The funny thing about all the war games we play is that they’re not really about guns. Sure, they’re full of guns of all shapes and sizes – the more realistic ones probably scratch the same itch for gun nuts that games like Forza do for car enthusiasts. They let you test drive all those makes and models you only read about in magazines or lust over in catalogs. But they’re safe, harmless fantasy fulfillment – the politics are one-dimensional and the gray areas they explore are territory that has been trod grassless by TV and movies.
Games with guns are never about the why, about why we need them so badly or why we can’t give them up. In shooters you are always sure. Those terrorists, Nazis and zombies need to be killed. There is no question or doubt. And that frees you to play and pretend.
The one franchise that everybody always blames as the worst of the bunch is still responsible for the most provocative moment to ever crop up in the mostly vapid shooter genre. The controversial “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 saw guns pointed at civilians in a manner that made many uncomfortable – which is precisely how you’re supposed to feel when confronted with violence.
Now, because we are still reeling from the Aurora shooting, we are particularly sensitive to scenarios like this. I’ve always wondered if there could be some benefit from games that explore these terrible incidents. Movies like Bowling For Columbine and Elephant picked at those scabs with powerful effect. The game I’m Okay: A Murder Simulator (co-designed by Spelunky‘s Derek Yu) satirically mocked bizarre revenge fantasies of the game-hating lawyer Jack Thompson. In it, a father massacres members of the videogame industry after violent videogames causes the death of his child.
Years ago, a friend of mine was working on a movie script about kids in the middle of a school shooting who discover that they’re in a game. Once they learn that their deaths aren’t permanent they try to beat the madmen at their own game, but the whole thing devolves into an endless Battle Royale. The only way to really beat those bastards is to turn the other cheek and leave their violence unanswered.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot on the ways that shooters can tell a story other than one where we put down the rabid dog. I was particularly disappointed with Spec Ops: The Line – a game that promised to take a hard look at war, but only feebly echoed the protest cinema of the Vietnam generation.
My first thought was to make a game about an America without guns. The 2nd Amendment would be a shooter about our country after the repeal of the right to bear arms. You’d be a member of the ATF working to pry weapons from the cold, dead hands of militia holdouts. It would be a shitty job. I don’t imagine the agents who besieged Waco recall those days too fondly. Now imagine if the Branch Davidians shot back. Though the subject matter is fairly serious I’d probably want to handle the game satirically, as Yu did, to heighten the ridiculousness of the dogma for and against guns. That’s why aliens would probably invade at the end of the game, making those stockpiles of automatic weapons in backwoods Michigan terribly useful.
What if the next science fiction shooter from a massive game company wasn’t just a shooter, but a graphically exciting interface for cyberwarfare?
And though I’m frequently sickened by Orson Scott Card, the guy was onto something with Ender’s Game – and the way that we use videogames to abstract violence the way that chess abstracts war. What if the next science fiction shooter from a massive game company wasn’t just a shooter, but a graphically exciting interface for cyberwarfare? All those enemy bases that Master Chief is always raiding are the computer systems in Iranian power plants and Korean missile silos. And what if Cortana was more than a boring way to communicate the story? What if she was a kind of Hanoi Jane, trying to twist you up, turn you back on the Pentagon or Activision (who are in cahoots with the military, duh) and destroy the American infrastructure to pave the way for a Chinese invasion? Pull the game off right and you could mind-fuck unemployed 18-year-olds better than Orson Welles on Halloween.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to think they solved the problem of the brain-dead shooter. Several very smart people tasked with the job of making shooters and writing games have said that the job is much more complicated than one might suspect from the outside. But then again, Portal got made, so miracles can and do happen.
I’ve said before that games don’t need a Citizen Kane, they need a Starship Troopers. So who, then, is going to step up and be our Paul Verhoeven and help us grapple with the ugliness of the gun in a way that is simultaneously thought-provoking and entertaining as hell? I don’t have faith in much, but I do think that games can and should accomplish this kind of art someday soon.
Pretension +1 is a weekly column about the intersections of life, culture and videogames. Follow Gus Mastrapa on Twitter: @Triphibian.