Playing War and Playing Cinema

I recently read a new article about war and games, Playing War by Brian Cowlishaw. The essay is correct in some of its assessments and a fairly easy read. The article is an excellent summary of many of the key traits of what we call ‘realism’ in the military first-person shooter (FPS), though he leaves out a bit of what the experience feels like, which is covered in Shawn Williams’ Apocalypse Not. Essentially, ‘realistic’ war FPS games reproduce the historical visual components such as equipment, clothing, and setting as well as the audio function very accurately, but the portrayal of war is far from reality. War games focus on the combat sequences, those ten minutes of sheer terror that punctuate endless hours of boredom and stretch this out to the length of a ten hour game.

More to the point: war FPS games are representations of the Hollywood war experience (and here we must assume Cowlishaw means the grandiose 50s war film rather than the gritty and more ‘realistic’ Saving Private Ryan). Games are thus not representations of war but representations of war films, an excellent observation (though one requiring further research into the inspirations of these games). In fact, one of Cowlishaw’s examples, Medal of Honor (PlayStation, 1999), was directly inspired by Saving Private Ryan and developed by DreamWorks Interactive L.L.C. – though produced more in line with traditional FPS games and only using the settings and visual style of the film rather than its human narrative.

This said, Cowlishaw’s essay has some notable flaws. First, from the language, Coulishaw seems to have an underlying negative response to these games, such as a fear of media violence (“I certainly hope real deathmatches never take place in such locales [as a football field or a cruise ship, which are reproduced in some FPS deathmatch levels]) and a confusion of the virtual or fantastic with the real (“‘[Make sure you plan your strategy right before you hit the action button] or it’ll be the last button you press,’ Er, they do mean in-game…right?”). While this latter statement seems more in line with reinforcing his thesis that game content is mixing reality with fantasy, they too unnervingly recall media violence arguments perhaps best defeated in Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters.

The second problem with Cowlishaw’s essay regards his apparent misinterpretation of games as interactive cinema: “Gamers enjoy [FPS games] for what they are, interactive movies that temporarily immerse us in the games’ battles.” While the first part of this statement is true (players enjoy these games because they are games that provide the types of virtual shooting action they enjoy), to say that a game that is merely interactive cinema is missing the point. Interactive cinema is more in line with a Choose Your Own Adventure DVD (perhaps combined with the ability to change camera angles in each scene) and is certainly not a game, which is a simulation of the world, not a recording of it. This reductivism that ‘games are merely interactive cinema’ is a problem that continues to plague both the critical literature and the design field and is a gross misunderstanding of what games actually are. I hope Cowlishaw is merely referring to the fact that games seem more in line with the Hollywood representation of war rather than war itself rather than saying ‘a game is like a film.’

Despite its flaws, Playing War ends up being a decent article on the subject of war and games, though one that is perhaps described in more detail in Ed Halter’s From Sun Tzu to Xbox.

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