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Playing with Terror

Terror’s been on my mind a lot lately. No, not the “good” kind, where you get to overcome the zombie hordes or monsters or aliens or ghosts or whatever supernatural beasts lurk in the dark. I mean the complicated, horrifying real life sort, and how we deal with it in this country. Watch out, folks, there’s heaviness ahead!

Obviously, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (which I spent, by the way, in Washington DC, then flew back via Logan airport – where two of WTC-bound planes originated from), has a lot to do with it, as does my job, where we do a good deal of work related to civil liberties violations in post 9/11 America. But what really got me thinking, dorkily enough, is an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I saw last night, in my quest to re-watch the whole series. No, you can’t have my lunch money.

It’s a season three episode wherein Doctor Crusher is held hostage by a band of terrorists, and in Trek’s lovingly blunt way, it’s a front for talking about terrorism as a practice, for security and surveillance’s ability to trump freedom in difficult times, and the human costs of violent conflict. It’s about as subtle as a six-ton hammer, and everyone ends up happy in the end (of course), but the show raises questions that are infinitely more relevant and poignant now than they were in 1989, at least for folks living in countries where terror threats (or acts) have disrupted our way of life.

I’d like to see a game that handles the issue with even this level of rudimentary moral sophistication. One of the reasons why I stay far away from most supposedly “modern” military shooters is their complete and utter inability to treat an incredibly complex subject with the scrutiny it deserves. Whatever your politics, its a very complicated thing to go into an armed conflict in 2011 – especially where terror and terrorist organizations are concerned. The gung-ho attitude of most games where you play as a “good guy” soldier, just killin’ them thar terrorists seems a little stupid to me, especially when we have real life men and women fighting overseas, in murky, dangerous, and often unclear situations. Its cheesy 80s action-hero – think Top Gun, when we should (at least in a better world) have a Hurt Locker or hell, even a Thin Red Line. Don’t even get me started on Homefront.

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I’d like to know what other people think – is there a place in gaming for a more sophisticated take on terrorism, arguably one of the biggest and most pressing issues in the modern world – or do you prefer to just fantasy play as a badass soldier in a more or less black and white world? It’s a genuine question.

Danielle Riendeau

What I do for work: spend my days as the ACLU design/code/video ninja, write about games, make (tiny) games, teach digital media at Northeastern University. What I do for fun: all of the above, plus lots of running, fitness fun, filmmaking, outdoor exploration, world travel, sci-fi everything.

10 thoughts to “Playing with Terror”

  1. I think a combination of the two is the most interesting. DE:HR allows you to be a badass, but at the same time there’s an undercurrent of questioning what the proper confluence of humanity and technology is. Much how the Dark Knight had moments of Batman being a badass and busting up bad guys but also raised concerns about the rising security state and where you draw the lines with personal liberties, I think you can do both. You can have someone fighting and questioning the motives behind what’s making them fight.

  2. I would love to see a developer or games maker with the balls to take on a more sopisticated approach to terror and modern warfare (ahem). Unfortunately, most folks want the jingoistic, Rambo storyline and not the more intricate, realistic one that includes more real-world motivations and ramifications.

    Whether intentional or accidental, I do think that there are some things in the Call of Duty games that speak to this- I just don’t think anyone is listening. For example, the AC130 gunship sequences are these dreamlike passages that really show how dehumanized those fleeing white blobs are in the gun camera. Then you’ve got this guy saying dispassionately “good kill” as a reward. There is a message there, I think, but it’s drowned out by the rah-rah, kill them brown people/Russians rhetoric.

    There’s also that bit at the beginning of the first Modern Warfare where the first character you control isn’t a superheroic gunsel, but a deposed leader being lead to an execution. You can’t move much, you’re powerless, and it’s really kind of disarming (har har).

    It’s an unpopular opinion, but I also think there’s more complexity in the notorious “No Russian” sequence than folks give it credit for. You’re playing the preeminent male power fantasy/gun show in the world and it’s giving you an option to mow down innocent civilians in an act of terror. It demonstrates- perhaps unsuccessfully- that being the all-powerful guy with a machine gun isn’t very heroic. Unfortunately, the mentality of too many players is such that they either don’t realize or don’t care when a game may have something to say. Plus, the sensationalist tone of it all pretty much foreclosed on any serious consideration of subtext. The lack of real consequence also undermines any sense of meaningful messaging.

    You are dead right though, it’s almost like this Reagan-era mentality. Hard bodies and hardware, with no human cost. There are bad guys and good guys, and the bad guys are still communists (wtf?!) or non-Christian brown people.

    There’s also the issue that you’ve got a very, very large percentage of gamers that would whine that they don’t want to be “preached at” and that want to just “turn their brain off” and have fun. Because you know, games are not art and can not convey meaning, beliefs, or culture…

    As for Homefront, the game literally tells you “Press X- Jump in Mass Grave”. Possibly the most facile, insulting, and vulgar thing I’ve ever seen in a video game.

