First person refugee: A journalist takes his ‘Call of Duty’ sons to a real war (2)
By Jim Gourley Best Defense video games critic Swedish journalist Carl-Magnus Helgegren was equally confused by his two sons’ passion for Call of Duty, but when they approached him about buying last year’s edition of the game, the Swedish journalist and documentary filmmaker’s parental instincts overrode his academic curiosity. Helgegren had traveled to Israel to ...
By Jim Gourley
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense video games critic
Swedish journalist Carl-Magnus Helgegren was equally confused by his two sons’ passion for Call of Duty, but when they approached him about buying last year’s edition of the game, the Swedish journalist and documentary filmmaker’s parental instincts overrode his academic curiosity. Helgegren had traveled to Israel to cover the conflict in Palestine in 2009. On his blog, he wrote that he remembered that trip as he and his sons discussed the game. "I started thinking. I thought I knew what war was. That was before I went and worked on the West Bank in 2009." Helgegren decided to offer the kids a deal. He would buy them the game if they still wanted it after going to Israel and visiting areas affected by the conflict.
It was a profound learning experience for all three of them. The boys experienced the boring, gritty, depressing reality of war firsthand. They watched as Palestinian men were forced to wait in line for hours at checkpoints just to get to work. They were astonished to learn that one of their guides on the trip who lived less than eight kilometers from the ocean had never been to the beach, because he could not obtain the necessary papers to travel there. Perhaps the most memorable part of their trip was a visit to the Shuafat refugee camp east of Jerusalem. Here, the boys witnessed an unsettling collision of the virtual and living worlds. The experience shocked them by just how simultaneously real and unreal it was.
"When we were in the refugee camp, it was a bit shocking because it was like going from ‘regular’ Jerusalem to a different world. The change was very sudden. We didn’t feel unsafe, but it was a bit scary to see the state of the place. Once we stopped in a neighborhood in the Israeli part of Jerusalem that was very rich. The buildings were very posh and there were small, well-kept patios in front of the buildings. Just 100 meters away began the Palestinian/Arab part of town and it was like someone had cut with a knife though the map. All of the sudden the roads were dirty and potholes everywhere. We went there with our Israeli friend who wanted to show us how just a few hundred meters could make a huge difference. We bought groceries and when we got back to the car there were children hanging out looking at us like we were from outer space."
The boys marveled at how dirty and run-down the area looked, and noted the persistent smell of burning trash and raw sewage running in the streets. As difficult as it was for them to see in person, they still felt a sense of familiarity with the place. "If they had copied the area and deployed it on a server it would have been ready for gaming," they said. There was only one difference they remarked about the real place from those they’d seen in Call of Duty: The games don’t show people living in the buildings.
Helgegren noticed other disturbing influences games had exerted on the boys’ knowledge of war. "Anywhere we went, they seemed extremely knowledgeable about the names and characteristics of the weapons the soldiers carried. They knew them all by sight." He was later surprised to learn that this is part of the realism achieved thanks to the gaming industry’s budget, in the form of licensing agreements with actual gun manufacturers. "They knew what a Desert Eagle was, but when I picked five leaves off of trees near our home, they could only identify two," he says.
After their trip, the boys decided they no longer wanted the game. But what surprised Carl was a revelation his son expressed weeks later. "My older son came to me and said, ‘I used to not understand why so many people from other countries come here. But now I realize. It’s so horrible where they came from. Maybe we should be more accepting of them here and try to help them fit in.’"
Dr. Brockmyer can’t say whether experiences like the one Helgegren offered his sons would work for other people, let alone advocate such an approach. But in the course of her research she has developed the sense that society has become desensitized to violence in all media, including games. "There’s an interaction at work, I think. Media exposes us to violence and we become more accepting of it. And because of that we accept more violence when we see it." It could mean there’s something of a vicious circle at work, or a race to the bottom. Like all media, games depend on their entertainment value to sell. They always need to up the ante with new gameplay mechanics, new modes, new environments, new guns, new stories, and new ways to kill or be killed.
But for all that newness, it’s always a fresh take on an old format. The experience of war still occurs from the soldiers’ point of view. The war story always unfolds through the eyes of the warrior. It’s another way in which the game industry is looking more like Hollywood these days. With rare exception, game companies stick with the tried-and-true script of hard-hitting action instead of taking a risk on new concepts. Franchise owner Activision has advanced that assembly-line approach to making games by running two different production studios on Call of Duty. With each one producing a new installment on a two-year schedule, a new game arrives every year. But that kind of Groundhog Day rotation can result in a product that feels like a rerun to the audience.
(more to come)
Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer.
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