After having a very good and long debate about this, it’s become clear, to me at least, that video gaming is becoming a medium where real emotions can be produced, and where the medium’s quality can create stories and experiences deeper than other more traditional, and static, media.
Thanks to Infinity Ward’s upcoming title Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a lot of the principle differences from what a game can do with a story and what a movie or television show are being discussed. This is a difference from what was previously argued about gaming—games used to be simply a ‘toy’ for the immature or young, and the use of violent or sexual images within them itself was considered inappropriate. Now, for the first time (outside forums for hardcore gamers or those who look at gaming as an evolving artform) I have noticed people complaining about the contextual use of violence.
The event everyone has been discussing, which has had the blogosphere booming and people on twitter all –for lack of a better term—atwitter, is the opening sequence of Modern Warfare 2. To save spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen the video (which may or may not be few; IW has made huge efforts to pull this video down from all the hosting sites it has been available on), it basically showed how during the first mission you are apparently controlling a Russian terrorist. Your character is tasked with killing tens (if not hundreds) of innocent, unarmed American civilians in an airport. The quality of the video I saw wasn’t great, but it is very clear that none of the people you are shooting have any real relevance to the character you control, or pose any threat. In fact, I have heard that you have to kill every civilian, otherwise you fail the mission. The end of this mission may change how you feel about what you now know, but I won’t share it so that you can decide whether or not to search it out yourself with only a week left to go.
The biggest thing that surprised me about this mission and people’s reaction to it was that many of the people with big problems with it didn’t have to do with the violence itself. It was the fact that you were committing it. People didn’t like that you have a choice to not kill them, didn’t like that people you were killing were unarmed and completely innocent (you do have a choice to skip the mission, but if you choose to do it you must kill everyone). Considering Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the best selling games ever, I thought that killing people that did nothing to you wouldn’t be that big a bother to most. Then the thought came to me: Gaming is getting there.
GTAIV’s use of wanton, over-the-top violence when compared to the scene in Modern Warfare 2 is not an apples-to-apples comparison because of the art design, mood, and content of the games. Its like the difference between the threatened slapstick violence in the Honeymooners compared to the actual Spousal Abuse in movies like the Color Purple. It took a director bold enough to cover the more difficult, subtle meat of the issues that cause the violence. The situation where the violence occurs in products that aren’t trying to portray anything meaningfully (GTAIV, the Honeymooners) is acceptable, because the intent of the content isn’t to challenge your thoughts on the subject. Whereas more forward-thinking and controversial uses of media to describe the same story, but within more real contexts (Color Purple, Modern Warfare 2) tend to rub many the wrong way.
Not only is this general analysis at play with the mission in question, but the unique concept of actually doing, and being responsible for, what most everybody in the main portion of Infinity Ward’s demographic as wrong is the bigger issue. It’s also where my seeing growth in the idea that gaming is a true artistic media in the vein of film and music.
Gaming is the only media able to actually put you in the shoes of a character. The best storytellers have been able to do this in the static media, but the difference that games provide is the perspective had is unique to the player. As the player, you are taking in what the character is taking in. You are experiencing the story in real-time rather than viewing it after the fact. So for most Americans, the thought of being that person that, for a time after 9/11, everyone was legitimately afraid of is a scary thought. We aren’t ready for that yet, for the most part. That’s why I think this game is right on time.
The antagonist in games has always been the villain standing over the scantily-clad and bound damsel in distress over the train tracks twisting his fiendish mustache, or the megalomaniac bent on world domination. Modern Warfare 2 takes the more humanistic approach and places players in the shoes of somebody who just happens to be on the other side…not a villain, but an enemy. They believe wholeheartedly in their actions, and think their beliefs justify them.
Even though it’s only for the short span of 1 mission, I’m able to appreciate this level immersion into a story where the lines of right and wrong are both so clear and so fuzzy. Most can’t because it’s very much against what we believe to be right, and the presentation of it is too real. But we must first realize that stories like these have many facets, and Infinity Ward’s decision to make available actions from the antagonists perspective would not have been looked down upon as heavily if it were in movies. The interactivity gaming provides that makes the difference. This difference is why I think Gaming is the best available media to tell a story. But because no one has said games shouldn’t do stories like this one, and the reactions to this small mission prove that gaming has arrived and is not for kids anymore (at least not for mainstream…gamers like me have always know though).
What do you think?