Last weekend I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which is a small but important book about the way in which we become spectators when presented with photographic representations of war. While the photograph is still an enormously powerful, pervasive medium, and indeed one of the primary ways we see the things that happen abroad, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which we “see” things that happen abroad in other ways. Sontag discusses films very briefly, and mentions video games but once. (She is, after all, probably best known as a critic for On Photography.) But I also noticed that, in the later part of the essay, she critiqued her own view that we become desensitized to violence through overexposure to images of suffering.

This idea is problematic on a number of levels. First, she writes that it is difficult to say with any certainty that image-glut does, in fact, create the kind of callousness that critics claim it does. Second, the virtualization of war is a phenomenon restricted to those for whom war is not real and immediate — that is, spectators in the West. Sontag makes a point of calling these claims “platitudes” and tearing them apart as ungrounded and provincial. The effects of these kinds of images need to be reassessed.

Of course, my thoughts turned to video games. Much is often made, in the mainstream media, of the damaging effects of video game play on the minds of youngsters — the desensitization to violence and suffering can now be taken to a new level, where the player is virtually involved in the violence, instead of just a spectator. (But is not the video game player still a spectator, in some way? And how is viewing art on a wall not in some way interactive, perspectival, and affective? This relationship is complicated.) And within the game studies community, many scholars have written on the propaganda value of a good, clean first-person shooter, the gore turned down and the stakes lowered through the very nature of the gamic medium.

But I think in many ways a new generation of first-person shooters is problematizing the assumed relationship between the video game, the gamer, and the suffering of others. I’ve been trying to come up with useful cases, and I think we could examine the controversial “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) as a starting point. [Basic spoilers follow.]

One of the things that is, perhaps, most controversial about MW2 is the “No Russian” scene, in which your character carries out a massacre of unarmed civilians at a Russian airport while working undercover. The scene pulls no punches — as a player, you’re left with a feeling of having done something horrible. You can choose to follow the thugs you’re undercover with without shooting a bullet, but you still have to watch and listen as hundreds of people are slaughtered. A few police officers try and fight back, but their sidearms don’t stand up to the assault rifles your posse is armed with. At the end of the scene, your character gets shot in the head — the leader of the thugs, Marakov, knows you’re a mole through the whole thing. In departing, Marakov says, “Once they see this body, all of Russia will be calling for war.”

[View a screengrab of the level. Graphic violence and disturbing images.]

Critics have claimed that the “No Russian” scene is gratuitous, unnecessary, and ridiculous — merely an attempt by the game’s designers to one-up the scene in the previous Call of Duty 4 that depicted a nuclear blast and horrific death. On the other hand, some players don’t even know why others are making such a big deal about it — it sets up the story for the rest of the game, and Infinity Ward does give you some semblance of choice about whether or not you want to see it. (Also, I’ve noticed that most people who think the scene is unnecessary are also in the “let’s not think critically about video games because they’re entertainment” camp, which is deeply frustrating by itself.)

Yet debates about the suitability and necessity of “No Russian” aside, I think there’s something else going on that’s very important here. Previously, critics have lambasted video games for whitewashing war, glorifying it and scrubbing it clean of its questionable moral dilemmas and horrific violence. “No Russian” is anything but whitewashed, and ultimately, the player’s character sacrifices himself for — more war. The setup for the level depicts your mission as extremely high-stakes, and the suffering and reaction of the civilians and officers you (or your posse) kill on your way through the airport is anything but glorious.

Of course, Sontag points out that images of war can be used for any purpose you wish to put them. While Ernst Friedrich published a volume of photographs of maimed and disfigured World War I veterans under the title War Against War!, it is entirely conceivable that, in a patriotic fervor, one might label the subjects of the photos as heroic veterans who gave selflessly in the service of their country. Perhaps this is why “No Russian” is so problematic — it is a horrific scene of terrorism embedded in a game franchise with a genealogy of the glorification of war.

On the other hand, situating the player inside the terror is a tactic that is not ever employed in the photographing of war. Rather, the photograph makes the viewer into a spectator by default — we cannot enter the scene, it is past, and it is elsewhere. What is compelling about Modern Warfare 2 is that its scenes do seem to be ripped from headlines — the massacre of innocents is not something we are unfamiliar with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re desensitized to it, but perhaps in the 24-hour news network format, there is some numbness. We are rendered spectators who are fed information in digestible, bite-sized chunks. In a video game, of course, the player is not simply a spectator (though one may choose to be, in this particular case), but an actor with some agency.

And perhaps “No Russian” is part of a broader shift in the way video games and their designers address themselves to the violent content of their medium. Sontag points out that it is only very recently that photographers have been availed upon to depict war “as it is” — dirty, violent, senseless, and painful — as opposed to a glorification of the warrior’s trade. War photography began in the service of governments — Sontag cites the photographic work of Roger Fenton, considered one of the first war photographers, during the Crimean War, who was sent by the British government to Crimea to photograph what was becoming a very unpopular war. But not much later, Mathew Brady and his team photographed images of the fallen at Gettysburg and Antietam, intending to draw criticism of a war that was being sold to the public as patriotic.

This is just some preliminary work as I get my thoughts straightened out about this. A longer piece is in the works. (I think I’m going to play through Bioshock again for it.) Your feedback would be appreciated.