Tuesday, 1 November 2011

What's wrong with Battlefield 3?

Battlefield 3 is a first-person military 'shooter' or 'soldier sim' for PC, Xbox, etc. I'm using it as a stand-in for all such games (see also Call of Duty), as the target for a suggestion:

What's wrong with Battlefield 3's 'simulation' of modern, small-unit infantry and vehicle warfare is that it's dishonest. It's represented as realistic, but it isn't. It misrepresents the actual experience of war in at least these ways:

  1. It creates a myth of individual agency, in which a soldier or a small group can, by choice, make a decisive difference. Compare the actual passivity, control by impersonal forces, and subjection to luck of actual soldiers.
  2. It misrepresents warfare as individualistic. Compare the deeply communal nature of actual small-unit infantry fighting.
  3. It misrepresents warfare as costless - one can always restart or respawn. Compare the terrible costs of violence on both perpetrators and victims.
  4. Its 'wars' are implausibly narrative in form. Compare the actual fragmentary experience of soldiers.
This is an aesthetic criticism: I'm taking it that games are a form of art, and that this kind of dishonesty - dishonesty in self-representation - is something wrong with an artwork.

As an aesthetic criticism, this has no immediate results for legislation, for example - banning bad art is a terrible idea. But it might have results for virtue and for self-cultivation. These games are realistic in another sense: they engage the moral emotions involved in our response to violence. And it's possible that they thereby corrupt and misdirect those emotions: that these games are to those emotions what high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar food is to our appetites.

Three expected objections:
  1. Games aren't art, and therefore aren't subject to this criticism. I reply: I'd like to see the plausible account of art which excludes them.
  2. Unrealism is necessary in an entertainment: an actually realistic game about warfare would be dull apart from the 1% of the time it was unbearably horrific, just as an actually realistic war film would be. I reply: this just means that these games are necessarily, not contingently, dishonest, and that's no defence. No-one has to make such games.
  3. The makers of these games are just responding to market demand: don't blame them. I reply: demand for these games is not an eternal feature of human nature, it's deliberately created by advertising in a culture burdened with a fantastical notion of individualistic, effective, consequence-free violence. And even it were natural and unavoidable, that wouldn't require anyone to pander to it.

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