Military ‘shooter’ video games heirs to war films of yesteryear?

A screen shot from the video game HomefrontA screen shot from the video game Homefront
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The first thing players who spin up the new video game “Homefront” will see is a stern-faced Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton describing the sinking of a South Korean ship by a North Korean submarine. In a series of flashy, graphically stylized sequences, the game goes on to depict a nightmarish future in which an expansionist North Korea has come to rule not just its neighbors in Asia, but vast swaths of the United States.

But while the game’s semi-realistic, sci-fi invasion scenario is rooted in present-day political fears, “Homefront” — like a number of popular military shooters — is ultimately driven more by urgent battlefield necessity and survival than by any political ideology.

Just as Hollywood has been inundated with movies about American military engagement in recent years, the game market has been crowded with war-themed shooters. But in sharp contrast to films like “Lions for Lambs,” “Syriana,” and “Redacted,” military shooters have often been astoundingly successful. (The last two entries in the “Call of Duty” series, for example, set game-sales records).

Unlike Hollywood’s conflicted anti-war stories, the games tend to be free of political ambivalence, crises of conscience or dovish moral awakenings. In many ways, these games have filled a void left when Hollywood abandoned both the nationalistic war movies of the post-WWII era and the brawny action films of the 1980s. Like those movies, modern military shooters paint war as both exciting and necessary — and they’re decidedly less squeamish than today’s politically correct Hollywood fare about casting foreign enemies as villains. In “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” for example, the commies are the bad guys, and your first assignment is to assassinate Castro (at least you think it’s him).

Don’t misunderstand: The games aren’t sneaky propaganda cheerleading for America-as-world’s-policeman. Instead, they tend to justify their digital armed conflicts in simple and largely non-ideological terms: You, the player, are being shot at. That requires action and engagement in return. To survive — and continue playing — you must shoot back.

A screen shot from the video game Homefront

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A screen shot from the video game Homefront more >

This is true even for a game with an implicitly cinematic lineage. “Homefront” was written by filmmaker John Milius, and the story leans heavily on the American occupation scenario Mr. Milius envisioned in the 1984 film “Red Dawn.” In the game, invaders are North Koreans rather than the film’s Soviets, and the setting is futuristic rather than present day. But the overarching concept is the same.

In terms of game-play, however, “Homefront” takes its cues almost exclusively from the recent, highly successful wave of military shooters — games like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and “Medal of Honor” — that promise to drop players into what are often advertised as highly realistic depictions of war zone combat.

That highly structured game-world combat, though, is less realistic than it sometimes seems. In his 2008 essay “Just Less Than Total War,” University of Central Florida English professor James Campbell made the case that historically driven, war-based shooters like “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor” don’t actually intend to re-create the experience of anything like an actual war; they seek, instead, to simulate the experience of war movies.

War-based shooters certainly aim to replicate the spectacle of a big Hollywood war film. But if they belong to a cinematic tradition, it’s that of movies like “Platoon” and “The Hurt Locker,” both of which zoom in on the task-oriented lives of soldiers in wartime.

Still, even Hollywood’s least political depictions of war allow more room for character development than do video games. In a first-person shooter, the player’s digital surrogate tends to be a cipher, his identity a blank. That leaves little opportunity for, say, remorse or internal conflict. Instead, the character is defined by the immediate exigencies of digital combat. Players fill in the blanks through in-game choices.

Those choices, meanwhile, are inherently limited in the game world. Military shooters put players in the midst of the action, forcing them to focus strictly on the task at hand. The available options tend to boil down to different ways to kill digital opponents. An enemy appears on screen, and you can shoot him, throw a grenade at him, or pull out your knife — and that’s all.

Where Hollywood’s critical war films place a premium on anguished self-reflection and broader context, a military shooter erases nearly all traces of the self except the capacity to fight. There’s as yet no way to build moral or ideological ambivalence into a control pad: Players are automatically oriented toward battle because they have no option to do anything else. So if you want to play the game, you’re committed to the war effort. There’s no arguing with it, except by quitting.

Limiting the choice set also forces the gamers into thinking as high-performers do in high-stress situations such as the battlefield. In his 2009 book “How We Decide,” science journalist Jonah Lehrer explains the individuals who handle stress best tend to succeed because they are able to block out irrelevant information and focus on the few factors that matter. That mindset will be familiar to gamers: Even the most complex and sophisticated military shooters ultimately boil every situation down to just a few decisions.

So it’s hardly surprising that the military has made use of video game shooters in its training and recruiting efforts. In the early ‘90s, one of the first popular shooters, a horror-soaked World War II fantasy called “Doom,” was licensed in a modified form to the Marines for combat training. In 2002, the Army released a free first-person shooter, “America’s Army,” as a recruiting tool and has continued to release updated versions for newer platforms in the years since.

Barring an unexpected North Korean invasion, “Homefront” isn’t likely to be a recruiting tool or a training platform. But it works from the same set of war zone premises as an actual military simulator: Politics may drive the backstory, but once the bullets start flying, the only thing that matters is the mission.

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