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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.]

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One of my favorite things to do to decompress is play Civilization IV. It seems odd to a lot of people, but I find it oddly soothing — the repetitive nature of creating something within a more or less strictly structured environment can be therapeutic when your life is about creating things within a very unstructured environment. Also, being the king of a virtual world is cool, at least for a couple hours. I’m having a hard time with the game lately, though, because as I get better at it, I realize that what I’m getting good at is simulated imperialism, and what the game does is set parameters that force you to follow-through with a development narrative that also necessitates conquest: in order to have the resources to win a diplomatic victory, you also have to be one of the strongest civilizations in the game. Racial issues aside, there are specifically design-oriented problems that I have with the game. The mechanics, the game interface, the various win conditions, all assume several things: that you will progress “forward” on a Eurocentric historical model; that you will eventually have to fight to defend your resources, or fight to gain control of someone else’s; and that you either need to be pandering and subservient to avoid your neighbors’ wrath, or you need to be militarily robust to deter their attacks. I think the second two of these assumptions follow directly from the first.

Civ IV is basically a game about resource management. How quickly can you spread your sphere of influence over the planet? How efficiently will you control the means of production? Can you defend your resources against others? Can you seize control of other players’ resources? How will you use your resources to gain further control of resources? The assumptions of gameplay in a resource-management model are that players will feel the competitive need to perform well in these categories. Of course, by posing these questions in this way, players of resource-management games (as a genre) are shoehorned into a development narrative that requires them to gain resources in order to build better technology in order to gain more resources.

Now, I don’t purport to be an expert in this arena, but I haven’t ever seen any RTS games that allow the player to develop on any paths other than a Eurocentric, linear-historical model. I’ve tried to play Civ IV in a different manner, but ultimately the arrogant demands of my neighbors force me to build up my military might. Inevitably, another civ will invade and start razing farms, sacking cities, and generally trampling on my peaceful, culturally-oriented civ. Other civs don’t like it when my cultural spheres of influence expand into their territory, which occurs when cities reach new cultural thresholds. The development of culture has a direct benefit defensively, too — as a city’s sphere of influence increases, so does the defense bonus that troops stationed there receive.

I guess it’s somewhat realistic that more powerful cultures will prod less powerful cultures into giving them what they want, and that if the less powerful don’t comply, they resort to less civilized methods of extracting those things. But in a world where relationships between the powerful and the lowly are now more complicated — especially in the age of a superpower-sponsored War on Terror, in the aftermath or crumbling final days of the world’s greatest empires — you’d think that we’d come up with another RTS model that is just as compelling and fun to play. I can’t really wage asymmetric warfare (or whatever it’s called these days) against my neighbors in Civ IV. I can’t wage warfare at all, in fact, unless I’m a legitimate state.

Maybe it’s nostalgia for the days when nation-states fielded armies that weren’t disingenuous about their militaristic intentions, or maybe it’s that adding any more complexity to the already-rich Civ IV would be ease-of-use suicide, or maybe it’s something else. I don’t think epic RTS as a genre is going to budge anytime soon, at least not on the mainstream level. For a game with the aspirations of giving the player the power to completely rewrite history, Civ IV leaves out a lot of rewriting options. I have been thinking about this for a while, but I need to work out a more detailed, coherent position, so if you have any thoughts, I’d like to hear them.

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