Are Video Games About War Hurting The Emotional Development Of Boys And Men? (Maybe They Don't Have To)

We joke in our household that I am traumatized by the extent of the battle sounds I’ve heard over the years, and it's funny, but the truth is that I am deeply disturbed by these games.
Publish date:
March 19, 2014
masculinity, video games, tech, games, violence, GDC

For as long as my husband and I have been married, I have watched him play military-styled first person shooters, games in which the primary method of fun is to play a character fighting in sometimes historical, but usually made-up war and shooting at other people, people who are sometimes real (insofar as being the avatars of other humans also playing the same game over the internet) and sometimes made-up (as in artificially simulated game enemies).

They’re difficult to escape. Our old apartment was one of those standard modern layouts with a living room/dining room combination with a bedroom attached on each side, and back then, even leaving the room was insufficient to put distance between myself and the sounds of fake war. We joke in our household that I am traumatized by the extent of the battle sounds I’ve heard over the years, and it’s ridiculous to suggest it, but the truth is that I am deeply disturbed by these games, especially the games in which the action and story are not cartoonish and absurd, but are pretending toward something real, trying to manipulate and wrench some semblance of an emotion beyond adrenaline out of its players.

The early Medal of Honor games, being somewhat committed to reproducing real battles of history, were especially bad. I remember watching Dennis guide a solider on the ground at Pearl Harbor through the attack and feeling such horror and despair that I had to leave the room and put on headphones and try to block out the screams and explosions from this very serious ode to history.

It has continued through the Call of Duty and Battlefield series of games, and I’m a little more inured to the constant sounds of synthethized battle today, but frankly the frenetic cacophony still gets under my skin sometimes, and as a non-player of these games, I still sometimes watch them with a certain melancholy, wondering idly if being able to simulate the killing of thousands of avatars does anything to the people who play them, knowing the evidence is that it does not, but still -- wondering.

I would not personally go so far as to argue that these games trick players into believing that literal war is a fun time -- few people can possibly be that thick. I suspect the games do trivialize war to some extent, and render what is impossible to truly describe into a series of marked objectives and a goal of victory, and that is exactly what makes them appealing.

From this perspective, it makes a kind of sense that so many actual real-life soldiers enjoy shooter games in their downtime, even on military bases around the world; a game is an impossibly unrealistic, paper-thin shadow of what actual soldiers experience. A game is straightforward, predictable and banal in all the ways that real life is not, creating a release valve and an escape into a world where death is not permanent and your avatar keeps doggedly and reliably respawning until the match is over. Indeed, Dennis tells me that in his own conversations with current and former soldiers who play these games, most find the idea that a game can tell you anything real about a soldier’s life to be downright offensive, the reality is so drastically removed from the shooting-for-fun version.

This is not to say they don’t have effects, however. In a talk today at the Game Developers Conference, educator and author Rosalind Wiseman (possibly best known in xoJane circles as the author of the book, “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World,” which provided the basis for the movie “Mean Girls”) turned her expertise on the connections between social status and video games in preteen and teenage boys.

Wiseman’s research finds that boys attempt to emulate certain characteristics of conventional masculinity -- traits highlighted above as strength, verbal skills, tallness, popularity with girls, access to money, and a certain state of detachment from even the things they do well -- while actively avoiding those traits that diminish that idealized boy world, like being insecure, short, fat, awkward, and -- probably most tellingly -- a person who “tries too hard.” Boys are growing up with the idea that their strengths ought to be effortless and that they must never require help from anyone, which underscores a lot of the more oppressive and unpleasant aspects of cultural masculinity.

What does this have to do with video games, though? Most first-person shooter games fulfill and recreate those preferred boy characteristics, and let the players remake themselves in that masculine mold, and thus all the more popular kids tend to play these games. Still, many of the boys polled by Wiseman stated that they hated feeling as though they constantly need to wear a “mask” of masculinity -- but that they experience incredible pressure to fit that expectation.

First-person shooter games (and sports games) tend to be popular amongst boys even though more creative games (like Minecraft) exist because these more competitive and masculine games allow their players to fit themselves into that social structure. Wiseman’s argument, co-presented with Ashly Burch, seems not to hinge on the idea that games are making boys into anything, but that the problem is that the games themselves are allowing players the room to reproduce the existing social structures that are causing so many boys to struggle in the first place.

