An Inquiry Into the History of First-Person Shooter Video Game Villains, Pt. 3

The third and final segment! Continued from An Inquiry Into the History of First-Person Shooter Video Game Villains, Pt. 2.

4. Speculative Warfare (circa 2008 – present)

Because ultra-realistic FPS games are a marketing time bomb, and because of the awkward gameplay moments that will inevitably arise when your setting involves U.S. forces fighting against a real world enemy, ultrarealistic FPS games have now moved on to the fourth and present-day era: speculative warfare. Like the games of the two previous waves , speculative warfare games feature wars between real nations and real human organizations. However, instead of recreating past or current wars, these games are set in the present or near future, and involve hypothetical conflicts between existent nations.

As always, Russia is the common denominator. Even with the Cold War two decades dead, video games have no shortage of creativity when it comes to finding ways to, once again, make Russia the villain. Just like how the historical reenactment games rewrote history to make Soviets the bad guys, speculative warfare games warp modern day international relations into unlikely scenarios where Russia is the evil invading force. For instance, in Battlefield: Bad Company 1 (2008) and 2 (2010), the player is thrown into the midst of a modern day war between the Russian Federation and the United States, with little time wasted on explaining how such a conflict could ever come to pass. In contrast, Modern Warfare 1 (2007), 2 (2009), and 3 (forthcoming – 2011) at least try to give some plausibility to their story lines, by inventing the rebel Russian Ultranationalist Party to explain how Russia suddenly becomes an active world threat again. (Although the rumor mill falsely claimed MW2 had been banned in Russia, the developers did take out a scene allowing players to shoot civilians in the Moscow airport. Although shooting Russian civilians was deemed too much for the Russian market, simply having Russia be a villain is not a problem.)

Still other games go for the hybrid Russian villain, by mixing elements of historical military fears with modern day anxieties, and team Russia up with a more likely antagonist nation. For instance, in Frontlines: Fuel of War (2008), you have the Western Nations fighting against the “Red Star Alliance” — the mighty pseudo-superpower duo of Russia and China. Likewise, Rogue Warrior (2008) also uses Russia, but teams it up with North Korea and a nuclear weapons smuggling program.

Having Russia be the villain for speculative warfare plots opened the door for other nations to become the hypothetical villain. Russian markets never seem to mind when Hollywood or U.S. game developers choose them to be the bad guy, and the trope is so common as to be beneath notice by any diplomatic instruments. But Russia is sui generis, when it comes to the lack of controversy caused by casting it into the villain’s role. Having other nations fill in for the bad guy is not nearly so straightforward. It is not hard to see why — having major U.S. and other Western nation game developers declare that they can foresee ostensibly friendly or neutral nations as likely enemies in a U.S. military conflict necessarily carries some uncomfortable implications.
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Bethesda Softworks, IP Troll

Mojang, the Swedish-based game developer behind MineCraft, has a new game coming out. It’s called Scrolls, and as far as I can figure out, it is the computer game hybrid of Magic the Gathering and Settlers of Catan. As described by developer Jacob Porser,

“At the core it’s a collectable card game, but it’s also a board game… It’s combining the two. As you place your units or your buildings, or your siege weapons, you place it on the game board to play against your opponent. It’s not only about designing a proper collection of scrolls [cards], and the tactical aspect of that deck, but it’s also about the tactical sense of how to place your units on the game board.”

Each scroll is essentially the same as an individual Magic card. This makes “Scrolls” a pretty obvious name for the game — and Mojang has already put a fair bit of money and effort into the branding:

“It’s always been Scrolls to me,” adds Carl Manneh, Mojang’s CEO, who joined the company a few months ago. “I think it’s a great name.” It seems pretty amazing that they managed to get the URLs. I ask if they [were] free? Both laugh, and shake their heads. So how did they get them? Carl explains, “It helps when you’ve got some cash.”

So while it’s still a little bit unclear exactly what Scrolls is going to be, it is clear that it is not going to be anything like a quest-based, sandbox RPG. In other words, it will be absolutely nothing like Morrowind or Oblivion or any other game in Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls series.

Bethesda Softworks is not one to let such minor details get in the way of a good IP fight, however, and the company is now suing Mojang in Sweden for trademark infringement, over Mojang’s use of the Scrolls mark. According to Notch, Mojang’s owner,

I got a 15 page letter from some Swedish lawyer firm, saying they demand us to stop using the name Scrolls, that they will sue us (and have already paid the fee to the Swedish court), and that they demand a pile of money up front before the legal process has even started.

Currently, there is no lawsuit in the United States. Although Mojang filed a trademark application for Scrolls [PDF] in the U.S. on May 17, 2011, as it usually takes four months for the USPTO to get around to reviewing a trademark filing, a decision on the application won’t be expected until some time next month. Then, if the USPTO has no objections to the Scrolls mark, Bethesda Softworks’ parent company will then have 30 days to file a Notice of Opposition to it, and make its case that there is a likelihood of confusion between the two game titles.

In other words, expect the Bethesda vs. Mojang battle to be opening a second front over here in the States sometime around mid-October.

But do Bethesda’s objections to the Scrolls mark have any merit? While I couldn’t quite label them frivolous, they are unquestionably silly — the risk of consumer confusion here is close to nil, as there is no self-respecting gamer on earth that is going to try to buy Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and accidentally end up buying Scrolls: The Gathering instead. Nor are they going to see Scrolls and go, “Gee, I wonder if this is the Oblivion card game!” No one even calls The Elder Scolls games “the Elder Scrolls games”; for that matter, hardly anyone seems to know what the “elder scrolls” of the series’ title are even supposed to be.

So in honor of Bethesda Softworks’ attempt to bully Mojang into abandoning the game title by threatening Mojang with rounds of expensive litigation, I have made Bethesda its own scroll. I hope Notch adds it to the game:


An Inquiry Into the History of First-Person Shooter Video Game Villains, Pt. 2

Continued from An Inquiry Into the History of First-Person Shooter Video Game Villains, Pt. 1.

3. Third Wave: Modern Reenactments and Al-Qaeda Clones (circa 2002-2008)

The third wave of First Person Shooter (FPS) video games involves a combination of the two previous game styles: reenactments of currently occurring conflicts and conflicts with entities that are clearly stand-ins for Al-Qaeda. Beginning in about 2002, video games started to make the jump from historical and generic battle scenes to battle scenes that parallel real wars that are occurring today. Inevitably, political entanglements accompanied this increase in realism, as unlike their predecessors, these games cannot claim to be abstract diversions that are independent of actualy events. They are, necessarily, commentary on war and international disputes, whether the developers intend them to be or not.

It is not just the plots that cause the political entanglements; these games are also political in their very origin. What is unique about the third wave of video games is that it was not private developers that first pushed the boundaries, making it acceptable for video games to be set in modern day conflicts. Rather it was the U.S. military that first developed games that attempt to recreated on-going, real life wars.

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An Inquiry Into the History of First-Person Shooter Video Game Villains, Pt. 1

A few months back, an infograph on video game villains was making the rounds, depicting the nationality and setting of various combat video games. The infograph makes an interesting point: the identity of bad guys in video games is very much a reflection of real-world geopolitical developments. But the graph does not go quite far enough. It is obviously comprised of only a few hand selected games, and as it goes back only to 2001, it does not show the more general, historical trends in video game development regarding bad guy nationality.

For video games set on modern day earth, the question of who should play the villain is a very delicate issue for game developers. It is also a new one: prior to 2001, it was virtually unheard of for a video game to feature a real world nation as a villain, and it is only in the past four or five years that games featuring real nations and organizations fighting each other in hypothetical conflicts have become commonplace. Having real countries be video game bad guys has, however, been part of long arc in video game development, wherein video games have persistently pushed the boundaries regarding what is considered an “acceptable” story line. At the very beginning of video game development, realism of any sort was strongly frowned upon; even having bad guys that bled red blood was considered too shocking and graphic. Over time, however, games have incorporated more and more elements of realism into their game play, beginning with the least controversial elements and then working its way up to games based on hypothetical armed conflicts between existing nations.

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U.S. Military’s Ban of ‘Medal of Honor’ Is An Unconstitional Restriction of Speech

The new Medal of Honor, an upcoming video game scheduled for release in October, will not be sold on U.S. military bases due to objections over the game’s content, specifically the “well-documented reports of depictions of Taliban fighters engaging American troops.”

The commanding general of the Army and Air Force Exchange Services explained the policy as follows:

“Out of respect to those we serve, we will not be stocking this game…. We regret any inconvenience this may cause authorized shoppers, but are optimistic that they will understand the sensitivity to the life and death scenarios this product presents as entertainment. As a military command with a retail mission, we serve a very unique customer base that has, or possibly will, witness combat in real life.”

Of course, there are plenty of other violent war-based FPS games available through the AAFES. It appears that the military’s ban on video games in which you play the role of the “bad guy” is limited to incidences in which you are playing a bad guy that is killing American troops. As noted by GamePolitics, “while Medal of Honor was pulled because players could assume the role of Taliban fighters, as of the time of this article, it was still possible to purchase Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from AAFES stores, which featured a mission in which the player acts as a terrorist, shooting civilians in a Russian airport.”

This seems like a clear example of the government implementing a content-based restriction on speech. Under the First Amendment, such content-based restrictions of speech must be ‘narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.’ Restrictions that are also viewpoint-based get a higher level of scrutiny yet. The AAFES’ refusal to sell Medal of Honor on military bases is a content-based restriction and, I’d argue, also a viewpoint-based one, particularly given the manner in which Medal of Honor has been singled out.

