Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Clint Eastwood of Video Games

In this article, Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change, argues that we don't need to be rid of war games, but that we should strive for more sophisticated and realistic war games: ones that address the complexity of war and the moral dilemmas that modern soldiers face every day.

Representing Games for Change in interviews and conversations with the media, I am often asked to comment on the subject of “War Games.” It usually goes like this – an indifferent reporter on the other end of the phone line, who is expecting to wrap up her story with the obvious angle. She's almost starting to type the answer for me and expecting me to say: That we should not make war games, that they corrupt our youth, that they represent the worst in human nature and that when this content is packaged in a video game, it is even more dangerous. But no matter how hard she tries, I never give her that quote. I catch her off guard. I am not against war games, or any type of game, I would say.

War games and first person shooters are here to stay. There is an unbreakable link between the mechanics of targeting, shooting, reloading and the media of digital games. And there is no better conflict than A vs. B, where you gain your resources and achievements at the expense of the other side, an enemy. After all, the first ever video game created in 1962 was named Space-war!.

What we really need are different war games. And more sophisticated ones. A useful perspective to take is that of comparative media. It gives video games a serious consideration – arguing that it will one day be a viable media like books, movies or theatre. Not in terms of sale figures or active online users - in that front we’re already massive (and the ESA would love to provide you with the stats) - but rather in our media’s ability to speak to all tastes and ages. Its ability to create meaning, convey high-level messages and provocative concepts.

Diversity and maturity of a medium means that you would need to go beyond the “blockbuster” and the lowest common denominator. When Clint Eastwood created Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, he wanted to represent war in all its complexity, beyond the myth, icons and conventions. To play on that level, game makers would need to keep on pushing the envelope and create experiences that address a wide range of emotions, not only the thrill of action.

Veterans would tell you that war is not anything like what’s depicted in Call of Duty. The action in a real battle could take only a couple of minutes. The rest is anxious waiting, fear, missing your family at home, seeing your friends injured or die in front of your eyes. Some of my favorite war game scenes are those in which you temporarily lose your weapon. Or before you gain one like in the beginning of Half Life 2. These moments, in which you don’t have total control, seem very realistic. And they are more authentic than constantly shooting and killing hordes of AI targets.

Modern warfare is grayer and blurrier than ever. Patrolling through the streets of Gaza or Fallujah confronts you with civilians. Searching through reported targets of militants confronts you with scared women and children huddled in the corner of a room. Moral dilemmas are common and often they involve quick life-and-death decisions. These are tense and powerful moments that involve both inner and external conflicts. They are moments of truth that test soldiers’ nerves and their most fundamental assumptions about the world we live in. The reality of war is full of those moments. So far our video games are not.

Asi Burak is a veteran game-maker, technology executive and social entrepreneur. As Co-President of Games for Change, he leads on the curation, development, and execution of programs to raise the quality and reach of social impact games. He is also the co-founder of Impact Games, the creators of the internationally acclaimed “PeaceMaker” and “Play the News” gaming platforms.


Luz said...

My question is whether players will actually be interested in playing games that face them with a moral dilemma over whether to pull the trigger. After all, such situations are neither fun nor glorious. People love games that have clean cut rules that don't make them think. In any case, I'd love to see game design ascend to this level. It would be quite a feat to satisfy both morals and customers.

Jorge Albor said...

@ Luz

I would say we already have a variety of games that confront players with moral dilemmas. Dragon Age, Fallout 3, even a good session of Dungeons & Dragons can confront players with decisions that have resounding consequences and moral/ethical concerns. Mass Effect 2 is a prime example, in which serious ethical dilemmas arise with no clear cut answer, only the vague idea that at some point, perhaps in ME3, your decisions will effect the world. Allow me to amend your statement. "Some" people love games that have clean cut rules and don't make them think. Then there are the rest of us. Those who like to play blindly, unthinkingly, can do what they have always been able to do, ignore a game's fiction and smash buttons.

takeshi007 said...

I really love playing different video games these day but I prefer games such as console games like COD, BattleField 3 and Resident evil.

Zombie games

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