Starting with the original Castle Wolfenstein game on the Apple II, I have personally shot, stabbed, driven over, detonated or otherwise killed thousands of Nazi soldiers. I have slain at least hundreds of Japanese and Italian soldiers. And through incompetence, negligence, callousness or bad luck, I have doubtlessly caused the deaths of at least dozens of American troops through friendly fire. All of this slaughter occurred between about 1939 and 1945.
More recently, I’ve shot and killed countless Arab “enemy combatants” and outright terrorists, gunned down North Korean soldiers in their missile bunkers, executed rogue intelligence operatives from my own government, and even fought alongside John Kerry. I’ve felt the Call of Duty, received the Medal of Honor, fought with my Brothers in Arms, done my Ghost Recon, been over the Rainbow Six, joined Operation Flashpoint, escaped from a Splinter Cell, and have both Commanded and Conquered. If you made a charnel pit of all my varied dead, from the flickering pixel-men of that long-ago castle to the latest normal-mapped shrapnel victims, it might blot out the sun. Such is the magnitude of my carnage.
All of this is to say: me too. The following indictment of our crimes does not exclude the present prosecutor, who is both accuser and among the accused.
I believe the seemingly endless popularity of these particular games, in which players take the role of soldiers, spies and other enforcers of government policy, can be attributed to the inherent appeal of a particular ideology. The practical implementation of this ideology can include myriad bureaucratic and cultural details but whose fundamental appeal to the human animal comes down to the notion that might makes right.
I’m talking about fascism.
Put simply, fascism is a political system that advances the worth of the state above any other consideration. Your life, your freedom, your work, your family, your property, your expression all serve the state at its whim and can be used or discarded as the state wishes. This is why fascism is inextricably linked with violence: When the individual and the fascist state come in conflict, violence is how the state achieves its aims. Where the democracy relies on representational government and capitalism values the market and the rule of law, fascism is ultimately rooted in the belief that those in charge know what’s right and have the authority to manifest their will by force.
And it feels really, really good.
The gun settles all arguments. The boot silences criticism. The tank crushes protest. When the world is quiet and you are the only one standing, your opinion is the correct one because there is no alternative. You are right, because there is no competition to prove you wrong.
How many times have you looked at a situation in the news, whether a political dispute or a terrorist attack, and thought, “If they’d just make me dictator for a day, just one day, I’d straighten this mess out.” I’m sure you would. You’re a good person. Your ideas have merit. If you could just cut through all that debate and get something done for a change, people would understand why you had to raise your voice. Sometimes somebody has to shout a little, push a bit, jab with the sharp elbow, just to make the other fellow see sense.
A friend of mine studied political science at Yale. In one class, the professor posted a game scenario: You are the newly empowered dictator of a third-world country. Your people face famine, plague, poverty and unrest. What policies would you enact to solve these problems? (Fans of Tropico, you know how this works.) My friend’s solution? Death camps. Round up the sick, the lame, the infertile, the ignorant, the useless, the unproductive and execute them. Bring the workforce and the job market into sudden alignment. Reconcile the mouths to feed with the supplies of food.
The rest of the class was horrified. Their reports contained economic incentives, requests for aid, plans for a staged restoration of democracy, summits to bring the eggheads together, earnest ideas by the wagonload. By comparison, my friend’s solution was ghastly.
The professor was overjoyed. Finally, a student saw the point of the exercise: making comprehensible what looks incomprehensible when viewed through the media, understanding how Papa Doc and Pol Pot and all their ilk come to power and why they make the decisions they do.
My friend figured it out. He played the scenario and won. He saved the Kobayashi Maru. It should come as no surprise that he was a hardcore gamer.
When we play these kinds of games, when we step into the role of the soldier, the spy, the conspirator, the operative, we are in every case taking the place of the hypothetical politicians who have failed us. If politicians did their jobs better, Sam Fisher would be out of work. Rainbow Six would run a gas station. Soldiers would stay home. But these games begin at the point where politics has failed, where the will of the state to survive can only be expressed through violence.
At this point, it’s up to us. We are exceptional in every way: moral, compassionate, clear-headed, deadly. People face the world with the tools they hold in their hands, and in these games those tools are weapons. The joystick only lets us interact with people by killing them. The game only lets us solve problems with violence.
EA’s Medal of Honor encouraged us to find out: What would I have done at Pearl Harbor? The answer is gratifying: I would have been smarter, tougher and better than the 2,403 soldiers who lost their lives that day because I lived and I killed approximately a metric shit-ton of Japanese airmen in the process. I’m the hero! Keep this up and I’ll program a combo into my turbo controller and take down Tojo in a cage match.
I used to joke: How can they call it the History Channel when they never have shows on the history of cheese? But that’s the deal. The popular conception of history is military history. Washington at Yorktown, the flag-raisers at Iwo Jima. Every second show on that channel is something like History’s Hitlery Mysteries. Hardcore gamers don’t buy games where the goal is to compromise. They buy games where the goal is to save the world – by force.
I believe humans have a deep longing for authority, to possess it or to obey it. It is tempered by our empathy, our ability to view another’s situation and project it onto ourselves. But our games know nothing of empathy. We optimize our play to reach the solution in the most direct way possible. When you watch a video of someone completing the entirety of Half-Life in 45 minutes, you have to think: That guy could make the trains run on time. There is no pause for conversation or exploration. There is merely the fanatical implementation of an optimal result.
A final solution.
Somebody has to save the world. And that means somebody has to rule it. We gamers have had the training. We’ve learned the mindset. We know the score. We are efficient, deadly, methodical. If only we were in charge – then, oh then, we could show the world how much we care about it. We could wrap our arms around all that suffering and whisper of our speed runs, our fervent smashing of crates, the countless times we’ve saved them all already. And if any of them talked back or questioned our wisdom we could show them exactly what we’ve learned.
Press the button.
John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for fifteen years, and is a columnist for the Stranger, X360 UK, and The Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.