Why aren't there any civilians in military video games?
When I was a boy, I remember playing Mega Man and realizing something was wrong. While I had a long and luxurious health meter, my enemies could usually be killed with one or two shots. They were restrained by hopeless AI, slow movement, and limited shooting patterns. They'd been designed to be killed, not to fight fairly.
Today's shooters retain this design principle. Their purpose is not to recreate violent dilemmas, but to give players every possible accommodation in killing what surrounds them. The upcoming Battlefield 3, a shooting game whose dysphoric realism borrows from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, falls into this tradition. Its visuals are remarkable, among the most convincingly detailed war environments ever created in a video game. Yet there is one thing that's curiously absent: civilians.
Battlefield 3 is not unique in this regard. There is a long history of games that aspire to make warfare look as realistic as possible while paradoxically erasing civilians from the battlefield—Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Medal of Honor, Operation Flashpoint: Red River, and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. So why are developers so reluctant to include civilians in shooting games?
Mostly, they don't want to face the consequences of players' bad behavior. In an interview with the website Rock Paper Shotgun, Battlefield 3's executive producer Patrick Bach explained that he doesn't "want to see videos on the Internet where people shoot civilians. That's something I will sanitize by removing that feature from the game." Bach believes that video games are serious business but that players' irreverence is holding back the form. "If you put the player in front of a choice where they can do good things or bad things, they will do bad things, go [to the] dark side—because people think it's cool to be naughty, they won't be caught," he said.
While Bach's argument is earnest, the logic behind it is feeble. Allowing a player to shoot a child or a merchant in a firefight is not the same as saying it is moral to do so. It should be up to the designers to decide the consequences when players do something we'd consider appalling in the real world. Does killing a civilian cause the level to end? Does it incite other civilians to turn aggressive toward the soldiers? Does the aggrieved mother or wife come screaming toward the squad, ululating in disgust and sorrow?
By removing civilians from the picture, developers like Bach are trying to reap the benefits of a real-life setting without grappling with the reality of collateral damage. In sparing themselves the challenge of making their games deeper and more involving, they're the ones holding back the medium. While video games have come a long way since Mega Man, Battlefield 3's sanitized environment suggests that players are still limited to the same two basic actions: running around and shooting.
This is admittedly a complex issue, and designers don't fully address it by simply letting noncombatants loose in their game environments. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, a slow-paced tactical shooter scheduled for release in 2012, will include civilians, though players won't be able to kill them—they're basically moving obstacles that limit your line of sight. The inability to shoot them and bear the consequences is an unfortunate kind of emotional muting.
Michael Thomsen has written for the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, Billboard, n+1, Bookforum, and the New Inquiry. He lives in New York.