Cynical gaming

Almost on queue following my recent posts: Spec Ops: The Line. Billed as Apocalypse Now of the military FPS genre, The Line attempts a morally conscious military FPS “that understands its own ugliness and base urges.” The game has gotten a good deal of attention the past few days in anticipation of today’s release. Though I don’t have time to play it right now, I thought it was an appropriate moment to address the prospect of such a game given the recent discussion of realism and authenticity in shooters.

In fact, The Line lead designer Cory Davis, in an interview with Kill Screen’s Yannick Lejacq, describes the game’s invocation of ’70s war films in just these terms:

Think of Apocalypse Now, films like Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Jacob’s Ladder. These are not realistic movies that try to be a perfectly accurate rendition of what happened on the battlefield. But they are authentic to the emotions that soldiers felt on the battlefield. The most traumatic moments in wartime are often very surreal for the people who actually experience them.

From this quotation–and some other bits I’ve read–it seams like The Line straddles the line between Tom McShea’s harrowing war-is-hell realism and Greg Goodrich’s playbly fun authenticity. And I think that ambiguity might be the extremely productive.

Note the emphasis on playable character Walker’s face and its unflinching expression in the game’s launch trailer.

The camera placement for an FPS means players go through most of the game without seeing much of a reaction from their protagonists. Roach, one of the main playable characters in Modern Warfare 2, never faces the camera, and so didn’t even get a head model. As Lejacq points out, when FPS do present players with the faces of characters it is significant, it humanizes them and identifies them as persons to care about. Watching the trailer for The Line, however, I cannot tell how I am supposed to respond to Walker’s panning indifference at all that is happening around him. Is this a cool guy who doesn’t look at explosions? Am I to revere his stoic masculinity, his unwavering perseverance before what must be done, no matter how horrible? Or, is this the face of a man broken by conflict, beyond empathy or emotion, to be both pitied and feared?

All of the reviews I have read thus far praise the game for presenting the psycholgical and ethical toll of warfare while simultaneously critiquing the deftness of its satire. The gameplay is, according to Allistair Pinsof at Destructoid, pretty standard FPS fare. The Edge calls it a “po-faced imitation” of games like Gears of War. The Line, therefore, goes out of its way to point out that things are bad, lest we confuse it for the games it is mocking.

Chris Suellentrop of the NYTimes writes, “Spec Ops is a thoughtful and harrowing contrast to the power fantasies of its competitors. But it is not confident enough, alas, to trust players with much subtlety.” Again, from the Edge review: “It would also be an overstatement to call it profound: in any other medium such themes would hardly be revelatory, and although The Line is a thoughtful and well-intentioned game, the level of its writing is carefully engineered to be accessible to those expecting a brainless bullet exchange.” As a result, Suellentrop writes, “Spec Ops is so heavy-handed that I began to wonder if it were intended as a black comedy about Walker’s obtuseness regarding the genuinely horrific consequences of his actions.”

I am relying here on too much quotation, having not played the game myself. Still, these reviews outline a very precarious position for The Line. Together, they suggest that the military FPS has taken the genre to such horrifically violent places that it is almost beyond satire. How are we supposed to know when The Line is showing us extreme violence? With so much outlandishly nasty killing going on, how do we recognize these particular anonymous button presses as self-consciously grotesque?

Sullentrop explains that the game’s answer is to tell us:

And yet it is hard to believe that Spec Ops is a satire of dumb games when it assumes it has such dumb players. The game is not satisfied with having a character ask Walker, “You got a plan beyond killing everyone you see?” No, a loading screen has to explain the moral of the story: “Walker’s obsession with Konrad has brought nothing but destruction — to Dubai and his squad.”

But what if the issue isn’t that players are “dumb,” but rather that players are “numb.” By that I don’t mean that gamers have seen so much violence they are immune to it. Rather I’m thinking more of something like Peter Sloterdijk’s cynical reasoning as interpreted by Žižek:

Cynical reason is no longer naive, but is a paradox of enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it. (Sublime Object of Ideology 29)

Perhaps players know very well that war is “just another name for death” in the way Tim O’Brien describes it, that it leads to moral compromise, and that there are “no heroes in war. Only killers,” and choose to play on anyway.

At the end of the Kill Screen interview, Davis explains that he wants his game to make players aware of their position in relation to “real” warfare:

Whether or not we’re paying attention to it, it is happening, and these conflicts are something we’re involved with because we live here, we take advantage of the circumstances that are here, and the things that keep our nation in the state that it’s in.

