Gaming Uber Alles

Gaming Uber Alles
Culture Wargames

Kieron Gillen | 12 Jul 2005 12:04
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We need a Straw Man. Any volunteers?

Ah, here we are. Could you repeat that for the crowd, Senator Deanna Demuzio of Illinois?

"Video games are not art or media. They are simulations, not all that different from the simulations used by the U.S. military in preparation for war."*

Excellent.

Senator DeMuzio is the sponsor for the current legislation being propelled via peristalsis through the bowels of the Illinois State Government. The bill would introduce a legally enforced rating system for games. The current rating system is voluntary, much like that of the film industry in the U.S. The new rating system would hold that if a retailer sells a game to a person below the age limited by the rating, they would receive a hefty fine and so on and... well, so irrelevant.

To be honest, I don't have an enormous problem with a legally-enforceable rating system for games. As a citizen of the UK, I already live in a country which has a similar (in fact, in terms of fines, more severe) system in place. If a game features any significant measure of adult content, it goes before the BBFC and gets exactly the same rating as a film or a video.

My issue with the legislation is the reasons it is progressing. First, the text of the bill claims videogames cause definite psychological harm to players. This is, as yet, unproven. Second, related to the quote I've just taken, the position that videogames don't receive first-amendment free-speech rights as they're not actually a form of expression. Games are just simulators, virtually identical to the ones we use to train our soldiers. No one's saying anything through them.

Hmm.

Let's put aside the question, exactly in which imminent conflict the armed forces expect to utilize their finely-honed gold-coin-collecting skills. Let's take the good Senator at her word - games are almost military simulators, so not expression - and move forward

By an odd quirk of fate, I found myself in Prague a few weeks back, visiting Bohemia Interactive. They're best known for their breakthrough soldier-sim Operation Flashpoint, critically acclaimed for its extreme devotion to realism. The critics weren't the only ones who noticed. After its release, they were approached by cheery governmental bodies to transform the game into a training simulator for soldiers. The resultant VBS1 is used by the US Marines and National Guard, among others, as part of their training.

So, in the case of Flashpoint, Senator Demuzio is very much right. Flashpoint is exactly the sort of game she was thinking about when making her statement, with the game and the war-simulator merely tweaked versions of one another. Where she's entirely wrong is arguing that this somehow makes the game not a form of expression.

Bohemia is actually one of the more idealistic groups of developers I've met. They talk about their moral discomfort in creating a game about a real conflict, recalling a specific project based on Vietnam. The team disposed of months of work because they thought it impossible to make a game that was both accurate and enjoyable. They spoke of adding destructible buildings to their engine for future games, explaining the addition isn't because they want to give people the visceral thrill of seeing a building fall apart. Rather, it is because they want to create a persistent world where your successes and failures remain to remind you of your errors. Fail to defend a farm, and that burnt out shell is going to be sitting there for the rest of the game.

When thinking of the campaign structure for their future games, Bohemia doesn't choose a life or death struggle for supremacy between equivalent forces. While dealing with fictional situations and antagonists, they base their campaign on the assumption of American Military supremacy in any conventional war. Rather than making the game about whether the Americans will win, they make it how the Americans will win and your character's experiences along the way.

Compare and contrast with the recently released Battlefield 2 demo, which posits the U.S. Marines and a Middle-Eastern army as equals on a technological footage. Both are rooted in the language of the military, but they're expressing wildly separate views on the nature of a conflict. Battlefield 2 presents a beleaguered U.S. in a war which is more cowboys and Indians than anything else, while Bohemia reaches for something more akin to a comment on the nature of war using theoretical examples. Even within the genre of pseudo-military simulators, there are clear differences from game to game to what the nature of conflict actually is. Put simply, Flashpoint's world is a world away from Battlefield 2's.

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