Friday, March 21, 2008

Army of Two and the Question of Moral Evaluation in Video Game Criticism

Gamers among the Bostodelphia readership are probably aware by now of Electronic Arts' Army of Two, released a couple of weeks back:

Your friendly deadly sandwich learned about it via banner ads placed on While I'm not much of a gamer, I do like following thematic and mechanical trends in games. Army of Two's promotional material had my interest piqued enough to read SciFi's review of the game this week.

First off, yes, we've been critical, maybe a bit overly harsh on SciFi in the past. That said, I've never doubted SciFi's basic integrity as a source for genre news and criticism; and it's good to see Eric T. Baker's B- review of Army of Two as further evidence of SciFi as a resource not beholden to its sponsors.

What interests me in Baker's review is not so much his evaluation of the mechanical play of the game. He's thorough on that front. I've never played Ao2, just seen the commercials; but having read Baker I now got a "feel" for it. What's interesting about his review is a premise guiding him about what might be called the "role playing aesthetic" or "ethic" of the game:

Despite the many attempts to differentiate them through gameplay and graphics, first-person shooters always have been and always will be about who the player's character is and about who it is shooting. So right up front, Ao2 has a problem. Because however much fun it is to use one character to boost another character up onto a balcony, it is hard to get behind the idea that it is better to kill al-Qaeda terrorists for cash than it is to do it as a sworn soldier of the U.S. military. Somehow the mix of a real-world enemy, a real-world war and two unkillable mercs in hockey masks just isn't as compelling as, for example, Call of Duty 4. The two games have similar plots, but CoD4 has the player killing for something besides the money to buy gold plating for his guns.
Baker likes to engage in first-person shooting play under the pretext that said shooting is being done for "noble ends." U.S. soldiers fighting for American geo-politcal hegemony freedom, Jedi fighting the Dark Side, etc. Nothing wrong with that premise in game preference. However as a general criteria in evaluating a video game, I don't think the notion of a morally righteous protagonist is by any means universal to the first-person shooter genre. In fact, I'd argue it tends to be more often the opposite.

Sure, sequels to Doom had something of a "save the world" theme to them, but they grew out of game whose theme was more desperate survival in a very hostile environment (and yes, that game was derived from a game that was premised on escaping a Nazi stronghold). But exactly where was Duke Nukem's moral rectitude? Those examples and the tendency for players to want to explore "Dark Side" powers and Sith lightsabers in Star Wars games are admittedly flung too far into the an imagined future or a mythic long time ago in a galaxy far away to foster much moral reflection in terms of contemporary reality. Still, is being on the side of right the motivation for players engaging in practically anything published by Rock Star Games? To move from the incredibly popular and lucrative Grand Theft Auto streets to the military context where Baker's more comfortable running and gunning with the sanction of the U.S. flag, games where characters with military backgrounds are involved in conflicts projected from the real world isn't new to video games. In fact, Baker's claim called to mind one of my favorite game commercial campaigns as a counter example:

Army of Two may well be a very mundane game with an interesting collaborative mechanic that doesn't quite overcome the game's genericness. However, Baker's claim that there's something objectionable in the moral nature of the characters players assume in game doesn't seem to speak to the broader culture of first-person shooter players. I'd go so far as to argue that players are drawn to games like Ao2 precisely for the opportunity to dwell in their own cynicism. There's certainly a market, and I'd have to explore this further but I think it may be a good thing.

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