National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

‘War Ain’t No Game’

History Games Straddle a Fine Line Between Realism and Exploitation


January 25-31, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/16/09 at 10:02 AM


Saving Private Ryan cast a long shadow over game design. Steven Spielberg’s use of handheld cameras and graphic depictions of combat violence created an intense and unblinking view of the horrors of war.

Gaming — particularly 3-D, first-person action gaming — was still coming of age when the movie was released in 1998, and Spielberg himself saw the potential of the genre.

Working with his team at DreamWorks Interactive, he developed “Medal of Honor” (1999) to recreate the realism and intensity of Saving Private Ryan as an interactive experience.

It seems to be a natural extension of the evolution of media: Put control of an experience like Saving Private Ryan in the hands of the viewer, while maintaining the same level of respect for the material.

But it’s not that simple.

We may use phrases such as “interactive entertainment,” but to most people, these are just “games,” and as one veteran commenting on “Medal of Honor” observed, “War ain’t no game.”

Indeed, it’s not, but video and computer games have evolved so far in three short decades that many are closer in form, content and structure to movies. It’s natural that game developers feel they can and should explore any subject or action that can be explored on film.

It’s here that things become tricky and the lines blur, because what one may watch passively (and render judgment upon) in a film like Ryan, The Godfather or Scarface, one is asked to become or do in a game.

Military games generally managed to avoid that moral conundrum over the last decade and, led by the example of Spielberg and “Medal of Honor,” offered a respectful, realistic version of war as an interactive experience. But turning any piece of history, particularly World War II, into a game is a tricky business. There’s a very fine line between a realistic depiction of the horrors of war and mere exploitation.

Best-selling series “Call of Duty” and “Brothers in Arms” began on the right side of that line, but with each new release, they’ve drifted a little farther.

In both “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway” (Rated M) and “Call of Duty: World at War” (Rated M) that line is blurred, and what was once a realistic depiction of the carnage of war shades, at times, into exploitation.

Before continuing, however, it’s important to note that both games offer options to turn off the worst elements.

Although the extreme content is on as a default setting, easily warranting the “Mature” rating, it is possible to turn off certain features to reduce the impact of the violence, the blood and gore, and even the language.

“World at War” even goes the extra mile to block out offending content in historical footage and render certain scenes only in shadow or cropped versions. Thanks to these toggles (which unfortunately don’t work in the multiplayer modes), both games can be brought down closer to a “Teen” rating. Kids are on the honor system, however; there are no parental lock codes.

The unexpurgated versions, however, have some troubling elements, particularly in the case of “Hell’s Highway,” the latest “Brothers in Arms” game. The series is based on the true story of the 101st Airborne, 502nd Parachute Infantry, with the first two games detailing their experiences behind enemy lines on D-Day.

“Hell’s Highway” finds the team and its leader, Matt Baker, dropped into the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden, General Montgomery’s ill-fated attempt to end the war four months after D-Day.

Actual missions and soldiers of the 502nd were the inspiration for the games, which always aimed for a realistic depiction to war.

A hallmark of the series is its strong, cinematic sense of storytelling, with a heavy investment in character development and the relationships among the “band of brothers.”

The narrative, focus on character, need for teamwork, and general realism of the weapons and landscapes show that Gearbox takes its work seriously.

Unfortunately, the game is marred by visceral, extremely graphic violence shown in the most exploitative ways possible. Certain “special” kills trigger a slow-motion kill-cam, complete with dramatic angles and astonishing amounts of gore, as heads are blown in half and limbs ripped off.

Owing more to Saw than Saving Private Ryan, this approach cheapens the entire experience.

As it has drifted from “Teen” to “Mature” ratings, the “Call of Duty” series has also increased the amount of violence, gore and profanity in their games following “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.”

World at War brings the series back to its World War II roots with a rather scattered and unfocused narrative that skips around in time and location from the Pacific War to the Soviet advance on Berlin.

The gameplay remains top-notch, with clever missions and vivid locations, but like “Brothers in Arms,” the focus of the series sometimes drifts to brutality for its own sake. The story opens with a gory and somewhat pointless scene of torture and murder that does little to add to drama or character.

The game recovers, as the focus shifts back to the gripping first-person combat that is the hallmark of the series, with some truly memorable and frightening moments.

With both “Call of Duty” and “Brothers in Arms,” however, there is a lingering sense that developers are trying to constantly outdo themselves and are increasing the gore and profanity content less out of some attempt at verisimilitude and more as an effort to shock.

Thus, the fine line between realism and exploitation, effectively straddled by historical combat shooters since “Medal of Honor,” gets crossed.

Thomas L. McDonald is

editor-at-large of Games magazine and a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.