Uncomfortable Realism

Posted by Isaiah Taylor on May 17,2011Tags: , , , , ,

I have a small confession to make. I kind of love violence in video games. In every facet, I grew up loving the exploding barrel and the chain reaction of destruction that ensued. Even as a semi-functional adult, I kill more time in first-person shooters than in any other game genre. As games evolve, we evolve — or, I’d like to think. Seeing the new Battlefield 3 trailer, and its high definition surrealism made me, queasy.  As I approach my thirties and look back on the games I’ve played, I feel it pertinent to try and put this in perspective.

A couple weeks ago, I spread the trailer around the typical social media outlets. The trailer is well crafted and people generally responded favorably. However, after showing the trailer to casual gamers like my mom, questions of taste, maturity and realism flooded my inbox. I’m not quite sure I have a good answer.

Arguing over why I wasn’t going to get Mortal Kombat for Christmas [in my youth] seems so trivial now. My mom still finds the game [and games of that ilk] pretty repugnant, but as stated earlier, as games evolved, we evolve. We can joke about the hyper-real violence found in a Mortal Kombat-type game, because of the current standard of the portrayal of violence in video games.

When the visual aesthetic of a game makes an obvious attempt at reaching for more of a slap-stick depiction of violence it, in a way, quells questions of maturity. There is little need of debate over Mortal Kombat depicting how actual hand-to-hand combat occurs between humans. Not the same can be said for what Battlefield 3 is attempting or what the FPS genre has been attempting for many years.

I’m looking forward to Battlefield 3. I’m excited [this is me excited]. In not-so-exact wording, this feeling of uncomfortable realism is a topic that seems to be muttered and lightly broached when discussing first-person shooters. Specifically shooters that simulate war. My mom, omniously asks this generation of gamers, “So, you guys like this? This doesn’t look very fun at all.”

I can hear an internet roar to the contrary. Though my mom was asking me directly, and I bashfully retorted my excitement. When I look at these previous years’ of games in this genre, I feel like echoing her sentiment more than my own. She, after all, played games with me. She helped me stomp my first goomba. But the age where she started questioning the games I should be playing, is also the age I am currently.

If I was raised in a culture and country that was more comfortable with sex than violence how would I have evolved as a gamer? Or as a person? What would realism embody if a graphic head shot was replaced with the groping of private parts and utterances said mid-coitus?

More to the point, Japanese role-playing games have specialized in creating complex relationships between the player and the characters they interact with. Well, at least they use to. This is something not found in many game genre’s, much less, first person shooters. That pixellated person’s head you’re exploding, has a family that you don’t know, or care about.

Modern Warfare 2 had the uncomfortable, terrorist-themed “No Russian” level. Most recently, THQ’s Homefront entertained the idea of a Korean war being fought on U.S. soil. Now we have a Battlefield trailer depicting war-time scenarios. Scenes disturbingly realistic it almost makes sense why designers don’t want the player to develop complex relationships to any characters [friendly or enemy].

There is a HUD that breaks the full-blown realism. You see the people you’re playing online with, accompanied with rank and icon’s above their heads. There is a map conveniently nestled in the corner that gives you a general feel for this realistic world your avatar is inhabiting. These are the pieces that are hammering home that this is just a video game. More importantly, there is this art major voice in me shouting, “We need to make these steps for games to get better!”

I’m not sure I believe that anymore. The mechanics are becoming more fine tuned and the graphics are improving, but I don’t know if games like these are getting ‘better’. Mature isn’t just an age-gate on a box or a rating distributed by a faceless company.

After rewatching the trailer [several times], I’m finding that my problem isn’t with the actual games themselves. It’s the advertisements. A certain element of fun is being advertised to hook the consumer. Through my mom’s eyes [and I’m sure anyone who viewed the trailer], there is no feeling of mortal consequence. There is no feeling that if the character(s) die that you’ll be attending the funeral or giving the medal of honor to a heart broken wife. There is just a feeling of uneasiness and a pressure to get out of a situation, that you don’t want to be in anymore.

In order to sell games of this type, we can’t very well project these realistic war simulators as being a direct mirror to what war is. I understand this. I’m sure you do as well.

Instead of exploiting sophomoric elements of a genre that is only becoming better at visually conveying a message of reality. Why not try and subtly emphasize that war is not only depressing, but only meant for a certain breed of human? Maybe spotlighting the ‘uncomfortable’ aspects of these hellish realities will spurn more thoughtful ideas in the genre? Or maybe we could do for a healthy balance of games that highlight complex decisions and relationships?

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