The Appeal of Modern Military FPS Games

Oct 31, 2011

Q: It seems horrific that so many of the highest profile games lately have been depicting modern warfare in first-person. Why do people find a thrill in experiencing reality as soldiers?

A: Playing a videogame is, fortunately for everyone involved, quite different than experiencing reality as soldiers. Playing a videogame is even less real than a war film – in a war film, I suppose, a stunt double might hurt their ankle on the set. Not only is the player not really doing those acts depicted, the digital characters in the videogames aren’t doing them either.

The central gameplay in FPS games is popular for the same reason that nerf guns, dodgeball, water pistols, laser tag, paintball, and other playful forms of ranged tag resonate with people seeking amusement. The thrill is in “getting” someone, and in narrowly escaping the same. By extended the ability to tag or be tagged to virtually anything with line of sight, the game creates excitement by the knowledge that at any instant a new target or threat could come around any corner from any direction. This added risk introduces distance, timing, angles, and to give advantage in that environment, teamwork and strategy. Also unlike contact tag, there’s no ‘it’ role to separate trying to tag others from trying not to be tagged – both duties must be handled in tandem, so that to find an angle on an opponent is to simultaneously give them an angle on you. Getting closer to increase your chances of getting a target puts you closer to that target, increasing their chances of getting you.

Have you played a paintball or Nerf gun videogame, though? They exist. I suspect that their target demographic is young players looking for an FPS experience whose parents won’t allow semi-realistic depictions of violence into the house. But like a fax of a fax, or a photocopy of a photocopy, the approximation of an approximation feels far from the excitement of either real paintball (or Nerf) or a ‘real’ videogame (with spectacular animations or movie-like depictions of literal action). We do not wish that the paintball guns were real guns when we’re playing, nor do we wish that the battle were real when playing military FPS games. But we also don’t want to see a Hollywood movie where the actors make gun and explosion sound effects with their mouths, dive from imaginary explosions, or shoot at each other with paintball guns. In a film or videogame we’d rather see real-looking rifles looking and sounding like they’re really firing, provided that we know for certain that no one is really get hurt.

Theme-wise, videogame violence is no more real than when kids play cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, or pretend to be aliens/robots vs humans. It’s only make believe, and even when it’s based on a real thing – cops and robbers are certainly real – our knowledge that it is not real dilutes the meaning of violence in it. Most sports have more violent aggression and risk of real injury than pretty much any videogame (is there even a videogame equivalent to a harsh and deliberate foul?). No lives are being ended or ruined, we’re just taking part in a casual sport-like drama (or a drama-like sport) for the amusement of all involved.

That make believe aspect plays into the reason why warfare, especially semi-realistic and semi-modern representations of it, is such a widely successful theme. Though videogames offer a socially acceptable outlet for us to be excited and imaginative, adults are generally more self-conscious than children. There was some age when most of us didn’t mind being caught using imagination, then at some point someone caught us doing so and reacted surprised or unimpressed by it… fast forward a bit, and the typical adult, beginning sometime in the teen years or even before, doesn’t want to be thought of as someone that openly plays make believe as an elf or orc. That does not seem like an adult thing to do. When instead the activity can be reskinned as something serious, important, and free from the childish associations of general fantasy – modern military skills and tactics (or, in a close second but too much of a tangent to cover here: professional athletics) – then problem solved. People that don’t want to be thought of as liking a fantastical children’s cartoon can have an easier time being identified by their peers as someone that owns/plays military games.

Regarding the content represented: military equipment has an aura about it. Weapons are intimidating, by design and by convention. Weapons are symbols of power, skill, and in every era they have represented an impressive engineering achievement. In the Bronze Age, in medieval times, in World War I, the weapons at each time were just as much symbols as they were tools. The same is still true today, but century old symbols of power have been eclipsed by more modern innovations, becoming symbols of history instead of symbols of the cutting edge.

(The overwhelming success of World War II games, prior to modern military combat, seems likely rooted in the sheer scale of that war, the clear implications on today’s world, and perhaps that is widely felt to be a less morally ambiguous military effort than virtually any of the wars since.)

Boys especially will often take to a fascination over learning the model numbers of guns, figuring out how to correctly distinguish the likely nation of origin for a tank or aircraft based on its appearance, and generally filling their heads with facts and ideas about military history, strategy, and/or other trivia. Videogames cast in modern military settings offer a chance to both feel like all that needless learning is suddenly useful, and it’s a chance to learn subtle other details about the operation of these arms, and it’s just another opportunity to look at these objects of fascination (AK47’s, MP5s, rocket launchers, body armor, grenades, Predator drones, miniguns, etc.). It suddenly matters that a person has learned (or likes to think that they know something about) some basic differences in guns regarding magazine size, rate of fire, accuracy, and bullet caliber/power.

Technology impresses people. The military has imperative to invest in it, not as a matter of luxury but for survival. Their equipment is more precise. Their gear is more robust. Their vehicles are more rugged. Unfortunately the nature and particular demands of the military, along with sheer cost considerations, render that level of technology well beyond public access or need. Part of why the civilian brand of the Humvee became a brand disaster is because even a comparatively basic military vehicle is ridiculously overpowered, oversized, and thus overpriced for anything that happens in routine civilian life.

For $60, people can get an all access pass to feeling like they have unique access to the most high tech gear in the world, adapted with many of the same enjoyable simplifications and myths (or educated guesses – the developers are just civilians, too) employed by Hollywood, without putting themselves or anyone else in danger.

Lastly, but with a clear connection to that previous point about technology, is the matter of pure visual and audio spectacle. People like to see explosions. No one really wants to think about the serious injuries caused by bombs, but quite apart from that, simply watching the burst of bright lights and flying debris is innately exciting. It’s why we like fireworks, and it’s also why high school science classes can sometimes have exciting stunts like this one:

And, having pointed out that these videogames are technically safer than sports and moviemaking, I’ll add that watching a nuclear bomb go off in a videogame is even safer than being in the same room as a controlled explosion with all safety precautions taken.

The modern military videogame avoids the stigma of childish make believe. It’s a socially accepted context for excitement, fascination, and a bit of imagination. It’s a pastime to be understood and mastered. It’s all this high tech content represented in the comfort of home, in HD detail, themed onto the general gameplay of paintball or laser tag, except that players don’t need to live near a special location to play, nor pay extra money per every round of practice.

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