The ‘Ethics’ of Early War Games

I’ve been digging up information on a lot of old arcade games lately. I recently stumbled across an interesting set of values supported by a few early shooting games by Project Support Engineering (PSE) released in 1977: Desert Patrol and Bazooka. When I talk about the value systems inherent to these games, I am drawing from Ian Bogost’s work on the subject where he investigates the quirks of game rules and representations: essentially, that a game communicates messages that are either taken for granted or that many of us are not trained to recognize. You may think a game is just a game, but games contain a language, produces messages whether the designer intended them or not. I’d also like you to keep in mind the discussions regarding ‘pacifist mode’ in Drop Zone 4 below.

Both Desert Patrol and Bazooka play using gun controllers mounted to the arcade cabinet. They are also military combat games and use similar code to randomly generate characters moving either to the left or right. These were not the first ‘gun games’, which had been used in Japan by Nintendo back in the early 70s, nor was this type of game original to PSE (Sega had released Bullet Mark in 1975 that had tommy gun replicas with force feedback recoil – this is over twenty years before Nintendo’s rumble pack). Unfortunately, many of these early games are not well documented and may contain versions of the rules I am about to describe that predate Desert Patrol and Bazooka, which are a bit better documented.

Desert Patrol takes place in Africa. You are the gunner of a jeep and have to use the anti-aircraft cannon to shoot down numerous airplanes and helicopters. Each craft is worth a different amount of points based on its altitude, size, and speed. The key point to this game is that when you shoot down a plane, the pilot will jump out in a parachute. Now, if you shoot the defenseless parachuter, you will lose points. If you shoot his parachute, he’ll plummet to the ground. When the parachuter dies, a digitized scream SFX is played from a ROM chip. While the number of points lost is probably negligible (say 200 points), the ethics of this game is pretty straightforward: it is ok to shoot down planes, but it is dishonorable to shoot at unarmed pilots parachuting to the ground. Compare this with a modern shooter like Jets ‘n Guns where you can shoot ejecting pilots for points and ridiculous death animations (and a good deal of that game’s humor comes from the excess and mayhem that results).

The second game, Bazooka, places you in the role of a bazookaman who is taking potshots (apparently unnoticed) at a military convoy. The graphics are pretty simple; stick men drive the jeeps and motorcycles, and this was back in the day when tires were asterisks. However, the flyer art is pretty dark and gritty for its time.

Here, the player shoots at tanks (200 points), jeeps (400 points), and motorcycles (600 points). However, there are also stretcher bearers and ambulances heading to and from the battlefield. Again, you lose 200 points if you hit either a stretcher bearer or an ambulance. This game thus also sets up an ethics system where it is dishonorable to kill the defenseless wounded – even if the penalty is negligible at a mere 200 points, the same amount you get for destroying a tank. Like shooting parachuters in Desert Patrol, killing the stretcher bearers and blowing up ambulances in Bazooka are ethics supported by countries like the United States and Britain: it is not only dishonorable to kill defenseless soldiers but it is also against the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Now the interesting thing is that these games were also released in Japan and other countries, so whoever played them would unconsciously have to accept these rules and play by them in order to get the highest score. By reinforcing this fact, the games can help instill this ethical system into the player, in effect, exporting Geneva Convention standards. Why is it bad to shoot an unarmed man? Because he’s not doing anything to harm you. Moreover, if he is a medic, he is actually trying to save someone’s life. Why is it dishonorable? Because he has no way of fighting back and is in a compromised position.

Of course, penalties for shooting particular targets in a game (say, civilians or prisoners) is now a common occurrence. But as far as I can tell, these were two of the first, if not THE first games to use this ‘ethical system’ (again, I have no way of verifying if any earlier gun games had this system as there are no screenshots, descriptions, or playable versions available). Today, though, it’s taken as a given, though the important point is that the system still remains in place.

However, these games also undermine their ethical system through their points structure. Remember that killing a parachuting pilot, stretcher bearer, or ambulance only makes you lose 200 points – the same amount you gain if you destroy the largest and slowest moving target. This is, of course, meant to provide the player with a greater chance to make mistakes, but in order to truly underscore these ethics, the game must make the player take a much greater loss than simply 200 points. Otherwise, they become merely unfortunate ‘collateral damage’ in a game about total war.

Lastly, both of these games use an inverse system of point values. Remember how the motorcyclist is worth 600 points while the tank is worth merely 200? In the real world, a tank is much more powerful than a motorcycle and therefore is usually more valuable. However, Bazooka and Desert Patrol are games of skill based on accuracy. Thus, the smaller and faster the target, the more valuable it becomes. Once again, our real-world analogues are confounded. Not only does it take only one shot to destroy the tank or the motorcycle, but the motorcycle is more valuable because it is smaller and faster! (Note: this type of design was first introduced in the famous Sea Wolf by Midway (March 1976), which gave the player a higher score for destroying the small, swift PT boats at the top of the screen.)

In the world of these games, accuracy is more important than military value: a player is more encouraged to destroy jeeps and motorcycles because they are worth more than he is to destroy tanks, which can deal more damage on the battlefield (an exception would be if the jeeps are carrying the army’s brilliant officers). Thus, the player might let a few slow-moving tanks get through to destroy the front lines in order to take out those motorcyclists for a higher score (and admittedly, blasting a motorcyclist with a bazooka is overkill).

Thus we have two value systems at work in these two early games. The first encourages the player to fire only at combat-ready military targets, underscoring the rules of ‘just warfare’ set by the Geneva Convention and adopted by the West. The second rewards accuracy moreso than tactics. With a little bit of tweaking, these games could be modified to better support the ethical systems they suggest. Though these messages aren’t presented as the main point of the games, they, like all games, contain complex rhetoric communicated by the language of action and simulation. The point is thus not whether or not the designers intended to produce these messages, but rather that they exist and that they could be enhanced through design as a form of communication.

For instance, if we want to reinforce the notion that shooting downed pilots or the wounded is unethical, the game can introduce heftier penalties for doing so, perhaps reinforcing this notion through both visual and audio feedback as well as narrative. But will the general really care if you ‘accidentally’ blew up a few ambulances but destroyed the enemy’s whole tank corps? These rules have always been twisted to serve the needs of the war effort and illustrate that as they currently stand Bazooka and Desert Patrol are insufficient at exploring these questions.

Of course, while these rules would reinforce how the war can be fought more ‘cleanly’ they do not address the fact that war is never clean to begin with and is a practice that should be abhored and prevented at all costs. There are far too few games and stories these days that reinforce this point in a time when we so eagerly and foolishly rush in to a war with no end in sight, leaving us shocked only in retrospect at our apathy and passive acceptance to the kind of warmongering that got us there in the first place.


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