Culture Wargames

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.”*


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.


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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The conclusion we can draw from this is that simulators aren’t, by their nature, neutral. They’re as prejudiced as their creators. Simulators say something about the world they describe. Simulation is expression.

In fact, simulation is a cornerstone of the history of most cultural forms. Putting aside the obvious history of representation in visual art, even literature demonstrates the pattern of simulation as art. What is Anna Karenina other than Tolstoy’s simulation of society life in 19th Century Russia? “Simulation” is just another way of saying this is life, and this is how it works. The only difference is, in games, the representation created isn’t static; the player is placed inside and left to explore its contradictions and limits.

Restraining ourselves to classical simulator games, it’s easy to pick out examples where a developer’s beliefs, philosophies, prejudices or priorities reveal themselves in a game. Remember how it proved impossible to construct a decent functioning city in Sim City without an extensive public transport system? Imagine how the game may differ if created by an advocate of the automobile industry. Staying with Maxis games, consider the egalitarian sexual politics which permeates The Sims, with sexual orientation being a matter of choice and all decisions being equally respected. At the other end of the seriousness spectrum, until relatively recently Sports Interactive’s incredibly thorough management simulation of the football/soccer leagues, Championship Manager (now Football Manager), had a terrible tendency for Everton to perform above what their statistical abilities should suggest. Eyebrows will remain unraised when I reveal that the Collyer brothers support a certain Liverpool-based team.

Implicit decisions in design can reveal similar thought processes in general. I remember an early review of Civilization written by British games-writer-turned-developer Gary Penn, well before it was enshrined as a modern classic. He was only luke-warm towards it, being disappointed by how it presented a world where everything was inevitable. You had to invent the wheel. You had to invent religion. Rather than being free to experiment in possible civilisations, it implies we live in a Liebnitzian Best of All Possible Worlds. The world is what it had to be, and to Gary Penn, it was a shame. I’ve no idea whether Sid Meier believes in something like the inevitable march of history, but Civilization certainly does.

In other words, a simulation is never just a simulation. Equally, freedom is rarely actually free of designer- imposed desires. Even in games with the most self-expressed mandates of “choice” for the gamer, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a message. In Deus Ex, the generally politically liberal Ion Storm Austin created a world where you could choose between violence and pacifistic approaches, but the charismatic characters urged you towards peace while the monsters suggested violence. To be praised by someone actually worth liking, you had to restrain your more scarlet impulses. Deus Ex’s central tenet was freedom of choice for the gamer, but it’s clear what choice Ion Storm wanted you to make.

At the other end of the ethical scale, Postal 2 is a genuinely monstrous game. You are positioned as an everyday Joe, going about everyday tasks, whose everyday frustrations lead you to entirely atypical, grotesque violence. Most troubling – and it’s this that reveals there’s something more than lizard-hind-brains at the developers, Running With Scissors – it’s a choice by the player which leads to the slaughter. You are presented with the choice of sitting through a tedious delay or short-cutting it by pulling out a shotgun and starting to blast away. It’s a nihilistic, sick gag, but it’s only really funny because you’ve been made entirely complicit. They may have wanted you to, but it was you who pulled the trigger. It’s a game which plays games with you.

But that moves beyond the strict “simulations” which our Senator was referencing, which only illustrates by how great a distance she missed her mark. Most games bear no relation to military simulators at all. In fact, what games mostly choose to simulate bears no relation to reality at all. Most of these games can’t be called a simulation except in the very broadest sense. You could argue the base laws of physical causality, which form the majority of games, make most games simulations. However, it sits awkwardly when you’re describing a simulator of something that simply doesn’t (and never will) exist. Describing Ocarina of Time as a boy-with-fairy simulator fails to really convince… or do justice.

Except, perversely, that’s what it actually feels like to play the Zelda pantheon. Even if it’s a ludicrous, fantastical situation, it convinces you of its truth. And it’s here where we find what I suspect is the central core of gaming’s power and why it should be the premier form of interest of the twenty-first century. In this future, games can be viewed as machines for artificially inducing sensation in the gamer – digital hallucinations creating holidays in places that don’t exist.

Well, yes, but the counter-argument to games’ rising importance is that’s equally true that most forms of art or entertainment induce sensation. For example, reading any piece of fiction, from Dr. Seuss to James Joyce, is an exercise in building images and fictions in your mind. Where games differ is their interactive nature. The feedback loop between your decisions and the game involve you in a way other forms simply can’t match.

