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.

For the most part, every First Person Shooter video game (FPS) is going to need a large horde of individuals to serve as the game’s targets. FPS games are, with a few notable exceptions, premised on playing a protagonist that runs around killing hundreds or thousands of assorted bad guys. However, unlike movies or books, video games are a more immersive experience, and the player doesn’t just observe the action; they must make a deliberate choice to aim a weapon and start killing the bad guys. This means makers of video games need to make their bad guy be someone the player actually wants to kill — and if you are going to set your video game in a realistic earth setting, here’s where your trouble starts. In the age of global marketing, who can you choose to have as your bad guy that all of your players, worldwide, will be comfortable with killing?

That is the other reason why, until very recently, bad guys in video games were never real-life modern day organizations. The good guys could be and often were real organizations — U.S. soldiers, NATO troops, etc. — but the organizations chosen to be bad guys were as generic and inoffensive as possible. Having FPS games set on Earth as we know it is thus a relatively new concept, only dating back to the halcyon early days of the 21st Century. Of course, as far that goes, video games are themselves a pretty new medium, and they don’t date back too far beyond that. However, featuring real political divisions in video games has only become a strong trend in the past few years, and is expanding at a heavy rate. Prior to 2000, the bad guys were almost exclusively aliens, monsters, and authoritarian corporate overloads, in the style of Doom and Quake. You just didn’t fight ‘real’ people — that was not a line games were ready to cross.

So how did it start? Breaking down video game villains by year, four distinct eras of video game villains appear: (1) Attack of the Mutants and Corporations, (2) Historical Reenactments, Generoterrorists, and Russians, (3) Modern Reenactments and Al-Qaeda Clones, and (4) Speculative Warfare.

1. First Wave: Attack of the Mutants and Corporations (circa 1990-1998)

In the early days, FPS bad guys came in one of two types: evil corporations that have taken over the world and evil mutants from outer space that have taken over the world. There was still some variety, of course — you also had bad guys that are evil corporations that use mutants to take over the world (e.g., Corporation (1990); CyberMage (1994)) and corporations that opened up wormholes allowing mutants from outer space to take over the world (Half-Life (1998)).

But by and large, the games avoided using real-life countries or real-life settings. You either had Duke Nukem 3D (1996) and its mutated, dystopic Los Angeles that has no relation to the Los Angeles of the real world, or Gunmetal (1998) and its world of corporations where states no longer exist. (And let’s not forget the amazing Chex Quest (1996), the first FPS I ever played. Being specifically designed for children, it solved the Bad Guy Dilemma by making the villains balls of slime from space that, instead of killing, you humanely relocated to another dimension.)

There is an exception to the rule that early games did not allow realism into their settings — the game that is frequently considered to be the first FPS of them all. In Wolfenstein 3D (1992), you play an American soldier trying to escape from a Nazi castle. Although the bad guys were a real political organization, as far as having an FPS based on real-life events goes, making the bad guys Nazis is pretty safe call. There is a general global consensus that Nazis really are bad guys, and portraying them as such is not politically offensive to any significant consumer market. Even so, the game was too radical for its time: it was banned in Germany due to portrayal of Nazi imagery, and in the U.S. much of the ‘realism’ was edited out:

All swastikas and Nazi references were removed. Adolf Hitler, a boss character in the game, had his moustache removed and was renamed “Staatmeister.” Blood was replaced with sweat to make the game seem less violent (for SNES copies distributed in Germany, the enemy blood was turned green). Attack dogs were also replaced by giant mutant rats.

So Wolfenstein proved that, in the early 1990s, the world was not ready for real people to be cast in the role of FPS villain. Five or six years after Wolfenstein first came out, however, video games would begin to slowly try out using realistic villains once again, often in combination with the aforementioned mutants in order to reduce the realism’s sting.

2. Second Wave: Historical Reenactments, Generoterrorists, and Russians (circa 1998-2003)

Towards the end of the 1990s, realism in video games slowly started to replace the corporate mutant overlords of yore. Its development took a cautious approach, however, and the bad guys were still safely removed from being identified with existing organizations. In order to make the bad guys real and yet inoffensive, they were either (1) historical reenactments, where the bad guys are real-life organizations that used to be bad guys, (2) generoterrorist organizations, or particularly terrorist groups that are culturally non-specific, or (3) Russians.