But if we play in a condition of cynical reasoning, then the challenge presented to the morally conscious FPS goes beyond teaching players that war isn’t a game. Indeed, even though it may be innovative for the genre, The Line might not tell us anything we don’t already know. Even so, its ambiguous attempt at satirical ultraviolence might help us define the problem differently.

Authentically real

In this second post responding to “A Matter of Authenticity” (see part one), I extrapolate Greg Goodrich’s statements about videogames as a representational medium. Despite the dubious claims to realism in previous Medal of Honor games, Goodrich’s characterization of what they were trying to accomplish with Medal of Honor: Warfighter does some interesting ontological work.

His initial claim–“There is nothing real about a video game. Absolutely nothing”–is obviously false. Videogames are just as real as another object in the world. In context, though, its clear that Goodrich is trying to separate his game from the live military operations it references.

Off Duty Gamers breakdown of kit featured in MoHWF promotional image

Goodrich rejects outright the idea that a videogame can offer a “real” experience of battle: “[players] are not going to know what it is like to be in combat or to be shot just by playing a video game, its just not going to happen. Ever.” Because of this fact, Warfighter is not “realistic” but aspires to “authenticity,” by which he means the game features “authentic weapons and battle chatter and gear and locations and storylines and plotlines.” In other words, the game strives to present an “authentic” scenario even though it cannot offer a “realistic” experience.

I’m not sure how much analytical mileage we can get out of Goodrich’s semantic parsing. Separating realism from authenticity in this way depends on also separating gameplay from representation–a point McShea calls out as well–which is a much hairier issue than Goodrich acknowledges. Practically, however, Goodrich’s comments make a space for gaming that is distinct from though related to its subject matter: “Combat is combat. Games are games. And we are an entertainment product.” This raises a new question, what then is the relationship between playing Warfighter and actual war fighting?

Goodrich again walks a fine line addressing this issue. The game conforms to the shoot’em up style of the contemporary triple-A FPS, but while players are “having fun, they’re experiencing it,” by which I assume he means the authentic war scenario. Goodrich claims that his game puts players “in those boots. And while they’re in those boots, I can tell them a story of a human being.” Comments like these leand toward  contradiction, like he’s saying Warfighter isn’t realistic but it is an experience of war.

But isn’t that true? The US has been at war for years, wouldn’t playing videogames in your basement be an “authentic” or even “realistic” experience of that unending war? We can talk about the military-entertainment complex here, but Goodrich himself paints a much simpler image of a gamer setting his controller down for the night and thinking of the men and women who “lay it all out on the line for me, on my behalf, that give me the freedoms and the rights to play this videogame.”

I haven’t played Warfighter, so I don’t know if the game succeeds at its goal of “authenticity.” Regardless, the exchange between McShea and Goodrich demonstrates the need for more sophisticated ways of talking about videogames as a representational medium. The virtualities that appear on screen both refer to the world and are of the world. “Realism” then is not merely a function of its verisimilitude, but involves the game’s own participation in the realities it represents.

War is fun

During E3, Tom McShea took exception to the regenerating health mechanic in Medal of Honor: Warfighter. The next day, Greg Goodrich, an executive producer at Electronic Arts, reached out to McShea and the two sat down to discuss “realism” in military video games. I’ve been mulling their uncomfortable conversation for over a week and ended up with a two part response. In this first post, I address McShea’s perspective.

What struck me about McShea’s position is just how narrow an understanding of war he’s working from. He puts it most succinctly in the interview: “War is hell; its anything but fun.” The problem with regenerating health, then, is that it appears like a choice for playability over “realism.” He proposes that the game’s mechanics should be “educating consumers of the horrible truths of the battlefield.” But does he not recognize that his vision of “war is hell” is itself a stylized generalization?

Screenshot, Thin Red Line

That statement–“War is hell; its anything but fun”–which acts as his founding assumption reminded me of a passage from Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story“:

War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead (76, emphasis mine).

O’Brien’s point is that the truth of war can never be captured in generalizations because “The truths are contradictory.” He would concede, for example, that “at its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death,” which would justify McShea’s insistence on a more punishing life system in Warfighter(77). “And yet,” O’Brien goes on, “any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it corresponding proximity to life.” There certainly are “horrible truths of the battlefield,” as McShea puts it; but, “for all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat.”

Now, does that mean the hyperactive, bloom-filled spectacles of today’s AAA FPS captures the grotesque beauty of war? Perhaps not. As Goodrich puts it, “you gotta have those bullets and bombs for the dudebros,” which suggests its primarily a marketing decision. O’Brien’s characterization does however imply a more complicated relationship between those spectacles and the realities they supposedly depict.

Screenshot. Medal of Honor: Warfighter

Again O’Brien:

Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference – a powerful, implacable beauty – and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly. (77)

That’s why I’m skeptical of positions like McShea’s that “realistic” war games need to “teach” players about the fatal consequences of war, as if they didn’t already know. McShea’s generalization of “war is hell” belongs to what Žižek calls “the fantasy of face to face encounter with an enemy killed bloodily that we construct in order to escape the Real of the depersonalized war turned into an anonymous technological operation” (77). From this perspective, video games may come no closer to representing war than in the “aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference” that we show our avatars and NPCs.

This is not to say that video games cannot or should not be a medium for challenging this “Playstation mentality” toward killing. Its just not as simple as making them more “realistically” gritty. In the next post, I’ll speak a bit to this as I address Goodrich’s side of the argument.

Wonder, book?

Sony announced its new peripheral the Wonderbook yesterday at E3. Wonderbook is an augmented reality (AR) platform, similar to the AR features of the 3DS, but displayed on the home television screen. Watching the demo I kept thinking, how is Wonderbook a “book”?

McLuhan of course taught us that the content of any new medium is another medium. During the E3 demo, presenter Dave Ranyard calls Wonderbook a “reinvention of storybooks.” The pad physically “opens” like a book — without pages, but still. Just to drive home the point, the first title released on the platform is BOOK of Spells, in collaboration with J.K. Rowling.

At this level, however, Wonderbook bears only a metaphorical relationship to print media. It is a “book” the way Apple’s Notes program is a yellow legal pad.Apple seems to believe we would somehow forget what a program does if we are not visually prompted to connect it to an analog equivalent.

Wonderbook in turn wants us to take its new platform as a revitalization of the print interface. Sony’s Andrew House introduced Wonderbook by saying, “it evolves one of the oldest interfaces that we know, the book.” He then segued to a video demonstration with the claim, “words can’t do it justice,” which ironically featured very few words at all.

The press release for Wonderbook calls it “the next step in reading and augmented reality gaming” suggesting that those media interactions are somehow on parallel trajectories. But for an attempt to reinvent the book, the demo didn’t show much reading going on.

Once open, the Wonderbook acts more like a stage. Using the Playstation Eye–a webcam peripheral, essential to make the Wonderbook function–the Playstation detects the Wonderbook’s open surface and projects to the user’s television three-dimensional virtual objects hovering above it. It then responds to the user’s movement in the space surrounding the Wonderbook stage, as well as the user’s incorporation of other Playstation peripherals, like Move motion-controller.

None of this requires reading or text. Its all propioception making use of visual feedback that extends the arena of interaction onto the screen.

The onstage demonstration exemplifies the difference. In the Book of Spells demo, text appears on the top of the screen, but is also spoken aloud by a voice actor. Already, this “book” has obsolesced reading. About halfway in, the demo participant tries to cast a fire-making spell apparently before the before the “book”–and its reader–tells her to do so. The demo participant recognizes the required gestures faster than the text could be read, and its reading now encumbers her interactions. She must repeat the zig-zag pattern until this evolution in interface is ready to receive her input.

Demoing Incendio from The Book of Spells at E3

So, how then do we justify Sony’s packaging of Wonderbook as a book? The cynical route is to say Wonderbook combines iBooks and 3DS in an attempt to situate Sony on the cutting edge of an elusive edu-gaming market. With all the resources flying around trying to justify this sophisticated technology as socially beneficial, I wouldn’t completely rule this out. But if we take Sony and Mr. House at their word, then something else is up entirely.

House explains in the presser that Wonderbook will make “traditional reading experiences take on a whole new meaning.” As we have seen from the demo, it basically eliminates “traditional reading” all together. What then is the “experience” that Wonderbook extends?

As far as I can tell, Wonderbook has little to do with the printed word. Instead, it is about perpetuating a relationship to the virtualities of fiction. As different means of accessing and interacting with the virtual, both reading and augmented reality gaming exist on the same continuum.

What is perhaps unique in this new interface “evolution” is the potential to overcome the “lost in a book” metaphors that have long characterized both compelling reading and “immersive” virtual environments. With only a limited demo its hard to extrapolate if and how Wonderbooks will handle the interpenetration of virtual and physical realms. For now I am at least intrigued by Wonderbook’s invocation of print literature as a forebearer of augmented reality platforms.