When videogames become a hotbed of public controversy, the enraged gamer's default defense is "it's just a game." But when told that interactive entertainment is nothing more than a brain-rotting waste of time, he'll declare it a medium of artistic expression. Pundits decrying violent or sexual content in games are taking them too seriously; everyone else isn't taking games seriously enough. Never shall the two conflicting defenses meet.
That's a problem. If we as gamers want our hobby to garner positive attention from the mainstream media and public, we need to present valid arguments as to why our favorite pastime (or job, in some cases) is more than just a game. Before we can do this, however, developers need to untie the knot between games and senseless violence that has existed since the medium's infancy. With the oversaturated "war game" market spread over a breadth of genres, from real-time strategy to first- and third-person shooters, it's a natural place to start.
It's not because of a lack of multiplayer modes, upgradable weapons or spiffy gameplay mechanics that we're seeing a dying interest in World War II games, but rather a total lack of innovation; they all seem to feature the same shoddily created atmosphere and one-dimensional narratives. Of course, we naturally want games to entertain us, but the content of the game should reflect the unpleasant realities of wartime rather than glorifying combat as one continuous, adrenaline-fueled firefight. The portrayal of war in videogames is rarely as grave as the subject warrants, but a couple titles have hit that nail on the head.
Strangely enough, Guerrilla Games' Shellshock: 'Nam 67, though unabashedly terrible, achieved an atmosphere of horror unlike any title before or since. The PlayStation 2 and PC shooter was riddled with gameplay issues, but its emotional resonance and gruesome imagery still hold up as an example from which developers can learn. Shellshock: 'Nam 67 includes severed heads left on tables, bodies hanging from trees, soldiers impaled by slow-to-explode missiles, tortured teammates and nasty throat slitting, to name a few notable situations. The gritty color palette, blood-stained battlefield and grim undertones gave players an unconventional scare in place of the traditional "kill 'em all" attitude that shooters often exhibit.
That approach is also what gives developer Relic Entertainment's real-time strategy Company of Heroes such a spectacular ambience. Its appropriately bleak overtones, compounded by the fearful soldiers under your command, who try to maintain a positive outlook under hellish conditions, exude a clear understanding of the grisly consequences of failure. And it's all done without the exploitation to make players want to high-five everyone in a five mile radius when they take out an enemy machine gun encampment. Winning battles isn't just satisfying: It's relieving, and losing them is mentally exhausting. And yet, crucially, the game is still fun.
Shouldn't that be why we go to videogames in the first place? It's an interactive experience, not a social studies class. But can't we have both? Videogames hold the still untapped potential to become educational products, but there needs to be a subtle alteration in the "distraction" aspect of the design. We shouldn't stop playing or making games that don't acknowledge appalling phenomena like POW camps, the Holocaust or Hitler's dictatorial reign - after all, the Battlefield franchise got its astoundingly successful start in a 1942 setting, and featured nothing but zone-capturing multiplayer - but we should push for games that tackle weightier issues than merely how to dispatch the Panzer advancing on your position.