Historical reenactments: These games are typically based on real WWII campaigns and the Cold War era, but also commonly include games based on WWI or the Vietnam War. See, e.g., Medal of Honor (1999), Call of Duty (2003). In almost all of these games, the player is an American or Allied soldier, and the horde of bad guys is made up of a former U.S. military enemy. Like Wolfenstein 3D, the first major historical reenactment game, Metal of Honor,  cloaked itself from the worst  criticism by picking the World’s Most Noncontroversial Bad-Guys — Nazis. This is a common trend; combat video games other than FPSes have, over the years, often also followed the same pattern, and have likewise broken into video game realism by making their first military targets either Nazis or other Axis powers.

In the early years of the historical reenactment FPSes, games often involved scifi elements and the omnipresent mutants in order to make them more palatable, but by 2001, they were heavily focused on realism. Historical reenactments in general were a safe way for FPS games to explore more realistic themes, as they are based on disputes that are decades in the past and are generally no longer a source of political tension. Making a game based in history also helps inoculate developers from criticism because the games are based on objectively factual disputes between countries; there is thus little room for creativity in the plot, and so less room for developers to be accused of bias in their choice of villain.

Generoterrorists: In contrast to the historical reenactments, the generoterrorist games are generally set in modern times and rely on fictional bad guys that, while not directly associated with any real political faction, often evoke real-world political events.

It was the Tom Clancy series of video games that began the generoterrorist trend, starting with Rainbow Six (1998). As with basing a game upon an historical war, basing a game upon a book, like Tom Clancy’s novels, makes it possible for the developers to expand beyond previous boundaries with a legitimate excuse — that it was the book that chose to make a terrorist group be the bad guys, not the game developers. Rainbow Six was also a particularly fortunate way for video games to start incorporating realistic terrorist groups in their game play. In Rainbow Six, no countries are specifically called out by name, and the bad guy is not a national political entity but rather those damned eco-terrorists. As with the Nazis, no one really cares about hurting eco-terrorists’ feelings, thus making them an imminently safe target for pixelated destruction.

In contrast, the good guys are based upon real international political entities, or at least a warm and fuzzy UN-friendly version of real entities. The protagonists are part of Rainbow, a “multinational counter-terrorism unit, composed of elite soldiers from NATO countries.” This makes Rainbow Six — a game about multilateral action by Western forces to combat eco-terrorists determined to kill the world via an Ebola armageddon —  about as non-offensive as it gets, when it comes to a game about shooting people. But as noncontroversial as its plot was, it was a starting point, marking the first time an FPS has chosen a close approximation of the modern world for a setting.

Ever since Rainbow Six, generoterrorists have helped expand the boundaries of what is allowable in video games. Terrorists, by definition, are the bad guys. (If they were not bad guys, then obviously they would be called “rebels” or “insurgents,” not terrorists.) This is one reason why generoterrorists are such popular video game villains — calling them bad guys is definitionally non-controversial. Additionally, terrorism is not necessarily associated with any single political or geographic tradition, and it comes in an endless number of varieties: eco-terrorists, anarchist-terrorists, Islamic terrorists, pro-life terrorists, narco-terrorists, anti-UN terrorists, for-profit terrorists, secessionist terrorists, cyber-terrorists, or even just terrorists-who-are-terrorists-because-they-love-being-evil. For pretty much any FPS, it is easy enough to invent a terrorist group that possesses the appropriate motives and military capacity to fit the game’s story line.

The generoterrorist thus provides a dose of realism while avoiding any messy philosophical questions regarding the righteousness of the good guys’ cause. For the squeamish gamer, it is easier to go on a killing spree in the first-person perspective when the targets are a generoterrorist organization, because, assuming you’re not a bad shot, anyone you are killing is someone who deserved killing.

Games With Generoterrorist Villains:

