War is an easy starting point for videogames. In a medium that thrives on neat, clean conflict, the backdrop of nations fighting against each other gives us the perfect setting for the types of narratives that videogames tend to foster. They’re straightforward, usually good versus evil, and can even feature a pinch of moral ambiguity thrown in for good measure. Best yet, war is as old as civilization itself, so it’s already ingrained in our culture, our history, and our science fiction. We all inherently understand war.
If part of the appeal of our medium is to explore worlds and jobs that we don’t have access to, why are developers so eager to put us in the same roles over and over again?
We can’t really fault the industry for repeatedly going back to the well, especially because so many other media types rely on these tropes, too. But it’s a shame that so many games focus on such a small number of the same types of tasks. You’ll be a soldier, or a Green Beret, or an operative. Your mission is simple: Shoot the bad guys. Sometimes you’ll enter a tank or a helicopter from which to shoot the bad guys. Occasionally you’ll sneak up behind and knife the bad guys. Then it’s back on foot to shoot more bad guys.
Although infantry tends to get the bulk of attention in popular media and news coverage, this depiction of war is undeniably slanted. The United States military, and in fact almost all militaries worldwide, contain a wealth of jobs that are underrepresented or missing entirely from the experiences in videogames. If part of the appeal of our medium is to explore worlds and jobs that we don’t have access to, why are developers so eager to put us in the same roles over and over again? Games need more variety, and giving us access to additional wartime roles could help stave off the bland redundancy that has implanted itself in so many of our modern shooters.
We don’t have to look far for examples, since some military careers are already represented — albeit inaccurately. Games like Resistance 2, Battlefield 2, and Team Fortress 2 have used the “Medic” as a job class, but none of them treat the subject with any sense of realism. Instead, we tend to get a magic healing button, and the skill involved is only as much as it takes to point and shoot. Essentially, this makes it a minor twist on the soldier archetype. What if we instead let the combat medic serve his role the way one actually would? Put us in their shoes and let us see the grisly side of war. Make us form a triage and make hard decisions about when someone is worth saving. Force us to judge when anesthetizing a wounded soldier is too risky. Give us the unpleasant task of opening, operating on, and stitching patients. Similar to the Trauma Center games, but in the context of war, this would go a long way towards appreciating the soldiers who keep other soldiers safe. It’s not as simple as pointing and shooting.
That’s not to say that looking down your sights is always tied to felling enemies. In the case of a field reporter, it would be an interesting twist to be in the midst of the action without being an active participant in it. Plenty of games have included the occasional camera segment, but outside of a few like Pokemon Snap this is usually just a break in the action. The game Afrika featured photo journalists working for National Geographic in the thick of the savannah. Instead of upgradeable weapons, you’d earn better camera equipment. Why not place that photojournalist concept in the thick of a hot zone? Imagine the production values put into a modern war shooter, but instead of firing on the enemy, you’re trying to capture the perfect photograph. You’d have to evade enemy fire, decide whether to risk going outside your prescribed area, go on ride-alongs with patrols, find picturesque shots, and win your Pulitzer Prize. It’s not a job within the military, but it is steeped in the realities of war.
In fact, firing a weapon doesn’t always have to end with a dead body. Often times, automatic weapons are used for suppressive fire rather than actual combat. While many war games feature a token segment of taking to a mounted gun and mowing down countless enemies, the reality is that most machine gun fire is merely to keep the enemy still, behind cover, and pinned down. Hitting the enemy isn’t as important as making them feel they cannot move or risk being hit, and it works remarkably well. We chew through ammo to create a feeling of insecurity, allowing other troops to move into capture positions or proceed safely to another location. Videogames want to constantly make us the hero with a ludicrous body count to our name, but a support role like this is invaluable to the safety of our troops.
Safety isn’t often explored in games. In Call of Duty or Battlefield , we can always respawn; obviously, in real life we have to tread more carefully. The recent award-winning film The Hurt Locker took a closer look at another unexplored military position vital to keeping fellow soldiers safe: bomb technician. While various games in contemporary settings have stages set in war-torn Middle-Eastern cities, very few of them focus on the slower, more meticulous task of defusing a bomb. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers have plagued our soldiers in our armed conflicts over the last decade, but our war games have only focused on direct combat scenarios.
Any game genre that involves realistic police work could just as easily replace the cops with MPs, to showcase the important work of keeping order among our military.
Keeping bomb technicians and other support roles well-informed is just as important. A surveillance and recon team can manage its role without firing a shot. The war shooter could take a note from the stealth genre and reward players for not alerting suspicion or making their presence known when marking potential threats.
When those threats do result in the worst, our Air Force coordinates search and rescue missions. These are the very antithesis of the kill-heavy combat roles we see in modern shooters. Rather than attempting to wipe out the enemy, the role is to find your target and evacuate them as quickly as possible. Lethal force is avoided if at all possible, since it puts both the rescuers and the subject in greater danger. When and if firing is necessary to protect the downed ally, it would carry all the more impact for having a direct purpose tied to the mission of saving a life.
Members of the Military Police Corps in a combat zone assist by planning and protecting vehicle routes, assisting lost soldiers, and conducting investigations for inter-military crimes. Since their jobs involve keeping the peace among soldiers, they have to deal with fellow enlisted who are just as strong and well-trained, and do so in a non-lethal manner. Any game genre that involves realistic police work could just as easily replace the cops with MPs, to showcase the important work of keeping order among our military.
The real-time and turn-based strategy genres often involve maximizing your troop’s ability to kill enemy units, but for real life officers, mobility and safety are key as well. A real-time strategy game could include combat as a necessity, but add a touch of realism by carefully weighing the strengths and expertise levels of troops, ensuring rotations keep them well-rested, and boosting morale.
Then, of course, we have the non-traditional support positions that aren’t directly tied to combat operations. Supply pilots drop much-needed provisions to our troops, which are arguably more important and require the same level of accuracy as bombs. Even those outside the military can serve a support role in manufacturing the supplies efficiently. The factory management simulation genre would lend itself to this purpose.
Maybe these positions couldn’t sustain an entire game, but they could at least serve as welcome distractions from the redundant run-and-gun gameplay spread over the course of eight-to-twelve hours. More significantly, portraying them would give a more holistic representation of the variety of ways people serve their country. Nearly 1.5 million men and women are active serving in the military today . Those seeing combat as portrayed in videogames are in the heavy minority, and the majority is just as deserving as our respect.
The military needs soldiers, but it also needs infrastructure, supply, support, command, and dozens of other jobs. Maybe the glamour of gunning down enemy soldiers is too tempting for us to ignore. Maybe the simplistic, classic mechanic of destroying a bad guy is the easy way out. But if our medium is going to pay respect to servicemen and women, as publishers insist that they do, we should give credit to a fuller view of military responsibilities. We’ll get more variety in our gameplay, and that under-appreciated serviceperson will get our much-deserved tip of the hat.
Steve Watts is a freelance writer living in the Baltimore area, where we put Old Bay on literally everything.