A Response and Riff on Games Criticism and Reality

by Nick

I don’t write often about video games on this blog, but some of the recent chatter caught my attention because it’s very similar to an aesthetic disagreement that occurred over literature in the 70s. What convinced me to take the time to write this was Jamin Warren’s latest PBS Game/Show episode on how the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises misrepresent modern contemporary warfare. The premise in that video and in a lot of the criticism on video games never seems to ask the interesting questions. They ask ones like what Warren does in that video: how does this game stack up against reality? But it completely ignores that games as systems work in response to other games and traditions of design i.e. talking about how games do or don’t reflect reality is beside the point. They’re games and they choose only to create a game world that’s consistent within itself or at least one that makes enough sense for its mechanics to work well. For example, the world of Team Fortress 2 makes sense within that world. Whether you read it as a parody of gritty contemporary war games (as Warren does) or not, characters do things within the game that real people cannot. But this is all obvious so lets get to the meat. Why does no one talk about games in terms of other games?

In 1978 John Gardener published On Moral Fiction. This work attacked contemporary literature, especially what is broadly referred to as Postmodern literature (William H. Gass, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, etc.) for not directly advocating morality with their works. Sound familiar? It’s the same idea espoused every time someone complains that video games are too violent or not direct about some kind of moral that critics think the game should make. Gardner also had a distaste for Bill Gass’s aesthetic of literature that aims for intellectual rather than emotional satisfaction. Out of all the pomo writers Gass emphasized that the images or language within a written work must largely be taken on the work’s terms. More clearly, a reader wouldn’t automatically impart any meaning from outside the work to that image of a man slipping blue jeans on a hangar. This disconnect is where we get to Warren’s video and how its concerns superimpose the outside world onto more or less closed constraint-based systems (games).

To be fair, I wouldn’t go as far as Gass would in terms of how we understand video games, especially games that specifically invoke certain images or political situations occurring in reality. However, I find it funny that no one starts talking about Call of Duty 4 (COD4) by identifying it as an arena shooter. When we talk about the game’s design we can talk about the thing itself rather than just the culture around it or the culture it spawned and then draw some spurious connection between the players and attitudes that may or may not be in the game. This is one of the gaping holes in “cultural criticism.” It doesn’t adequately take on the work itself so we end up talking around it, past it. But lets go back to the thing itself.

COD4 takes several pains in order to make itself a fast-paced game akin to Quake 3. Quake players run incredibly fast, faster than any other game I’ve ever played. This coupled with Quake’s interconnected level design forces players to encounter one another almost immediately after spawning. There’s also something about seeing your rounds speed toward an opponent that makes Quake blisteringly quick. Call of Duty doesn’t allow players to move outrageously fast, but by allowing all bullets fired to immediately hit their mark (a wall, head, whatever), players almost always have a chance to eliminate one another. There’s no dodging a slow rocket from the other side of the map like in Quake. COD also tends to have very open maps to allow players a chance to fire upon their opponents from several different points on the map. There’s more to go into, but the point is that Call of Duty is in many ways a hybrid or a riff off of arena shooters like Quake 3 and it’s very disappointing when cultural critics don’t acknowledge those lineages (especially in this case because Quake’s incredibly anti-realistic) when they intersect with the topic at hand.

Also not mentioning Counter Strike: Global Offensive when you want a tactical team experience that uses limited ammo as a way of shaping player choices is really frustrating.

Thank you for reading.