Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Death From Above: Playing War Like a Videogame

Earlier this year, I watched the video released by Wikileaks that showed a US Apache helicopter gunning down civilians and Reuters’ journalists in Baghdad. Like a lot of people, I found the footage deeply disturbing. I have seen photos of battlefields before; I have seen the videos of 9-11 from a hundred different angles; but I had never before watched someone line up an individual in a cross hair and open fire. Part of me wants to hate the troops involved—the way they hope the wounded man picks up a weapon so they can finish him off; the way they chuckle when the tank runs over a body—but I know that this is unfair. Though I have never experienced a conflict situation personally, I imagine that constructing a barrier between “Us” and “Them” is the only way one could handle having to kill fellow humans on a regular basis. At least, I like to think so. The most gut-wrenching aspect of this video, then, is not the behaviour of these individual troops, but an environment that fosters such an irreverent, detached othering of enemy combatants.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said, when releasing the video, that “the behaviour of the pilots is like they’re playing a video game. It’s like they want high scores in that computer game.”
This caused a minor buzz in comment threads on various gaming sites complaining that people were yet again blaming videogames for all the world’s woes. For the most part, though, people conceded that this is exactly how videogames (and videogame players) tend to treat violence: disassociated, irreverent, and acted out on some not-quite-human other. Assange’s comments were not an attack on videogames, but rather a simple simile that points out that the same detached treatment of violence in videogames is applied in modern warfare to the same result—the doer’s increased distance from the violent act lessens the consequences and makes the actions easier to perform. While videogames are depicting increasingly realistic battlefields, real battlefields are becoming increasingly like videogames.
Less than a week after watching the leaked video, I picked up a copy of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I have already written briefly about how I think Call of Duty 4 works as a linear, story-driven game (even if the story it tells is not particularly fascinating), but I have not spent much time discussing its themes. The Call of Duty series has always tried to stress that wars are not won by any one individual hero, but by thousands of individual men and women (okay, it’s not so good at showing the women) who do not fight for “good” or “evil” but merely different sides (that said, the player is always limited to fighting for whatever side the Americans and British are on). The games do this by constantly changing your point-of-view to a variety of characters fighting from different perspectives and contributing to a collaborative result. As an extension of this, the series tries to depict war as the true horror that it is, by stressing that the people dying around you are people and the people that you are killing are people.
Here, the Call of Duty games (and, by extension, all war-based videogames and movies) has two major challenges. One is that they are also a form of entertainment and must, paradoxically, entertain the audience while simultaneously attempting to show them how horrible war can be. The greater challenge, though, is the fourth wall. The player will always be beyond the borders of the game-world and will always be fundamentally detached from the conflict. Call of Duty 4  constantly struggles against the fourth wall to pull the player as deeply and intimately into the conflict as possible: first-person perspective, explosions all around, roaring sounds and shaky screens all exist to immerse the play as deeply as possible in the virtual war, to render the fourth wall invisible among the nightmarish chaos of the battlefield.
But it never really works as, inevitably, the player behaves like they are playing a videogame. The horror of war is that you are killing people; however, just as the US troops on the Apache seem detached from the men they gun down—rendered as identical, grey silhouettes on the other side of a computer monitor—the enemies running at the player in Call of Duty 4 are not individual men with their own histories and stories but cloned NPCs spawning just off-screen indefinitely until the player passes a certain point. While Call of Duty 4 did a decent job of immersing me in the stories of its characters, it failed to immerse me in their war.
That was, until, the “Death From Above” mission.

