In June 2006 PC Gamer UK replaced its long-running Devil's Advocaat column (provocative analysis of egg-based liqueurs) with a Devil's Advocate column (provocative analysis of game-related subjects). It was a popular move. What follows is one of my contributions. Military shooters had been getting some stick for trivialising war. I waded in, semi-seriously, in their defence.
War traumatises, brutalises, and destroys. War scars, steals innocence and takes life randomly. War is an ordeal, a nightmare, a necessary and unnecessary evil.
If you want blindingly obvious 'insights' like these go watch Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, or the evening news. If, on the other hand, you're after real revelations - genuine profundity - I recommend Call of Duty, Brothers In Arms, Day of Defeat or any other half-decent military shooter.
For decades now, directors, documentary makers and war correspondents have been busy filling our heads with safe, socially responsible representations of conflict. These representations are massively important in a world where governments are so ready to trade the lives of their citizens for power and profit, but they are, on the whole, worryingly incomplete. What's missing? The most unpalatable, unfashionable truth of all:
War is fun.
Not always. Not often. Not when you're picking pieces of your best pal's skull out of your webbing, or listening to the girl you mistook for a foe crying for her mother through lips foamy with blood. Obviously it's no fun then. But read memoirs, sift through unexpurgated reportage, catch veterans off-guard, and you will find the evidence. Soldiers and airmen admitting to feelings of elation, extraordinary exhilaration, glee even; warriors guiltily or shamelessly confessing that they sometimes enjoyed the experience of battle.
On the rare occasions when feelings like these find their way onto celluloid they are usually assigned to the safest of stereotypes. The private that takes pleasure in combat is a scary psychopath or a pitiful fellow unhinged by the fury of the fight. He's a nutjob. We are shielded from the darker, more disquieting possibility that he may, in fact, be a bloke just like us. Games are much less squeamish, much more honest.
Nobody need explain to a gamer what Winston Churchill (a Boer War witness) meant by "the exhilaration of being shot at without effect" Similarly, deep-down we are probably less surprised than most when we read that level-headed Scots Guard Robert Lawrence shouted "Isn't this fun!" during the bloody assault of Mount Tumbledown (Seconds later a sniper's bullet destroyed 43% of his brain). The fact that Geoffrey Wellum, a strikingly sane, sensitive WW2 RAF pilot, experienced feelings of "savage delight" during a particular dogfight is not shocking to the aficionado of Battle Of Britain II or IL-2 : 1946. We understand because the recreations we revel in trigger very similar emotions.
However graphically sophisticated or gruesomely gory military shooters become in the future they will always struggle to communicate anything meaningful about the fear, pain, and grief that war generates so effortlessly. We shouldn't criticize them too harshly for this. Other popular mediums are handling these aspects of the curriculum reasonably effectively already. We should be thankful instead, that games are providing insights that other war depictions can't or won't provide.