them by the bus load. You never pause before you kill these people. You never wonder what their wife is going to say. You never wake up in the middle of the night bothered by the fact you killed them. They’re just ciphers. If your soldier from CoD 4 had actually killed the number of people you kill in progressing through the game, that frequently, that proficiently, they would surely go completely insane. That, or make themselves leader of the whole world.

You can argue that military commanders might look at the map and think about combat in this way – enemy soldiers are just there preventing progress, troops who have experienced combat are tougher, and commanders do make calls that result in hundreds of deaths – and so there’s an argument that this ‘killing is fun’ problem doesn’t affect RTS games. But you don’t have to read many memoirs or watch much documentary footage to know that frontline soldiers have quite a different perspective. To even come close to this experience now gives you an idea of how far removed from fun it is.

This is what makes it interesting that Six Days isn’t an FPS, and that in an interview, Peter Tamte, the president of Atomic Games, the developer of Six Days, gives the following answer to the question, is the game going to be fun?

“The words I would use to describe the game — first of all, it’s compelling. And another word I use — insight. There are things that you can do in video games that you cannot do in other forms of media.”

As cynical as you might at first think (and I certainly did) Six Days was, Tamte is on to something here. Now, he might just be talking a good fight before preparing to roll over and make a crass cash-in. But he might be preparing to grasp one of the biggest issues in gaming.

So far, ‘real war’ games have always taken the easy route. Call of Duty: World at War is a great example of this. Some of its levels are set on Peleliu, a tiny island in the Pacific, which in 1944, was the site of a ferocious three month battle between US and Japanese forces. 11,000 Japanese were defending the island; only 202 were captured alive, while close to 1,800 Americans lost their lives.

In October last year, I had the chance to visit Peleliu, and it was a very moving experience. A lot of the WW2 stuff is still out in the jungle. I visited with a Japanese tour group, and we saw caves that still had scorch marks on the wall from where they were cleared with flamethrowers, and we saw places where groups of soldiers had committed ritual suicide rather than be captured alive.

After I wrote about it on, someone recommended I read a book called ‘With The Old Breed’, by Eugene Sledge, a marine’s memoir of the Pacific war that included fighting on Peleliu. I’ve only just ordered it from Amazon, but here’s the Wikipedia write-up – and as warning, it’s not pleasant:

“Sledge writes honestly of the brutality displayed by United States Marines and Japanese soldiers during the battles, and of the hatred that both sides harboured for each other. In Sledge’s words, ‘this was a brutish, primitive hatred, as characteristic of the horror of war in the Pacific as the palm trees and the islands.’ Sledge describes one instance in which he and a comrade came across the mutilated bodies of three Marines… He also describes the behaviour of some Marines towards dead Japanese, including the removal of gold teeth from Japanese corpses (and, in one case, a severely wounded but still living Japanese soldier), as well as other disturbing trophy-taking. Distinguishing the book from most other war memoirs is Sledge’s description of the sheer physical struggle of living in a combat zone and the debilitating effects of constant fear, fatigue, and filth.”

None of what Sledge describes is fun, but it very clearly has value as history and as media – the book is widely praised. Likewise, I wouldn’t say Peleliu was exactly fun place to visit, but it is interesting, challenging and enlightening.

With The Old Breed has been optioned for use as source material for a new HBO series on the war (called The Pacific) from the makers of Band of Brothers. I can’t imagine the makers of Call of Duty read it, and if they did, it didn’t really do much other than get reduced to the same old, same old of WASD and Mouse 1.

What this points out is that other forms of media – books, TV, films – have found that being fun isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite to being successful, both commercial and artistically.

Again, here Six Days might break with the past. Tamte (and Konami) has also been keen to point out how many Marines, and apparently, Iraqi civilians and even insurgents have helped them make the game. It’s clear however, that their impulse to get close to reality is tempered by a degree of political correctness:

“Q: Will players encounter situations like friendly fire or accidentally shooting civilians?

Tamte: Yes.

[Creative Director] Benito: We wanted to recreate the pressures and conditions the Marines faced and that includes adhering to the proper rules of engagement. So for example, as you may have seen in the demo, there’s an unarmed individual at the start and the Marines didn’t fire on him because he was unarmed and that was in accord to the rules of engagement at the time.

Q: Will there be portrayals of women being raped or dead children or are you just sticking to the combat?

Tamte: Well, what we’re trying to do is recreate the stories of the Marines that we’ve spoken with and that are involved in the creation. And we’re telling the stories of those particular Marines. None of the items that you’ve mentioned have come up in any of those stories.”

The portrayal of the conduct of the armed forces in a current war is obviously a sensitive issue, but it will be a shame if Six Days insists on showing the Marines and the rules of engagement as being perfect. It also makes you wonder why, if the time is right for Six Days, no-one has yet optioned Generation Kill (HBO’s excellent series on the invasion of Iraq, based on the equally brilliant book) for the basis of a game.

I’m going to be very keen to play Six Days; the chances are it won’t live up to its billing, but the game described by its makers could be, even if only in a small way, rather radical.

One thought on “In war games, killing is fun

  1. Pingback: Konami has dropped Six Days in Fallujah « The Wired Jester

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