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:
- 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.
- It misrepresents warfare as individualistic. Compare the deeply communal nature of actual small-unit infantry fighting.
- It misrepresents warfare as costless - one can always restart or respawn. Compare the terrible costs of violence on both perpetrators and victims.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.