The arcane interface of this game is an utter failure, much like the rest of the World War 2 games you’ll find on the SNES. Of more interest is the point made in my colleague’s review of the original PTO, which is this: the abstraction of the Pacific Theatre, indeed of any war, is – in a way – monstrous.
Video games are largely violent. You could easily read a great many video games, especially contemporary ones, as violent power fantasies that enable people to act out what they wish they could do in real life, or to experience the thrill of such action without the consequences. You could, but I think you’d be very wrong.
When you play a game like Call of Duty, when you feel the visceral immediacy of its gameplay, you are not really playing through the experience of World War 2, or any war. You are not trying to inhabit the experience of the soldier, or immerse yourself in warfare. It goes even beyond that; you are not trying to simulate what it feels like to kill or do violence to another human being.
What you are doing is playing a game. You are exploring and engaging a system of rules, goals, rewards, actions, reactions, and information, one that is made more intuitive and immediately relatable by being analogous to familiar reality, or at least familiar cinematic reality. The surge of pleasure and satisfaction that you feel when you fire a bullet into an enemy soldier’s head, the feel of aiming and firing successfully, the sound of the impact, the little icon or +50 points that pings on your screen, these are the pleasure of the game – of successfully engaging the system both in terms of accomplishing goals and of kinetic enjoyment. That pleasure isn’t derived from the simulation of real violence. It is far more similar to the pleasure you’d get from successfully passing a mouse precision test with glowing targets you must click than it would be to the pleasure of successfully firing a real weapon at a real enemy and seeing a real human skull suffer ballistic trauma.
This is why I don’t think games really desensitize us to violence, and why I am personally far more concerned with the addictions and compulsions they generate, if we are to discuss the “problem” of video games.
I think that the line I have drawn has been blurred, though – I must admit that. I think what I’ve said is absolutely true of the multiplayer experience of Modern Warfare 2 or Battlefield Bad Company 2 or any shooter – it’s very much an abstract game made more easily absorbed by its imitation of reality, and the abstract game is the source of enjoyment and motivation therein. But the single player game is really where we can see ambiguity.
The exact opposite quality, that of immersion, of simulated experience in a virtual world, is the other side of video games, and it is what makes video games different from other games. There’s no denying that it can be equally compelling – it is the abstract game-ism that drives us to level up, get points, finish levels, do time trials, win matches, and so on, but it is the immersive experience that makes us want to get to know the characters, continue the story, explore the world. And you can find that in a shooter, easily. When you’re playing Battlefield BC2 and you’re sneaking up on an enemy camp, listening to your team members whispering to each other, and you’re suddenly pinned down by a hail of gunfire, before being rescued by a friendly helicopter and its blazing minigun, you feel the urgency, the panic, the elation – muted, to be sure, but still there. This is true in a single player campaign, but come to think of it it’s true in multiplayer as well.
So maybe we are getting to the point where it’s dangerous – where simulated violence is close enough to real violence that it can glorify it, make it enjoyable, make us associate abstract goals and rewards with real violence.
But in Modern Warfare, the first one, the scene where you fly the AC130 over enemy territory, observing from above with thermal vision and raining down machine gun fire and heavy artillery without fear of reprisal, with your commander congratulating on your accuracy and humans reduced to featureless blips on your screen – that’s a self conscious scene. That is a game that is, maybe only for that one scene, concerned with the nature of virtual violence, and with the intersection of the real and the virtual in that context. It is difficult not to play through that section and feel some kind of disgust or revulsion at the casual annihilation of life; it violently reminds us that we are playing a game, even while showing us that this is when the game is closest to real life.
And so I can only ask, what is monstrous? Or rather, what has the potential for monstrousness? Certainly the AC130 scene displays a kind of self-awareness and concern that make me hopeful. The rest of the single player game is just that – a game, abstract, and for all its immersive quality, more compelling in its abstraction than anything else. That does not worry me. In fact, the visceral experience of a gunfight, if anything, can only make us more aware and more afraid of what it is to experience violence, if we remember that there are no respawns and no checkpoints in real life.
But PTO2 worries me. The kind of game that isn’t self aware, that is fixated on a great war and its drama, that reduces violence to blips on a screen without being concerned about the growing abstraction and virtuality of war and violence on that scale in real life – that worries me. Ultimately, all human experience, it seems to me, is an abstraction of reality, a lifelong construction of a system by which to navigate the world, but a system which can only be approximate. The real danger of video games, then, the real monstrosity, is that we might dwell too much in the abstraction and neglect the reality upon which it is built.