Tyler is a master’s student working in the Critical Geographies Research Lab at the University of Victoria in Canada, British Columbia. His MA thesis is examining digital games as expressive of different geographical imaginations and as performative world making devices.
Brutal Games and Ludic War
How should I grapple with being both a fan and a critic? It feels like an impossible task to fully separate my personal pleasures from the wider power structures and ideologies found in video games I enjoy. Amanda Phillips suggests “getting beyond fun” as “an affective position with radical potential” (Phillips, 2018a, p. 118; see also Ruberg 2015). To get beyond my hegemony of fun I want to confess my affection for playing war-themed games. I enjoy and have played many of what Debora Ramsey coined “brutal games” (Ramsey, 2015). Matthew Payne calls this enjoyment “ludic war” or “the pleasurable experience of playing military-themed video games” (Payne, 2016, p. 11). Specifically, I confess my long-standing relationship with the Battlefield series. I grew up on these games. Whether it was driving jeeps, fighting infantry, or flying a helicopter, most of my memories come from playing Battlefield’s online multiplayer with close friends. I have played thousands of hours of Battlefield since the series’ first release in 2002. Brutal! Right?
As a graduate student, game studies literature has exposed me to new texts, prompting me to be critical of my affection for the video games I enjoy most. Debora Ramsey’s conclusion discussing brutal games has stuck with me:
The FPS [first person shooter] offers the opportunity to engage with the other half of the story of war—the brutal truth that war is not only about brotherly love, sacrifice, and trauma, but that fierce exhilaration and joy in killing are also part of the cultural narrative of World War II. (2015, p.76)
Ramsey’s argument applies beyond games that feature World War II. In light of brutal games and ludic war I turn to examining my experiences with Battlefield 1 (BF1), the current release in the series and the only game set during World War I. It has seen widespread commercial success with positive critical reception. By writing as a brutal gamer I critically examine my situated experiences of ludic war. I do this by considering some of BF1’s game mechanics and design features. My intent is to chart a path towards being reflexive in considering my own fandom and the fun of brutal games or ludic war.
Ludic War and Brutal Games: Between Seriousness and Fun
BF1 was due to be released during my first semester of graduate school. I told myself not to buy it for fear of it being a time-sink. That changed when one of my new roommates purchased the game. I remember seeing him play one evening in our living room as I came home from campus. What captivated me at the time was when he activated the “bayonet charge” to take down an enemy player (Figure 1). “That’s fucking brutal but totally badass” I thought to myself, in a moment of uncritical novelty.
The bayonet charge is a new feature in BF1 where a player activates a movement boost propelling their avatar towards enemy players in multiplayer to ruthlessly stab them with a fixed bayonet. A successful bayonet charge kill prevents the receiving player form being revived by their teammates playing as a medic class. BF1’s bayonet charge turns a brutal reality from World War I, the lethal use of bayonets, into a salient game mechanic. Being run over by a tank or shot in the head for example do not prevent a player from being revived. This seems like a bizarre distinction to make in gameplay but speaks to how different game mechanics are encountered and have the potential for affective experiences (Ash, 2015). Not just “defining feelings, mechanics enable players to affect the world of the game, and in turn be affected by it” (Jagoda and McDonald, 2018, p. 177). My first encounter with BF1 was one of seeing and feeling drawn to the potential of ludic war.
The allure of ludic war was not lost on me. I purchased the game in the same week after seeing it played. I planted my small 19” TV and gaming console in our living room where my roommate and I would play multiplayer together. According to a popular online stats tracker, I have played over 500 hours at the time of writing this. In that timeframe I have managed to claim 733 kills with the bayonet charge. Moreover, I have taken 2,480 dog tags in total. Dog tags are taken from opposing players in multiplayer by either a successful kill with the bayonet charge or with any other melee weapon. Accordingly, I rank in the top 3rd percentile for dog tags taken on the PlayStation 4 version of BF1.
Taking dog tags is unabashedly an achievement in the Battlefield series, but also a maladaptation of their purpose and history. Dog tags are not a trophy to be stolen but are intended as a way to identify fallen combatants. The International Committee of the Red Cross produced a report discussing video games influence on public perceptions of war (Clarke et al., 2013). In the report, the collection of dog tags as trophies is highlighted as gameplay that obfuscates how international humanitarian law and international human rights law protects and facilitates the “hidden tragedy” of combatant identification (p. 730). Personal dog tag stories of United States military veterans and military family members have been documented elsewhere. These stories share how the dog tags of soldiers who died are often kept by loved ones as keepsakes (Cucolo, 2012). In these stories the dog tag is far from a trophy as the Battlefield series engenders but instead are a “meaningful medal representing the ultimate sacrifice” (2012).
