When it comes to the modern first person shooter these days, a little controversy is the norm.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare kicked off the shock-trend in 2007 with a number of memorable scenes which tried to evoke some reaction. We kicked the bucket in first person from radiation sickness and experienced a morally grey bout of torture at the hands of the SAS. While these scenes themselves were memorable they were not devastatingly inflammatory but would come to prove fundamental for paving the way for what was to come.
It was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 which pushed controversy in gaming out of niche games journalism and into the mainstream press; the infamous ‘No Russian’ mission found column inches around the world. Lest we forget this mission put you in the boots of an American operative infiltrating a Russian terrorist unit as they mercilessly gunned down an airport full of civilians.
While discussing that particular mission and all the controversies which surround it is a topic for another article, it brings up a number of key points to think about.
Is shooting one AI controlled character intrinsically any worse than shooting a different AI controlled character?
Is it right to expect the player to abstain from ‘murdering’ the ‘people’ in the airport when the only means of communication awarded the player is engage with the game and shoot, or do nothing?
Can something as intentionally controversial as ‘No Russian’ carry any real weight when the entire narrative is experienced down the barrel of a gun?
Controversy and the FPS go hand in hand, whether we are gunning down Afghan insurgents in Medal of Honor or we are watching innocent civilians executed in the streets in Homefront.
The first concept trailer of the latest instalment of the Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6 franchise, Patriots, has recently gone live on the internet and, should this initial footage be an indication of the game to come, it is clear the developers are trying hard to be No Russian: The Game!
We initially find ourselves in a shameless ‘homage’ to Heavy Rain as quick-time events prompt you to perform mundane actions such as switching on the TV. Before too long the warning alarms go off as the obligatory well-proportioned woman walks into the room and commences seduces the player (her husband, as we come to learn). It does not take long for things to take a turn for the entirely predictable as terrorists break into the house, hold your wife and child hostage, and order you to blow up Time Square with a bomb strapped to your chest.
What is worrying, however, is the frequency with which pornographic displays of violence such as this are heralded as “poignant” and “moving”
Dumped on a bridge with the knowledge that if you do not make it to the target your family will die, we are then flung across the gameplay area to the Rainbow 6 team. Instantly the action kicks off as the player starts sniping targets and abseiling down to ground level.
Not enough time to explain to the police that there is a suicide bomber about – shoot them.
Fling yourself against cars as the innocent passengers die in a hail of enemy gunfire – set dressing.
Not enough time to defuse the bomb – throw the man off the bridge to save everyone you haven’t already shot or watched die.
Have we become so detached that we cannot relate to Russians and Middle Eastern terrorists anymore that we have to kill our contemporary average man – someone we can understand?
Of course not.
The bitter truth is that will shoot at whatever the developer deems interesting enough to put on the other side of the cross-hairs. Half the screen is filled with a highly detailed image of a gun. The controller is designed with a trigger for god’s sake! We will fire without a second thought.
It is about being provocative, and ideally just controversial enough to make some headlines. What is worrying, however, is the frequency with which pornographic displays of violence such as this are heralded as “poignant” and “moving” by both journalists and the consumer.
These brutal images do not deal with the horrors or devastation of war. Sit the player down with a devastated mother as she clutches the tear-soaked Polaroid of her dead son and they might evoke some response. Currently all they are accomplished is revelling in the explosions, gunfire, and general spectacle of violence.
This is not to say that video games are a genre incapable of dealing with difficult issues: the torture scene form the original Modern Warfare may portray a morally reprehensible act but within the context of the narrative it makes sense and moral judgements are left to the player to decide upon.
The significance of story in first person shooters is negligible. Its place is to lead the player from one engaging piece of gameplay to the next within a coherent framework. However, any pretence that the genre can deal with a meaningful topic is lost when the options made available to the player at any one moment are SHOOT, KNIFE or GRENADE.
As the necessity for spectacle in games escalates (such that the end of the society as we know it is the standard) so too does the degree of the controversy. We are no longer presented with ethical or moral conundrums but brutal and crass violence wrapped in the appearance of something meaningful: a lazy spectacle of human suffering as a substitute for any meaningful discourse on the horrors of war.
Other video game articles you might like...
Click here for more Hardware stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook