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July 23, 2009

Playing at War

As I recently posted, I finally jumped in and got myself a 360 recently¹. With the recent reveal of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 at E³, I felt like it was a good time to catch up on what modern shooters are doing on the next-gen hardware.

I started playing the game on June 4th, a Thursday. I started late in the evening; I seem to remember coaching a baseball game that night, so I started some time after 9. I may have had a beer with dinner, which I would have had when I got home. I hadn't played any shooters to speak of on the next generation, though I've since also played Gears of War, which I'll discuss a little bit in this space soon.

I couldn't play more than a single level of Modern Warfare, if I even finished that, and my hazy recollection now is that I didn't. You see, I've gotten back into the habit of listening to the news this year, what with having a President I can stomach and all, and while I certainly wouldn't say I've been ignorant of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's nonetheless pretty safe to say that it wasn't on my mind day in and day out. These days, however, it's more on my mind, particularly with concerns about Iran constantly popping up in the news, and reports about surges being part of Morning Edition or All Things Considered nearly every day it seems.

I sat there and tried to play this modern first person shooter and I just couldn't do it. I was consumed by anxiety, completely stressed out by the sounds and sights of virtual war, bothered more than I could imagine by the suggestions that it brought of real war. It was really surprising to me.

The next day I brought it into work to exchange it for something else from our expansive game library, but due to one thing or another I ended the day having not had time to select something else. In the meantime, one of my producers (a huge fan of the series) suggested I give it another go; he was surprised by my reaction, and thought the game had a lot to offer. So I dragged it back home again.

As it turned out, on June 6th I had a rare day of not much going on, and around the middle of the day I put it in again. I was still a little concerned about my reaction, but for whatever reason -- the daylight, the lack of beer, the lack of baseball, or some other random factor -- it didn't affect me to nearly the degree that it had. I still felt a lot of tension, but it was a healthier, "intense game" kind of sensation, not the panicky, rabbity-heart kind of physiological response I had had only 36 or so hours previously. In all probability I had simply become desensitized having been exposed to it once.

I played through the game on the easiest setting -- I was most interested in being aware of what the game had to offer, as an example of a top shooter, than of the story or the particular level of challenge. I was looking at it with my game developer hat on, not with my gamer hat on, and maybe in the end that made the bigger difference. I enjoyed how characters in the story showed up in a series of flashback missions, which were my favorite missions of the game, both because of that bridge between earlier games and the "present", and because of the remoteness of those characters from current world events. I found the remoteness of the "death from above" mission horrifying in the way it removed the consequences of actions both visually and in virtual distance, the way in which targets became mere abstractions.

It's quite an experience. But playing it on the anniversary of D-Day, with the graphical fidelity these machines possess, and with what's in the news day in and day out, it didn't exactly feel like a game, which I intend as high praise. Worth "playing".

Join me in a week or so for a quick little discussion of mini-mechanics I've encountered recently...

¹Although I have at least a couple dozen games on the last generation I haven't yet played, I've been employed for the last year with Bethesda Game Studios, and it seemed appropriate that I get a system at home I can play our games on. On the plus side, the company also has a sizable game library, so I will hopefully not end up with dozens of games this generation that I haven't played. Check back in a few years I guess. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at July 23, 2009 09:00 PM


Hey, Brett, I just started reading your blog and I really like these last couple of posts. I'm actually really happy you posted this, because I had almost the exact same experience with CoD4, and most people I talked to at the office just stared at me blankly when I suggested it was a bit too real or hit too close to home. Like you, I blazed through it on easy, and found it actually had a some slightly mature messages about war - for a game capitalizing on the intensity of modern combat for entertainment value, anyways. But yeah, ditto and great post.

Posted by: MikeOK at August 25, 2009 11:21 AM

Glad you liked it, Mike. Come on back and comment again :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 26, 2009 10:24 AM