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.

Although in the U.S. these games have reached the point where they are no longer remarkable, in other nations such speculative warfare games are making governments and bureaucratic agencies extremely uncomfortable. Some are more extreme than others — although no other state has gone as far as Venezuela, which in 2010 put a blanket ban on all games where the objective is to shoot people, regardless who is cast as bad guy. But other states have objected to many of the ultrarealistic and speculative warfare games. Japan, for instance, has regulations “regarding the portrayal of existing people and countries”, while China regularly bans any video game that it deems harmful to its “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” And Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon AW 2 was banned in the Mexican state of Chihuahua due to its unflattering depiction of the state, while Ghost Recon 2 was banned in South Korea for its depiction of a war between itself and North Korea.

The movie industry has a lot more experience with the delicate diplomacy of bad guy nationality, but video games are now wading in those same waters. In a world where games are marketed globally, the economic repercussions for choosing the wrong nation to be the bad guy can be huge — particularly where that nation is China. This was recently illustrated by the game Homefront (2011), which is undoubtedly the new standard bearer when it comes to video games depicting hypothetical political conflicts. The game’s primary villain is not only a real country, but a real person — the future dictator Kim Jong-un, who now rules over a unified Korea. The game begins with depictions of Kim Jong-il’s death, and then goes on to show Kim Jong-un — Kim Jong-il’s real-world heir apparent — launches an invasion of the United States.

However, when production on the game began, Korea was not in the picture at all. Originally, Homefront’s bad guy was to be an imperialist China. However, at some point, the game’s developers made the decision that the Chinese market was too valuable to risk alienating, and made a unified Korea the game’s antagonist. Of course, this was not likely to please South Korea. And although South Korea is not exactly a slouch when it comes to the video game market, the makers of Homefront seem to have accepted this trade off, as the game did not even attempt to get approval by the South Korean government for distribution there.

Incidentally, some states had problems with the use of real nations in Homefront, regardless of whether the specific bad guy was a unified Korea or the People’s Liberation Army, Japan’s video game ratings board, the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO), required that Homefront’s developers make several changes to the game before it could be granted approval:

“[Spike, the creator of Homefront,] removed the image of Kim Jong-il from Homefront’s opening movie sequence. It has changed all instances “deemed malicious to an existing person” (that is, Kim Jong-il) to be referred to as “Northern Leader.” And it has changed all instances “deemed malicious to an existing country” (that is, North Korea) to be referred to as “A Certain Country to the North.”

THQ, the developer of Homefront, has tried to claim that North Korea and Kim Jong-un were ultimately chosen to be the game’s villains for purely narrative reasons, not real world political concerns. They even came up with the thin cover story that the switch was made because China just wasn’t scary enough to be a good villain: “Everything you buy is made in China. It’s all friendly. Everything’s made there, from games, to every toy to everything. So they’re not that scary.”

But I’m not buying it. China — a political, economic, and ideological rival of the United States — makes a much more logical choice for video game bad guy. For video game purposes, China is the new Russia — it is the only potential superpower to rival the United States, and it just happens to be filled with a bunch of commies. As such, in deciding who should be the hypothetical emerging threat to America in Homefront, it would be harder to pick a better target than China. The idea of tiny North Korea invading and taking over large swaths of American territory is just too far-fetched to be scary; the game’s premise requires too great of a suspension of disbelief. True, North Korea is scary, in a crazy rabid kind of way, but for plot purposes, they are more likely to be the ones indiscriminately launching nukes, rather than the ones launching full scale invasions of powerful foreign nations.

But even if China-as-the-villain makes more narrative sense, it doesn’t make much business sense. In light of statements from THQ’s executives, it is clear that the real reason behind the switch was not that China is just too gosh-darned friendly:

“[Danny] Bilson recalls getting a word of caution from some of the personnel at his company. ‘The guys in our Chinese office said: Did you know that everybody on the exec team will be banned from coming into China for the rest of your lives? They were afraid the ministry of culture was going to wipe us out.'”

China does not have a problem out right banning video games that are offensive to bureaucratic sensibilities, either. One of the earliest of speculative warfare games was Project I.G.I. 2 (2003), which featured a fictional Chinese general as the villain. It was promptly banned in China:

The State Press and Publication Administration (SPPA) said the game has violated China’s gaming regulations that prohibit introduction and publication of games that hurt China’s national dignity and interests.

All copies of the game, said SPPA sources, are illegal and will be recovered. The game’s publishers, producers and sellers in the country will be punished according to law.

And yet, China does not object to all video games in which China plays the role of bad guy. If there is a logic behind which games are and are not “offensive to China’s national dignity,” it is not obvious. If anything, this only makes the question of which villain to use a harder one for game developers — as they cannot be sure in advance what plots are likely to have their games blocked off from a massive segment of potential consumers. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising (2009) does not seem to have sparked any acrimonious reaction from China, even though it is premised upon the U.S. and Russia, having been forced to team up by treaty obligations, working together to expel Chinese invaders from an Alaskan island. In OF:DR, China is depicted as being economically embattled, politically unstable, and forced into raiding Russian territories for oil — not exactly flattering. And yet, China’s reaction to such games appears to have progressed since Project I.G.I. 2, and no official condemnation was made.

