Why aren't there any civilians in military video games?
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which came out in 2009, used bystanders in a crueler way. In the game's "No Russian" level, you control an undercover CIA operative who storms an airport in Russia with a group of terrorists. The player is asked to slaughter as many civilians as he or she can bear, a requirement designed to stoke anger at the game's villains. The scene, though, has a dehumanizing effect, perhaps because civilians don't exist anywhere else in Modern Warfare 2—not in the unnamed Afghan city seen in the opening level, not in the Brazilian favela, not in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. (where you must rebuff an implausible Russian invasion). "No Russian" isn't designed to force the player to grapple with the moral dilemma of making a battlefield of people's homes and neighborhoods. It's an excusatory fantasy that allows the next six hours of killing everything that moves to pass without introspection.
A few shooting games have tried to take advantage of the form's ability to make tragic scenarios empathetic. 2007's Haze, from the now defunct Free Radical Design, made moral discomfort a central feature. Set during a near-future invasion of a poor South American country, the game places you in a nationalistic army that fights while under the influence of a hallucinogenic steroid. While high, you see the world in bright, cheerful colors and enemies appear to be faceless insurgents. When the drug wears off, the hallucination evaporate and you see the world as it really is: spattered in blood and clouded with gray rain clouds. The insurgents, it turns out, are poor villagers.
In 2009, Atomic Games tried to go a step further with Six Days in Fallujah, a shooter that aimed to capture the ferocious 2004 battle in Iraq. For three months prior to that engagement, Marines dropped pamphlets around the city encouraging civilians to evacuate. Many stayed behind and the stress of separating combatants from innocent bystanders was of significant importance. In many cases, guerrilla fighters disguised themselves as civilians to ambush Marines, scenarios that the team at Atomic Games hoped to re-create.
Six Days in Fallujah, however, was dropped by its publisher, Konami, because of criticism from the families of service members who died in the battle. It's a reminder that the most honest and challenging works in any medium are tough sells. Haze might be more affecting than Modern Warfare 2, but it's no surprise that the latter game is the one that's a blockbuster.
The pre-release criticism of Six Days in Fallujah was understandable. Game developers have a history of trivializing real-life battlefields, treating them as playgrounds rather than places where people suffer real losses. Konami, though, never gave Fallujah's developers a chance to prove that a game could do something more.
While there's a danger of overemphasizing how great Six Days in Fallujah was going to be, it's still a pity that the game has yet to be released while the big studios keep churning out less ambitious material. As more and more war-glorifying games get released, designers find themselves in the pathetic position of defending war propaganda that no state or government ever asked them to make. Meanwhile, they claim it's the players who aren't capable of handling difficult situations. I don't think so.
Michael Thomsen has written for the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, Billboard, n+1, Bookforum, and the New Inquiry. He lives in New York.