Killer Games 

The return of World War II

Thursday, Apr 10 2003

Fifteen seconds after hitting sand on D-Day, I was dead, face-up, getting one last look at the sky. That was the first try. The second time around, I lasted a bit longer. By the 10th attempt, I made it to a steel anti-tank barrier that offered some protection — until I poked my head up and swiftly lost it. That's pretty much how it goes when you start Medal of Honor: Frontline, a highly successful video game in which you help the Allied Expeditionary Force take Omaha Beach and then chase the Nazis back to Berlin. The game eagerly re-creates the chaotic velocity of warfare: Right from the start, with the Krauts entrenched in cliff-side bunkers above, the frenzy of machine-gun fire and artillery along the beach below makes false moves fatal.

That opening sets the tone for what the publisher's press releases might call "deep gameplay," but what your average kid, like the one I spoke to at the Electronics Boutique in Marina del Rey, would more instinctively describe as "a killer fucking game." He was almost wistful as he talked about his own D-Day: "Bullets whizzing past and pinging metal and all your guys running and blowing up, you just know this game will . . . be . . . fun."

Fun may not be the first word that springs to mind when most people think of D-Day, but in the past year or so the cultural nostalgia for the Greatest Generation has taken hold in video-game culture, with games like Medal of Honor and Battlefield 1942. And the same question that accompanied films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers applies here: Why so much sentimentalism about this stuff? Is it coincidence that American culture is celebrating the Good Fight just now? After all, here we are in the season of Saddam, with the greater part of the draft-eligible demographic reliving the glories of vanquishing Hitler. Most gamers would not like to think of their beloved medium as interactive agitprop — so why, then, are we spending our afternoons carrying M1 carbines into the Nazi lair?

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The first and easiest answer is, simply, that it is fun — war and play are longtime partners. Since Prussian officers like Clausewitz applied the Enlightenment to warfare with the Kriegsspiel, games have been used to simulate battle. And for about two centuries, they stayed close to their origins: rule-heavy, boring affairs with hex boards and chits. Now, technology can create increasingly vivid war in fluid and atmospheric real time.

In Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which led the initial assault, you face the only thing worse than Nazis — supernaturally enabled Nazis. What's more fun than blasting a one-eyed Brobdingnagian SS conjuress and her undead minions? Not much, as it happens: Wolfenstein went big. D-Day came a few months later with Medal of Honor, which explicitly follows the gritty aesthetic and sober yet slushy mood of Saving Private Ryan; the game has sold several million copies to date. Battlefield 1942, a painstakingly faithful re-creation of key battles like El Alamein and Midway, followed.

For those who haven't already succumbed to these games, you should know: They can be enveloping. Some people sweat. Others duck and flinch. Adrenaline flows. Sometimes, my left knee inexplicably hurts. Or is it my right? Neurologists studying video gamers have found that the brains of expert players, when fully immersed, achieve the same sort of flow state as do those of athletes, chess players and real soldiers. That immersion is made easy by the sheer visual grandeur and meticulous attention to detail these games deploy.

Beyond great looks, the genre's success is no doubt rooted in the war's romance, which allows an emotional attachment missing from the fictional or futuristic narratives of other games. So what if you finally stole the Smart Armor Exoskeleton and dispatched some (usually tedious) bad guys? But defeating the Nazi war machine — now, that's something actual, even grand.

"Arnhem Knights," a mission in Medal of Honor, is widely considered to be one of the best in game history. At the real Arnhem, the Germans routed the British, pulverizing what was once a majestic medieval city; in the game, as you make your way through a vast jumble of desiccated ruins, that devastation is palpable. Several players I spoke with said they experienced this mission personally, even vengefully. Many say it's the closest they've come to being moved by a video game. I confess I too got carried away in Arnhem: As the lugubrious phrasing of choral music (composed, incidentally, specially for the game) swelled along with the fighting, I found myself ruminating on the material force of ideas, on the tragedy of Europe shaking out the kinks of modernity with so many millions of tons of ordnance.

The World War II revival, in all popular culture, does seem to present a dangerously facile template for contemporary politics, with the rhetoric of the last honest war often being deployed less than honestly to lend moral bearings to our current (and more complex) situation — even down to the similarly mustachioed madmen. Yet, my moments of fancy in Arnhem do not make me more sympathetic to Bush's assault on Baghdad. And none of the kids I see at gaming cafés fighting over Guadalcanal look like easy marks for Army recruiters.

Where the industry is a little guilty of drawing a link between the joysticks at home and those guiding real missiles is in those games involving today's armed forces. Like Conflict: Desert Storm, which sports the tag line "No diplomats, no negotiation, no surrender" — sound familiar? — and features a Saddam-like villain. (A few days before the war began, the L.A. Times ran a photo on Page One featuring four GIs in a tent in Kuwait; they were passing the time until their own, very real Operation: Iraqi Freedom started by playing Conflict: Desert Storm.) Then there are Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell, which essentially depict Donald Rumsfeld's vision of future Objective Force Warriors — small, specialized teams of American badasses who can drop in and take care of Bush's business, unilateral-style.

These are solid games, but their TV commercials look a lot like those "Army of One" spots, and they often run together, blurring a line already made fuzzy by the fact that the images we're seeing of Marines hunkered down outside Nasiriyah look pretty much like screen shots from Ghost Recon, but with better resolution — all of which feels too close for comfort these days.

Whereas playing World War II feels closer to escapism, a backward glance to the halcyon days of America's good intentions, when the moral compass was easier to read and armies met on battlefields, sued for peace and then got on with democracy and trade — in short, to a time when wars could be definitively won.

The kids at Electronics Boutique tell me that they like the sensation of their grandfathers' battlefield. Unlike today's wars, which are either unseen or waged at a technological remove, fighting in World War II is more direct, corporeal. There are no laser-guided munitions, no night-vision goggles. You still have to wait, as one Medal of Honor player says enthusiastically, "until you see the whites of their eyes." His only complaint, in fact, is that the fighting isn't raw enough. "I was disappointed," he says. "If you want to see how it really was, the horror of it, you have to see blood."

An intriguing idea, war games as anti-war statements. I'm not sure that the kid didn't just want some gore, but he's onto something. Unlike cinema, video games have yet to realize the full potential of war, to bring not just graphics but also emotion into three dimensions. Just adding blood, however, won't be enough; even real guts and glory can't cover up the fact that war is a human failure. To capture war's horrible anonymity and absurdity, what you — and the games — need is conceptual depth.

It may be that current limitations are technical and that Playstation 3 will be able to give us virtual war that is confusing, unsettling, and involves impossible decisions. If gaming wants to mature, that's where it must go: less Saving Private Ryan and more Catch-22, The Big Red One or Apocalypse Now. Doing so wouldn't just be political, it would be truly groundbreaking. An heir to Medal of Honor that's exciting but also unflinching and reflective, and maybe even cynical — now that would be a killer fucking game.

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