Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Called To Duty

Lana Del Rey--"Video Games" (mp3)

For the last three or four Christmases, the one present that I have overtly asked for has been the latest version of Call Of Duty or its rival, Medal Of Honor. As a result, I have fought in many WWII battles (both European and Pacific theaters), saved the world from nuclear disaster and Russian invasion in the present and future, and even done that dirtiest of work: black ops.

First, the admissions: 1) yes, I play these games on a Wii because that is the gaming system that we have had for many years and I'm not so committed a gamer that I need the latest, best system with the killer graphics and 2) I always play the 2nd level of difficulty, not the easiest, but not one of the hardcore levels. I would last about 3 seconds on one of those levels. Also, I like the play the single-player mode. These games are super hot sellers because of their online multiplayer options, but I prefer to play alone. Also, I suck at those online versions. I'm a slow lamb among wolves. I did like that zombie game last year, though, because instead of trying to do battle with super-gamers, we all teamed up to try to stop the zombies for as long as possible. Sometimes, I held my own.

Basically, what we're talking about here is that in the comfort of my den, I like to kill people.

Bad people, of course. Give me a noble cause and a gun and I'll happily pick up where Jack Bauer left off. Give me a chance to get a sense of the war my dad served in, and I'll take on Krauts or Japs. That was a good war. I actually prefer that war to the modern versions with their grey areas and civilian involvement (millions of civilians died in WWII, I realize, but not in the games).

The vibe in my house is pretty interesting. My daughters, especially, are very encouraging about the games. They will ask how it's going. They will sit and watch and ask questions. They will want to know where I am in the game. If there is a plot, they like to know what it is and who I'm currently enacting and why. They are intrigued by the locations and the scenarios.

Partly, that's because of their ages--22 and 18. They are of the generation that grew up on Goosebumps and Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. They know about choosing your ending and the teller getting involved in the tale. They know about franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight and have an appreciation of the latest addition to it. They watch their share of reality TV, so they expect for everyday people like their dad getting drawn into international conflicts.

In short, they are used to the whole interactive mindset and the idea that their dad is immersed in characters and roles and scenarios where his decisions will affect (to some extent) the outcome of the experience is as natural to them as sushi. At the same time, they are highly amused by my participation, especially if they see me get worked up or unable to get the game out of my head and needing to keep going back to it.

And there is no doubt--as soon as I begin the game, I can feel my blood pressure going up, I feel the kill thrill, I have a hard time stopping just because I'm supposed to be cooking supper. I also enjoy the relative "invincibility" of the experience. There are times when I can hold back, but most of the time, the game wants me to take the lead and eventually that means saying "what the heck" and just pushing forward into a hail of gunfire so that the other characters on screen will move up, too. Yes, I suspend disbelief easily.

But this also isn't about me. We're talking about a phenomenon here, because it is not just me playing these games, nor am I the only one my age playing them, though admittedly the ranks are thinner up here. People like "first-person shooters" of which the war games are one variation.

The tendency, if you're on the outside, is to dismiss games like this as "boys will be boys" silliness. I suppose that's possible, even likely. But we're also talking about modern, post-9/11 entertainment. The WWII games hearken back to a time when things were simpler and more clear cut and soldiers knew that they had a job to do and they volunteered to do that job in droves. You can't tell me that gaming corporations aren't tapping into that nostalgic "service" vibe as we move forward in a world we barely understand. At the same time, the games that depict present and future events allow us to confront our fears, to mimic doing something about them, to gain some understanding of our elite forces, what they do and the weapons they use to do those awful, necessary things. I've heard it mentioned and I'm not surprised that the Osama Bin Laden mission may end up as a game. Why not? We have always demonized our enemies and that's not likely to end. But instead of boys, when I was young, killing Nazis or Commies in pretend games with guns across the neighborhood, now we can get those people in the sights of very sophisticated weapons.

Also, these games, and not just the war games, functions as kinds of novels, where you may not exactly get to choose your ending, but you have a pretty fair say in how you get there and what weapons you get there with. The opportunity to interact in the story is an important draw, and not just for me, I'd say, since the games have been working more and more on the "plots," carrying over characters from previous games. Modern entertainment is about involvement on some level, not just passive observation, and these games take advantage of that need.

Nevertheless, the irony of the whole endeavor does not escape me. I am rabidly anti-war, regardless of who is in the White House, and I believe that we would be better off out of current foreign entanglements as soon as possible. I also don't own a gun and restrain myself from acts of violence 99% of the time. So, my yearly obsession with Call Of Duty is perhaps odd. I'd explain it this way: WWII is the "gateway drug." I've been obsessed with that war since I was a young child because it was my father's war. Once I got involved with WWII games, when there wasn't one, I was willing to try whatever other war games were out there. Not Legos, though. I don't do Lego action games. That's not people.


Thom Anon said...

I'm not that big a fan of video games, unless Lana del Rey is playing them.

Bob said...

Thom, apparently she's quite a phenom, but I'm just finding out about her. Downloaded a few of her songs last night. Heard "Video Games" on a mix of top 100 of 2011 and was blown away.