I have never wanted to go to war. I’ve never imagined that I will risk my life for anything other than very personal - and perhaps entirely selfish - reasons. I’ve never actually wanted to kill another person. I may have casually fantasised about murder in certain social situations, but I'd really rather not give it a go unless my own life or that of a loved one truly depends on it. Yet I love Battlefield: Bad Company 2. I love it in spite of all it encourages me to do in contradiction to the above statements.
This likely says something important about my emotional connection to certain violent video games, to those games that outsiders - non-gamers - may deem subversive or amoral. I love war movies in the same way. Show me the aspects of human existence that I will hope never to have access to and I’ll drink them down until the glass is empty. It's part of the fun.
What’s the reasoning behind this? I guess it’s just personal taste, partly morbid fascination. I can’t quite trace it to a single source, but BC2 in particular feeds my desire for the simulated horrors of war like nothing I can remember. Perhaps being stranded in a situation so entirely alien to my personal experience of reality, but so fundamental to that of humanity, is what starts my heart pounding and makes me duck and dive in front of the screen in the same way that your parents might do when playing something frivolous on one of those video-game-console-thingies.
So, am I simply addicted to the frantic bloodlust? No. It doesn’t make me feel as emotionally barren as that label suggests. I play games for several reasons, not only because it burns my adrenaline more than anything else I’d dare to do.
Put it this way: I'm aware that the multiplayer portion of BC2 fulfills on several levels. The main one, the skeleton frame, is the abstract achievement of scoring more points than your opponent, of being better at something than somebody else. Like tennis. Then, at the other end, is the spectacle of the thing. The explosions, the gunfire, the ear shattering ‘WOOMPHHH’ that occurs every time a shell hits the ground beside you and the constant screams and radio chatter. Not at all like tennis. I like this sort of thing, I can only assume because this is exactly what manly men like me are instinctively drawn to.
Sitting somewhere in the middle of these two superficial hooks, between the mechanical and the visceral, is my empathetic response to all this. That’s where the heart of the game lies - that desire to fight the good fight with my brothers in arms, to protect their lives and vanquish the enemy so that the world may become a better place inhabited by a lesser amount of things that go ‘WOOMPHHH’ (although admittedly this would be a bit of a shame).
You may think this perceived association to be suspect. After all, little scene-setting occurs when you’re dropped into these sorts of games. There is little context besides the terrain and the weaponry of your battle - it’s all you can initially take in. You are the good guys. Those with the red markers above their heads? They’re the bad guys. Go kill. So you do and despite this being the only information you ever receive in terms of setting, it’s all you need to take part in your own personal war movie. And in BC2 I find glorious defeats can often be just as enjoyable as kick-ass victories, when kill ratios become obsolete and all that matters is the dirt beneath your feet and keeping those feet attached to a serviceable pair of legs.
A case in point:
In one of the many battles in which I have fought over the past few days, I spawned near the frontline and was immediately pinned down by heavy incoming fire. It’s easy in these situations to go into shellshock and quiver for a good thirty seconds before making a decision that will most likely end your life. This time, however, a friendly jeep pulled up about fifty yards to my right. Seeing a couple of my buddies in transit immediately relieved my anxiety. I had back-up. I felt safe. In addition to this relief, I noticed that the driver had actually spotted me and was waiting to give me a ride.
Now, this is not a gesture to be taken lightly in the frequently hostile environments that internet gaming supports. This sort of action is the equivalent of a total stranger stopping you on the street one day to tell you how beautiful a person you are, without any sense of irony. In effect, an instant bond is made.
So I ran towards the squad in acceptance of their offer and about five seconds prior to my behind being comfortably parked on a vacant seat within the truck, an RPG streaked in from the left of my vision and impacted with the vehicle. It exploded immediately. I stopped dead. The scene had grabbed me. It could have been scripted, yet it was not. My vision was hazy, my hearing was lost and I was at once hit by the spectacle and the sacrifice, imagined or not, that those men had made to lend a hand to a weedier member of their crew. So much so that I nearly forgot to rejoin the safety of my previous cover and shiver out the last minute of my miserable life, thinking all the while: without me they might have lived.
And this is why I love BC2, for these frequent little moments that the developers can’t possibly program but happen nonetheless. It doesn’t entirely explain my tolerance for virtual violence, but without that almost tangible relation to the very real horror of armed conflict, I’d be lying if I said a little blood and guts didn’t enhance the effects of my favourite past time.