Editor’s note: Brian uses The Hurt Locker and Red Faction: Guerrilla as a jumping-off point for a pretty fascinating post about when a game is just a game, and when it’s something more. -Demian

Tyler Miller recently wrote a piece on pairing other media with your games. While his idea is to choose different media items that go well together and enhance your experience, sometimes a serendipitous pairing can send you down a rabbit hole of mechanics, morality, and mortality. And then you write about it. Consider yourself warned — here be navel-gazing.

Why this comes up now: Last week’s Mobcast discussed doing things one finds morally questionable in order to advance in a game’s story. Manhunt came up, as it often does in discussions like these (Edge magazine did a good job of considering the questions of morality and control Manhunt raises).

Sometimes, though, this kind of behavior is less explicit. In Pikmin, I’ve enslaved an entire race (twice!) in order to collect and repair the parts of my ship. But they’re so willing (I give you “Colonialism as Gameplay Mechanic” — your free game studies dissertation idea of the week). The behavior’s coded into the gameplay. In this case, it’s even in the damned title.


Hurt Locker Poster

It’s June 2009. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a film about an explosive disposal squad’s last months in Iraq, has just opened in Pittsburgh. I watch, tense, as SSgt. William James and his men defuse a variety of explosives, including a large number of bombs in the trunk of a lone car.

Around this time, I’m playing Red Faction: Guerrilla, a game about a freedom fighter who uses a variety of explosives to strike at the occupying (and militarily superior) Earth Defense Force on Mars. I’ve got a target to take out, a bridge in EDF-controlled territory. Occasionally, the game provides you with a high-damage vehicle-based bomb — I have one several minutes’ drive away. I spawn near it, grab a vehicle and drive to the pickup point. The bomb, now on-board, will explode after the car takes enough damage.

A quick note on how the game works: Each sector of the planet has a number of EDF-controlled targets. You destroy these, their control is lessened. Take out enough targets (and perform a few other missions) and you can force the EDF out of that sector. Repeat in each sector and reclaim Mars for the Martians (who are actually human colonists, which doesn’t complicate matters in the way one would expect). Also, the Geo-Mod 2 game engine makes buildings fall down in spectacular ways, so much of the game is focused on that.

The area where I pick up the bomb has already been cleared of EDF — most of my drive across the map is uninterrupted by conflict. During this lull, the car bomb scene from The Hurt Locker forces its way back into my head. Someone had to drive that car, set those bombs. What was that like? What would cause someone to do that? Occupation by an outside force? Watching their brother get gunned down by that force? The game has me considering things that didn’t occur to me during the movie, which dealt with the psychological effect these situations had on the people removing the bombs, not placing them.

And then my mind makes another jump. A guy I graduated from high school with lost a leg to an IED during a tour of duty in Iraq. Another acquaintance (who sat two seats in front of me in Chemistry) died from injuries inflicted by one. And here I am, sitting on my couch playing a game where I’m essentially planting one of these explosive devices on a bridge.

I stop playing for a second. I think about what I’m doing. I realize that I’m using this movie that I’ve seen and the experience of these people (connected through the transitive property of video games) that I haven’t talked to in ten years to really understand the characters and the actions within the game. And I don’t really like the questions it’s raising. Am I making light of their experiences, what they and their families went through? Am I acknowledging that certain circumstances warrant the use of car bombs (and, by extension, other guerrilla tactics)? What are those circumstances, exactly?

Image of Red Faction: Guerrilla case

So I retract. I use that skill that TV news magazines and overenthusiastic lawyers like to assume gamers don’t have: I make the distinction between the game and real life. I break the immersion. They’re not actual people, the enemies in the game. They don’t exist the way I exist. They’re bytes. None of this matters. It’s just a game. Play it, don’t think about it.

The game mechanics have made your choice for you: lower EDF control, the only way you can. Geo-Mod 2 isn’t designed for nonviolent protest, so that’s not even an option. As the game title indicates, “guerrilla” is the only way to go. This is what I signed up for, right? So why is it bothering me?

Immersion broken (and behavior rationalized), I continue on my mission. I take out the bridge. I kill a thousand or so faceless enemies. I destroy a whole lot of buildings. I eventually finish the game, untroubled by the amount of virtual carnage I just caused.

Question: if a game requires that much detachment from the events within it…well, maybe empathy can be such an issue in this medium because if we really buy into the game world, the things we do could be too troubling? Maybe our agency as gamers is a block to the usual forms of identification with characters that other media/entertainment is based on? The flipside being that agency allows this medium to challenge us on a philosophical level like no other (I’m not talking about branching morality paths, but rather the questions we could ask ourselves about how we play the game).

One last thing: Obviously, Red Faction’s Alec Mason and The Hurt Locker’s William James aren’t on opposite sides of the same conflict. Mason isn’t taking down US bases using nanotechnology, and James isn’t defusing singularity bombs on Mars. I don’t believe that the EDF occupation of Mars should be seen as a metaphor for the US’s actions in the Middle East (shortchanging the complexity of the situation). But a good story has layers, and one of the great things about storytelling is that you look at these layers and realize one story can help you understand another. And maybe a little bit about yourself.