Battlefield 3 and “realistic” war

So, unless you never watch TV (and people like that actually exist, right?), you’ve probably been bombarded by ads for Battlefield 3. Yes, I sort-of want to play it (even though am not a huge shooter fan). Yes, it looks very good. Indeed, the ads claim that it’s “the most realistic shooter” ever. Which made me wonder: what does it mean to play a “hyper-realistic” shooter set in a current and on-going conflict? Is it morally problematic to “play” at things that everyday Americans are living “for real”–and even dying “for real”? I can see at least 2 and 1/2 ways of breaking this down:  

  • On the one hand, playing a game that revolves around serious, life-and-death scenarios (such as war) that people are really living seems…insensitive? I’m not sure what the correct term is, but there seems to be something “off” about making a game about something that people are currently dying and suffering through. Thousands of American soldiers (and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani citizens) are being shot at, injured, and killed daily….and along comes a videogame whose maker declares it the “most realistic” shooter around in order to sell it to pimply-faced teenagers and middle-aged couch-potatoes (yes, generalizations….and incorrect ones. I don’t care!) to buy and play and enjoy. What kind of moral statement are we making when we ask our citizens to “sacrifice” in the name of war, yet make a game out of the sacrifices they make? Or the sacrifices we demand of non-soldiers—like rationing and reduction in consumption—but celebrate naked capitalism’s ability to profit from a serious, near-sacred thing like war? Indeed, is this a kind of war profiteering on the part of the developer? Is this an ethical failure on their part (to create it) and/or on our part (to buy it and enjoy it)?
  • The other hand slaps the first one—hard. This hand says two things: first, BF3 is NOT real war, and playing “at” war can be productive socially and psychologically (possibly even morally). Let’s break it down. War in RL, like Iraq and Afghanistan, is happening. “real” soldiers, “real” equipment, “real” casualties exists. BF3 does not “happen” in that no one dies or is injured from it (fist fights at LAN parties notwithstanding). It is not “war,” but only uses the metpahors of war as a backdrop (part of Raph Koster’s argument in A Theory of Fun). Therefore, war and BF3 are not equivalent and cannot be compared on the same scale. Furthermore, playing “with” the metaphor of war—especially a current war like the conflicts in the Middle East—can be a productive way to deal with the incredible and complex challenges of RL war. It can foster discussions and debate, provide a way of visualizing the horrors of combat, of giving voice to soldiers on both sides and so on. Sutton-Smith might even suggest that playing a game about a very un-game-like thing like war is a way of making it easier to understand and contemplate by giving it discrete boundaries and various cultural meanings. That is, playing a game about a modern war can help us process the massive philosophical and conceptual problems that we currently face.
  • The third, little hand (like Quato from Total Recall) objects to the first position as well: why limit these moral problems to “current” wars? Or to “war” at all? Do these same moral problems exist around WWII games, or Civil War games, or games about the Peleponesian War? What about things like SWAT games? Do these moral quandaries exist around something like police forces, who are also suffering and dying? What about games about firefighters? About forest workers? And on and on. I suppose this is directed more towards myself than to others in a way, but why do I react so strongly to something like BF3 and not to Medal of Honor or other games that happened in past conflicts? What is it about it being “right now” makes me bristle a bit? And why about war and not about other things like police games or sports games or others?

So, yes. Problematic. I tend to think that the second argument holds more sway, particularly in terms of what I believe about games. And yet…..uneasy.

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