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Why We Fight

Why do you play games about war?

Is it the competition? The mechanics? The joy of teamplay? The opportunity to order people around? The escapism? Shooting? Stabbing? Fragging? Telefragging? Do any of you even know what telefragging means? Is it the chance to step into a virtual soldier's shoes and virtually risk your life in virtual war zones, reveling in the virtual destruction of virtual civilization as we know it?

Admit it: you like the violence. That's why a vast majority of today's bestselling games are all about murdering in the name of a higher cause. Some of you will argue that murder for a higher cause is some kind of oxymoron. I just think murder is a much more appropriate word than killing -- an ugly word for an ugly act.

Twenty years ago, a tank game would be a box with a line sticking out of it shooting tiny boxes at a different-colored box with a line sticking out of it until the latter box explodes in a shower of even smaller boxes (or simply disappears, if the programmer wasn't clever enough). Today, the same game would show a city reduced to rubble and soldiers, their bodies on fire, screaming in agony as they escape the smoking husk of their destroyed war machine, only to be mowed down by machine gun fire from the victorious tank. If the developers are vicious enough, they'd leave body parts strewn about the blood-drenched snow -- the remains of what was once a living, breathing human, shredded, scorched, and torn apart. Just another piece of meat in the grinder. Just a victim of the opposing team's superior firepower and superior leadership.

This excites us. This electrifies us. It makes us scream expletives of ardent approval into our microphones, verbally patting each other on the back for a plan well-executed. Nice. Awesome. Good job.

I remember being slightly disturbed at the sight of dead terrorists in the original Rainbow Six, more than ten years ago. The crudely modeled humans fell to the floor right where they got shot and stayed there instead of disappearing after a while, their eyes open in unexpressed surprise, red spots of blood marking where the bullets landed on their bodies. I recalled this when I got lucky enough in Battlefield 3 to death-melee a clueless American soldier who was facing in the wrong direction. Here was a realistically-modeled soldier whose visual plausibility was arguably nearing the lowest point of the uncanny valley and he was getting stabbed to death in uncomfortably close proximity by the guy whose eyes I was looking through. As he died, I got a split-second to admire the detailing on the poor bastard's uniform and equipment -- the texture of his BDU, the modeling of his helmet and harness. It's all very well-designed and high tech and well-maintained. I can't see the guy's eyes through his visor, but I know that this was someone who planned to Make It Back at the end of the day's confrontation. This was someone who wasn't quite ready to die yet. It's disgusting. To quote Manhunt 2, this is how it feels to own a life.

Then the guy's dog tags pop up on-screen, showing you the name of the player you just "pwned", reminding you that the guy you julienned (okay, not really -- more like filleted) was just a lifeless computer-generated avatar. Suddenly, you're back in your seat, playing a game. Somehow, that makes it all okay.

There's something terrifying in the safety in which we enjoy these games -- something sterile yet monstrous in the way we celebrate man's achievement of taking the act of making-other-people-dead and developing it into high science. In practice, a good war-themed game is a seat-of-your-pants thrill ride through and through. In essence, it's a glorification of the worst aspect of everything military, which is the war itself.

Of course, I don't play these games to glorify war. Only idiots glorify war. Only people who have never lost family and friends to war glorify war. I play because I like gaming with my buddies and it's fun to click on things to make them explode (which, when analyzed, is not a good reason at all but is still not glorifying war I swear). However, there's always the risk of suddenly seeing it all as Very, Very Cool. Guns are cool. Jets are cool. Tanks are cool. Why can't killing be cool? That's what all these Cool Things were made to do.

Sometimes, I wonder how my gaming buddies can reconcile the crunchy game-systemy bits of a game -- the controls and the tactics and the shooting and such -- with the whole military-men-killing-and-getting-killed theme. We have very deep and entertaining games dressed up as conflicts that real people are fighting and dying in today. How can we take the so-called cool aspects of these conflicts in good conscience without accepting the real consequences as well? Why do we let ourselves get caught up in the blood-soaked allure of it all?

Why do we lie to ourselves?

There was a horrible moment a few years ago when I looked out the train window during my morning commute and, in my head, I started leading pedestrians for headshots. This was after an entire weekend of playing Far Cry 2. It lasted for a split second, but it threw me off-balance for the whole day. I'm pretty sure I won't end up a serial killer, but that kind of thinking can't be healthy. It scared me.

I'm not on a games-as-art kick, and neither am I on a crusade for games about war that actually show us how it is to be in a war. I just want to see the whole matter from a better perspective. I can't claim to fully understand the whole fascination with armed conflict, so I can't possibly come up with a feasible solution either. All I'd like is for you to ask yourself the same question: Why do you play games about war?

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