This is a bit of an odd article – I’m aware that it’s now ten years after the original controversy over the airport scene in Modern Warfare 2. But there’s a few things that I want to discuss – particularly with reference to how we think about the relationship between player and character. It’s something that’s continued to come up in conversations with friends, and if I write my thoughts down here then I’ll have put paid to those fuckers once and for all.
When I was playing Modern Warfare 2, I got up to the airport scene and I had a friend looking over my shoulder. I think I was round gaming at a friend’s flat – I used to go round in the evenings and we’d all just do our own thing together. Anyway, the lift doors opened and my friend goes ‘So are you going to – oh okay,’ because I was already blasting away at screaming civilians. He was a bit taken aback by how I was just gunning away. We didn’t really talk through the different thought processes, but you can imagine what he might have been thinking. Shooting civilians is bad. It’s the sort of thing terrorists do – in fact, the whole scene is framed as a terrorist attack in the fiction. Some people skip the level, some people play it through in a pacifistic sort of way, refusing to shoot at any of the unarmed civilians. They might still kill the security guards, and the SWAT-esque guys who turn up a bit later on, but the civilians are off limits. And I get that, as a basic emotional reaction – you’re playing as the bad guys and carrying out a mass shooting, and that’s fucked up. It’s a fair reaction. You wouldn’t play Super Columbine Massacre or whatever it is, so why would you play this?
And alright, like I say – fair enough. Reasonable emotional reaction. I guess for my part, I operate with a slightly more complicated relationship between player and player-character. To explain it in more detail, we have to turn to Spec Ops: The Line. If you aren’t familiar with Spec Ops, basically you play the bad guys. It starts off with you being the heroes, but things just go downhill really quickly. Progress is exclusively mediated by murder, and it’s exclusively negative. Your character is trying his hardest to help, but he’s just fucking not. He’s making everything worse.
And when Spec Ops first came out, there were a bunch of articles being like ‘ooh Spec Ops tries to make you do bad things and then blames you for doing the things that it made you do.’ People were banging on about how the game is supposedly hypocritical. Yahtzee actually makes reference to this idea in his review of the game too. And there were a whole bunch of articles saying things like ‘the only way to win is not to play’ or ‘Spec Ops is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t give you an option to do anything other than just keep moving forward.’ And as an English major, it’s like oh no, a plot where the main character moves inexorably towards tragedy, what a design flaw. Really the point is that Spec Ops isn’t necessarily trying to make you feel bad or accuse you of being evil. It’s just asking questions about the type of media we consume and how we think about – or even enjoy – the things we do in games. That’s a reasonable point to be making. It’s not unreasonable for the game to periodically go ‘Hey, are you okay with all this?’ And to be honest, it’s pretty typical of video game criticism that the bulk of the responses saw such a basic request for critical reflection as a personal attack.
Anyway – I wrote my honours thesis on Spec Ops, so I’m still a bit snippy about it. But here’s the question. Once you know what Spec Ops is about, can you play it and still be a good person? Seems kinda like a dumb question, right – of course you can play it and still be a good person. It just depends on how you think about the things the protagonist is doing. Obviously we have an extensive history of games with a silent protagonist – everything from Half-Life on. And often with those games you hear people say that the protagonist is a blank slate so you can project your own emotions and thoughts into the fictional world. I’ve made that argument myself in the past. It’s possible that we’ve spent so much time around silent protagonists that we’ve forgotten how to conceptualize a distance between our selves and the player-character. For me, Spec Ops served as a really clear wake-up call. I realised that the protagonist was a bad person, and then the further I played through the game, the sadder I became, because the straitjacketed structure of the gameplay just reinforced the inevitability of violence for this awful, awful character. Fuck Martin Walker.
When it comes to games like Modern Warfare 2, then, Walker is always sort of my guiding light. There can be a difference between player and player-character. It actually came up again more recently while I was playing Beholder – I decided that the main character was a bit of a shit, and committed to that narrative structure. I didn’t feel guilty about what he was doing, because he was a bad person and he was off doing bad things. There’s probably something more interesting to say about that example, because in that instance you can actually choose a number of different play-styles – so maybe it says something about me that I chose to play Carl as a monster. Either way, as far as the airport scene goes in Modern Warfare – no, I don’t really feel bad about shooting the civilians. I accept that it’s a depiction of a character doing bad things in the service of a supposedly higher cause. I think that the character is morally gross, but it’s not really – I’m not shooting them because I personally think that shooting civilians is a good thing to do, right. It’s the point of view of a character that I am experiencing without necessarily condoning.
Tell you what, though, the public reaction to the airport scene is probably more enlightening than the actual airport scene itself. That 2009 outrage, jeepers creepers. In some ways it’s a bit ironic. Modern Warfare was always about how America and the UK were gonna fight off the Russians and the, uh, the Middle East (all of it I guess?), and they were the heroes and they were gonna be great and – and then MW2 has the airport scene and people lose their minds. Maybe it’s as much about broken expectations as it is about the actual content. You know – you can’t make us do bad things! We’re the heroes! We’re Americans! We’re good! Killing people is bad! It’s disrespectful! It’s awful! How can you make killing people into entertainment!? It’s sick!! Not gonna say they were hoisted by their own petard, but – I mean look, if your game is about Americans being the heroes, and it makes players thoughtlessly inhabit an avatar presumed to be both American and morally superior, you’re going to get some blowback when you violently transgress against that structure. And boy was it violent.
This is fascinating! Feels like the big difference between this and a narrative about a bad person is participation. In a book, Im more like a voyeur of their life, but in the game I’m actively participating in playing these scenes out. There’s even the ludic stuff, right – you have choices about how to play the game “well” (hope that usage of the word ludic is correct 😅)
Would love to hear your thoughts on that distinction between watching and participating.
Also, is there a parallel between the performance in a game and a performance on a stage? I imagine lots of actors would feel weird playing Hitler, but maybe also take it quite seriously. Are MW2 players in an analagous position?
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ah fuck’s sake I wrote a reply and then accidentally wiped it. alright, round two:
Yeah, totally, you’re bang on. Firstly, people have noticed there’s less of a gap between watching & participating than we might commonly think. They’re connected – watching is always to some extent participating. Even if it’s just the cognitive/mental process of assembling light beams into recognisable shapes and assigning meaning and interpreting sounds – interpretation is an active process. It’s fundamentally participatory.
Not that watching & participating are identical, of course. Different mediums do have different balances between the two. Video games seem more weighted towards participation than, say, books, like you identified. Games involve play, which, yes, is more participatory – especially compared to reading. I think the key problem is that people have gone too far towards the participation end with video games. There’s not enough conceptual space for viewing – which I think is part of why people objected so strongly to the MW scene. They’re overly invested in the idea of games as participatory, meaning that when a protagonist does something Actively Bad, they freak out about how it reflects on their moral identity. In that context, all I’m really doing here is noting that viewing is like a thing that exists as a valid way to engage with video games & video game characters.
That said, like obviously the concept of ‘viewing’ isn’t like an automatic moral defence for every type of play, right. It’s possible to take the concept too far & just obscure participation entirely – the equal & opposite error, Lewis would say 😀 so if you’re playing Super Columbine Massacre, the question about participation is really crucial – because why the fuck are you playing that game. In the case of MW2 specifically, I’m personally okay with murdering random civilians, because I think it’s got a real thematic importance. I won’t explain it right now, because I’ve got a post queued at the start of September dealing with that already, but, uh, chat more in a month? 😀
Sounds like a plan 😀