War. What is it good for? Well if one were to go by Edwin Starr, then absolutely nothing. But conflict still lies at the centre of most video games and, particularly in the last ten years, games influenced by contemporary warfare have become more and more common.
Games based around contemporary conflict are hardly anything new, but they didn’t really achieve prominence until the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. Though (shamefully) I’ve yet to play it, even I remember CoD 4 taking the world by storm and from there the modern military shooter would come to dominate the market for the next five years.
As part of my MA, I’ve been covering the politics of video games and the modern military shooter features heavily in academic literature. Scholars frequently note the exoticisation and by extension “othering” of the Middle East as depicted through many of these games’ settings. How many games depict the Middle East as anything other than a warzone, or give their location some vague, pretend name? There are a few but they’re still a minority. Academics also note how much more “realistic” these games are becoming, with their use of real life weaponry depictions of modern military tactics.
The prominence of the modern military shooter has waned considerably
Now I don’t necessarily disagree with the former argument but I do take issue with the latter, because on what planet do you have to be to think modern military shooters even remotely constitute realism? Granted they may draw heavily on the aesthetics of the modern military but the violence depicted within these games is, as in all violent games, nowhere near realistic.
The plots of these games are also near uniformly fucking absurd. Remember the bit on Modern Warfare II where Russia invades the United States from the EAST FUCKING COAST?! And that’s just the single player. The average multiplayer experience of being screamed at by someone’s dickhead twelve year old spawn is even more divorced from the realities of 21st century warfare. No, these games are power fantasies and pretty juvenile ones that.
I feel part of the problem here is that many scholars have been pursuing this issue from the wrong angle. Various militaries (particularly the United States) have held a keen interest in video games for several decades. As far back as 1980, the US army has used variations of games like Battlezone to train soldiers.
Perhaps its time stopped asking whether games are too militarised and start asking about the gamification of warfare.
But gamification is arguably playing a part in modern warfare itself. Drone warfare in particular represents an alarming new development, particularly as it is reported gamers are often recruited as drone pilots due to skills acquired through gameplay. Then there’s cyberwarfare which is conducted in an entirely digital space and the dividing lines between combatant and civilian become blurred.
Despite the importance placed upon it, the prominence of the modern military shooter has waned considerably. Eventually they were often castigated for being overly linear and simplistic, and in 2012 the brilliant Spec Ops: The Line provided a brilliant critique of the format. Even Call of Duty and Battlefield have moved away from the modern military formula, and now having to compete with the likes of Overwatch and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. So perhaps its time stopped asking whether games are too militarised and start asking about the gamification of warfare.