First person refugee: New opinions and approaches to our relationship with combat in video games and real life (1)

First person refugee: New opinions and approaches to our relationship with combat in video games and real life (1)

By Jim Gourley

Best Defense video games critic

First-person shooter video games have been the most popular and commercially successful genre in gaming since they entered the mainstream in 1992. They have also drawn the most criticism from parents, governmental authorities, and the psychological community for almost the same amount of time. For all the claims of developers that their products are "only games," they have for years staked their success with consumers on claims of how realistic the action is. From the physics of how bodies and objects react to being hit by gunfire to the political plausibility of the in-game conflicts, first-person shooters (FPS, for short) consistently try to raise the bar on getting gamers as close to "the real thing" as possible.

Perhaps most iconic of this initiative is Activision’s Call of Duty franchise, which releases its eleventh installment this month. The new game’s inclusion of Kevin Spacey playing a role eerily reminiscent of his Frank Underwood character and a new commercial helmed by Lone Survivor director Peter Berg demonstrate the studio’s commitment to giving players the genuine texture of armed conflict. Gamers aren’t the only ones buying into this message. The Atlantic Council recently hired Dave Anthony, the director of two different Call of Duty installments, to help envision potential terrorist threats and how to deal with them.

But today, a growing number of activists, psychological professionals, social scientists, and even game developers are fostering a dialogue about a most inconvenient truth: contrary to their advertising, the worldview of these war-themed games is wholly unrealistic, and their broadening influence on American military culture and defense thinking may be toxic. Rising to counterbalance the FPS is a relatively new genre known as "empathy games." 

While pre-order sales for the new Call of Duty are lower than its last two predecessors, the FPS market is bigger than ever. An entire generation of adults grew up playing games as soldiers shooting the enemy, and they’re still playing today alongside their own children. The games have grown, as well. The gaming industry’s revenues are now on par with Hollywood, and shooters have become the game equivalent of big-budget blockbusters. It’s in this Michael Bay approach to production that an entire dimension of realism is abandoned: the reality of cultural influences on operational outcomes, the inexorable link between military actions and political consequences, and the acceptance of risk to your own forces in order to win the support of local populations. Call it COIN or "hearts and minds," it boils down to the same thing — empathy.

But whether it’s fundamentalist terrorists, aliens bent on planetary conquest, or the zombie horde, the essential mechanic that makes FPS games so addictively fun is their "kill ’em all" approach to every situation. Whereas top American military leaders have explicitly told us that we can’t kill our way out of Afghanistan, FPS games are built on the belief that you can. Outside observers of American culture believe the games are winning the messaging war, making us more likely to enter conflict and less equipped to find a successful way out.

Dr. Jeanne Brockmyer has been studying the influence of video games on empathy for several years. She’s quick to point out that how virtual experiences influence our real-life choices is a complex field of study. "It’s not just games. There are many forms of media through which we experience violence." She points out that movies, television and even news can have a desensitizing effect, and not just with regard to violence. Studies suggest that even social media can change our response to violence, and gives us the chance to influence others. "Video games are just one experience we have in a day filled with many different types of interactions." She dismisses exaggerated perceptions of gamers who never leave their basement couch and play for days at a time. "That’s less than six percent of the gaming population. It happens, but that’s a very small, extreme population." However, she is more concerned about the potency of games. "We find that games are such a powerful influence because they present an interactive experience. The player observes behavior, then gets to act it out, and is rewarded based on how they behave. It’s a powerful reinforcement tool." This is the point at which combat games begin to diverge from reality. In the game, the more people you kill, the closer you get to your ultimate objective. But this is only one aspect of gaming. 

Another component that’s less understood is why people choose these games in the first place. In its most basic terms, it does seem odd that a person would purchase software for the express purpose of engaging in simulated murder, especially when every game presents the threat of being virtually killed yourself. In real life, these would be prospects of utmost terror. In games, they’re the key ingredient that hooks customers. Brockmyer says there are many possible explanations. "People are fascinated by violence for different reasons. Research suggests that some kids are drawn to violence in games. They use the game as a means to master their fear. Other children fulfill a need by being terrified. We don’t fully understand the dynamics at work."

(Much more to come)

Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer.