“Welcome to the Desert of The Real” announces Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus as he introduces The Matrix’s (1999) Neo to images of the charred remains of what was once human civilisation. A civilisation that has since been digitised and placed online while the real world crumbles beneath an ash grey sky. Morpheus’ drily ironic line would later be re-invented by the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek in an essay prompted by the September 11th attack upon the World Trade Center. Žižek’s point is a simple one : The 9/11 attacks destroyed not only some buildings, but also America’s conception of what the real world was really like. Since the end of the Cold War, the West had fallen into a cocoon of smugness created by the comforting belief that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all opposition to liberal democracy had simply dried up and blown away; that, as the Berlin Wall came down, Humanity found itself united in the same set of desires for elected governments, human rights and consumer goods – desires for the kind of things that the American people had. It was, as Francis Fukuyama put it, The End of History.
These naked lunch moments remind us of the ultimate plasticity of what we think of as The Real, and of how easy it is to mistake abstracted approximations and wishful thinking for the complexities of the real world and the human condition.This is why I have to smile at the recent trend for realism in First Person Shooters. Games like the Modern Warfare and Bad Company series claim impeccable realist credentials: there are no monsters, no ray-guns, no zombies, no psychic powers, and a single bullet to the head is just as likely to kill you stone dead as it is the guy you are shooting at. PR fluff speaks of live-fire exercises on military bases and of motion capture processes featuring real soldiers. These hugely successful shooters, they would have us believe, are all about giving you the real experience of what it is to fight in a war. Except, of course, that they give you nothing of the sort.
The truth is that games like Call of Duty 4 : Modern Warfare (2008), Call of Duty : Modern Warfare 2 (2009), Battlefield : Bad Company (2008) and Battlefield : Bad Company 2 (2010) owe a lot less to the realities of war than they do to the way in which those realities are represented by the media. Much like contemporary sports games, contemporary shooters tend to be all about creating an interactive version of watching TV. Their visual language is not one of boredom and uncontrollable terror but of slick professionalism, tactical control and a constant sensorial bludgeoning. You can draft in as many Navy SEALS as you want to do your motion capture sessions, but modern shooters still owe more to Black Hawk Down (2001), Generation Kill (2008) and Fox News than they do to life in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the same kind of realism that underpins most contemporary sports games, with their careful recreation of on-screen TV graphics and their dutiful recording of popular TV commentary teams.
However, this column is not about the preposterousness of video game claims to realism. Instead, this is a column about the type of reality that ‘realistic’ first person shooters are presenting to us. Let us begin by considering a few plot lines.
The Modern Warfare games are set in a near-future which is even more war-torn than our lamentable present. Call of Duty 4 : Modern Warfare introduces us to the ultranationalist Russian strongman Imran Zakhaev; a combination of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Boris Badenov, Zakhaev made a fortune by peddling nuclear materials before backing a coup in the Middle East and launching nuclear weapons at the United States as an act of revenge for the death of his son. Even in death, Zakhaev continues to be a menace, as the sequel Call of Duty : Modern Warfare 2 sees his ultra-nationalists taking control of Russia and then launching a full-scale invasion of the continental US, featuring bitter house-to-house urban warfare in Washington D.C. and aircraft raining from the sky as a result of a high-altitude nuclear explosion.
The Bad Company games are also set in the near-future, and they also feature a Russian invasion of the continental US. However, before they reach that point, Battlefield : Bad Company sees the US and Russia facing each other down over an East European nation on the Caspian Sea while an independently funded private army known as the Legionnaires runs around heightening tensions and causing trouble. The sequel Battlefield : Bad Company 2 sees the first title’s heroes stuck behind enemy lines in search of a WMD created by the Japanese at the end of World War II, and recreated by a rogue Russian army colonel. The quest for the weapon takes the group to the mean streets of Columbia before returning them to an America poised for war with Russia.
Aside from their almost comical number of plot similarities, both series share an interesting ontological challenge :
Both Modern Warfare and Bad Company trade upon their capacity to deliver spectacular action. This means that, in order to sustain the franchise over multiple volumes, the designers have to keep upping the stakes and increasing the degree of spectacle for fear of the games’ audiences wandering off to find another more exciting title. However, both Modern Warfare and Bad Company also trade upon a robust commitment to realism. This means that the traditional video game design tactic of raising the stakes – by introducing a fantastical or science fictional element into an apparently mundane setting, for example – is not open to the designers of either series. You simply cannot present a game as realistic if the players wind-up knee-deep in zombies and aliens… partly because it will annoy the people who are genuinely after realism, and partly because it means that your game series will become indistinguishable from other first person shooters like F. E. A. R. (2005) or Resistance : Fall of Man (2006), which both happily employ varying degrees of gonzo as a part of their aesthetic framing and branding. In other words, both Modern Warfare and Bad Company have to walk a tightrope between the incredibly spectacular and the credibly mundane.
However, given that (i) America is not currently at war with Russia (or even close to it), (ii) no nuclear weapons have been used in anger since the Second World War and (iii) Non-state organisations have seemingly been unable to find any black market Weapons of Mass Destruction, there is a very real sense in which the reality portrayed by games like the Modern Warfare and Bad Company series is nothing of the sort. So where does this ‘reality’ come from? What is it that makes an invasion of the continental US by ultranationalist Russians seem ‘realistic’ enough to form a viable plot-line for not one but two series of games that trade upon their robust commitment to realism? The answer is rooted in the character of American politics and the realities of academic life.