  3. What gets me is that it was acceptable to approach terrorism with some nuance (even if it was handled a bit clumsily), in a very PG way in 1989, and in today’s “realistic” M-rated shooters, we can’t even get *that* level of sophistication.

    The “mass grave” button is… wow.

  4. Not just a place in gaming: I *prefer* a more sophisticated take on everything (not just terrorism). And gaming is a fantastic medium for exploring more sophisticated concepts; with its strengths in interactivity and simulation, there’s a fantastic canvas for exploring the intricacies and facets of difficult and complex situations.

    Sadly, the “military” shooters simulate little beyond bullet-to-body-part – they really don’t play to the strengths of the medium (just as typical Hollywood movies aren’t making the most of film’s potential expression). But, there’s a place for that too. Depth of expression and commercial success don’t share the same scale.

  5. The problem really is that culturally, it’s not expected (or even accepted) that games bear sophisticated nuance or significant messages…even when they do or that they’re unintentional. This extends to board games too.

    Last year at Gameshark, I gave the tabletop game Labyrinth: War on Terror or Game of the Year award. The game was really good, but more importantly it was a very serious consideration- with a pointed political perspective- about the root causes of terrorism and the current thinking in US foreign policy. Wait, what? I thought that it was a board game!

    But it was more than that, it was a sophisticated discussion about its subject. And I completely disagree with some of the designers assertions (particularly that the United States should be engaged in state-building to stablize volatile regions), but god damn it, at least the game was ABOUT something and had a very authorial viewpoint. It most definitely wasn’t a shoot-em-up wargame, and there was far more ambiguity and avenues for discussion in it.

    With video games, that Rambo level of discourse pervades. Crunching guitar chords and gun porn. QTE drama and ultra-militarized game worlds where women, children, and noncombatant civilians aren’t even granted the dignity of peripheral existence.

    It’s all about the mulitplayer. No regrets, no responsibility.

  6. is there a place in gaming for a more sophisticated take on terrorism? Absolutely, and it’s about time that games begin to delve more into real-world issues and what those issues mean to us all.

    Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one such game, to a point. While it seems to focus on transhumanism (with partial success, I would say), there’s a background in which terrorism and PMCs are frequently named, and are almost as important as the transhumanism issue. And that should not be surprising, as that game describes the events that paved the way to the establishment of UNATCO – the “United Nations Anti-Terrorist COalition”, in the original Deus Ex. It drops hints, here and there, of many different motivations behind both terrorism and anti-terrorism; PMCs are featured quite prominently in the game in various forms, and there are these haunting, lingering questions in the air all the time: How much freedom is too much? And how much control is too much?

    Deus Ex: Human Revolution is arguably the game that most accurately represents the issues and questions of our times; although it brings them to the future (even if a near future), it acknowledges and builds upon them, and it should be lauded for that.

    Talking about older games, Wing Commander III and IV deal with terrorism somewhat tangentially, but effectively. I won’t discuss how exactly in order to avoid spoilers (so whoever is discovering those games through GOG.com can enjoy them to the fullest), but both games together raise some interesting questions about the theme – in fact, the subtitle for Wing Commander IV is “The Price of Freedom”, which is a quite telling hint of what is the underlying theme in the game.

    Games can entertain us. They can also make us think… As with any other art form.

  7. …was how few people recognized the subversive nature of the “No Russian” sequence in Modern Warfare 2. All the criticisms I read of it tended to be based on an incredibly superficial reading of the sequence, and often a complete misunderstanding of how it fit in to the larger narrative. Like you say, the whole point was to undermine the power fantasy and make you feel like shit for not being able to stop what’s happening, and then you realize at the end of the game that your boss is actually the villain and the mission was a ploy to begin with.

  8. It’s an absurd, over the top action thriller that cloaks itself in the trappings of the war in Iraq in order to borrow unearned gravitas. It’s about as realistic as Die Hard.

  9. What frustrated me even more was that not many people really noticed that there is a second level in MW2 which could be seen as just as subversive as “No Russian”. After the twist where you find out that Shepherd has betrayed you all the enemies which you are killing are people that would previously classified as friendlies, mostly US servicemen. The game never asserts that they are the “bad guys” like Shepherd is only that they are servicemen under his command. That’s the second time in MW2 where they undermine the jingoist power fantasy patriotism that the games appear to be about, but it just seems that no one noticed…

  10. THere are also quotes, some famous and some more obscure, presented during the loading screens of both games that also speak to a certain anti-war sentiment, speaking to the higher costs of conflict.

    It is incredibly frustrating that “No Russian” got attention for really the wrong reason. Too many people thought it was just attention-whoring showboating by Infinity Ward or that it was just a disgusting example of excessive video game violence, yet there are definitely very, very transgressive ideas at work that completely upend the FPS mentality in that scene. It doesn’t deserve to be regarded on par with a Cannibal Corpse album or a “Faces of Death” movie.

    There’s some interesting ideas about terrorism in that bit, I think…and I do think there was a wilful effort to put that decision to shoot or not shoot in front of the player, to show them how monstorous it can be to pull the trigger, and what kind of thought process goes on there…even if it is just a video game.

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