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?
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.
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.