Please, Won’t Someone Think of the Henchmen?

I played a little snippet of Modern Warfare 2 this afternoon while I was killing a bit of time. I’ve played through the campaign mode twice now, the second time purely out of “nothing better to do” motivations.

As happens with these games and, really, all shooting games, I’ve become utterly desensitised to all the shooting and killing you have to do throughout the game. I move, I shoot, blood comes out of the bad guys’ heads, they stop shooting me, fall down, I move on.

This relationship to the bad guys in the game makes me think in three directions, all of which deserve more thought than I’m going to give them here.

First of all, there’s the classic lack of any reason to give a shit about almost every person you ever kill in a video game. By and large they’re nameless, and so generic that they tend to look and behave literally identically to one another. A soulless clone army. There’s no poignant scene, ala Austin Powers, where a distraught wife weepily says “they never think how things will affect the family of a henchman.” These henchmen have no family and no value outside their ability to shoot and be shot.

Second, there’s the inevitable progression (regression?) from game as fictional world to game as system. In shooters, particularly fast-paced, twitchy ones, there’s a steady movement from viewing the game as a world you’re acting in to an almost symbolic representation of a system you’re trying to beat. The spaces become battle geometries and the enemies become targets rather than people. That is, not only is there no “family” for these henchmen, but they’re not even henchmen, they’re just “things I shoot” in an almost purely abstract way.

Finally, in Modern Warfare 2 particularly, there’s the strange dissociation between actions and consequences in, well, modern warfare. I get the sense that there’s an “honesty” or “truth” to the passionless pulling of a trigger and the puff of blood that rises from the target’s head as they fall. This is particular true of very long range shots – there’s a deep feeling of the almost imaginary nature of the action. You click this button and someone over there falls down, and the two events are simultaneously directly connected, and also irrelevant and meaningless. I find this particularly affecting right at the beginning of the game when you find yourself shooting across a reservoir or something along those lines. Distant targets go down, but they’re so far that you don’t hear or see much expect that they stop fighting. Deactivated. Nothing personal.

What all these three aspects of “desensitisation” have in common is just that – we stop feeling anything about our actions, if we ever did. While that leads to exciting and proficient “symbolic play”, it leaves just about everything worth experiencing behind, from my perspective. Modern warfare becomes the faintest tang of a context for clicking the mouse on the things I’m meant to click the mouse on.

If I’m going to kill people, I’d at least like them to be beautiful and unique snowflakes, you know?

7 March 2011
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