Saturday, July 25, 2009

War Stories

I recently watched this slick little animated short based on Call of Duty 4. Titled “The Call,” the short tells the story of an American convoy, which gets ambushed in some vaguely Middle Eastern country. Its bang-bang-boom-boom is all done very tastefully, harvesting Modern Warfare’s rich palate of explosions and urgent shouting.

Yet, after a few minutes of beautiful drawing and talented directing, I had a nasty taste in my mouth. I had just watched a (mostly) convincing depiction of contemporary urban warfare in the Middle East – and it was based on a videogame.

We’ve been fighting virtual Nazis for longer than our grandparents fought real ones. We’ve sniped insurgents in dead-on simulacrums of modern battlegrounds. We’ve done this for so long, we’ve not only lost our frame of reference – we forgot there was one to begin with. We’ve crossed a line.

Before you rain down hellfire upon my shoddy little argument, let me be the first to confess that I’m one of the worst indulgers of what can be most charitably called “War Porn” – anything with a Tom Clancy or Call of Duty branding, I play and love. I gobble it up shamelessly. Seriously: I’m first in line to buy Modern Warfare 2.

But an Uncanny Valley-ish effect is creeping in. The closer games get to nailing the visceral experience of war – the sounds, the explosions, the jargon – the farther away they move from the reality. During the course of MW, I paused hundreds of times in sheer that’s-so-cool awe; also during the course of MW, I was greased hundreds of times for doing so. Don’t worry, I was fine; I respawned ten feet and two minutes ago. Checkpoints unburden us of a sense of consequence. Tension, fear, and I’m-still-alive exhilaration play no part in modern war games.

Some advocate the play-without-saving model. Rock on, I say, but take it one step further: after you die, throw the disc out the window. Pause. Reflect.

I’m being glib, but you get my point: war games are becoming impossibly distant from the source material, not because they aren’t trying, but because they’re trying too hard. Look at Army of Two: I love it mostly because it hardly tries at all. Games like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, however, do their best to immerse you in what a room full of programmers would like to believe is an authentic warzone.

Really, nothing makes me laugh harder than seeing a group of code monkeys gussied-up in flack jackets, holding M-16s loaded with blanks. Many design teams will pay good money to run through a military-chaperoned wargame, sweating and puffing to dive behind a barrier before a few chalk rounds snap over their heads. Guys? I’ve played paintball, too. Not even close.

The thing about “The Call” is it resembles a videogame more than it does real war – the ambush, the vague, shouted Arabic, the cinematic showdown with the Hind. While it’s under no obligation to pay rigid homage to real warfare, we need to recognize that there’s something morally hazardous in making fake war while across the globe, Americans wage war that is very, very real.