One of the most popular characters amongst the boys polled was the protagonist of the Halo series, Master Chief; when asked why, the boys referenced the fact that the character is a “badass” and almost impossibly unflappable and stoic even in the most terrifying circumstances -- not surprising, considering stoicism and badassery are two of the most hypermasculine cultural markers we have. Master Chief never expresses fear, or uncertainty, or basically any emotion beyond stonefaced assertiveness. Remind you of anyone you know? Me neither. This is not what real people -- even men -- are like.

But the suggested solution is not to make all games into love contests in which whoever cuddles the nicest wins -- Burch asked why we can’t take games as they are currently made and simply insert small features to make their protagonists a little less stereotypical, and their environments a little friendlier, and a lot less conducive to griefing (“griefing,” for the non-gamers in the audience, is the depressingly common practice of raining thirty-two flavors of hell down on another player not because it helps you advance in the game, but simply to be a dick -- because you can). These would be small steps to make even supermasculine characters a little more emotionally nuanced and real, to demonstrate that this standard of steely manhood is really just a pile of crap that only serves to make boys (and later, men) really unhappy with themselves for failing to meet it, while also making it difficult for boys and men to learn to express emotions, or -- heaven forfend -- to ask for help when they need it.

But some games are taking things a bit further. Immediately following the above talk, I spoke to Pawel Miechowski, who is working on a game called “This War of Mine” which is essentially the spiritual inversion of a military first-person shooter.

This War Of Mine from 11 bit studios on Vimeo.

The popularity of traditional military first person shooters is partly due to the fact that they follow a familiar narrative -- there is an outrageous (to me, anyway) number of gamers who play these games exclusively, probably in part because even when new games in well-known series do get released, there is very little new to learn about them. There are people who come home and play a couple hours of Call of Duty to relax, in the same way someone else might go for a run or have a glass of wine. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but the ubiquitous sameness of these games does often result in certain details about the worlds they’re trying to build being lost.

"This War of Mine" is not a game where you play as a soldier fighting in a war. Instead, you play as a group of civilians trapped in a city beseiged by war, and your only objective is to survive for as long as possible. While games are primarily thought of as fun distractions, Miechowski told me that his intention was to break this traditional scheme of games about war: "We believe games are the best form of art to speak about important things.” Games, says Miechowski, are participatory in ways that film and other media are not, because these forms place the viewer only as a spectator, a position that naturally causes a certain degree of detachment from the action. In a game, the player is a part of the world, and she makes the decisions; and in “This War of Mine,” the decisions that need to be made are chilling, such as who to feed when you have limited food, or who to send out scavenging in the dark at night, putting them at risk of being hurt.

Certainly, a game can’t really get at what civilian survival in a warzone is truly like any more than a first-person shooter can make a player a soldier, but Miechowski hopes "This War of Mine" will at least start a conversation, especially considering most of the details in the game come from meticulous research of real-life conflicts, primarily the siege of Sarajevo in Yugoslavia during the mid-1990s, but also using information from survivors in Syria and Libya, and trying to create circumstances in which the limitations of a life in such a world are stark: “People ask, why can’t I leave the shelter during the day? Well, there are snipers. You’d be shot.”

This is a game specifically intended not to impose its own morality on you as the player, but to give you the tools to allow you to make decisions freely, whether those decisions are to help other survivors, to trade with them, or to steal from them and hurt them. You are not punished for “bad” behavior or rewarded for good -- your only goal is to live another day, and to do whatever you can to make that happen.. In real life, Miechowski says, the true danger is less often from soliders as much as it is from other people trying to survive, and sometimes difficult choices will have to be made about whether your group survives at the expense of someone else’s, or whether you decide instead to sacrifice your own people when the water or firewood runs out.

“This War of Mine” is still in development, but it has stood out to me as an important example of the other directions games can be taking to address even familiar subjects from new angles, and of how games are not doomed to reproduce the same narratives and the same social structures -- games can tell important stories and speak about important issues, and can even promote empathy, or at least sympathy, in their players, if the story told is actively working toward that goal.

I don’t know that I would be any happier playing “This War of Mine” myself than I am watching my husband play “Battlefield 4” -- I expect both games will make me despair for very different reasons. That said, I think games like “This War of Mine” are crucial steps in growing games as a medium beyond things that are just fun, and which can also speak to hard truths about our world. Games can be fun, but they can also be smart, or upsetting, or provocative -- and they need to be, if the medium is going to grow beyond the boy world so much of it currently occupies.