Nor did China object to Dragon Rising’s sequel, Operation Flashpoint: Red River, in which players take the role of U.S. soldiers fighting off the PLA’s invasion of Tajikistan. But even though China had no obvious political reaction to the game, Tajikistan reacted strongly to it, interpreting the game as a political attack. The most outspoken Tajik politician felt that the game was an attempt to sabotage Tajikistan’s 2013 elections, stating that “This computer game is a result of sick fantasy by Tajikistan’s foes, who dream that our country will remain in the abyss of constant conflicts.” The game ultimately being banned in Tajikistan. Although Tajikistan is not a major market, and its loss is probably not a noticeable loss to the game’s bottom line, it does illustrate the risk game makers take when they produce hypothetical warfare games.

Of course, even if the Operation Flashpoint games did not engender a reaction, China has not just ignored the political content of military FPS games being developed overseas. It appears China has instead adopted a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. In May 2011, it was reported that the People’s Liberation Army was developing its own military FPS , called “Glorious Revolution,” in which players shoot American soldiers. The news made hardly a ripple in the United States, and was apparently not a source of much concern. But the game’s existence is politically interesting — this was not just some game made by a private developer, but a game made by the Chinese military itself. It appears that the game was not made for military training purposes, but rather was intended to be a substitute to counter other FPS games (most likely made by Western states) which are apparently popular with the PLA troops:

While it’s been developed primarily as a PR exercise, the game is also targeting the popularity of “foreign” titles played on PLA bases, “which may have different military values and mislead Chinese army officers and soldiers” according to the PLA Daily, the army’s official newspaper.

So Glorious Revolution is unquestionably intended to be political in character, which makes the fact that America is chosen as the antagonist even more interesting. The game is not intended to prepare soldiers for a reality in which they will fight U.S. soldiers, however, but rather is intended to counter the prevailing ideology promoted in most FPS games today. Glorious Revolution’s villain is the American military not because China expects its soldiers to actually encounter Americans on the battlefield, but because it is a direct contrast to all of the other games PLA soldiers play, where they are overwhelmingly required to play the role of an American soldier.

Unambiguously political video games are still a small minority of games, but as Glorious Revolution shows (as did Syrian made Under Ash and Hezbollah’s Special Force), many states have begun venturing into the development of FPS games for political ends. South Korea has had at least one such politically motivated game as well, in “Save Dokdo,” a computer game that became popular in 2006 during the height of Japanese-South Korean tensions over the disputed territory of Dokdo. The game allowed players to defend the contested Pacific island and fight off waves of Japanese invaders, and it’s popularity was due in no small part to nationalistic interests.

If anything, the United States has been extremely restrained when it comes to creation of war games with a consciously political angle. Although the U.S. military has developed training/recruiting games such as America’s Army, the purpose of these games has not been to make blatant political statements. If anything, the U.S. military has attempted to sanitize the potential inflammatory character of such games by focusing on hyper-realism — providing the excuse that these games are just depicting “reality,” and are not predicting, advocating, or anticipating any future developments.

This is not to say that U.S. and Western made games are not promoting an agenda, but that their developers are largely unconscious of the effect their own biases and worldviews have. Games that feature U.S. military protagonists, such as Call of Duty, have been fairly criticized for uncritically adopting “theme[s] of U.S. militarism, [and] the idea that the U.S. faces ruthless and evil enemies in the post-9/11 world, enemies it must absolutely destroy to protect itself and the American people.” This is not because game developers have an overt political motivation, but rather because the theme of U.S. militarism is such a comfortable narrative in today’s age that it can be adopted without provoking comment or raising questions from mainstream sources. These same basic story lines and narratives have been concurrently adopted in other popular media so thoroughly that consumers already have an internal model for how games like Call of Duty or Army of 2 should progress — and for game developers, it makes business sense to adopt the narrative that is the most broadly shared among consumers.

But simply because a theme is common and widespread does not mean it is a neutral, objective depiction of reality. Given the nature of the medium, military FPS games will always have an underlying ideology, whether it is intended or not.

Because wars are not fought in the abstract. If an FPS game is going to attempt to have a story line — and almost all of the games made in the past decade do — it will necessarily have to address the question of why the player is being asked to kill the villain. Where the opposing forces are real world groups or nations, there is no possible means of answering that question without injecting a heavy dose of subjective political commentary. This requirement of subjective commentary is even more prominent where the depicted war is a hypothetical one, and the plot cannot hide behind the excuse that it is “just repeating the facts.”

Military FPS games are inherently political. When they are set on present-day earth, they unavoidably implicate real world political and diplomatic relationships, and require that the game provide a subjective explanation for why killing the enemy is necessary and why it is justified. For the most part, the effect of these games on political processes is small — these are just games, after all. But for the video game industry, decisions about the political content of FPS games has a very real financial impact, one that will only continue to grow in importance as the gamer market becomes increasingly globalized.

-Susan (with special thanks to editor Calvin Fisher!)

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

  1. Pingback: An Inquiry Into the History of First-Person Shooter Video Game Villains, Pt. 2 | The View From LL2

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