Playing at war.

by Maddy Myers

I wrote this post after filing this story for Paste about playing Bioshock: Infinite during the week after the bombings here in Boston. This stream-of-consciousness blog post about violence, role-playing, and human nature might make more sense if you read it in the context of the Paste column.


I've been thinking a lot lately about killing people in video games. More specifically, about role-playing as the kind of person who kills people.

Tomb Raider and Bioshock: Infinite both made killing feel awful. The sheer volume of enemies in both games makes clearing each area feel like a gruesome, repetitive chore, but also the presence of bodies throughout -- often, bodies of people who I haven't killed, just ... bodies -- casts a depressing pallor of death over the story. I felt guilty while I played these games. I often didn't feel like I needed to kill everyone in an area, but I always ended up having to do so. Couldn't some of them run away? No. No, apparently not. Once enemies begin attacking me, they are doomed to forever continue until I put them to their final rest.

So why is it, then, that I don't feel guilty when I play Call of Duty or Gears of War or Counter-Strike ... ? At first, I wondered whether the military settings of those games made battles seem more justified; in both Tomb Raider and Infinite, I play as a civilian character defending themselves from an onslaught of well-armed enemies. I don't have a license to kill. I kill in self-defense, and I just so happen to need to "self-defend" hundreds and hundreds of times. "But your honor, every single one of those men shot at me first!" Even though that's true, I doubt a jury of my peers would buy my story. So I feel guilty.

When I play as a solider killing other soldiers, I don't feel guilty anymore. I can finally relax and have some fun! Fun with, uh, killing. Hmm.

Counter-Strike and its ilk feel fun to me because they don't feel real. CS in particular feels like a game of tag with guns. It feels like paintball. It feels like laser tag. Death is meaningless; danger is meaningless. Unlike real war, which usually involves a lot of silence and waiting and boredom, video games about war run on adrenaline and set-pieces and shooting from the back of a jeep and oh my god a helicopter crashing right in front of us and reload reload reload blam blam blam.

Yet, it's nonsense for me to say that I'm more comfortable with killing in military shooters because I'm role-playing as a soldier and that role-play makes me feel like I'm "allowed" to kill. I'm not behaving the way a soldier does when I play these games. Video games are about shooting as many people as you can. Real military combatants do not behave the way in-game soldiers do, though. This synopsis of Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman's book On Killing explains,

    "In World War Two, it is a fact that only 15-20 percent of the soldiers fired at the enemy ... In WW2 only one percent of the pilots accounted for thirty to forty percent of enemy fighters shot down in the air. Some pilots didn't shoot down a single enemy plane. In Korea, the rate of soldiers unwilling to fire on the enemy decreased and fifty five percent of the soldiers fired at the enemy. In Vietnam, this rate increased to about ninety five percent but this doesn't mean they were trying to hit the target. In fact it usually took around fifty-two thousand bullets to score one kill in regular infantry units ...

    "Posturing is very evident in combat tactics... Bullets slamming into the ground or wall near a trooper can be frightening and when they are put there by some screaming 'maniac' it is much more terrifying.

    "This may be why so many rounds were fired in Vietnam without any real hits. (52,000 shots to score 1 hit? Our troops weren't that bad at shooting!)."

Only a small percentage of people have the ability to actually aim at other people with the intent to kill them. Even in a battle scenario where they are "allowed" to kill! Even when they're afraid and desperate and hungry and covered in mud and sleep-deprived and terrified that someone else is going to kill them first. And that's after weeks of brain-washing -- err, convincing -- in boot camp and training and target practice. Humans would much rather make loud noises or shoot at a nearby bush or run away.

That's sort of comforting, isn't it? We aren't inherently evil after all.

But what does that have to do with video games? Not much, actually. Your protagonist in Call of Duty or Gears of War does not act like a real person. Yes, you're a real person playing the game, but the way you behave in that game doesn't match up with how you'd behave in the same situation in real life. In the same situation in real life, we'd all probably be dead. And not just because we don't have the skills in real life to make 62 head shots in a row. We don't have the willpower to do it. And thank goodness for that.

A more realistic military shooter would be bizarre, experimental, and more stealth-based than shooting-based. There may well be a market for such a game, but I doubt that it would earn the big bucks that Call of Duty has. So, instead of true-to-life recreations of military scenarios, military shooters give us action movie tropes chained together into a towering scaffold of carnage. These video games are what war would feel like if death did not exist, if humans could re-spawn at check-points, if magical health packs lay waiting on every corner.

