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Now that Modern Warfare 2 is out, perhaps we’re past that particular gamer-centric controversy that I wrote about last week, and we’re just in time to focus on the next controversy surrounding the game – this one from the non-gamer point of view. I refer, of course, to the first mission of the game, colloquially known as “That Airport Scene.” (Oh, and by the way, if you don’t want spoilers for MW2, even very early ones, you should probably stop reading right about … now)

We’ve already seen the first waves of controversy over “No Russian,” an early mission in the game, which puts you as an undercover American operative joining in a terrorist attack on a Moscow airport and massacring civilians. MW2‘s particular execution and presentation makes it a very different experience from gunning down innocents in, say, a Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve heard many gamers say it makes them uncomfortable to be put into that situation. That is, of course, the point – the game wants to make the bad guys feel like horrible bad guys, and uses the interactivity of games to drive that point home (though of course, Your Mileage May Vary).

But when a certain Senior Editor of mine (who shall go unnamed, but whose name may rhyme with “Busan”) asked me whether or not I thought that a developer could pull off a similar scene in an MMOG, I paused. The thought honestly hadn’t occurred to me – can events in an MMOG be as emotionally jarring as That Airport Scene?

Let’s get all the necessary assumptions out of the way, first: The hypothetical MMOG in question would have to have graphics and animations far beyond even NCSoft’s gorgeous Aion. Part of what makes the MW2 scene so effective is its realism, with screaming crowds, people writhing on the ground in pain or trying to drag themselves away from the massacre. Would it be possible to do the same thing in a less graphically-advanced game? Probably, but let’s just skip that argument entirely.

The argument of persistence – “Oh, it’s okay, they’ll just respawn in 10 minutes” – doesn’t really apply here either, assuming the game would have a system similar to WoW‘s Phasing mechanic, where completing a certain quest moves you into a new “phase” of the world where your action has had permanent consequences. It would be easy enough to have you do something abhorrent and have it be permanent. But even so, I’m not convinced that MMOGs – which as I’ve argued in the past can certainly tell a story – could actually pull it off. At least, not without subverting all the norms of the genre.

The chief advantage videogames have over movies and TV is that they’re interactive: A movie (or even a cutscene) where some guy blasts his way through civilians can have the viewer watching in horror and asking, “What did that guy just do?” But a game that tasks the player to do something they find reprehensible can have the player asking themselves, “What have I just done?”

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A character that a player creates in an MMOG is more than a character given to you by a single-player game – that’s why the term “avatar” exists. Your character is a representation of you (or at least a part of you) in the game, and while one could certainly argue that asking the literal you to carry out these disturbing acts makes the presentation that much harder, I would actually disagree – I think it’s more of a barrier. In a game like MW2, the character you’re controlling has a reason to do what he’s doing: If he does not infiltrate this terror cell’s inner circle and earn its trust, the consequences could be dire. This mission is a tragedy in the name of the greater good.

In an MMOG, my reason (not my avatar’s) for doing such an act would be along the lines of “Because I get some gold and a better set of pants.” By adding a second layer of “why are we doing this,” it only serves to exacerbate the problem.

That’s another barrier in the traditional MMOG model for something along these lines – there’s such an ingrained idea of act-reward that instills players with a mindset of “I do something, I better get a reward for it.” Which would be the exact antithesis of what the developers would be trying to make you feel in a situation like this. You aren’t supposed to be rewarded for your acts, in-game or out of it. A game can’t present a situation, tell you that you’re doing a horrible act for a good reason and use it as evidence that you’re palling around with some Really Bad Guys, and then smile and hand you the upgrade you’ve been waiting for. It turns it into a positive, instead of a forced negative.

Adding other players to the experience (you know, those two Ms in “MMOG”?) further complicates things. This is the sort of gameplay moment that has to be very tightly controlled – watching the terrorists calmly sweep through the airport and gun people down – and the moment the party can’t figure out where to go next, or the moment someone lets loose a “lol,” any sense of atmosphere or immersion is shattered.

Then again, these are just conventions of the genre, not necessities. If an MMOG were deliberately made with the intention of delivering a moment like this one – a solo, single-player experience without any inherent positive reinforcement – it might stand a shot at delivering something like MW2‘s airport … but that begs another question entirely: Would it be worth it? In a constantly evolving world like that of an MMOG, would it be worth designing a game around one specific moment with the knowledge of “Well, what do we do next?”

For all MMOGs are capable of telling stories and delivering breathtaking experiences, I don’t really think they’re suited for something like this. Though it would be nice to see one try.

John Funk still hasn’t bought MW2 yet.

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