The Art of the Game of War

Aug 26, 2010
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There's a sequence in the game "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" that you don't have to play if you don't want to. I haven't finished the entire game yet. My Xbox broke while I was working through it, and I haven't had time to get it repaired. But I did get to this sequence, or level, and I was anticipating it. The game doesn't offer a specific warning about its content, but you do get a warning before you start playing the game from the beginning that something is coming you might want to skip, especially if you're a sensitive viewer.

[Image credit: mandiberg]

In the first person shooter sequence, your character is an intelligence agent who has infiltrated a terrorist group. In the scene in question, you take part in a terrorist attack. You and a bunch of characters controlled by the computer enter an airport in Russia and start shooting. For the first few minutes, there is no resistance. You are shooting unarmed civilians. People scream and run away. People run up the escalator the wrong way. People fall and die. There's a lot of blood.

It is, without a doubt, the most disturbing moment I've ever encountered in a video game. What's most interesting, though, is that the scene is completely integral to the plot. If your character didn't participate in this mission, the events that occur next would never happen.

How do you play such a level? What's the moral imperative in video games? In some ways, there is none. These aren't real people, obviously. It's all just computer generated imagery on a screen. I could kill a million people in a video game. Would it be mass murder? Genocide? No, because nothing really happened.

Would I feel like I'm committing murder? That's another question, and that depends on the game itself.

The first time I played through the CoD: MW2 level, I tried to avoid killing anyone. It's possible for the first half of the level, but eventually security arrives, and in order to progress, you have to defeat the armed guards. It felt treasonous, almost, because I knew that my character is an undercover agent, and so the guards are really on my side. But you can't continue the game without killing the opposition, and so that's what I did.

The second time I played through the level, I killed everyone I could. I shot women in the head. I walked up to people lying on the floor, begging for mercy, and I shot them in the chest until they stopped moving. I used guns, grenades and knives. I tried to kill more people than the computer-controlled characters next to me.

I tried to enjoy the killing, but I couldn't. It was very disturbing. I tried to embrace it, but the quality of the graphics, the voice acting and even the story itself all created a world that was just real enough to give me pause. I felt bad about killing innocent civilians in an airport terror attack, even though there was no killing, no civilians and no airport. It was all on screen, and it was all in my head.

That's art. That is exactly what art is supposed to do. I started thinking about this when Ars Technica's gaming writer, Ben Kuchera, tweeted that Call of Duty is as much art as Ico, a somewhat more abstract and fantastic video game title. Video games are often disparaged in the art world. Roger Ebert famously landed in hot water recently by penning a story claiming that video games can never be art. He has since made a qualified retraction of his original statement, but nonetheless, it seems that video games still get beaten down and taken to task in a way that traditional, more widely accepted artwork does not.

First, let me define my terms. I believe "art" is any creation that exists purely (or primarily) to elicit an emotional response. Any creation; any emotional response. This is a broad definition (if you didn't realize, ), and this leaves the category wide open so that a wide range of things can be considered "art." That's fine with me. I would much rather argue about whether something is good art, or, even better, whether it's successful art, than argue about whether it is art at all.

I have no interest in arguing about whether or not video games are, in fact, pieces of art. Some of them are, some are not. I think that the game itself has to elicit a human emotion for the game to be considered art. I don't mean the act of winning the game, I mean the game itself. So, in my view, Tetris is not a work of art. It's a fantastic game, one of the best ever created and a personal favorite (I am a Tetris demigod), but the happiness I get from Tetris, or any emotional response, comes from my own skill and success in playing the game. A game like "Call of Duty," or "Bioshock," or even "Guitar Hero" elicits a deeper emotional response that comes from being able to relate to the game. If the first two are more obvious, I would say "Guitar Hero" elevates itself to the level of art first because you are literally playing music, and music has always been considered art, but second because the game tries to help us imagine ourselves as skilled, successful musicians. Load up any Guitar Hero video on YouTube and tell me the kid playing complicated, 5-star riffs doesn't envision himself a skilled musician. I'm not saying he's right, I'm just saying that's art.

While I was thinking about this article, a new controversy came up. Electronics Arts will release a new "Medal of Honor" title, another war-based first person shooter, set in today's conflict zones. Though the story mode will have the player acting as an allied forces soldier, someone on our side, in other words, there is also a multiplayer mode. As Ars Technica quotes EA Games reps as saying: "if someone's the cop, someone's gotta be the robber." To that end, half the players in a multiplayer round will be trying to kill the guys on 'our side.' Those opponents could play as "Taliban" soldiers. This has parents groups up in arms in the UK.

Why is it that parents groups always seem to come down on the side of censorship? Why do so-called parents groups try to get the government to mandate what my children can watch, so that my own entertainment has to be reduced to the level of what's acceptable for my child?

In any case, there are two major flaws to this argument. First, nobody is actually becoming the Taliban. Just because you pick up a joystick and look through the virtual eyes of a Taliban fighter, that doesn't mean you have anything in common with our enemies in Afghanistan. In a way, these parents groups are not only proving my original thesis that video games are in fact artwork, they are in fact showing just how successful the artwork has become. If the representation wasn't so powerful, and if the games did not produce a real emotional response, would parents care? Would parents care if their children played games where they could act like a family of small frogs trying to cross a busy highway and getting killed by passing trucks? Of course not, because that was not a successful piece of artwork. But the more powerful representation elicits a more powerful emotional response. Art doesn't make everyone happy; it isn't supposed to.

Second, this unfortunately shows video games' place at the bottom of artistic hierarchy. At the Academy Awards this year, the Best Supporting Actor award went to an actor who played an especially vicious and frightening Nazi. Did any parent group step up and say that Christoph Waltz should not have been allowed to portray a Nazi? Should we blacklist any actor who appears as a Taliban fighter in a movie? Or a soldier in the Burmese army? A serial killer? Not only are these actors not condemned, but the more they frighten us, the more they draw forth a real response from their audience and turn their audience into ersatz victims of their crimes, the more we appreciate their performance.

You can't have it both ways. You cannot claim that video games do not deserve the same protection and respect as other forms of art, then claim that the emotional response they trigger in their audience is too powerful and needs to be banned. You can't celebrate an actor's performance as a murderer or an enemy combatant, then turn around and denigrate the same types of characters in video games.

If you don't like a video game, or a movie or an exhibit of oil paintings strewn with elephant dung, don’t go to see them. If you've played the game, argue about its successes and failures, how it made you feel and how you reacted to that feeling. We're far past the point where there's a question about whether video games are a form of art.


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