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Welcome to Iraq Durkadurkastan

In the last couple of months, I’ve been utilizing my Gamefly subscription to the fullest. I’ll talk about that in another post (sneak peek: I heartily recommend it). It’s allowed me to play games I otherwise wouldn’t have done, including Call of Duty 4 and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand.

Both games take place in a fictional Middle Eastern country, whereby “fictional” we can replace “Iraq, but we didn’t want to say that.” This is a trend that began with Full Spectrum Warrior, a game released only half a year after Saddam Hussein’s capture, which was set in “Zekistan”. This isn’t all that far off Team America’s “Durkadurkastan.”

I’m not using Durkadurkastan as a means of being flippant (I have plenty of other ways of doing that!), but to highlight the attempted fictionalizing, and thus dehumanizing, effect that Trey Stone and Matt Parker may have tried to convey. In all three games, you saunter around a deliabitated Middle Eastern city, “Oorah”ing as you go, marvelling at how much more firepower you have and how much more disciplined your soldiers are. Men in turbans show up, shoot at you with AK-47s or RPGs, perhaps yelling something unintelligable and you shoot them until they fall over. Rinse, repeat.

50 Cent has zero qualms about any of this, and maybe thinks it qualified for a Get Out of Jail Free card because it’s big, dumb and hugely entertaining. Maybe it does. But maybe it could have been set pretty much anywhere else and still been the same game, and not one set in a country where almost 70 people can die in a single blast. I’m more inclined to let Full Spectrum Warrior off the hook, as that was a game developed for the US Army, where deep thought about morality is not the intended response.

In fact, out of the group, Call of Duty 4 is the most dehumanizing, and thus the most offensive. For anyone who has played CoD 4, you’ll know that it’s quite heavy on the anti-war rhetoric. For example, when you die, a quote about war, which is usually anti-war, is displayed on-screen. One powerful section of the game places you in an aircraft, killing scores of Russians through a small infra-red TV screen. The cool isolation is reminiscent of Defcon, with the deaths of tens of men reduced to silent movement of bodies from a standing to a lying down position. This is in contrast to many of the levels, where merry hell rains down, bullets and explosions everywhere.

CoD 4 is well-aware of what it wants to communicate to players, and does so with gusto. It is hard not to become confused and scared in many of the levels. Despite your team being close by, the disorientation of the sheer weight of the fire-fights leads to a general state of panic. The most affecting experience of this is that it is difficult to tell, in the heat of battle, who is friend and who is foe. The horrifying moment of watching a soldier’s name flash up on-screen (indicating he is friendly) milliseconds after you’ve pulled the trigger, is probably the most disturbing experience I have ever had in a war game. Watching that solider’s body crumple to the floor, victim of your friendly fire, never becomes old. It’s as painful and upsetting every single time.

Why, then, does this strong anti-war theme, and powerful procedural rhetoric, make CoD 4 the worst of the three? It’s because these moments interalizing your own difficulties with your actions, feeling a strong connection to your allies, is never afforded to the men of Durkadurkastan. The striking contrast between real soliders, your teammates fighting for world justice, with the enemy shooting gallery, underlines very strongly a “them and us” ideal. We are well-armed, morally right men, put into a horrible situation of their making that makes us do horrible things. They are men with AK-47s and turbans who seek to destroy the world, pop out at us at any available opportunity and try to kill us. It’s a conversation 5o Cent and Full Spectrum Warrior never want to engage with, and CoD 4 blindly enters it by actually trying to say something interesting.

With all that said, I don’t want to condemn any of the games. 50 Cent is politically insensitive (but knows it), Full Spectrum Warrior has a remit to the US Army that it couldn’t break from (although I hear the sequel, Ten Ton Hammer has an interesting storyline) and CoD 4 attempts to inject some intelligence into a generally mentally-decreipt genre.

Games have a strong role to play in the current discourse of our society, a role which will only grow in strength as it reaches more people. It is becoming more and more difficult to justify why 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand can exist, and Six Days in Fallujah must be cancelled for the reasons of bad taste. If we choose to set games in recognisable locations and events, we cannot help but have some say, communicate some message, about those things.

Games cannot settle to be Inglourious Basterds and never attempt to be Saving Private Ryan. Otherwise, we have nothing to say at all, and the effect of that can be devastating.


About the author:  Chris Lewis is a British PhD student researching the intersection of software engineering and video game development. Read more from this author


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2 Comments

  1. Flash
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 4:59 PM | Permalink

    Great post!

  2. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 10:10 PM | Permalink

    I think creating a war game that involves seeing both sides as real people is an interesting design challenge. Could it be a shooting game?

    Of course, getting such a project greenlit would be another type of challenge. If this was hard for The Sims — based on familiar types of play (from simulation gaming through dollhouses), with uncontroversial content, and with a well known designer — can it even be imagined for a game with the innovative play model and challenging content you imagine?

    So maybe the real question is not just how such a game could be designed, but how it could be executed with an indie-style, probably self-funded, team.