I've never been terribly concerned about the popularity of FPS war games. I'm not personally drawn to shooters (mainly because I'm lousy at them), but I'm not convinced they're ruining our kids or pushing other sorts of games off the shelves.
I do sometimes worry, as Leigh Alexander suggests, that countless hours dying and respawning on virtual battlefields are inuring us to the harsh realities of war. But I'm more persuaded by Roger Travis' contention that our fascination with armed confict is nothing new. "War-games...trivialize the human experience of war. They always have, just as the Iliad trivialized war into something ancient feasters could listen to while they ate."
A new game arrives today that forces me to question my detached view of FPS war games. It's called Heavy Fire: Special Operations, and it's an on-rails shooter for WiiWare by Polish developer Teyon. Before reading any further, you should probably watch this clip:
Set in "exotic environments of the Middle East," the game encourages players to:
"Grab your Wii Remote™ or Wii Zapper™ and take out enemies...using your light-gun from the ground, armored car or helicopter. You will need a quick trigger-finger to...restore the balance of the terrorized Middle East region. Get additional points for smashing the environment."
Killing a minimum of 4 enemies quickly, one by one, earns you the "Uncle Sam Would Be Proud" bonus.
Teyon may choose to call Heavy Fire an "Explosive Arcade Experience on WiiWare!", but a more apt description would be "Arab shooting gallery." Whatever narrative or thematic values we may find in games like Call of Duty 4, however meager, are jettisoned in Heavy Fire. This game puts a gun in your hands and a collar around your neck; then it locomotes you from one terrorist-infested location to the next, always directing your attention to the next target.
Your job is simple: kill or blow up as many Arabs as you can. The game rewards efficiency. Pay attention. Where will that nasty Arab pop up next? Look! There he is! Shoot!! How many can you kill? It's Duck Hunt in the desert.
Heavy Fire: Special Operations is atrocious. Nintendo should be ashamed for approving it as a WiiWare title. It crosses the line, not merely because it eliminates any semblance or illusion of player choice, responsibility, or contextual behavior. Heavy Fire turns a painful and bloody contemporary conflict - June was the deadliest month of the 9-year war in Afganistan - into the setting for an arcade shooter. It makes killing hordes of dark-skinned foreigners feel like a carnival ride. It's despicable.
Depictions of Muslims and Arabs in games (and other media) continue to reinforce stereotypes and simplistic ideas of a hostile Other. If you're interested in a thoughtful essay on the ways Muslims and Arabs are represented, and represent themselves, in video games, I highly recommend Vit Sisler's Digital Arabs, originally published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies.