Doing the Wrong Thing: Morality in War Games

You know what I liked about Modern Warfare 2? The part where you got to shoot all the guys that vaguely resembled holiday-goers in an airport. You knew they were civilians because they weren’t wearing bandanas, chanting in an Eastern European dialect and lining up like cattle to be shot in the face. Well I pumped those sunglass sporting, holiday-going fashionistas with so much lead the forensics guys must have thought they’d stumbled into a reenactment of that scene in The Matrix. You know the one. Pew pew pew! Flight 47 to Croatia has been delayed. Pow pow pow! Flight 92 to Paris has been cancelled. Kaboom! Would Security please report to Gate 17.

Well, there’ll be none of those shenanigans in DICE’s Battlefield 3. Speaking with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, executive producer of the game Patrick Bach put to bed any lingering dreams of a similar massacre in Battlefield. That’s fine. Modern Warfare 2′s No Russian level was either a feeble attempt to encroach on the morality of war or just a silly PR stunt. More the latter, really, but it was a rare moment in a Call of Duty game where you had a choice, and with that choice came a moral decision; to create invisible orphans or not. Infinity Ward made no attempt to make you feel for the identical looking men you were slaughtering – No Russian was bombastic and stupid and whether you chose to join in or not, everybody died – but it was a moral choice in a game that had never before bothered to pause and contemplate the nasty side of war.

no civilians were harmed here, presumably

Bach had some interesting things to say about why DICE aren’t about to let gamers paint the airport decks with the blood of westerners the innocent a second time over,

“We are trying to do something that is more mature. Mature not being gore –some people confuse the two. That’s childish actually, to want more blood.”

There’s a fine line here. Dead Space levels of gore would be absurd. Soldier of Fortune fetishised gore and tried to sell itself on that alone. It was as stupid and pompous as Saving Private Ryan. But to play down gore – and simultaneously play down the collateral damage aspect by removing the ability to wound or kill civilians – that’s just as bad. It’s inane enough that Call of Duty has you hauled back to the nearest checkpoint if you so much as look down your reticule and spy a civilian. War is messy. Hiding that isn’t mature.

Bach’s big statement comes later on when he claims that most gamers would shoot a child, given the opportunity, following that with,

“We have to build our experiences so we don’t put the player in experiences where they can do bad things”

Just the other day I broke into a flat. Inside sat a man eating his dinner. He was like any other man really. At first glance I thought he must be the proprietor of the residence but after snatching several credit chips, a box of machine-pistol ammo and hacking his personal computer I began to wonder. Whatever he was before, now he was a witness and he needed silencing. I grabbed the nearest heavy object I could find – a refrigerator – and hurled it at my quiet adversary. Thud. Silence.

That was probably a “bad thing”. I’d murdered a civilian in cold blood with a kitchen appliance, all for a few credits and a box of ammo I’d later toss aside to make room for a candy bar. Morally dubious all the way.

Should that be removed from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, though? Never. I liked the power. I liked my little story. I liked the twang of guilt as I stared vacantly into the half eaten bowl of 2D texture the man would never finish. The man lying there, somewhere beneath that fridge. Was it a worthy last meal? It looked like vomit.

homefront went several steps too far in the other direction; distastefully prompting you to jump into a mass grave...

Not putting the player in positions where they can do bad things is fundamentally backward. There’s a marked difference between Deus Ex and Battlefield, but create a game where the player is incapable of doing “bad things” and you’ve created an artistic black hole. Gaping and appalling and boring, whether it’s set in Iraq Terrorist Land or Detroit in the year 2029.

Developers shouldn’t be building experiences that shelter players from the possibility of evil, they should be striving to build experiences that actively force players into harsh positions, force them to make hard decisions and to then consider the impact of their actions. Like in great movies and in great literature and like in the actual, real, horrible world. Not in all games, sure, but there’s room for some of those dilemmas in Battlefield. Medal of Honor might have been content pilfering lines from Generation Kill, but that show had a hell of a lot to say in the same amount of time that Medal of Honor said precisely nothing. It’s about time our games did too.

The game industry’s nearness to tackling morality with any artistry or maturity is the nearness of planets. Any shift closer is a positive thing but to back away from it is cowardice. Give a man super strength and one day he’s going to throw a six-foot refrigerator at another human being. That’s not going to be pretty. But we shouldn’t hide from that else we’re going to be playing games about shooting Nazis, zombies, Russians, aliens and those of Middle Eastern descent forevermore.

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