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Reality bytes

The punters queued through the night to be among the first to get a copy of ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’, the follow-up to 2009’s ‘Modern Warfare 2’ – which has become the biggest selling video game in history (£618m generated, and rising). The ‘Call of Duty’ games (there are seven so far) belong to a genre called First Person Shooters (FPS) in which players fight from the point of view of a soldier. FPS games are hugely popular across multiple consoles and in the PC market, and the ‘Call of Duty’ franchise is known for its visceral, violent gameplay and thrilling, cinematic effects.

“In one mission players attempt to assassinate a young Fide

If these are selling points, they’re also what tends to get non-gamers het up. ‘Modern Warfare 2’ infamously included a level in which the player could, as an undercover operative, win the trust of a terrorist group by participating in a graphic civilian massacre at a Russian airport. On its release, MP Keith Vaz called for it to be banned: “I am absolutely shocked by the level of violence in this game and am particularly concerned about how realistic the game itself looks,” he said. Meanwhile, the game picked up a BAFTA nomination for Artistic Achievement.

‘Black Ops’, set in various phases of the Cold War, has also attracted critics. In one mission players attempt to assassinate a young Fidel Castro. Associated Press reported outrage in Cuba, with a state-run news website stating: “What the United States couldn’t accomplish in more than 50 years, they are now trying to do virtually.”

The success of ‘Call of Duty’, controversy and all, has sparked something of an arms race between competing FPS game manufacturers. On 15th October, just before ‘Black Ops’ had hit the shelves, Electronic Arts (EA) released the latest in their own line, ‘Medal of Honor’. This game also had an explicit, real setting – this time the current war in Afghanistan. Greg Goodrich, the game’s executive producer, said: “The key differentiator between this game and Modern Warfare is greater realism and plausibility.”

As is standard with FPS games, ‘Medal of Honor’ included a multiplayer mode in which it was possible to play as either side in the conflict – which, given the setting, meant the ability to play as the Taliban.

“In one mission players attempt to assassinate a young Fidel Castro”

This time it was Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s turn to say how “disgusted” he was by the “thoroughly un-British” game, and to call for a ban. Electronic Arts were aware that the decision to include the option had the potential to cause controversy. “That was the big risk with this project,” said EA president Frank Gibeau earlier in the year. “It was one that we took a thoughtful approach to, in that a lot of current soldiers are advising us on the game to ensure it is authentic and realistic.” In the end the option was removed.

For both the companies touting their products and their critics, the language is the same: authentic, plausible, real. So how did this obsession with verité war-gaming come about? Realism hasn’t always been a preoccupation for game designers, simply because the technology ensured it wasn’t remotely possible.

The history of video games can be traced back over six decades. The first example of what we would recognise as a video game was ‘Spacewar!’, developed by MIT students in 1961, in which two spaceships had to fire at each other while avoiding the gravity pull of the star in the middle of the screen. Ten years later a variant of ‘Spacewar!’ called ‘Computer Space’ appeared as an arcade game, and 1972 saw the appearance of minimalist racket-sport simulator ‘Pong’.

In these early games, and those that followed for decades afterwards, the visuals and gameplay were always abstractions. Spaceships could be recognizable as spaceships, but there was no capacity to make a player feel as though they were in a spaceship. These constraints forced developers to react with imagination, and video games developed their own visual language. When the Mario brothers appeared in the ’80s, nobody questioned the fact that they headbutted bricks to reveal coins, and moved through a 2D world with no regard for physics – let alone that their adventures were a poor representation of the world of plumbing.

By the mid-90s, advances in processing power meant that 3D effects – until then the preserve of expensive academic, military or industrial computers – were now a real possibility within home gaming. Although other genres took advantage – such as motor racing, sports and flight simulators –the FPS games had a visceral edge. Gamers found a unique thrill in looking through the eyes of a soldier as he peered down a gun sight.

On the PC, ‘Wolfenstein 3D’ (one soldier against a stronghold full of Nazis) and ‘Doom’ (one soldier against a stronghold full of aliens) were attracting a global army of players. On the Nintendo 64 console, ‘GoldenEye 007’, a James Bond game linked to the film of the same name, sold eight million copies while establishing future genre conventions with its 3D levels, single-headshot kills, scoped sniper rifles and a multiplayer deathmatch mode. By the turn of the century, although FPS games were becoming more graphically violent and 3D effects made them more immersive and gripping, the subject matter of the games was firmly fantastical – enemies were often aliens, and settings were evidently fictional. It wasn’t game developers that shifted the FPS into a modern, realistic, setting, but the gamers themselves.