What is most brutal for me in this reflection is how easily the violence of war has been made ludic for me in very specific ways. How does ludic war remain pleasurable despite my critical juxtaposition? In brutal games the battlefield space and use of weaponry emerge as “the primary components of what makes a ‘good’ FPS” (Rasmey, 2015, p. 96). For James Ash the sounds, controller haptic feedback, modelling, and animations of weaponry create affective encounters generating pleasurable experiences of control and being close to the action (Ash, 2015). The blood curdling battle cry of my soldier-avatar as I activate the bayonet charge, the visceral meaty stabbing noises of melee combat, the statistical tallying of kills per weapon, and the euphonious glinting noise of an enemy’s dog tag being taken in BF1 are all stirring examples of this. There is an embodied ecstasy in humiliating your opponent and taking their dog tags. It is a sign of dominance that requires skill, precision, and dangerous proximity to an enemy player.
Amanda Phillips’ concept of “mechropolitics” is useful in explaining how virtual death in BF1 sustains itself between fun and brutal:
Mechropolitics makes death fun, not merely as a visual spectacle but as a cooperative activity performed with a machine and encouraged by the mechanics of game and system design. . . .A mechropolitical view connects mechanical operations to the political resonances they have in the real world, often by working through the juxtaposition of fun and seriousness created by the digital reenactment of death. (2018b, p. 139).
The melee combat of BF1 provides a useful case example for understanding how my hegemony of fun is structured through my long-term built up knowledge of Battlefield’s game and system design as I search for positive affective experiences of control, mastery, and fun. These experiences are an ongoing mechropolitical tension between the seriousness of World War I and the challenging fun of BF1’s multiplayer. The melee combat in BF1 is sanitized to remove the un-fun violence and real world consequences of close quarters combat. However, at the same time melee combat is distilled to produce exhilarating contingent encounters that produce the affective states of ludic war. Melee combat and capturing dog tags are “mechropolitics par excellence: fusing mechanics of fun, death, and domination into one.” (p. 143).
Beyond the game mechanics I described above, historical representation and its perceived authenticity are part of the mechropolitical tension of portraying war, death, and making it ludic. For example, the World War II film Dunkrik released in 2017 has been critiqued for its failure to include Indian and African soldiers (Singh, 2017). In contrast, BF1 portrays different races and women involved in soldiering through the avatars used in multiplayer. The medic class for the British Empire is prominently an Indian soldier (Figure 2). Various classes across the game in the French, British, and German forces have black avatars (Figure 3). Also, the Russian Army scout is a female soldier. A promotional tweet highlighted the female avatar as part of a “brutal formation” in the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death (Mitre, 2017). However, such inclusions provide limited portraits. The complex geopolitical history of empire, imperialism, and how different people of colour and genders became soldiers are not part of BF1’s multiplayer. It could be said that all of the avatars in BF1 instantly become complicit bodies for killing and death in the “replaying of empire[s]” past (Mukherjee, 2015, p. 49).
More troubling are the public forum posts where users problematically argue that the usage of female and black characters in BF1 are anti-men and anti-white (see example 1, example 2, example 3). These issues have persisted beyond BF1. On May 23rd of 2018 a pre-release sneak peek video was revealed for Battlefield 5, the upcoming game in the series. Following BF1, Battlefield 5 will be set in World War II and is scheduled to be released in October of 2018. The video featured prominent female characters and new options for customizable avatars. Using the hashtag #NotMyBattlefield social media mobs called the reveal video unrealistic and breaking historical authenticity of World War II. Despite many other elements of Battlefield that could be considered unrealistic a sub-culture of fans have staked their claim of realism on the lines of gender and race.
This is not an exceptional case. Kishonna Gray has revealed how real world inequalities of race and gender are reproduced in online multiplayer gaming (Gray, 2014). These examples show how limited inclusivity in BF1’s multiplayer avatars “does not necessarily mean changing the underlying structures that created the lack in the first place” (Phillips, 2018a, p. 121). The inclusion of highly noticeable race and gender characteristics is new for the Battlefield series and something worth noting as the avatars of war games are prototypically defined by white, male, muscular, grunting bullet sponges. Despite the social media backlash of Battlefield 5, developers responded stating they will always prioritize fun over authenticity which has in turn generated the use of #everyonesbattlefield as a counter movement (Farokhmanesh, 2018). By taking a mechropolitical view, the seriousness of bodies that actually took part in World War I and claims to realism/historical accuracy can be held in tension with the fun of Battlefield’s multiplayer. In short, the virtual worlds and bodies of video games and real worlds and bodies exist in a complex “coevolving dialectic” (Payne, 2016, p. 4).
