The FPS genre is the most popular in the games industry. For much of its existence it has been dominated by franchises recreating or taking their main influences from wars fought in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Even when we see it explore future or sci-fi settings, it’s usually quite easy to find the 20th century themes and high-valuation of western interests that are key to the good vs. bad dynamic of whatever game we’re playing.
The majority of militarily-themed games do present you with the good side and the bad side, if not explicitly then at least only partially buried beneath the surface. In the case of WW2 that’s easy to see why, as the actions of Hitler and the Nazis were clearly one of humanity’s darkest moments.
Then you have the alternate-history of the Cold War, where things can get quite heated between the US and Soviet forces. This scenario is played out because there was a time when it could have happened at any moment, a set of themes and genuine worries that gripped America for forty years and, in the US, a clear perception that the western ideology “won”. It’s also a very interesting thought exercise.
More recently, China has been portrayed as the threat. Usually in a near-future setting where the nation vies to assert its newly forged super-power status with military aggression. That’s not a popular viewpoint in China though. In a country where the government has no qualms about banning anything (like Battlefield 4) that casts their national identity or national interests in a negative light – a country with well over a billion potential customers – big games publishers will likely become as nervous as the movie industry when it comes to using China as a national antagonist.
Is it time to look at wars from other viewpoints, and not adhere so carefully to stories that put US interests first?
Imagine Black Ops II’s strike force missions, where the objectives usually revolve around taking out a Chinese stronghold. This is always accompanied by a scene explaining why it is a necessary thing for the allies to do so, but what if that same mode gave the option to defend the location as a squad of Chinese troops? How would that be received by western players and our reactionary media?
Forcing people to view a different perspective could be refreshing, as not only would it cause a discussion on how players view war games, but also what influences those views. In the UK, for example, we’re largely influenced from birth to believe that liberal democracy is the best form of government. Our political beliefs are often as deeply and similarly entrenched as our religious beliefs, unavoidable and largely pressed upon us by surrounding social factors.
But the Chinese system is different. They have a one-party system in which the majority of power rests with a Paramount Leader. Their children grow up knowing that this is the best, most successful, fair and productive form of government. Imagine a game where the protagonist is part of an invasion (or repelling an invasion from the west) in order to spread or defend that ideology and impress it upon less fortunate people who live under a less efficient system of government.
Creating a game like that would be fraught with difficulties for western developers who would need to carefully introduce the themes to their western audience, as well as avoid the knee-jerk reactions of some elements of western media, who would no doubt simply see it as wrong because it conflicts with their narrow world view. But imagine the possibility for exploring an unfamiliar narrative – almost an alien world. Imagine the power in using the almost unavoidable empathy we form with our FPS protagonists (however casual) in order to make such disparate views more familiar to those of us who may never have been encouraged to think about them in anything but the most simplistic terms.
The Killzone series is perhaps an interesting anomaly. To casual, unthinking players it would have been relatively obvious in the first couple of games that you were playing as the good guys. The Helghast, with their Nazi-style uniforms, armbands and Soviet-themed propaganda, architecture and ideology were obviously the bad guys. But as the Killzone series has continued, we’ve seen them introduce more and more ambiguity to their conflict, subverting the simple assumptions we make about red versus blue and showing us that there is always another side to a story.
The exploration of the ambiguous nature of global military conflict adds wider pathos to the narrative development of the series and allows us to begin to identify with a side in the conflict that perhaps holds a very different ideology to our own. Perhaps, in Killzone’s case, that’s a symptom of a European developer working with a Japanese publisher. Both come from societies not unfamiliar with the notion of military invasion, clashing cultures and the importance of adaptation in a changing world. Perhaps the incredibly successful culture of North America is still too young to so naturally grasp those concepts in a way which makes them easy to subvert?
The world grows ever-smaller, with global communication and the potential proliferation of ideas now almost instantaneous. As videogames become an ever more global pastime – China recently lifted a legal ban on consoles, for example – we are likely to see more global cooperation and idea sharing as those games are marketed to a wider range of cultures.
This might allow us to experience wars that were waged between nations other than those ingrained with western ideologies. Wars such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a major historical event in that region which has had far reaching consequences. This conflict led to the west-funded militarisation of the Mujahideen.
There was a section in Black Ops II, set during this conflict, where you are actually fighting alongside the Mujahideen, albeit from the perspective of a US soldier. Actually playing through a game’s narrative as a member of that faction would be much more interesting, and potentially controversial, as many Mujahideen members are believed to have eventually joined Al Qaeda, taking their weaponry with them.
The Korean war, from the 1950s right up to modern day and the unfortunate possibility of future conflict, might also offer an interesting opportunity to explore viewpoints we’re unfamiliar with. As a member of either North or South Korean forces you would watch – and play – as the Korean peninsula tears itself apart, warring over its different ideologies.
We’re perhaps already familiar with idea of North Korea as a hostile force but it’s a conflict that has been explored so little that there’s perhaps more room for a novel approach. A North Korean soldier who believes that war with the South is necessary to reunite the Koreas into one powerful nation.
Are we missing out on powerful stories because we’re not willing to see historical conflicts from all sides? Is the impulse to always cast the player on the familiar, winning side causing us to largely ignore the potential of powerful stories based in conflicts that deviate from the traditional? It seems like we’re missing an opportunity to not only introduce fresh ideas and new pathos to military shooters but to introduce players to the ambiguity of war and impress upon them the magnitude of armed conflict, rather than to continually trivialise it.
by Peter Chapman and Aran Suddi