A few years ago, I attended a science fiction conference that featured Cory Doctorow as one of its speakers. Throughout his talk, Doctorow kept returning to the idea that science fiction has an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to predicting the future. Yes… yes… Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea for Sputnik before it was launched, but whatever happened to those Moon colonies, flying cars and helpful robotic butlers we were all supposed to have by now? One answer to that question is that if you are reading science fiction in order to see the future then you are reading science fiction for all the wrong reasons. Science fiction writers are human beings; they are no more likely to possess the gift of foresight than politicians, bus drivers or porn stars.
One helpful way of seeing science fiction’s tomorrows is as a commentary upon science fiction’s todays: when Iain M. Banks writes about the moral greyness of the intelligence services of an otherwise benign culture, he is writing about the disconnect between America’s apparent love of freedom and its repressive and violent foreign policy; when Ken MacLeod writes about a New Enlightenment, he is writing about the role played by religion in even comparatively secular societies; when Stephen Baxter writes about a doomed attempt at colonising another world, he is writing about the alienating power of generation gaps and the passage of time. I say that this is one helpful way of understanding science fiction because so many people seem not to have received the memo…
In an article appearing in the journal Race & Class entitled “Slouching Towards Dystopia : The New Military Futurism”, Matt Carr writes about the prominent role played by futurology in the output of political think tanks. Carr argues that while serious attempts to predict the future on rational bases may only have entered the mainstream in the 1970s with works such as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) and The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972), the discipline actually has its roots in the work of bodies such as the RAND Corporation in the early years of the Cold War. Drawing on technological advances in computing and new forms of mathematical modelling such as Game Theory, thinkers such as Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn dreamt up dozens of possible futures that could be used for long-term strategic planning. Given the seemingly apocalyptic nature of the threat facing America during the 1950s and 60s, the work of these thinkers frequently took on a decidedly science fictional character. Indeed, Kahn’s seminal On Thermonuclear War (1960) contains a section dealing with a notional World War V and such gems of macabre bureaucratic advice as those regarding the practicalities of decontaminating a radioactive Rocky Mountain range :
“Some people might be willing to visit and perhaps hunt or fish for a few weeks (the game would be edible) but, unless they had a very good reason to stay, it would be unwise to live there and even more unwise to raise a family there” [Pages 57-58]
Such reports are by no means the preserve of previous generations. Since the 1960s, the explosion in university education in general (and graduate school attendance in particular) has lead to a climate in which defence intellectuals try to compete with one another for official attention. Yesterday’s PhDs are recycled into today’s journal think-pieces and tomorrow’s political ghost stories; grim nightmares of possible futures designed to lure political patronage and much-needed funding. As Adam Curtis argues in his sensational documentary series The Power of Nightmares (2004), we live in an age where we no longer like to believe that the world is a perfectible place – and so, rather than striving towards an Augustinian City on the Hill, dystopian futures carry more political punch than utopian ones. Indeed, the Neoconservative movement may well have been a utopian one driven by a desire to bring democracy and free-markets to the world, and President Bush may well have been a Christian fundamentalist influenced by the ideas of Dominion theology and the creation of a postmillenial kingdom of God on Earth… but the Bush Presidency’s imperial vision was sold not with a shining city, but a mushroom cloud.
The line between science fiction and political commentary is, at this point, nonexistent. Policy-makers are influenced by the ideas of science fiction writers and science fiction writers are influenced by the ideas of policy-makers. The historian Norman Cohn – author of books such as Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come : The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) – suggests that both activities, along with religious prophecy and utopian politics, all tap into the same quirk of human psychology – a quirk which prompts us to see deep historical patterns where there is only blind chance, which demands that history make some kind of sense, which dictates that we know what lies around the next corner.
Of course, to my eyes, all of these attempts to predict the future speak far more about the fears of the present. It is no accident that Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) features one of the bugbears of contemporary American strategic planning, namely a feral city in the global South, driven to violence by a lethal cocktail of environmental pressures, infectious disease, and political and religious fundamentalism. Bacigalupi has been watching the same news reports as America’s strategic planners. He heard the talk of an Iraqi body politic turning to religious fundamentalism and ethnic strife. He saw the footage of street-to-street fighting in Palestine. He read the reports of climate change and its effects upon the developing world. To share a culture is to share a set of fears.
It would be easy to criticise games like Modern Warfare or Bad Company for their attempts at futurology, to mock them roundly for their decision to rehash the ghosts of the past, to lambaste them for their indulgence of popular stereotypes and right-wing propaganda… but this is to miss the point completely. Back in 2003, EA released Freedom Fighters, a largely overlooked third-person shooter set in an America that had fallen to a Soviet invasion. At the time, the idea of a Russian invasion felt vaguely retro in its absurdity, like a game-long homage to 80s action movies like Red Dawn (1984) or Iron Eagle (1986).
But that was in 2003. In the intervening seven years, America’s foreign policy has annoyed its fellow great powers and turned world opinion against it, while Russia’s internal politics have strayed from the once self-evident path of liberal capitalist democracy towards something more nationalistic and autocratic. The once decrepit paper tiger and former super power has re-emerged as a regional power capable of imposing its will upon its former client nations and independent states within its orbit of influence. As the real world changes, so too do our perceptions of it. Old dreams die and new nightmares emerge.
The challenge faced by the designers of ‘realistic’ video games is the same as the one facing politicians, religious leaders and science fiction authors: to tap into our fears about the present in order to sell us images of the future.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]