“Death From Above” places the player as a gunner of an AC-130U gunship. As the level begins and I look through the black and white monitor at the ground below, as the gunship’s crew chat about who and what to shoot with about as much gravitas as one would recite a grocery list, I can’t help but remember the Wikileaks video. I begin to feel sick in the stomach before I even fire the first shell.
“Death From Above” is the most detached of Call of Duty 4’s missions, by which I mean it is the level that positions the player the furthest from the violence they inflict. The mission does this in three key ways: Firstly, the player’s character is invincible and never in danger for the duration of the mission. Secondly, while in no other mission do your squad mates boast about their actions or mock their enemies, in the gunship they keep a running commentary on their kills as though racking up points, as though reassuring the player's character that the enemies are nothing more than identical targets on a screen. “Smoke ‘em!”; “Niiiiice!”; “Good kill, good kill.”; “Yeah! Direct hit right there!”. Thirdly, the utter destruction the gunship is capable of (witnessed by Soap at the end of the previous level) is diluted on the gunner’s monitor to a dull, monochrome thud. In other words, "Death From Above" plays like a videogame. The troops in the Wikileaks video unconsciously treat war like a videogame, as does the player of every mission of Call of Duty 4. “Death From Above”, however, does not unconsciously treat war like a videogame but rather demonstrates explicitly and intentionally how war has become a videogame.
Videogames can be incredibly immersive; it is one of their greatest features. While many games are nonchalant about the violence they ask of the player, some try to harness this immersive potential alongside acts of violence to challenge the player’s tolerance of such acts. Manhunt, for instance, challenges the player to be implicit in endorsing the character’s crimes, forcing the player to admit just how repulsive the violence they enjoy in other games truly is. However, the player will always be (to some arbitrary extent) detached from the game-world and disassociated from its characters. They have to be—it’s a game.
“Death From Above” has the same thematic goals of depicting war as the rest of Call of Duty 4, but uses entirely different means. Instead of hiding them, “Death From Above” makes explicit the filters of representation that inevitably dilute the impact of the player’s violent acts. It says, “This is not one hundred per cent accurate. You are in no danger here, but you are doing horrible, horrible things.”
In this mission, my imagination cannot help but to fill in the blanks. The enemies are no longer identical because the game only has a set number of enemy models, but because of my infra-red monitor. 
“We’ve got a runner!” shouts my spotter, and I quickly lock onto the man, running for his life, and gun him down. “Yeah, good kill!” my spotter commends. 
All I can think of is the Wikileaks video—the troops chuckling as the tank runs over a body. For the first and last time in this game, I feel like I am killing people and that is not okay. I am distressed at how much this is like ‘real’ warfare, and disturbed at how much ‘real’ warfare is like this videogame.


Adrian Forest said...

The thing I've always appreciated about the Call of Duty games (up until MW2) is that they give you a look at the ways in which war is fought, and a taste of what the experience of these ways is. I feel this aspect serves a similar purpose to History Channel-style documentaries, but much more effective because of the experiential nature of games as a medium. This is what the 'Death From Above' section of CoD4 is to me. You can read about smart bombs and air strikes, but only a game can give you a taste of what war is like when fought this way.

Ian "Sol Invictus" Cheong said...

I was a little disturbed when I first played this mission, having watched video footage of AC130 gunships turning little encampments into fire and dust.

I find it terribly interesting how the part that seems most like a traditional video game is also the part that seems the most realistic.

Anonymous said...

Brendan, you've clearly never bothered to seriously try to put yourself in that cockpit and thought about the information available to the one making the decision. If you had, you're know an Apache's FLIR monitor is green, not black and white.

You don't have to create a barrier. If you hate them enough, then suffering becomes what they deserve. The SS division that levelled Oradour-Sur-Glane and the US soldiers at My Lai knew the people they were killing were human beings, but they also thought they were the human beings who were trying to hurt them and had already hurt them before, and that they deserved what was happening to them.

That's how you can laugh at another human being's suffering, not just because you're looking at it on a monitor. Adrenaline and months of stored up frustration and anger at an enemy who strikes at you from the shadows are what makes these things happen, the certainty that you are not merely killing but punishing and avenging.

You bring this up in Killing is Harmless too, and again you try to distance yourself from understanding the mindset that does these things. Even worse, you talk at great length about the effects of white phosphorous while admitting a breath later that you have no idea what you're talking about.