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Gaming the system, continued


Between sex, drugs, race, politics, and religion, games with up-front agendas are still too risky to get commercial support. That’s a boon for the independent game developer, who can make up in message and passion what he or she lacks in production values. But it could take years for major publishers, who are busy hiding behind slates of driving games and first-person shooters, to push an ideological game as strongly as, say, Lions Gate supported Fahrenheit 9/11.

"It’s very hard, the way the game industry works from a distribution standpoint, to do successful niche content," says Ben Sawyer, co-director of the Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, and president of Digitalmill, Inc., a Portland, Maine, consultancy. But while tying a game to an ideology seems risky, Sawyer sees another obstacle: "It has more to do with the game industry realizing that they’re not yet accepted by the public in such a way where that would be acceptable practice.

"If you called a book author and said, ‘Hey, do you have a political statement in your book?’ He’d say, ‘Uh, it’s a book. Of course I do.’ But [in] the game industry, if you’re talking to the designers instead of the businesspeople, they don’t feel like they’ve arrived."

Sawyer predicts that designers may start by including controversial content as an almost incidental part of the story. Role-playing games that feature same-sex relationships (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) and gay marriages (Fable, Temple of Elemental Evil) perhaps promote a healthy gay lifestyle (with lightsabers!). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s ad for "Logger beer" may be pushing an environmentalist agenda. And you can find plenty of pro-establishment messages. Electronic Arts made the news recently when they hosted a special demo of Madden 06 for Governor Jeb Bush (Tiburon Studios, which produces the game, is located in Florida). The demo dropped Jeb’s likeness into the Madden game, where he played against his brother, President George W. Bush. (But if you’re hoping for a chance to clothesline the president yourself, forget it: an Electronic Arts spokesperson confirmed that Jeb and George don’t appear in the retail version.)

Then there are games that are so realistic that they tread on sensitive ground — like the genre of military-action games that draw on real wars and enemies. Take 2K Games’s Close Combat: First to Fight, developed by Destineer Studios for PC and Xbox. While most military games take place in the past — from Call of Duty’s World War II to Black Hawk Down’s Somalia — First to Fight sends the Marines to Beirut, in the year 2006, to fight Islamic fundamentalists. When the game starts, you have to lead your squad down a dark, battle-torn Middle Eastern street, while the enemy combatants — helpfully identified by their giant turbans — jump out from behind burned-out trucks or fire at you from dark alleys.

Close Combat is steeped in realism, from the morale and discipline of the Marine unit you lead to the tactics deployed in combat. Destineer Studios, who developed the game, consulted more than 40 active-duty Marines to learn from their combat experiences; in return, Destineer developed a Marines-only version of the game that includes training on narcotics abuse. And in June, Destineer announced an agreement with In-Q-Tel, a private-venture group funded by the CIA, to develop training apps for the intelligence community.

"We’re able to use the substantial investment we make in commercial game technologies to create training systems that are far more effective than our government has been getting in the past," says Destineer president Peter Tamte. "Then, we use the subject-matter expertise our government customers give us when we build these training systems to make our commercial video games far more authentic. We believe authenticity is one of the qualities that is most desired by military-gaming enthusiasts." Although First to Fight received mixed reviews, even its critics praise its accuracy: to quote a user review from Gamespot.com, "Close Combat captures the drudgery and routine of the military."

The game and its team have close bonds to the military: Destineer employs several veterans, from a retired lieutenant colonel to a retired corporal, and fans of Halo — where the Marines take on space aliens — may recognize Tamte as the former executive vice-president of Halo’s developer, Bungie Software. While most military games advertise gritty combat on their covers, First to Fight looks like a recruitment poster, with a Marine in dress uniform staring determinedly from the box.

Will First to Fight, a bestselling Xbox game in its first month of release, persuade teenagers to sign up? "Marines are our heroes, and we hope this comes through in the game," says Tamte. "If our portrayal of Marine honor, courage, and commitment makes young men and women want to serve their country, great! But, recruiting isn’t the driving force behind First to Fight."

But Destineer also raises the stakes by fighting wars that haven’t even started. The upcoming Close Combat: Red Phoenix will pit you against an all-too-believable nuclear North Korea in the year 2006.

"Part of our opportunity is to educate game players on topics that are very relevant," says Tamte. "We’re very intentional about not backing down from a controversial, highly relevant topic. But, we also hope people see us portray these events with maturity and respect for those who serve."

When a publisher builds a game around an actual crisis, the burden’s on them to prove that it isn’t political — that they can make a real-life game without injecting their own real-life bias. In that sense, realistic games will draw the same scrutiny as the ones that wear their politics on their sleeves. Soon you won’t even be able to boot up a game and shoot the enemy without stopping to wonder: what did these guys ever do to me, and why is the game so gung ho to make me kill them?

Chris Dahlen can be reached at chris@savetherobot.com.

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Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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