Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes? Part III
Friday, July 31, 2009 11:02 AM
Iain Howe continues his exploration into why shooters tread the same moral boundaries by arguing that stereotypes help us make decisions in the game world.
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.
In this third and final part Iain Howe explains why stereotypes are here to stay in video games due to their influence on our unconscious decision making.
Read Part I of Iain Howe's 'Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes?'.
Read Part II of Iain Howe's 'Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes?'
Stereotypes are so powerful a tool because they key in to a method of unconscious decision making that author and reporter Malcolm Gladwell refers to as 'thin slicing'. Essentially, each of us is heir to a number of culturally determined stereotypes, which can be accessed speedily and unconsciously to suggest a certain type of character. These stereotypes can be used by developers to make us perceive their characters as certain types of person with a minimum of exposition.
Many shooter games set themselves in history, where they can make use of cultural stereotypes to create the right atmosphere of loathing for the antagonists. Most frequently Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, Vietnam and the Middle-East are used. Where the baggage that these factions carry with them is insufficient, often fictional atrocities will be introduced into the storyline - such as the demon worshipping Nazi's in Wolfenstein or the Middle East dictator that destroys his own city in Call of Duty 4.
For these reasons, developers are often accused by academia of attacking religious or ethnic groups through the way they are portrayed when used as antagonist forces. Because of the nature of the game, there is an inherent process by which the 'good guys' and 'bad guys' are created in the player's mind. The side that he protects and champions becomes the 'good guys' and the side that he guns down by the hundred are the faceless legions of evil. The process is inevitable.
It's also true that development teams are often disturbingly one-sided in their culture - especially in the disciplines that determine storyline and game design. Whilst more and more women and cultural groups are represented in software development, as the process becomes more mainstream, it's still fair to say that the average developer is an 18 to 35 Western Male. For the particular brand of game we're talking about, this also describes the average consumer.
A classic tale of inbuilt cultural bias is told in the case of the new shooter that's under development by Atomic Games. No stranger to military simulation, this team has made its bread and butter developing combat simulators for Uncle Sam, but they're now most famous, or possibly infamous, for their foray into the entertainment sector titled 'Six Days in Fallujah.'
Choosing a theatre of war that is still claiming lives today is a departure from traditional development wisdom, and choosing a battle that is perhaps most famous for the use of weapons banned under the Geneva Convention in civilian neighborhoods could be seen to merely add grist to the mill. Atomic Games claim that the idea for the game comes from the Marine military advisors they work with, and that their intention is to create a no-holds barred, rational and non-partisan look at the events over those six days.
Intending to achieve that non-Partisan treatment with a development team receiving a steady paycheck from the US military, based in and recruited from the US and advised by almost a platoon full of US Marine Corps veterans of that very same action has to be the biggest triumph of optimism over reasonable expectation in recent memory.
On balance it seems that their original publisher, Konami, felt the same way. At first there was talk of abandoning the European market before, finally, commonsense prevailed and the whole idea of releasing it was dropped. Atomic Games, proud developers of a highly-rated FPS engine, if not so well-endowed in the sane game design department, are said to be looking for an alternative publisher at this point. Short of Dubya getting into the games biz, I'd not hold your breath though.
To a lesser extent, though, all shooters have been developed in much the same way. When a bunch of Brits and Americans make a game about World War II - guess who gets to be the baddies again? When a bunch of Brits and Americans make a game about a fictional hero in a war to the death against an alien foe bent on the occupation of Earth - the aliens often adopt fascist uniforms and accompanying symbolism.
In short, developers are quick to latch onto our cultural prejudices to quickly and efficiently create the kind of enemy you can bring endless death upon with a clear conscience. They are driven to do this in the first place by the gameplay mechanics of their chosen genre, by the limitations of a fast-paced and action packed format that's subtly influenced by their own cultural perspectives.
This is why the problem is not as simple as paying big bucks to hire a Hollywood screenwriter - and why you'd better get used to pursuing the ghosts of Adolf Hitler and the Viet Cong into strange times and distant lands.
Read Part I of Iain Howe's 'Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes?' here.
Read Part II of Iain Howe's 'Why do shooters suffer the same moral stereotypes?' here.