Military shooters belong in the same place in my head that paintball and laser tag occupy. The irony here is that paintball and laser tag both stressed me out beyond measure the first time I played them.

My first experience with laser tag as an elementary school student brought on a full-fledged panic attack, perhaps the worst one of my life. My first experience with paintball as a high school student brought on a similar episode, albeit of lesser severity. In both cases, I froze, huddled behind cover, shaking and gasping for air like a beached fish. The game felt ... too real. I felt afraid of something I couldn't articulate to anyone at the time. Not afraid of getting hit, not afraid of losing -- I felt afraid of dying. Something about holding a gun and hiding behind cover reminded me of death, death, death. And that "you are going to die" fear hammered in my head until I couldn't breathe. 

In the elementary school laser tag game, I cried for the whole match like a baby and had to endure teasing for the rest of the day. In the high school paintball match, I managed to bite back the panic as the first match came to a close. I lied to my friends and said, "Yeah, this rocks." It wasn't until my second match that I could finally say that sentence and mean it. The shock wore off. The fog in my head cleared. I could see the playing field for what it was: just a game, just flags and children and conveniently placed wooden bunkers. Not a real war. I could do this.

I think I have an overactive imagination. Or perhaps just an acute awareness of my own mortality. When it's not sending me into a panic spiral, I think that imagination lets me enjoy games more -- whether it's Tomb Raider or paintball or just a game of freeze tag. Over the course of my lifetime, I've gone from panicking and crying over laser tag to begging my friends to go with me again and again. Sometimes I call my proclivities being "too competitive"; sometimes I say "I just like role-playing." Or I chalk it up to anxiety, or depression, or "being a theater kid." But it's more than that, and I know that. When I play a game, the game is real. My heart rate rises. It's win or die. Sometimes that's a liability for me. Sometimes it means I love the game more than anyone else. Sometimes it's all of that whirled together.

I don't think I want or need games to be "more realistic" per se; I want games to feel more real. I want the stakes to feel high; I want tightly-paced sequences to seem almost accidental and natural, somehow. I've got that imagination of mine to fill in most of the gaps, but I do need some help from the game to keep my brain's juices flowing. I don't want the game to trip over itself to tell me a story or to slug me over the head with a new upgrade; I want to trip over these elements myself, somehow. Like real life! If real life were any good.

The games I've played lately that have been lauded for being artistic and ground-breaking and mind-bending have all been games that made me play as a Guilty Murderer, in some fashion or other. Each of the games to which I refer -- Hotline Miami, Spec Ops, Tomb Raider, Bioshock: Infinite, add your own to the list -- puts a gun in my hand and makes killing into my only option. I must kill or be killed, everywhere I go. Yet, gruesome death scenes, bodies, blood, and reminders of mortality lurk in every corner of these games.

Meanwhile, games that don't make me feel guilty -- Gears, CoD, CS, and so on -- do not get lauded for being "high art," of course. They are fun and forgettable. If they wanted to be high art, they'd need to sit me down and tell me to feel bad about myself for all this killing I've been doing.

But, but, if this were real life, I wouldn't be doing any of this killing anyway! It's all just a game! Yes, it's a game that I'm emotionally invested in, yes, I am choosing to play it, yes, I am behaving like a psychopath in it, but ... this isn't really me, you know. This isn't really anyone. No one would do this. No one is Lara Croft. No one is Booker DeWitt or Nathan Drake or Marcus Fenix. No one ever could be. We all just like pretending. And apparently when humans play pretend, we like to pretend to be a demi-god for whom death and time are meaningless. Can you really blame us?

I keep thinking back to Lara Croft's tears in Tomb Raider, to Elizabeth's horror at seeing Booker kill someone for the first time in Bioshock: Infinite. And then I imagine a grizzled old soldier sitting on my couch next to me, reminding me that I don't know what it's like to really kill someone. The two concepts don't fit together in my brain. I feel guilty for the virtual murders I've done, and then I feel guilty for feeling guilty about my virtual murders because, yikes, real murders are happening out there every day, why would anyone care about my inconsequential virtual ones?

Death waits for us all. Shit. Play more video games. Pass the time. Don't think about it too hard.