October 20, 2004

Through the Ether: Virtual Viet Cong

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Somehow, it seems that every tragic event in human history will someday be relived or reinterpreted by some kind of media. War, more than anything else, has provided the palette to flex the full gamut of human emotion and suffering. And, for better or worse, it has been the motivating element for masterpieces like The Naked and the Dead and Apocalypse Now, and self-indulgent, stale vehicles for dollar-store patriotism like Pearl Harbor.

War has always been left to interpretation in literature, film, or even music and poetry. It was not until the advent of video games that another avenue appeared by which war could be viscerally experienced. Of course, there were games like Contra on consoles that now seem primitive, based on a reality where GI’s had anti-Newtonian 40-foot vertical leaps and could subvert the effects of bullets through floating power-ups.

But the hyper-realism of platforms like X-Box and PCs allows for a remarkable, and terrifying, recreation of the art of war. In the past couple years, we’ve seen games spring up like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. And these are a far cry from the days of Wolfenstein. Now Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and Guadalcanal can all be recreated and replayed from the safety of your living room.

There is repulsive perversity in this latest of trends. Just the other day, I saw a commercial for a new game entitled Conflict: Vietnam. On it, fearless GIs decked out in fatigues jumped from helicopters, launching rockets into enemy strongholds and exploding villages. In case the people who buy this game are too stupid to remember, this is a war whose survivors are still alive today, whose dead are still remembered and mourned by living people. And now it’s a video game?

My unshakable faith in human nature is beginning to wobble.

Unlike film or literature, video games provide no humanizing effects to the characters they create. They are merely projections, numerical calculations pounded out by a processor. When we watch something like Platoon, there is at least a vague reckoning that we are watching human beings die, regardless of whether it’s merely drama. The fact remains that what we see are human forms, and at least on some level, we can create an emotional connection. Video games instead reduce a death toll in the millions to a fantasy. There is no reality in the gaming world. The characters are disposable, electronic entities. Their deaths mean nothing. And, in effect, a very real human struggle and tragedy is distilled into a first person shooting game. It is a total and complete distanciation.

You can’t treat people like the aliens in Doom or Halo. Contrary to what these game designers may believe, the Viet Cong were real people, who led real lives, and died real deaths. Really. By recreating them as a faceless enemy to be gunned down indiscriminately by a catalog of weaponry (all at your fingertips!) strips them of any and all humanity. It’s bad enough that the cinema has a long, enduring history of treating American enemies as just that — expressionless, unemotional, purely evil enemies. I can scarcely express how shameful and disgusting it is that something so real and horrific could be sold at $49.99, complete with secret levels and hidden power-ups. And, to be honest, games like Age of Empires, which recreate Medieval struggles, are a different story — we have no point of reference to the battles that were fought hundreds of years ago. But the very characters of a game like Conflict: Vietnam are still alive today. They are our parents’ generation. They may even be our parents. Doesn’t that bother anyone?

I can only imagine a Vietnam veteran seeing his lost companions and years of suffering recreated and exploded as video game characters. I can’t fathom what it feels like to see one’s own personal hell reduced to pulp entertainment. But hey, that’s just the American way, right? One look at the stylized mass slaughter in Saving Private Ryan should be enough to tell us that. Are these games supposed to teach people about war? Are they supposed to make us more patriotic? If these games are supposed to be in memorium, then they have grossly missed the point.

In a silent corner of the Washington mall, there is a black, marble slab engraved with 50,000 names. It honors the dead with an overpowering respect and dignity. Perhaps game designers should visit that some time.

Archived article by Zach Jones
Arts & Entertainment Associate Editor