Chris Sullentrop writes about his experience playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — in particular, a scenario in which his protagonist goes undercover, pretending to be a terrorist:
The game had instructed me to follow the lead of my fellow terrorists, and I had been told that preserving my undercover status was important for the country. But after an introductory gun burst, I couldn't do it anymore. It was the most powerful emotional experience any video game has ever given me. I don't know that I cried, but I was knocked off balance by emotions that I thought I had tucked away. As the travelers screamed and fled from the indiscriminate slaughter, I strolled through the airport. I didn't fire my weapon anymore, but I watched the three Russian terrorists kill. One of the men shot a passenger as he crawled along the blood-streaked floor and pleaded for his life.
And then I started shooting again. I thought that a guard was going to kill me, so I went after him first. The bullets hit his corpse — he was shot first by one of the other men — and it shuddered on the ground. As we approached a team of riot police, I thought, You don't have to do this. You can stop. You can refuse. You can walk away. I didn't.
For a while, though, I sat there. I picked up a riot shield and tried to hide behind it and let the others do the killing. That didn't work. Then I picked up a gun and tried to fire it into the skull of the lead terrorist. The game wouldn't let me do that, either, wouldn't even let me shoot. The rules of play were clear: If you want to go forward, if you want to keep playing, you have to kill these cops. Do something awful with me, the game asked. And I did.
This is interesting for any number of reasons, but what I find most noteworthy is the game designers’ decision to withhold moral choices from players. Or rather — since all games limit players’ choices, and have to, since they cannot provide infinitely variable gameplay — I’m interested in what choices it withholds. In real life, a man pretending to be a terrorist has many options. He can decide not to shoot when the other terrorists are shooting, or deliberately miss, or run away, or, yes, fire his pistol into the skull of the lead terrorist. But Modern Warfare 2 gives its players essentially two choices: do something morally horrific, or quit the game.
Of course, that’s what many games do: the difference here, if Sullentrop is right, is that Modern Warfare 2 makes it impossible for you to avoid seeing that what you’re doing is morally horrific. Or does it? Sullentrop certainly felt that he was being forced to confront certain realities of “modern warfare”: “It's a first-person shooter that plays as a tragedy, not a power fantasy. It's the most anti-war war game I've ever played, a murder simulator that won't let you forget the nature of your actions.”
But there are some things I’d like to know: First, what percentage of this game’s players experience no qualms at all about gunning down cops and innocent bystanders? And second, when people do respond so blithely, does that tell us something, anything, about their moral state? Would such people be more likely to do really nasty things in real life? Or are they just better than Sullentrop at separating the logic of game-playing from the moral quandaries of lived experience?
In any event, no game (no work of art) can compel a given response from its players (its audience). What G. C. Lichtenberg said about reading applies to video games as well: “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can't expect an apostle to look out.”