Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes? Part I
Wednesday, July 29, 2009 1:53 PM
Iain Howe explores why video game shooters tread the same moral boundaries and present stereotyped enemies and protagonists.
Ever wondered why video game shooters generally enjoy a similar plot to its predecessors?
Iain Howe, a former game designer and scriptwriter, argues that the recurring themes and stereotypes in shooters actually create moral extremes that are essential to not only the enjoyment of the game, but also the delivery of an intelligible plot.
In his three part feature, Howe hopes to explain why many shooter video games reflect each other's moral decisions and tread the same roads release after release.
Now that games and gaming are becoming more important on the world scene, we're seeing them suffer from the same sort of attacks that other mediums, such as Art, Music and Film, have suffered in the past. If you've played many games of the first- and third-person shooter type then you may have noticed that many of them display superficial similarities.
Sometimes it can be frustrating when wholly expected stereotypes litter the story, gameplay and the character design of the game - spoiling the enjoyment you might have had if these features had been new to you. How often have you read forum posts from younger gamers extolling the virtues of a new game, only to see older gamers respond; "It's all been done before in..."?
The use of stereotypes is particularly jarring when it comes to setting up the protagonist's character (the player) and the antagonist (the enemy characters that the player fights). Even in games that allow for some play within the moral dimension, the protagonist always fights the same antagonist - stereotyped as an utterly evil group. Whether the player elects to become a saint himself, or just the new evil, he will always be fighting against people who deserve nothing better.
It's easy to take the stance that this is because developers lack the creative vision to come up with a challenging narrative and so, pump out cheesy action movie stereotypes, determining the plot in a lunchtime meeting and then treating it with casual disregard, but the truth is a lot more complex. In many cases, the stereotypes are caused by gameplay dynamics, by the nature of the medium itself and by unconscious cultural bias.
The chief factor that influences the design of the antagonist in most shooter games has to be the sheer amount of carnage that's necessary.
The player's main method of interacting with the game world is shooting at it and most games provide an almost never-ending swarm of enemies upon which he can let loose his wrath. This is vital in order to keep the action moving: the player has to be fighting, recovering from a fight, or anticipating the next fight to come! The normal routine of combat experience - days of mindless tedium cut with moments of stark terror - is not an entertaining recipe.
Naturally this involves moving the player to where the action is thickest, constantly placing him in the front of every significant battle in the game.
All this death places a burden on the dynamics of the storyline. The player, although cast in the role of heroic protagonist, slaughters in the manner of a fanatical villain; the onus is on the storyline to create a force of villainous antagonists who deserve such a holocaust. Of course there isn't much opportunity to establish detailed bad guys in the context of an action based game, so many fall into using the same stereotypes.
Limitations of the Medium
Of course, another dimension to this problem is the sheer lack of plot space that most shooters have to tell the story in. Most narrative is handled in the intro and cutscenes, with little other than short snippets relating directly to mission objectives occurring mid-level. Obviously it's hard to communicate with the player when an assault rifle is yammering away at the same time, so these enforced periods of downtime are usually used to string the individual levels together into a coherent whole, with varying degrees of success.
This lack of 'narrative space' severely limits the ability to create a nuanced story that builds from first principles and so games borrow from a palette of cultural stereotypes just to keep things moving.
The Halo series establishes an alien enemy who are fanatical adherents to an extremist religion that has exterminating humanity as a central article of faith. Whilst this monolithic society is broken down into less and more extreme factions later, this signals the end of its status as an unquestioned enemy. With the prophets gone, Halo 4 will need to find a new chief enemy.
Gears of War also goes for the alien genocide angle. Its locust troops are bent on a war to capture the surface of the planet and are frequently shown to be brutal, seldom trying to avoid casualties on either their own side or their enemies.
The FEAR series creates a force of cloned and genetically engineered super-soldiers, little more than biological machines, all under the control of insane, blood thirsty, commanders who have also been genetically engineered.
However, these is one Hazy counterpoint from Free Radical Design that aims to question these stereotyped enemies; a counter-example that I'll take a detailed look at in Part II.
Read Part II of Iain Howe's 'Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes?' here.
Read Part III of Iain Howe's 'Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes?' here.