My time playing brutal games extends through my adolescence through adulthood. Thinking back, playing BF1 with my roommate was a breakthrough moment in socializing with a mostly complete stranger I just started to live with. It is the social spaces and moments that exist before, after, and thus across playing brutal games or experiencing ludic war that stand out to me. As brutal games and spaces of ludic war continue to appear across my own social intersections I think it is important for me to be reflective. This is why I see getting beyond fun as a crucial project where “there is only ever a working with and even along the lines of the various dispositifs within which one is situated and constituted” (Bell, 2007, p. 28 italics in original). Or I might say that I cannot remove myself from the power structures and ideologies found in video games I enjoy.
To grapple with being both a fan and a critic is to take seriously, describe, and challenge my own gaming ecology. Instead of a purely pessimistic outlook it is important to understand ludic war and my brutal gamer subjectivity as a performance that can be acted upon. This allows space for meaningful critique and attempts at untethering intersecting oppressive and ideological formations. Being a fan, a critic, a brutal gamer and playing ludic war are coextensive but not in permanence. To get beyond my fun remains vital “when choosing objects and mechanics to write about” (Phillips, 2018a, p. 119). Confession may be a tenuous way to frame getting beyond fun, especially if I was to consider Michel Foucault’s “interest and confusion” in understanding how confession shapes knowing ourselves (Elden, 2006, p. 38). My goal in using confession is to splice into that intersubjective space of fan/critic, albeit very briefly. I argue that the confessions of my personal pleasures in playing specific games and drawing out how they intersect with frames of violence, war, masculinity, whiteness, brutality and possibly other frames is useful in better understanding myself, getting beyond my own fun, and perhaps a pathway toward different ways of knowing.
I ask honestly, do others agree? In this space I believe we can gather ideas, share with others, and reflect on what it means to be passionate about games but also looking beyond fun. Can brutal games or ludic war contribute to a meaningful critiques? If yes, where has this been most evident already and how can this be done better? If no, should ludic war and/or brutal games be abandoned completely? These are tough questions for sure but I believe worth asking as a way to understand video games as a coextensive tensions between fun and serious, never fully separable.
Ash, J. (2015). The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, and Power. Bloomsbury Press.
Bell, V. (2007). Culture and Performance: The Challenge of Ethics, Politics and Feminist Theory. Bloomsbury Press.
Clarke, B., Rouffaer, C., & Sénéchaud, F. (2013). Beyond the Call of Duty: Why shouldn’t video game players face the same dilemmas as real soldiers? International Review of the Red Cross, 94(886), 711–737.
Cucolo, G. (2012, May 25). Dog Tags: History, Stories & Folklore of Military Identification [Video].
Elden, S. (2005). The problem of confession: The productive failure of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Journal for Cultural Research, 9(1), 23–41.
Farokhmanesh, M. (2018, May 25). Battlefield V’s creators: female characters are ‘here to stay’. The Verge.
Gray, K. L. (2014). Race, gender, and deviance in Xbox live: theoretical perspectives from the virtual margins. Routledge.
Jagoda, P., & Mcdonald, P. (2018). Game Mechanics, Experience Design, and Affective Play. In J. Sayers (Ed.), The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (pp. 174–182). Routledge.
Mitre, (D. 2017, May 22). Yes, she’s a female from a brutal WW1 formation, the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, represented by the Russian Scout class [Tweet].
Mukherjee, S. (2015). The Playing Fields of Empire: Empire and Spatiality in Videogames. In Video Games and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back (pp. 29–52). Palgrave Macmillan.
Payne, M. T. (2016). Playing War: Military Video Games After 9/11. NYU Press.
Phillips, A. (2018a). Game Studies For Great Justice. In J. Sayers (Ed.), The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (pp. 117–127). Routledge.
Phillips, A. (2018b). Shooting to Kill: Headshots, Twitch Reflexes, and the Mechropolitics of Video Games. Games and Culture, 13(2), 136–152.
Ramsay, D. (2015). Brutal games: Call of Duty and the cultural narrative of World War II. Cinema Journal, 54(2), 94–113.
Ruberg, B. (2015). No Fun: The Queer Potential of Video Games that Annoy, Anger, Disappoint, Sadden, and Hurt. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2(2), 108–124.
Singh, S. (2017, Aug 1). Why the lack of Indian and African faces in Dunkirk matters. The Guardian.