Released in 1998, ‘Half Life’ was a sci-fi FPS in which players assume the role of a theoretical physicist fighting his way out of an underground research facility. Although this game was technically advanced, it was still not far removed from its alien-slaughtering predecessors. The creators, Valve Corp-oration, included with the game the level-design tool used to make it – allowing player-developers to create their own modifications, or ‘mods’, which could be shared with others. One “modded” multiplayer version, ‘Counter Strike’, was taken up so fervently by players that Valve Corporation made it an official product – and it remains the most popular FPS in the world.

“The truth is that there are two ways out of Afghanistan: wounds or luck”

In ‘Counter Strike’, instead of Allied soldiers versus Nazis or futuristic warriors versus aliens, players could be either modern-day terrorists or counter-terrorists. It was a signal to games developers that, in FPS games at least, gamers were craving modern not fantastical settings.

There are obvious problems with saying a combat computer game is “realistic”. The absence of death or dismemberment removes a barrier to recklessness that renders everything else abstract. But more than that, computer games are inherently simplified environments, optimised for entertainment. Aside from injury, boredom and annoyance are also removed. There are no long waits between the action. Ammo rarely runs out. And to keep players playing, game environments have to have consistent rules, and be in some way “fair”. In a piece for public radio network NPR in the US in October, Benjamin Busch, a Marine Corps Infantry Officer who served two tours in Iraq, made exactly this point: “Imagine how frustrating this game would be if, just as you began to play it, an invisible sniper shot you dead every time. The game would not be popular, because being killed that way isn’t fair – just like war.”

Nevertheless, some FPS players continue to clamour for authenticity. On online messageboards in particular, everyone’s an expert. “The weapon mechanics are a fail,” says gmh2000 of ‘Medal of Honor’ on a GameFAQs message board. “No weapon sway, no bullet drop, no recoil. Accuracy is waaay higher than it should be. LMG’s are as accurate as the sniper rifles.” He then delves into the acoustic accuracy. “All the weapons sound the same. Some make the sound faster than others, but when you fire, it sounds all the same. Last I checked, a 9mm didn’t sound like a shotgun.” It’s unclear how often, and in what circumstances, gmh2000 last “checked” a 9mm pistol and a shotgun side-by-side. But this is the level of detail that a certain type of gamer wants. They crave authenticity – the stamp of violent realism that, for them, heightens the experience.

The makers of FPS games respond to this demand, going to greater lengths to prove that their production is the most “real”. The makers of ‘Medal of Honor’ boast that it was developed in collaboration with US Special Forces soldiers, producing a series of short films with their advisors – faces digitised and voices disguised – talking about the game. “‘Medal of Honor’ has always stood for authenticity and respect for the soldier,” intones the intro. “From story and dialogue to weaponry and technique, these elite operators guided the action on the screen to help best represent the action on today’s battlefield.” The UK’s own SAS media guru Chris Ryan also wrote a prequel book to accompany the game.

That last name perhaps provides a clue as to the lust gamers have for First Person Shooters – they provide the same vicarious thrill, if more interactively, as the SAS memoirs that sold so many copies in the ’90s. This is, ultimately, just entertainment. The sights, sounds and military details may be honed to near perfection; men who have seen combat may be brought in as advisors; 3D engines and displays will make the immersion in a game that much more complete. But by virtue of being consistent, fair and ultimately beatable through skill and practice, realism is neither achievable, nor what players will ever really want. As Marine Corps officer Busch puts it, “The truth is that there are two ways out of Afghanistan: wounds or luck.” Neither ending would encourage you to play again.

So it’s not quite realism that players want. But however it’s termed – hyper-realism, virtual violence or armchair soldiering – there’s no denying that a vast number of people are hooked. Within 24 hours of going on sale, ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ had sold 7.1 million copies – breaking its predecessor’s record by 2.5 million – and was predicted to ship 20 million by the end of January. On XBox LIVE, the console link-up that allows players to fight others around the world over the internet, 59 million hours of game time were logged on the day the game was released alone. The desire among gamers for the authentic combat experience is phenomenal – and the biggest army on earth is virtual.

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