True, the military often gets some leeway when it comes to Constitutional restrictions, particularly when “national security” is invoked. But as held by a district court earlier this year in Nieto v. Flatau , “[w]hile military officials are entitled to great deference in restricting speech to further the military’s needs, they may not do so in a manner that discriminates against a particular point of view.” Additionally, any argument that this is a restriction of “commercial speech” would almost certainly fail. This is a refusal to sell a piece of media because of what it portrays — in that regard, restrictions based on a video game’s content should be evaluated in exactly the same manner as restrictions based on a book’s content.

And the ban on Medal of Honor doesn’t even come close to passing the degree of scrutiny required for such restrictions. “[S]ensitivity to the life and death scenarios this product presents as entertainment” is not a compelling state interest.


International Humanitarian Law Does Not Prohibit Shooting Locusts, Brutes, and Infected: Why Game Developers Should Stop Being Lazy and Stop Using War Crimes in Lieu of Plot

Via Opinio Juris, a Swiss NGO has produced a report on the promotion of violations of international humanitarian law in video games. [PDF] This is a subject that’s actually bothered me before, and I am glad to see someone giving it some serious thought. Not only is the report’s game-by-game analysis of possible international law violations fascinating, but I’m completely on board with the authors’ stated purpose:

The goal is not to prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL [International Humanitarian Law] or IHRL [International Human Rights Law] training tools. The message we want to send to developers and distributors of video games, particularly those portraying armed conflict scenarios, is that they should also portray the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life, namely IHRL and IHL. We would thus like to propose the producers to incorporate the essential rules of IHL [obligations].

First person shooters are pretty much the only game type I seriously play, but as a general rule, I don’t play FPS games that involve hunting down and killing other humans. My avoidance of them is due to a variety of factors: in part due to a dislike for the game concept, in part due to personal squeamishness, and in part due to an inability to suspend disbelief enough to become immersed in a game when I’m busy murdering people left and right. I would never advocate censorship of video games, but I would love for developers to be more aware of their games’ incidental promotion of war crimes, and to see new games incorporate into gameplay some of the real considerations involved in armed conflict, including compliance with humanitarian law.

As it stands today, many games treat war so callously and so unrealistically that they are not only offensive, they are also just plain bad and boring to play. I remember Army of Two, which is discussed unfavorably in the NGO article, being particularly nasty. Aside from the gameplay being laughably asinine (collecting “agro” so your partner turns invisible? For reals?), I had serious problems with playing two white dudes who are happily blasting their way through various hordes of Somalis and then blasting their way through various hordes of Iraqis, with the general mission guideline being “if someone looks like a native, shoot them.”

The game was even more disturbing when you realize that its timeline (1993 in Somalia, 2003 in Iraq) explicitly matches up with real life armed conflicts that the U.S. has been involved in. These games are not about theoretical, imaginary wars where only bad guys die — they are about very real events that resulted in the very real deaths of many innocent civilians.

War crime-promotion is disturbing in itself, but also bothersome in that, oftentimes, games that require the indiscriminate killing of human beings do so at the expense of having an enjoyable and nuanced story line. Pretty much all the games I do play, with one partial exception, feature clever and creative stories that avoid any need for human-on-human carnage. As a result, I can happily blast my way through Gears of War’s Locusts, Left 4 Dead’s zombies, and Halo’s Covenant troops without ever worrying about accidental humanitarian violations. (Well, okay — I sometimes feel a little guilty for mowing down terrified Grunts. But I do it anyway.)

The one FPS I enjoy that does involve killing humans is Half-Life. A lot of the shooting is directed at adorable little head crabs and antlions, which is cool by me, but the game also requires you to shoot at human Metro Cops. However, even there, thanks to the masks and voice disguisers, the CP’s are fairly easy to dehumanize. In terms of the game’s narrative, killing them does not tread as far into moral gray zones as do other human-killing games; they are an Orwellian paramilitary police force whose troops are all citizens who have become traitors to humanity. So shooting a couple in self-defense ain’t so bad, and doesn’t entail any risk of torture, summary execution, POW mistreatment, or abuse and murder of civilians.

Essentially, there is no game-based justification for why a game should allow players to engage in consequence-free war crimes. Designing games based upon a theme of wanton murder is a cheap cop-out by developers; gameplay could only benefit if violations of humanitarian law had serious in-game consequences, forcing players to either find a way to accomplish an objective without committing a war crime, or else go ahead and commit the war crime but then be forced to pay a substantial cost as a result.

I’d also point out that that even if a video game does not involve shooting humans, there is still ample room left over for indulgent, ivory tower analysis of gameplay under international law. Many important legal questions remain, such as, How is it in Halo that the UN finally got together the funding and state support necessary to create the elite UN Marine force? How do the laws of international organization responsibility apply to ODSTs? Does the treaty that formed the COG in Gears of War actually permit the forced conscription of soldiers in return for feeding their families? Not to mention, if a massive zombie invasion breaks out in an allied nation, does NATO require other states to act in collective defense of that state?