Battlefield 3: Why aren't there any civilians in military video games?

The art of play.
Sept. 12 2011 6:53 AM

Shooting Gallery

Why aren't there any civilians in military video games?

Battlefield 3. Click image to expand.
Battlefield 3

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?

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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.

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.