May 5, 2008

Headshot

Here's a thought-provoking piece of trivia from my other life. United Nations peacekeepers wear berets instead of helmets because while the latter affords considerably more protection against getting shot in the head, the less obtrusive headgear better emphasizes the target's face; their vulnerability, their humanity. It's psychologically harder to kill them if they look less like a soldier; in which case the response is automatic. It's like a tactic to combat military dehumanisation. Sometimes snipers are even moved to tears. Then I guess they shoot them anyway.

I don't know if that's actually true. I read it a year ago and I might have since invented some of the details. Nonetheless I can feel my thoughts being provoked even as I type.

I'm still bothered by what Chris Taylor (Supreme Commander) said at his GDC panel: that he got uncomfortable with the idea of video games being about killing thousands of people so he took out the blood and made them all robots. We don't feel empathy for robots and we're not grossed out by their corpses, so we're happy. Problem solved and we can keep on fighting with a clear conscience; just like those guys who are conditioned to recognise that the man holding a gun and speaking another language is an enemy combatant, not a civilian, and so different rules apply.

I neglected to mention that in my other life I am apparently an anti-video game crusader. Games do this all the time, though. We fight zombies, mutants and suits of armour as often as we fight humans. Enemy troops are caricatures; needing three bullets in the chest to take them down. Life and death are binary states. There's no pain and not much blood.

When we play games we sign up to kill people and the game abstracts the process so we can deal with it. Otherwise we might freak out like the guy in Munich did. It works like this scene from Call of Duty 4, which, incidentally, is based on a real-life detachment mechanism:



We don't want to see their brains blown out on the street. When we shoot the bad guys we want them to lose hit points, not scream, bleed and defecate. We want to look into the familiar, robotic eyes of NPC_Face_Generic_2, not someone with a family. Condemned or Soldier of Fortune makes us uncomfortable because we don't want to be disturbed by the violence we have to cause. And that's fine. That's the only way it's going to work.

I don't know why we're so accepting of the premise that our video gaming duty is to kill the enemy; that it's our only way to win. Half-Life and Oblivion aren't necessarily about being a soldier but that's the role we play. It's the role we almost always play. Developers who don't like it instead make it easier to stomach. We're built to shoot. We do it all the time. We go into war zones like the experienced professionals we are and eliminate the opposition. We don't broker cease-fires or reconstruct occupied territory. We don't know how to do that. We're meant for one thing.

It's at least a little creepy, right?

5 comments:

KingMob said...

Creepy or just easier to do?

qrter said...

It's the role we almost always play. Developers who don't like it instead make it easier to stomach. We're built to shoot. We do it all the time. We go into war zones like the experienced professionals we are and eliminate the opposition. We don't broker cease-fires or reconstruct occupied territory. We don't know how to do that.

I do think most Western societies are built on a core of violence - which would mean that violent films and games (to name 2 disciplines) are more symptoms, not so much part of 'the cause' (in fact, they're probably both).

That said, almost the only roles we get offered in (mainstream) games are violent ones (granted, we choose to play those games, but how many would choose non-violent games when offered?). We learn that this is what videogames are and are supposed to be - we are soldiers, everyone else must die.

That does smack of "easy to do" (as kingmob mentions) from a developers perspective - anything else means you're making a casual and/or Wii game (to generalise for a moment) or something that will ask for the general public to, in a sense, relearn gaming, which won't be very attractive to publishers..

However, we also shouldn't forget that most of those violent games are made for what basically is a target group of 14 to 26 year old males, which is only a fraction of all potential players.

Personally, it does bother me sometimes, all the shootin' and the killin'. I still play the games though - that's what games are supposed to be, right?

Duncan said...

Great comment, qrter, thanks. We are totally doing what's easy; I don't mean to suggest that developers are training us to rationalise the virtual act of killing, although that's kind of an inevitable by-product.

Games do action better than any other genre, with puzzles, racing and sports all tied for second. Action's also the only genre where games could feasibly overtake every other medium, if they haven't already. And we don't really know how to do action in a way that isn't about shooting thousands of guys.

I absolutely have no problem playing these games and don't for a second think they're training me up to go postal in real-life. But as kingmob says, it is what's easy. And that's as lame in and of itself as being conditioned to comfortably assume the role of fictional mass-murderers.

n5corp said...

Even worse when it's real:
http://www.militaryvideos.net/videos.php?videonum=2

qrter said...

I don't mean to suggest that developers are training us to rationalise the virtual act of killing, although that's kind of an inevitable by-product.

Well, as long as it's virtual, it's okay.. or is it? It's a hard call.

Saying something like violence is okay if it's simulated leads us into unseemly territory of rape simulators, etc. which isn't the way forward, either, I think. ;)

That said, I do always stress (to people who vocally oppose video games because of violence - without actually playing them themselves, ofcourse) that the violence is generally over the top, ridiculous, not realistic. It's the violence of an action movie, surely most of us can see how that's not real violence? But we're moving more and more towards photorealism or at least the violence is becoming more visceral, so that argument is becoming harder and harder to keep up.

I do enjoy playing violent games, myself (although my personal line is drawn at something like the Manhunt series). But, like I said before, it does regularly bother me. It's more on an abstract level - agression is the way forward, it seems, and that's just not the way I want to think about the world.

And we don't really know how to do action in a way that isn't about shooting thousands of guys.

I think Portal does something here - it's generally called a puzzle game, but I'd say it's more action, really. The game is mostly built around the threat of violence, which is a much more interesting use of violence in an action game.

This is an interesting discussion. It has made me think a lot more about the subject. We do take the violence in action games for granted, headshots have become the norm.