"Collateral Murder" and the Razor Thin Boundary
On April 6th, WikiLeaks released a video of a US Army Apache helicopter firing at a group of men in Baghdad in 2007. It later turned out that the group of men included a Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, who was only 22 years old, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40. WikiLeaks has attached to the video a label of "Collateral Murder." There has been much outcry over the video and what it portrays, with the military defending the contents, and elements of the media claiming that the events and actions depicted are deplorable, immoral crimes. Julian Assange, editor of WikiLeaks, said: "The behavior of the pilots is like a computer game. When Saeed is crawling, clearly unable to do anything, their response is: 'come on buddy, we want to kill you, just pick up a weapon'...It appears to be a desire to get a higher score, or a higher number of kills." (Source)
Christopher Beam of slate.com responded with an article, "Death From Above," subtitled "How video games could help prevent battlefield tragedies like the one revealed by WikiLeaks." He quotes Assange as saying, "It seems like they [the helicopter pilots and crew] are playing video games with people's lives." Beam then goes on to point out exactly what I'm sure most gamers would recognize after watching the video: how eerily close it is to "Death From Above," the level in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In that mission, as Beam describes it, "the player assumes the role of a gunner on an AC-130 gunship as it circles a small village. Winning means shooting at tiny silhouettes as they flee from a church." He then goes on to draw a further comparison with a mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which I have never played, so I won't be talking about that mission.
Beam argues that video games have grown increasingly more realistic in the military situations they can portray, and that in the future, simulated experiences can be used to help train soldiers to deal with such situations. He is essentially saying that this whole tragedy could have been averted if only those soldiers had been properly trained ahead of time. It's an insightful and interesting article; read it, if you get the chance.
I don't particularly have much to say on Beam's article itself; I have no idea if these more accurate simulations can actually do a good job of better training soldiers. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a soldier; I don't know what it's like, and I probably have zero basis for judgment. But I am much more interested in the odd, twisted feeling when I realized exactly what Beam points out first, that the video so perfectly paralleled "Death From Above" from Modern Warfare. Watching "Collateral Murder" was like watching a youtube play video of "Death From Above," ignoring, of course, all the WikiLeaks added edits. (By the way, for more on the editing of the WikiLeaks video, and any effect it may have had on the overall quality of "Collateral Murder" as journalism, I suggest you watch the Stephen Colbert interview of Julian Assange.)
There's something here, something strange, in knowing that the two seem so similar. Beam states that Modern Warfare's ultimate objective is not realism, so much as entertainment. I would agree; even though Modern Warfare did appear to be aiming for a reasonable degree of realism at certain points, it was clealry perfectly fine with moving away from realism for the sake of entertainment. Plus, as I said before, what seems to me like realism in a military situation could be utter fabrication; I have no basis of comparison from which to judge.
But insofar as I, sitting at home, watching the "Collateral Murder" video, can tell, "Death From Above" is so similar as to riddle me with unease.
We're allowed to like "Death From Above," I think, because cognitively we know we're not actually doing anything. We're shooting at polygonal simulations of people, which are very, very far from actual people. We know that they don't feel pain, and we know that no one is actually dying. We know that we are not firing a gun with every pull of the trigger on the controller; instead, the control just transmits a signal into the console, telling it to display some artificial images. We know all this, as much as we know that we can just turn the console off, and end it all.
We know on another, second level that the people we are shooting at are supposed to be armed Russians (if I remember correctly). Enemy combatants, as established by the story. We're shooting at them in order to protect a special forces team which has proven itself to be on the side of maintaining world stability and preventing nuclear war. We're also shooting because presumably, we are soldiers of the American army, and we have a duty to fulfill; it is our responsibility to protect the special forces from those enemy combatants.
I cannot emphasize enough that I have no idea what the experience of a soldier is like. I can only imagine. But "Death From Above" gets my imagination revved up and rolling. I find myself imagining that I am a soldier, and that this is what it would have been like for those soldiers on the Apache helicopter in Baghdad.
The only reason I feel comfortable playing through "Death From Above" is that I can move back up to the first level, at which I know I'm playing a game, not causing any harm. I can enjoy immersing myself in the second level of play becuase I've already had to move through the first. But no real soldier has this recourse; real soldiers are entrenched in the second level, without the first.
It's eerie how much "Death From Above" feels like it's a razor's edge away from the real-world, "Collateral Murder" video. Simply remove that first level, remove your ability to say "It's a game," and you're there. Much more than any other part of Modern Warfare, "Death From Above" approaches the status of simulation, as opposed to being a game.
I am not one to be worried about games causing violence, or being some kind of societal problem. In general, I will defend games from any critics who might say such things. But I can acknowledge that there is a strange movement going on, where games are slipping into that simulation territory that Beam was talking about optimistically. A training simulation needs to be as realistic as possible, in order to best equip the trainee for any time he or she encounters that situation in real life. But I don't know that games should be simulations of that nature. I don't know that I want to play a game that is very closely simulating what it would be like to sit in an AC-130 gunship and shoot a slew of men from afar.
If you've ever seen it, think about Toys, from 1992, with Robin Williams and Joan Cusack. There is an eerie scenewhere the old crazy general started having kids playing games, to train them for war. But the movie could just as easily have had that Ender's Game twist, (um...spoiler alert? Is there anyone reading this who hasn't read Ender's Game, but is likely to read it in the future? Really?) of kids playing video games, but realy not. We're there. It's possible. As simulation-style games come closer and closer to reality, they can start switching places. I don't know that I want to play a game where that is even a remote, dystopian-future kind of possibility.
My concerns are probably unfounded, unrealistic fear-mongering. I'm just irrationally upset as a result of having watched this video. But I can't settle my feeling of unease.
I'd be very much interested in hearing anybody's thoughts on this issue, on the overlap between "Death From Above" and "Collateral Murder," and what it means for games.