Can We Finally Take Games Seriously?

As the plots in games mature, the mainstream media continues to see games as entertainment forms and not storytelling mediums

Earlier this month, Modern Warfare 2 exploded onto the gaming scene. It broke entertainment records across the board, bringing in $550 million in sales during the first week, selling more units than a Harry Potter book release ever managed, and making more money in the process than any film ever had in one week.

During the overarching storyline of Modern Warfare 2, a U.S. Marine is tasked with going deep undercover in order to infiltrate a terrorist group in Russia. As part of his deep cover, he must aid the group in all aspects of their job, including in executing terror plots. The mission, “No Russian,” opens in an elevator. It is dark. The elevator dings as each floor passes by. Vests are heard being zipped and guns click as they are loaded. Then, light comes into the scene. Makarov, the Russian terrorist group leader looks at you, looks at the two terrorists in the elevator as the doors open. “No Russian,” he says, meaning, don’t speak Russian.

Terrorists march through Moscow's airport in the "No Russian" mission of Modern Warfare 2

Terrorists march through Moscow's airport in the "No Russian" mission of Modern Warfare 2

You walk into a crowded airport terminal where passengers wait to pass through security. Police officers stand guard as the terrorists you are with suddenly point their guns. What is about to happen will come as a shock. The officer grabs for his gun and falls to the floor pockmarked with bullets. But the gunfire from the terrorists isn’t solely directed at the police. It is being directed at the crowd. The terrorists hunt down and kill the civilians one by one. At the end of the mission, as you climb into an ambulance to scream away from the scene of your vicious terrorist act, Makarov turns and shoots you, acknowledging that you are an American spy.

The discovery of an American body outfitted with guns at the scene instigates a massive Russian invasion of the U.S. and the dogged pursuit of Makarov by a team of U.S. and British special ops forces.

The scene was leaked to the press in advance of the game’s arrival on store shelves, and it fired up anti-game commentators around the country. Media commentary ranged from “You bring a violent game into a house with an 8 year old, nothing to stop that kid from playing it and becoming a terrorist on a video game” to the headline, “Modern Warfare 2 accused of promoting terrorism.” The media saw the scene as a violent, unnecessary venture into terrorism – one that encouraged kids to gun down civilians and that glorified the acts of terrorism that are reported everyday on the world news. Furthermore, they reported on the scene as though Modern Warfare 2 consisted solely of committing terrorist acts. There was no proper reporting on the game, no discussion of the depth of the title or the reason for the scene’s inclusion in the game. As far as the media was concerned, “No Russian” was the entire game.

Frustratingly, if “No Russian” was a scene in a film or out of a book, it would not have received the same negative media attention. Plenty of films have dramatized vicious acts of murder, terrorism, and violence. Best Picture winner The Departed portrayed Jack Nicholson as a vicious mob boss in Boston who executes people on a beach in Rhode Island. Children of Men depicted a bomb going off in a London coffee shop, a woman emerging afterwards holding her torn off arm. Die Hard featured a storyline about terrorists taking over a Los Angeles high rise, and violence is incredibly prevalent in many other films as well. Furthermore, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Road unveils a dark, post-apocalyptic world in which groups of bandits capture and kill people for food. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita depicted a pedophile’s love for a young girl, and On The Road, by Jack Kerouac, told of debauchery, drugs, and wine-drinking.

Critically acclaimed, Children of Men featured depictions of terrorism and violent uprisings but received no negative media attention despite its mature themes

Critically acclaimed, Children of Men featured depictions of terrorism and violent uprisings but received no negative media attention despite its mature themes

Each and every one of these films and books are excellent and serve as examples of critically acclaimed classics that contain controversial but widely accepted content because their mediums are viewed as powerful storytelling vehicles. They utilize the very adult situations within their stories to provide a compelling, provocative, and revealing exposé of different worlds – from Kerouac’s wild, hitch-hiking odyssey to Scorsese’s violent, high-strung depiction of a cat and mouse chase in the Boston Police Department. Critics view these films and books as classics for their ability to depict worlds we cannot imagine or have not lived through, and for their ability to open our eyes to the imperfect world that is all around us, though not always visible to the common individual.

Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission sought to shock the player and to bring a very real element of the world into its mature storyline. By choosing to depict the act of terrorism, Infinity Ward, the developers behind Modern Warfare 2, brought a raw emotional value to the game. As many reviewers and players commented, it was awfully hard, if not impossible, to partake in the events, even though the game forced you to walk through them. Many players chose to simply observe the level rather than to take part in the murdering of civilians. The result was a stunning moral development in gaming, in which the player, given control over the situation, had to feel the raw emotional fear of doing something violent in order to infiltrate an organization hellbent on instigating far greater levels of violence. The question leading into “No Russian” is, “what sacrifices are we willing to make for the greater good?” And the game truly serves to make you wonder whether it’s worthwhile infiltrating a terrorist group so thoroughly as to partake in a terror act in order to prevent greater acts of violence.

The problem is, films like The Departed are seen as powerful story-telling mediums, while games are still most often viewed as entertainment mediums above all else

The problem is, films like The Departed are seen as powerful story-telling mediums, while games are still most often viewed as entertainment mediums above all else

Infinity Ward could have easily portrayed the terror scene in a different way. They could have included a cut scene indicating what happened. They could have relayed the events through character discussions, news broadcasts, and radio chatter. Instead, they made you play through it. They made you feel the emotional pull of committing a violent, terrifying act. And in doing so, they brought a new level of storytelling to video gaming.

With vast new technologies available, games are better able now than ever before to tell mature, deeply involved and character driven stories to rival films and books. Video games are so interactive, so immersive, that they do not just show us the story, they make us play through it. And as video game technology has matured, so have the storylines.

Bioshock wasn’t simply a shooter. It was an exploration of a once Utopian world – a world heavily based upon Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Modern Warfare 2 explored not just warfare, but the consequences of terrorism and the intricacies of international politics. Gaming has progressed immensely from Mario’s simple “save the princess” storyline to something far greater – they have the ability to pull us into someone else’s world. By bringing us directly into the action they are able to elicit far greater reactions than films and books. Fighting on the National Mall in Modern Warfare 2 wasn’t just a visceral experience, it was an emotional one. There was our Capitol building, roof collapsing, the White House filled with Russian paratroopers, our suburban backyards echoing with gunfire. The raw act of terrorism that brought it about made the scenes far more emotionally powerful than they would have otherwise been. The sacrifice of the US Army Private behind enemy lines was for nothing. The act of a terrorist had brought war into our backyards. And the power of seeing our familiar landscapes under attack was able to incite a sense of patriotism, pride, and resolve. As I played, it occurred to me that I would be damned if Washington was going to fall to the Russians.

Gaming is maturing as technology develops the ability to tell deep, emotional storylines. Bioshock featured an engrossing world that was heavily based upon Ayn Rand's theory of Objectivism.

Gaming is maturing as technology develops the ability to tell deep, emotional storylines. Bioshock featured an engrossing world that was heavily based upon Ayn Rand's theory of Objectivism.

What the media fails to recognize is that video games are no longer the arcade and Super Nintendo titles from the 80s and 90s that we all love and remember fondly. Today, games are storytelling mediums that have an ability no other medium has – to put us directly in any situation the developers want to put us in.

By placing us in the shoes of terrorists, Infinity Ward managed to bring true horror to the storyline. Around the world, gamers experienced something they never had, something that a violent terror act in a film or book couldn’t possibly elicit. Our hands were dirty. We were involved in the killing of civilians. The raw emotional impact of that scene is unparalleled in any other medium.

As gaming makes further technological advances, I expect storylines will mature even more. In the case of “No Russian”, the media failed to understand the power of the medium, nor the ability to of video games to provide as immersive, as deep, and as strong a story as a film or book can. In the future, gaming will hopefully be recognized foremost as a storytelling medium and secondly as an entertainment medium. Someday, perhaps, the media will recognize that “No Russian” was not so much the whole game, but a small, vital part of a large, epic, and emotionally driven story.