When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say about who we are and the world we live in.
In the next two months, two of the videogame industry’s biggest players will release new war games–Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. In light of these games, Michael Thomson has written an excellent article for Slate exploring the absence of civilians in war games. Given the hyper-realistic design choices made by these games its interesting that they have largely neglected to recognize the the unfortunate reality civilian casualties. Thomson reports:
In an interview with the website Rock Paper Shotgun, Battlefield 3′s executive producer Patrick Bach explained that he doesn’t “want to see videos on the Internet where people shoot civilians. That’s something I will sanitize by removing that feature from the game.” Bach believes that video games are serious business but that players’ irreverence is holding back the form. “If you put the player in front of a choice where they can do good things or bad things, they will do bad things, go [to the] dark side—because people think it’s cool to be naughty, they won’t be caught,” he said.
I sympathize with Bach as videogames are a common victim of false accusations by the media but I can’t help but feel he is selling his game and his medium short. His comments also patronize those gamers mature enough not to unload on a group of civilians just because they can. Additionally Bach’s comments neglect the responsibility of game designers to create systems that discourage malicious play.
Battlefield 3 could implement serious consequences for playing like a tyrant. The most obvious would be loss of the mission–games have done this previously. But I would like to see games go even deeper. If you kill civilians, the game could present you horrified remarks from other civilians and from your fellow soldiers. The game could show you news briefings reporting on the brutality of U.S. soldiers in response to your actions. Maybe even scenes depicting your character dealing with the psychological affects of committing acts of brutality.
I understand that none of this is pretty but neither is war. Certainly many gamers need to mature, but as Thomson points out, developers, “in sparing themselves the challenge of making their games deeper and more involving, [are] the ones holding back the medium.” The limitations placed on players in Battlefield 3 actually serve to make the game less realistic as the game refuses to let player grapple with their subject matter in a complex way. I understand the tension designers face, the types of consequences I would like see in game would certainly offend some people, but by refusing to grapple with the consequences of war, games like Battlefield play like just another shooter where war is fun. To me that is more tragic than what Battlefield is “shielding” the player from.
War is a sensitive issue and I suspect that Battlefield is attempting to avoid potential fallout with the media by placing such limitations on players. However, until developers are willing to take some risks in this arena–war games will continue to encourage the immaturity they fear rather than challenge it.