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Maybe, maybe not, you’d be surprised to learn that when I was a little kid I was absolutely obsessed with war and the military. OCD-type obsessed. “Playing war” in suburban backyards, military simulators on the computer (I think the last Xmas when I can remember what I actually got was the one when I received this, and they played it for something like twenty-four straight hours….), reading Jane’s Guides and the like. Best of all, was this – which I never actually played with another human being, but whose modules and rule books I read and reread and tried to play by myself but you can’t, really.

Anyway, memoirs of a lonely, semi-Aspergersy childhood in late cold war America I guess. All this is prologue introducing a childhood epiphany, one of those little tiny moments of philosophical insight that you have when you’re a child but which stick with you. Maybe you, if you were like me, thought miniscule thoughts about causality (I remember discussing, basically, Zeno’s arrow problem with my mom long before I’d heard of Zeno’s arrow – she was, erm, unhelpful. I can’t even imagine, actually, what she thought but I remember the day like it was yesterday…) or had the thing that everyone has when they set vanity mirror parallel to the bathroom mirror and, boom, infinite regress.

But the one that I’m thinking about tonight is a little less abstract. I remember realising, all at once, that one of the presumptions that I had about soldiering was – had to be, mathematically – all wrong. The presumption was this: that if you served in the armed forces during a war, likely you would kill several members of the opposing side during the course of that war. That is, that say the average veteran of, say, WWII would have killed several people during his tour or tours of duty.

Simple math shows that this simply cannot be the case. Imagine a war in which there are 100,000 front-line troops on each side. If on side A, the average soldier killed even 1.5 enemy combattants, well, that would be 150,000 dead, just from the start. Of course, some on side A would die before they had killed, and then there are injuries to account for and the like. But I think you see the point: I realized that it must be relatively rare for one solider to kill another soldier during a war. That is, it would be a fairly hotshit thing to have killed even one of the enemy. (In WW2, about 3 million of 17 million German soldiers died – a fairly high percentage, but only 17 percent… So it’s very unlikely that whatever grandpa told grandma to get her in the sack and / or justify his drinking was true…)

Huh. This came as a great shock to me, and it’s really no wonder that it did. Movies make killing seem common, depending on the realism of the picture in question. Video games, of course, arc the issue into absurdity. Remember all those scrolling Nintendo games, where you fight your way through level after level of the enemy, killing thousands and thousands of bad guys before you’re done?

Then again…. We know tonight that semi-final tally of the current war on Gaza comes to 1200+ / 13, a set of numbers that seems preordained to force newswriters into the absurd position of putting an almost before the phrase a hundred to one ratio… if they were brave and honest enough to write the phrase into their work to begin with. These are movie ratios, if not numbers more appropriate to a video game. The fact that they include both military and civilian casualties only makes the point horrifically worse.

Perhaps, then, what was unrealistic about the films and game when I was a kid, and which led to the misunderstanding that gave way to mathematical revision, has actually now been reversed. It’s not the cold war any more, which had a tendency to turn asymmetrical battles symmetrical through direct or indirect support of the “other side.” But the counterweighting effect has long since passed….

But it’s interesting that the newest war videogames both enact and critique at the same time this turn toward hundred-to-one ratios in war. Call of Duty 4, from which the images in this post are drawn, has two modes of play like most “first-person shooters” today. There’s a conventional game, where you follow a storyline from training to, well, something to do with seizing a post-soviet missile silo, and in which you fight against all of those computer directed badguys that we’re all long familiar with from videogames. On this side of the game, since you play as a single named character (OK – two named characters, one from the British SAS and the other from the US Marines), the presumption is that, yes, in the course of the game “you” kill hundred and hundreds of Middle Easterners and Russians without dying yourself. This was once unrealistic, but since your solidiers go into battle in this game with the ability to summon Air Force bombing runs and helicopter gunships, UAV flyovers and the like, well, maybe not as unrealistic as it once was…

The other mode of play, however, offers what we might call a utopian revision of the game played in the first part – if a vision of war can ever rightly be called utopian. This is the multiplayer mode, where you sign on and can join a game set in one scenario or another against other human beings who have logged on to play against you. In each case, you pick a side to join – the Americans, or in the case of most of the scenarios, some sort of Middle Eastern army or resistance movement, a hybrid I suppose of the Iraqi national army and Hamas. But, in order to make the game fair and attractive to players, whichever side you select you choose from the same sets of weapons, and have the same ability to call in airstrikes or UAV reconaissance missions. Asymmetrical war has been rendered symmetrical for the sake of fun and sportsmanship – it is an odd sight to see, F16s flying over a photorealistic Falluja dropping clusterbombs on American Marines, but one that you accept for the sake of the game. Suspension of disbelief, a fair fight, a kill-to-die ratio of approximately 1-1 in the case of all but the best and worst players, whichever side they prefer to fight on.

And it all leads me to wonder what it would be like to write a videogame in which one dies a hundred times over before one successfully kills a single antagonist. The boredom of waiting to fight the enemy would be punctuated, in all but the rarest of cases, by sudden death from the air. After hours of waiting, the screen would simply go blank, over and over and over, without the player ever getting to fire a shot. The sole variety, perhaps, would come from death by other means – a sniper’s shot to the head or a round from a tank. But no matter how, the screen goes blank just the same way – you probably shouldn’t even get to appreciate the difference in the way that you just died again.

And it further leads me to wonder whether the ability to countenance the deaths of others on our fields of battle arrives via the fact that, when confronted by numbers like 1200 or 600,000, we have no more sense that each of those individuals had a backstory, independent subjectivity, a fully human life than we are able to believe that the programmers of games give each of the computer-contolled enemy figures independent initiative, fuzzily human logic, and the rest of the markings of existence equivalent to those that play the game and, eventually, win the game. The bad guys circle their programmed rounds, follow the strings and orders of the code, fire more slowly and less accurately that we do as we kill them. They are robots, bots, spam, studio-manufactured figments. And they all look the same with their swarthy skin and balaclavas and with the AK-47s that they grip and sometimes fire.

Their corpses, as in the games, fizzle and melt back into the earth a few seconds after they die. If they didn’t, their mouldering bodies would litter the field, the screen, and make it impossible to see the next one for the piles of previous victims.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 18, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in distraction, videogames, war

2 Responses

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  1. It is good to have some company in thinking of these dystopian/utopian games — I’ve been imagining a war game lately in which the protagonist is not at all a shooter, but a woman trapped in a war between shooting asymmetrical forces in a kind of survival horror. I wrote about it here:

    http://odalisqued.blogspot.com/2008/12/when-news-breaks-my-heart.html

    What generally seems to be the case in games is that one gets the chance for a fantasy of control, or one subjects oneself only to a time-consuming reproduction of alienated labor.

    Take, for example, Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, in which money becomes the source of life, and most of what one does is build a tower of money hoping to achieve some level of access to happiness, paying even for the chance to speak to another character.

    odalisqued

    January 18, 2009 at 3:55 pm

  2. Important to remember however that a 100:1 kill ratio is not 100 soldiers dying for 1 soldier. Mostly civilians were killed on the Palestinian side while almost all the Israeli casualties were military. Nonetheless, I envisage the game being the ultimate manifestation of ‘British Bulldog’, with a mad rush to the Israeli wall, followed by digging, followed by an attempt to shoot them before they shoot you when your tunnel pops out at the other side.

    John A

    January 18, 2009 at 6:37 pm


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