Modern Warfare 2 jolts the player awake with a question: what kind of a world is this?
Video games are taking the place side by side to blockbuster movies. They are the new form of mass media entertainment as the visual realism begins to match that of movies and even the real world. What gives them an edge however is the fact that they are interactive, that not only can you passively experience them as you watch, but participate and influence exactly what you see.
This is also why there is typically more controversy over violence in games than violence in movies - you are the one actually initiating or participating in carnage and as you suspend disbelief to enjoy the game it is almost as if you're doing it for real, especially if the game is made so realistic and so intense that there isn't much left in there to remind you that it's not real.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 brings this to a whole new level, most specifically, the controversial level titled "No Russian" which puts you as an undercover agent pretending to be with the terrorists. Kyle Orland of CrispyGamer.com wrote an excellent account of what you get to experience in this level:
The incongruity of the scene is evident from the start, as my character and a group of four Russians walk casually out of an elevator, into a busy airport waiting area, armed with heavy automatic weapons. As the Russians arrange themselves in a semi-circle behind a ticket line, guns on their shoulders, it's easy to deny that what I know is about to happen will be so bad. It's only when we actually draw our weapons on the unsuspecting crowd that the gravity of the situation begins to sink in. This isn't the usual shoot-or-be-shot carnage of countless first-person shooters. This is going to be a massacre.
Even though the gun in my hand is my only way of interacting with the world around me, I'm not about to fire the first shot into the crowd. This ends up being a non-issue, as my four companions quickly and wordlessly open fire simultaneously, spraying an indiscriminate spread of bullets into the unsuspecting travellers. I find myself struck dumbfounded, not so much by the act, which I knew was coming, but by the incredible detail in its rendering. The squirting blood, the collapsing, slumped piles of bodies, the panicked shrieks, the survivors congealing into a confused mass of motion as they desperately try to get away -- they all combine to give the scene a raw intesity that I wasn't expecting.
As we walk downstairs into that pile of bodies, I'm already feeling a little numb. I thought I as prepared for this, but the sheer realism of the scene is proving to be a little too much for me.
If you can stomach the scene you can watch it here:
I'd be the last one to argue against artistic liberty and say that Infinity Ward, the producer of this game, had no right to include a scene such as this in the game. That's not the point I wish to convey. I would instead like to speculatively explore the implications of this scene, its realism and the controversy that arose as a result.
What makes this scene so horrible and controversial are precisely the things which we would otherwise deem wonderful about modern games, the things that the masses want and clamor for, the things which they pay for. It's the superb visual and sonic realism. It's the intensity and intimacy with which you can experience what's going on in the game. What is available is directly influenced by what the market wants.
One might argue that a proper response to the outrage over this scene would thus be something along the lines of this: You wanted realism. You wanted an experience as close as to the real thing as possible. And you wanted some real action. Well, you got it!"
What this begins to illustrate is the power of modern games to make a person actually see what it's like. What it's like to be a soldier murdering people. What it's like to be in the middle of a terrorist attack and as perversely as it is, what it's like to actually BE a terrorist. This brings the gamer towards a greater understanding of what's actually going on out there. It brings him to a more intimate appreciation of the evils portrayed.
Typically when people hear the news about war and violence it is always so distant. They say it's horrible but they don't really grasp the true horribleness of the thing. You watch the news at one moment and the next you may be joking with your friends or family or otherwise be completely distracted by something else. It's just news, after all and bad news is a commodity we're all so used to. You don't take a moment to appreciate what has actually happened.
Realistic gaming such as this gives you that opportunity and if you are any how inclined to ponder and think it might have an effect on you. It might raise your awareness. It might actually lead you to realize that the violence and war you've been looking at so dismissively and considering as such a normal part of how the world works perhaps isn't something to take so lightly. I don't know, but it's certainly a possibility, isn't it?
Regardless of whether you suspend disbelief or not I think it can also be a sort of a psychological test. For sure, it's just a game, but that doesn't change the fact that you're right now experiencing a larger chunk of what people who actually were in events such as this were experiencing. If you're simulating an experience why not simulate entirely your response to it? This is why I think there's something potentially quite wrong about people who play this scene and actually participate, quite actively, in the massacre. What's up with that?
The more realistic this kind of entertainment becomes it's possible that the more will this entertaining for fun's sake be also the entertaining of your critical and moral thinking. You couldn't really escape it. You can't watch and participate without experiencing some kind of a reaction to it. Observing these reactions can tell you something about yourself. If you actually thoroughly enjoy shooting civilians in a scene that matches the experience to that of a real world I think that would raise some serious questions as to your psychological state, wouldn't it?
Finally, there is something to be said about why are these kinds of games so popular to begin with. Why is violence in entertainment so attractive at all? Most fundamentally, why do our memes even deal with violence? What went so wrong with human society that we can't seem to stop entertaining the ideas of mutual-destruction? It's an interesting question to ask.
But even more interesting would then be the question of what kind of future are we building with this kind of mentality and this kind of culture. Little by little the evolution of our technology gives us powers we never had before. The power to visualize and experience events you never before participated in within the real world is just one example and just a start.
But there is so much more to come. The question is are we prepared for it. Being outraged over a realistic massacre scene in a computer game can make you think, but it's just a start. The point is to make you awake, because that world you thought was just a fantasy, just a game, just a movie. It's what ultimately shapes our real world.