Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Militarization and War in Video Games

Leigh Alexander has an interesting meditation on the discomfort she feels about war in video games, which is certainly worth reading. I feel similarly, but I think there's a point in the history of gaming which made some of these war-and-violence-based games more disturbing to me. As Alexander says, war-inspired games are nothing new:

"Projectiles have been part of gaming since forever," he says, and it's true – early arcades were all about shooting galleries. Think of old-school duels and kids playing cops and robbers; weapons have, in fact, been part of play for a long time. "When you get into the first-person view, shooting continues to be what feels most natural," he says.
The issue isn't necessarily shooting, in my view. It's the creeping advance of militarism into games.

If you look at the evolution of first-person shooters specifically, they've been violent, yes, but the focus has changed dramatically. In Wolfenstein and Doom, the main character was nominally in the military, but in the game world, they were totally cut off from their nation and command structure. Duke Nukem was an unattached action hero stereotype, while Half-Life's Gordon Freeman had a Ph.D. in theoretical physics (and a M.S. in KICKING ASS). These characters, whether they were in the military or not, fulfilled the role of the Lone Hero Winning Against Impossible Odds.

Starting in the late 1990's, most notably with Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (1998), games became more overtly militarized. The solitary hero became a part of the machine. Halo is a kind of bridge between the solitary hero model of earlier first-person shooters and the soldier of later shooters. The Master Chief exists within the military, and to some degree interacts with it, but he's also very much a solitary hero. They're human, he's not, really. As the Halo series continues and its mythology becomes more complex, the Master Chief also becomes more normalized within the human military.

The militarization of the first-person shooter ramped up significantly in the start of the 2000's. In addition to games like Rainbow Six and SOCOM, which used real-world or near-real-world militaries, the real United States Armed Forces started directly creating and releasing video games like America's Army and Full Spectrum Warrior.

This all makes sense, I think, in that widespread internet play made team-based games more appealing. The "deathmatch" of early first-person shooters like Doom, in which every player was against every other player, was replaced by squad-based team games like Team Fortress and especially Counterstrike. As first-person shooters turned into first-and-foremost multiplayer experiences, the setting and storyline had to fit this. Duke Nukem and the Master Chief don't make as much sense if there's 20 of them - but opposing army squads work perfectly. There are also already existing tactics and terms used for such combat in the military, so it's a natural fit.

Nowadays, it seems like every major FPS involves players in some kind of military or paramilitary organization. Gears of War and Halo: ODST do it in the future, while Call of Duty did it in the past and now the present, with Modern Warfare.

Although this makes sense in historical context, it also has the effect of changing the perception of the military and war in video games. The events of Doom and Half-Life are extraordinary, with a lone person taking up a gun and using it to survive. They are the solitary hero because they have to be the solitary hero. In games like Half-Life and Deus Ex, the military forces of the state are the enemy. In more recent games, as members of the military, the player is now a representative of the state. And in order for their premises, settings, and storylines to work, video games have to justify the actions of those militaries. This necessarily means that the violence of the state - war - is now the focus of most first-person shooters, instead of survival. And those wars have to be justified and even glorified for the games to work.

For some people, including myself, and apparently Leigh Alexander, this is discomfiting. It should be.

Addendum: I would be remiss if I didn't mention September 11th, which helped engender a surge of militarism in the United States. I think it was important, and possibly even hastened the process, but I suspect that the move towards squad-based, military-style combat would have happened anyway.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Angel: Season Three

The first season of Angel was defined in large part its relationship with its parent show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the second season by its increasing independence and development of its own voice. That trend continues in the third season. Part of that had to do with network politics, as Buffy switched from the WB to UPN, rendering direct crossovers impossible for Angel S3/Buffy S6. Angel's continuing independence isn't a bad thing, of course, but I can't help but feel that this season of television might have been stronger had Angel felt more connected to its predecessor.

I say this because two of Angel's biggest plot developments are things that Buffy (both the character and the show overall) would love to comment on. Angel goes through some big life changes in season three, including new family and a new flame. Since Buffy recently acquired some new family of her own, learning about Angel's addition would certainly be of interest to her, and Angel's romantic entanglement with her high school rival/friend Cordelia? Well, given how Buffy reacted to Angel giving Faith a hug back in the first season, this would likely drive her ballistic. Yet it's never mentioned.

But I get ahead of myself. Joss Whedon's shows are somewhat notorious for their slow starts, but Angel Season 3 puts the lie to that reputation with a strong set of episodes to begin the season. The third episode, "That Old Gang Of Mine," is particularly strong dramatically, as Gunn is forced to confront his, well, old gang, as they turn aggressively violent. The next episode, "Carpe Noctem," goes comedic as a horny old man switches bodies with Angel in order to score with chicks. The new addition to the team, Amy Acker's Fred, makes herself more and more useful to the team and essential to the show over the course of these episodes.

As all this happens, Angel's murderous progenitor Darla is pregnant with their child, and traveling to see him. This culminates in a strong set of episodes in which the human baby starts to infect Darla with a soul, causing her to become almost good, and Angel and Darla's old enemy, the vampire slayer Holtz, is sent through time to chase them both down. The ninth episode, "Lullaby," isn't just the confrontation between Holtz and Angel, but also Darla giving birth. This is dramatic enough, and well done, but it's a filled with some great - and surprising - laugh-out-loud moments. The combination of tension with comedy is the hallmark of Joss Whedon shows at their best, and "Lullaby" is the strongest of the season.

The middle part of the season, unfortunately, is not as strong as beginning, as life with the new baby, Connor, tends to take on either tired sitcom tropes or equally tired "Defend-the-baby!" storylines. The worst example of the former is "Provider," in which Angel suddenly decides that making money for Connor's future is the most important thing, and by the end of the episode has learned the valuable lesson that money isn't everything. The only Whedon-penned episode of the season, "Waiting in the Wings," sees the team go to the ballet only to discover - surprise! - that all is not as it seems. Angel and Cordelia are forced to confront their growing feelings for each other, and it features an always-welcome appearance by Whedon favorite Summer Glau as the cursed star ballerina.

This otherwise somewhat disappointing stretch of episodes is held together in large part by the superb portrayal of Holtz the vampire hunter by Keith Szarabajka. Holtz is played with a deep, growling malevolence, and the ambivalence of his motivation of vengeance against the vampire who slaughtered his family only adds to his magnetism. This proves important, as the previous antagonists at Wolfram & Hart are much less interesting after season 2, with Lindsay gone and Holland Manners dead. Lilah Morgan, the new embodiment of Wolfram & Hart, just isn't as interesting as Lindsay, and neither are her new rival or her new boss.

Unfortunately, the big plot twist towards the end of the season involves Wesley being deceived into thinking that Angel would kill Connor, and so he kidnaps the baby with Holtz's help. The former part makes sense, but there's no reason for Wesley's plan to involve Holtz, who unsurprisingly betrays Wes. This betrayal, and the total lack of forgiveness from his friends, leaves Wesley in a horribly dark place by the end of the season, and promises fascinating developments in his future. But that doesn't entirely excuse the incoherent kidnapping twist.

Still, Wesley's not the only character going interesting places at the end of the season. Lorne is, literally, as he leaves for Las Vegas. Cordelia is apparently recruited by the Powers That Be to become an angel, or something. Angel's at the bottom of the ocean, and the newly returned Connor has embraced the dark side. I'm looking forward to Season 4, although I know it has something of a mixed reputation.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Hardcore Maleness

I have an article on gender and marketing in the video game industry up at the Escapist this week! Check it out here.