SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?

"Call of Duty IV"

 

Videogames are becoming ever more realistic, lending a moral ambiguity to battle scenes and law enforcement. So why aren't they commenting on real-life situations yet? Brett McCallon is ready ... 

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

 

In an ideal world, video games would regularly provide trenchant commentary on society. Unfortunately, the industry has not reached the point where games that seriously consider contemporary issues are as common as those that generate serious revenue.

That is not to say that games with artistic aspirations are hard to come by--this column has lauded gaming masterpieces, and a number of game designers are duly recognised as "auteurs". Still, even truly great games that push the medium forward rarely offer insight on the real world. 

Plenty of games create highly realistic scenarios, especially with regard to combat. The best of these are not simple shoot-'em-up diversions; rather, they highlight the complexity of military action. "Call of Duty IV" (pictured), developed by Infinity Ward and one of the finest games released last year, uses the player's first-person perspective to great effect in conveying the horrors of war. At various points the player is thrust into the perspective of the president of a war-torn nation who is executed (live, on television), or of a soldier whose reward for rescuing a wounded comrade is a slow death from a nuclear weapon. In both cases, the game forces players to "live through" these experiences: you stare down the barrel of an insurgent's gun; you crawl on the ground, looking up at a mushroom cloud as your heartbeat slows and you succumb to radiation poisoning.

Still, it seems rather cowardly that games like "Call of Duty" tend to avoid naming real-life hotspots or enemies. Most of these games, in fact, either create imaginary, vaguely Middle-Eastern/Central Asian locales to play out their modern warfare scenarios, or they opt for real-world settings that are highly unlikely flashpoints. For example, the "Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter" modern combat series concerns scenarios in which terrorists kidnap the presidents of the United States and Mexico. Er, Mexico?

The Taliban is never trying to purchase nuclear weapons in these games. Kim Jong Il's finger is never on the trigger. Almost no one ever makes mention of subjects such as friendly fire, prisoner abuse or the blurry line between friend and foe in a hostile country.  This reluctance to engage with the subtleties of real-world issues (while, as in the case of "Call of Duty", approaching the grisly nature of combat with maturity) has everything to do with the exhorbitant costs (tens of millions of dollars, in fact) of creating a modern, top-tier game or franchise. Skyrocketing budgets have led to consolidation, and the big publishers tend to be publically traded, risk averse and loth to greenlight any game that might alienate a valuable demographic by making a politically charged point.

On the rare occasion when a big-name game has touched on real-world issues, the result was frankly disappointing. The most notable post-9/11 commentary from a game was "Fugitive Hunter", a game so hamfistedly jingoistic that its final mission culminates in a first-person martial arts duel between the player and Osama Bin Laden. 

When it comes to one of the most contentious issues in America now--the 2008 election--most of the relevant commentary comes from casual, web-based games. An hour's Google research and play trials revealed that this year's crop of election games are pretty similar to the sparse offerings one might have found during the 2004 cycle: typical examples include presidential paintball fights, poorly implemented 2D fighting games, and some games that seemed to have been awkwardly retrofitted in order to accommodate a vaguely political theme. 

John McCain's official site offers an impressively bad example of the latter. "Pork Invaders" is one more in a long, ignoble line of games that have struggled to recapture the magic of the original "Space Invaders". Playing this manipulative game is such an exercise in futility, and the message is so tangential to the gameplay, that it's hard to really consider this a game. "Pork Invaders" is a quick-and-dirty effort to generate press attention ("look, John McCain's site has a game where you fight against pork!"). Alas, most campaign-related games are no better than this one. You could check out, for example, the roster of "political" "games" available at Comedy Central's Indecision 08 site, but you probably shouldn't.

For the most part, the games industry has ceded the potentially fertile ground of election commentary to the web. But at least two independent developers have bucked the trend. "Hail to the Chimp" by Wideload Games is essentially a party game with well-written electoral trappings. It is set during the animal kingdom's first-ever election (the lion had to abdicate his throne due to scandal, and everyone's decided to give democracy a whirl). Unfortunately, the gameplay is fairly standard for the genre, with a series of brief, chaotic contests (most of which involve collecting clams). Playing this game alone can be both dull and frustrating, but with a few friends it is more or less amusing. The real charm of "Hail" is in its presentation. The menu system consists of a dead-on (if gentle and cartoony) parody of wall-to-wall cable-news election coverage. Players are regularly treated to vignettes and commercials from each animal candidate's campaign--replete with pandering and misinformation.

If "Hail to the Chimp" serves mainly as an excuse for humorous interludes of political satire, Stardock Software's "The Political Machine 2008" is a fairly deep simulation of what it takes to actually win an American election. The game falls into the strategy genre (just think of a more complicated version of the board-game "Risk"). Players take turns raising funds, building their campaign networks, giving speeches, running ads, hiring operatives and seeking endorsements, all the time striving to undo the work of their competitors.

In "The Political Machine", players quickly discover that electoral success requires imitating real-life campaign tactics--concentrating resources on hotly contested areas, developing a media strategy and building campaign infrastructure. But the most interesting effect of the game is how quickly players learn to compromise whatever political integrity they might have harboured. Invariably, the best route to success comes from pandering to the party faithful and independents, while also spreading (dis)information about your opponent. In a recent game, I found myself giving a speech insisting "my opponent is against improving the economy"--as in real life, negative (and dubious) campaigning yielded genuine electoral gains.  

While neither "Hail to the Chimp" nor "The Political Game 2008" truly wades into the scrum of electoral politics, they are both hopeful signs that developers can create games that touch on real-world issues. Perhaps in time for the next election some talented designer will create a compelling game that engages in a public-policy debate.

Those who presume a game couldn't possibly tackle something that serious need only explore what's being created by small, independent publishers on the web. Some of the most interesting of these games have been among the simplest.  "September 12th" by Newsgaming.com presents the player with a street scene in which a few terrorists mingle with civilians. The player interacts with the tableau via crosshairs--a click of the mouse sends a missile to the chosen point. Each strike, whether it eliminates a terrorist or not, results in destruction and mourning, followed by the rapid conversion of a number of formerly tearful civilians into new terrorists. It's a clever conceit--the more the player intervenes with large-scale military force, the more the populace turn to terrorism. The only way to keep things from getting worse is to not play.

Of course, this is hardly a fun conceit to sell to a big game developer or publisher ("see, the player learns not to engage with the game at all!"). But hopefully someone will soon figure out a way to make a game that not only justifies its initial investment, but also gives players a reason to think more carefully about the real-world issues that define their non-virtual lives.

(Brett McCallon is a writer based in New Orleans. His last column was "Nintendo, Me and your Mom".)