A dark epiphany of sorts

(I had this epiphany in the spring, but it bears repeating)

So I was sitting in the train listening to “Belfast Child” by the Simple Minds, and it again occurred to me that the only thing that really gets to me (apart from cruelty to animals) is the death of innocents caused by violent conflict or war – regardless of who causes the death.

I stand by Robert Fisk when he says that war is the total failure of the human spirit. Films about these things always get to me. Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Hotaru no Haka all struck a chord. In contrast, stories of personal tragedies or hardship, love episodes and all that stuff don’t really get to me – sometimes I will semi-empathize but mostly I’m indifferent. It is really in times of collective misery, of senseless mass death caused by the faceless beast that is state-monopolized violence or (otherwise large powerful bodies of people) that my heart gets rent to pieces.

With that in mind I sincerely wondered why I wasn’t at all troubled by the violent games I play – the kind of games where you play as part of an army (whether general or foot soldier). I would think about Real Time Strategy games like the Command & Conquer series, or shooters such as the Call of Duty or the Battlefield series. I’m not much of a determinist and I do not believe these games influence or cause anything specifically, but I was fundamentally troubled when I realized why there was no inner moral conflict for me while playing these games (and having a lot of fun while doing it)

It is because these games are sanitized of innocent death.

Most first person games I know of take place in virtually deserted locales. The only thing you find in the city streets you traverse are enemy combatants. If it moves and if it’s not one of your teammates, it’s a legitimate target.

Ditto in strategy games. When you play through Company of Heroes or, you fight zee Germans in villages and cities alike – which are all ghost towns. The gameworld has become a military playground, an idealtype world where there are no innocent deaths because, plainly, there are no innocents available who would be able to die.

There are exceptions, of course. In certain C&C games civilians sometimes function as propagandistic plot devices; if you are the Good Guys (the yanks) you Protect Civilians. If you play the Bad Guys (Chinese, Arabs, terrorists etc) you Indiscriminately Slaughter Civilians.

This is also what upsets me. Besides presenting a skewed picture of war (where it comes down to pure tactics in areas with nothing but legitimate targets) it also denies the reality of war: that there are no good sides, and that everyone involved militarily acts beastly. Similarly, you will never find US ideological opponents – The North Koreans in Crysis, the Chinese and Arabs in C&C: Generals, the terrorists and the Russians (I shit you not) in Call of Duty IV, the Venezuelans in Mercenary 2 – do anything remotely honorable or morally sound.

Maybe one could blame the market – who would buy war sim games if civilians would die all the time? Because this is the reality of modern war: whereas in the days of yore the majority of casualties were soldiers, in modern times it’s mostly civilians, a large part of them children. Looking at a child torn to shreds by your grenade launcher, even in pixel-form, is bound to upset people (not to mention causing public moral outrage)

Still, I cannot help but feel disturbed by this selective amputation of reality from games who have have historical or current/near future themes.

Truth doesn’t sell?



2 thoughts on “A dark epiphany of sorts

  1. Gsorsnoi

    Wow, that leaves me no more reason to write about this myself. But I think there is a simple question you would need to ask yourself on your final question in this blog: would you still be playing these games the same mindless way you’re playing them now if (more) heartbreaking reality would be added to them? I personally wouldn’t enjoy a game wherein a soldier would treaten to kill a civilian if you wouldn’t not do this or that to help the enemy.

    By the way, I myself prefer to play those games that do not include humans as enemies. I’d rather fight against unreal creatures. Well, I’m also an oldschool Doom-fan. So that explains it all I think 😉

  2. peppie Post author

    my main issue with this is that it might have political implications. You have a generation now growing up with awesome war games, and the (innocent) human cost is completely factored out of it. Ceteris paribus, the effect must be that it would be easier to sell a war to the public and there’s less moral outrage.

    I would still play these games as they add a sense of realism. It’s not fully impossible; the streets are spammed with civilians in games like Assassin’s Creed, where you are punished if you kill any. Command & Conquer 1 actually had a civilian kill counter, but if you were GDI (“The Americans”) you didn’t have an automatic cursor change to attack a civilian, whereas the Brotherhood of Nod (“The Slightly Arabic
    Terrorists”) would be able to 1-click-kill civilians.

    I don’t think it is impossible to design a game that factors in decisions that affect civilian lives. Do you launch white phosphorus at a UN compound or do you send in specialist or scout troops? These decisions are made in real situations in the real world, and you could put them in games as well. Anything to activate the mind that the battlefields of the world aren’t abandoned cities or villages where you can happily spray daisy cutters, mini-nukes and other WoMD.


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