Games create a cybernetic system between you and the machine, with your senses eventually expanding to possess your avatar when you’ve sufficiently mastered the control system. This is the absolute magic of the form, where you stop thinking, “I need to press X to jump,” and start thinking, “I’ll jump.” Just look at the language people use to talk about games to show how much their sense of identity has merged with their in-game character. If someone’s enjoying a game, it’s, “It hit me,” never, “It hit my character,” in the same way that a human’s sense of self can expand to include the vehicle they’re in (“He hit me!” versus the actually correct “He hit my car!”).

Videogames are the simulator which swallows your consciousness alive and takes you to another place. While other forms just let you look at how the creators believe the world to be, games let you step inside an artificial construct and allow you to actually be there.

This is a fundamental power of the form and can’t be overstated. There’s never been anything quite like a videogame before. For this reason, Neophiles gather around games, because they’re a form which still has a little bit of The Future in them. While you can argue that games are grounded in postmodernism in that they, by their nature, celebrate the death of the author and explicitly make the “reader” the driving force, the fact there’s still so much to do with them makes them absolutely modernist. As the rest of pop-culture plays remix tricks with the past and can’t even be bothered to start thinking about ways forward, videogames have a grand vista before them of new, uncharted possibilities. But it’s not purely in potential where games are interesting. There’s more than enough in their current actuality, rather than their abstract future, to make them interesting and worthy of discussion. Living solely for the future is just as bad as living solely for the past.

It’s in that spirit we find developers and gamers denigrating themselves. The feeling seems to be that even though games are amusing enough at the moment, because they’re stuck dealing with primary-coloured emotions and without the subtle blend of emotion that literature manages, games are somehow lesser. When will a game chart the emo-esque moment of seeing someone who reminds you of a person with whom you had an ill-fated affair and now you experience regret mixed with longing with a touch of realization that nothing will ever be the same again, and perhaps a little bit of the colour mauve, as well as literature can?

All this line of argument does is lacerate games for not being another form. It’s bemusing why games are always compared either film or the novel, as if they were the only art-forms worth mentioning. Why aren’t games compared to – say – dance or architecture, which are equally accepted as art forms and don’t operate anything like the silver screen or the printed word?

This form of inferiority complex has always been endemic in any new cultural form. Last year, I finally got around to reading Aristotle’s Poetics and was charmed to discover that large sections involve Ari discussing the relative merits between the new-kid Tragedy versus the established form of Epic Verse. He cites other critics who argue that Tragedy, featuring vulgar elements such as singing and creating works of hugely less scale, is a lesser form than the traditional Epic Verse. Aristotle plays it cute, arguing what they’ve analyzed as weaknesses are in fact strengths, allowing Tragedy to move people in ways Epic Verse simply can’t.

I think he missed a trick in his determination to prove one superior to the other, however. Rather than being a competition where one must triumph, the real situation is that Epic Verse succeeds in different things in different ways than does Tragedy. That’s all. In other words, things in ancient Greece were exactly as they are now. The new forms are judged according to the standards of the old forms, and found wanting, until someone notes that while the new form may not excel in one area, it far exceeds the old in others.

So, no, games aren’t currently as able as literature or film at capturing those quiet, sensitive moments. And, while I personally doubt this will prove to be the case, maybe they never will be. Really, it doesn’t matter. When you manage to show me a book that captures the exhilaration of flying down a snowy slope while pulling a physically impossible contortion even a fraction as well as SSX Tricky does, we’ll talk about which one is intrinsically superior. And please bury that absolutely vile concept that primal sensations are somehow “lesser”. Saying it’s vulgar is just another way devotees of another form admit they can’t manage to appreciate it even a fraction as well and, through this label, put limits on what’s an acceptable sensation for a work to translate.

Despite the nay-sayers, games are still in the enviable position of being capable of expressing experiences other forms have had difficulties with, where its competitors’ possibilities are at least partially quenched. While film, and its smaller-screened sister television, casting the last hundred years in soft, flickering light, still achieve magnificent things, its ideas and boundaries are increasingly well plotted. Games have barely even started.

It even helps games’ case that film is a more limited form in what it can present. Games can and have consumed influences from all other arts, and integrated them into a seamless whole. While the academic fisticuffs between the mechanic-hungry Ludologists and the story-obsessed Narratologists have attempted to define what games should be, all either has done is make the grand totality of games smaller to fit their prejudices. As much as a classical Narratologist may snort at Tetris or a Ludologist take issue with a Final Fantasy game, to remove either from the canon lessens the import of the canon. That beloved games with real power have come from both traditions, and successful hybrids appear at every point between the two poles, shows how foolish such attempts are. Games are bigger than that. With games’ immersion through interactivity, they can abstractly take us anywhere, show us anything and allow us to do whatever we want.

So, where, precisely, is this brashly confident child of the arts going to take us in the twenty-first century?

I really don’t know.

And that’s exciting.

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