Operation Body Count: (1994) You play a member of the ‘Government Assault Team’, on a mission with a rather straight forward plot: “Terrorists have taken over the UN Building and have seized the government officials in the building. They are now being held as hostages in the top floor of the building by Victor, the leader of the terrorist gang.” Although the UN is real enough, the country where it is set is not identified, and the terrorist group is mostly nondescript — although with a name like Victor, it suggests some Eastern European based nation.
Rise of the Triad (1995) You play a member of special United Nations task force H.U.N.T. in order to stop an evil genero-cult that plans to destroy Los Angeles.
Deus (1996) “The player’s goal is to save a scientific research station from a group of terrorists called the New Crusaders.”
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (1998) NATO soldiers fight ecoterrorists.
Delta Force II (1999) “The game pits the player, as a member of the United States Army Delta Force. Two campaigns exist, one which sends the player’s team in pursuit of militants possessing biological weapons, and another which pits the player’s team against forces trying to obtain nuclear weapons.” Settings include Africa and Siberia.
Covert Ops: Nuclear Dawn (2000) “The player controls Lieutenant Jack Morton of NATO, the sole survivor of a terrorist strike on the Blue Harvest, an armored train. He is aided by Christina Wayborn throughout the game, the French ambassador’s bodyguard and the NATO council. Traveling around the various carriages of the train, the player must defeat the terrorists, find the French ambassador, and prevent the terrorists from using a nuclear weapon.”
Delta Force: Land Warrior (2000) A generoterrorist group called the Armed People’s Front fights the “Western factions.” Many real-life countries are used as settings, but the bad guys are a weird amalgamation of bad guys, some kind of Russian Islamic Colombian drug smugglers.
Soldier of Fortune (2000) Player is a U.S. mercenary. “The story involves the theft of nuclear weapons, and the main enemy turns out to be an Afrikaner Neo-Nazi group based in Germany, led by Sergei Dekker. At the beginning of the game, terrorists steal four nuclear weapons from a storage facility in Russia, and proceed to sell them to various third world nations. This is a prelude to the acquisition of advanced weapons of mass destruction by this terrorist group.” Settings include Iraq and Sudan, and the Yakuza are additionally featured as bad guys.
Soldier of Fortune 2 (2002) A terrorist group called Prometheus tries to use biowarfare and computer viruses “to blackmail the G8 countries at a summit in Switzerland for billions of dollars.”
Rainbow Six: Lockdown (2005) “Lockdown takes place in 2009 and revolves around an elite counter-terrorist unit called Rainbow. In Lockdown, Rainbow is pitted against a worldwide terrorist organization known as the Global Liberation Front, composed of various leftist, anarchist, and third-world organizations opposed to the West.”

Russians: Although the second wave of realistic video games strongly resisted using villains that were identifiable as any real-world organization, there is an exception to this rule: when in doubt, make Russia the bad guy. In reality, this is kind of a sub-category of both the historical reenactment games and the generoterrorist games, as Russians were the bad guys in Cold War reenactments, and “Russian arms dealers” are practically a generoterrorist group in their own right.

Why were Russians the first real world political entity to be featured regularly as an FPS villain? Best I can figure, Russia just isn’t as offended by the prospect of being portrayed negatively in American popular media. The Russian villain, twirling his mustache and smoking a cigarette, has been a longstanding cinematic icon. Thanks to the Cold War, having Russians be the bad guys became a standard feature in popular entertainment for so long. Casting a Russian organization in the role of villain is a way of casting a real group as a bad guy, but knowing that everyone is going to realize it is nothing personal. It is not a jab at Russia — it’s a Hollywood trope. So, like the generoterrorist, having a Russian bad guy is an easy way to play up the “realism” of a game without alienating any consumers.

Example Games with Russian Villains:

Battlezone (1998) “The game has two campaigns, the American NSDF campaign (National Space Defense Force) and the Russian CCA campaign (Cosmic Communist Army). The game takes place in an alternate version of the 1960s in which the United States and the Soviet Union use alien technology to wage a secret war across the solar system, fighting for control of the rare resource bio-metal.” Russia is the bad guy.
Codename Eagle: (1999) Alternate history game, based pre-WWI. Russia is the bad guy.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear (1999) “Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the economic situation in Russia and the former Eastern Europe falls into chaos. Terrorism in the region is commonplace as people fight a seemingly endless stream of battles for supplies and other necessities. In this power vacuum though a dangerous a situation arises: the Russian mafia has begun buying up surplus military equipment with the assistance of current members of the Russian Army. During one such arms deal Rainbow forces raid the meeting grounds and recover weapons grade plutonium, tracing the fissile material to a nearby naval base.” Russia is the bad guy.
Project I.G.I. (2000) Russian arms dealers are the bad guys.
Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis (2001) “The year is 1985, and Mikhail Gorbachev has come to power in the Soviet Union. While his Glasnost and Perestroika reforms are welcomed by western governments, there are communist hardliners in his own government that are unsympathetic to his cause. Aleksei Guba, a renegade general, is determined to bring down Gorbachev and make himself the next leader of the Soviet Union. Guba commands an army on the island base of Kolgujev. Guba invades nearby Everon, crushing the militia force there, and secretly plans to take the war to the Americans.” Russia is the bad guy.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon (2001) “Ghost Recon begins in April 2008, with civil unrest in Russia borne out of an ultra-nationalist regime that came to power and placed its leader, Dmitri Arbatov, as president. The ultranationalists form the Russian Democratic Union (RDU) and conquer Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, with eyes set on the other former Soviet republics.” NewRussia is the bad guy.

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



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