Why Video Games Love Special Forces Heroes

These action heroes represent what both a confused public and video games makers themselves crave so desperately: absolute certainty, whatever war's complexities.

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Aug 23 2016, 8:37pm

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"With tensions already high and fearing for Phillips's safety, my teammates opened fire. In seconds, all three pirates crumbled under the barrage... 'Why did you have to do that?' Phillips said. He was suffering from a minor case of Stockholm syndrome... he didn't understand what had just happened and why."

To collectively judge the armed forces, from an armchair—to slander those who guard you while you sleep—is ignoble. But the above passage, from former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonette's book No Easy Day, detailing the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips to bring an end to the Maersk Alabama hijacking of 2009, describes a military man's disinterest in nuance. With one sentence, Bissonette disregards Phillips as delusional. The rescued man's shock over the killing of his kidnappers is the result of a syndrome and the success of the SEALs' mission remains unambiguous.

Later in the book, when he gripes about the "Washington machine" and "how slow the decision-making could be," it's clear that, like HBO TV show Generation Kill's Corporal Josh Person, who replies to a child's letter about the validity of the Iraq War by boasting he is a "US Marine, born to kill," Bissonette is a soldier, with absolute conviction.

Not surprisingly, it is men like Bissonette—special forces operatives, on top secret missions—onto whom video game writers, working on games featuring military (style, at least) conflict, have so often latched. When waging war on something so vague as terror, it is difficult to provide people with comprehensible stories. The same Generation Kill gives a biting summary of both the public and military's perspective of the (2003-commencing) Iraq War: "Mission: Unclear. Enemy: Unidentified. Length of Tour: Unknown." Especially now, with hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers dead, and ISIS committing terrorist attacks abroad and atrocities at home, it's hard to say what the war on terror achieved.

Likewise, video game writers, who throughout the 1990s had the easy "good versus bad" tale of World War II with which to work, found themselves, with the arrival of 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and a new genre of shooter, encompassing the same year's Crysis and 2010's rebooted Medal of Honor, at a loss when it came to spinning simple, clear narratives. Clarity and brevity are bywords in video game writing. Especially in first-person shooters, which (self-defeatingly) pride themselves on escapism and action, it's preferable that the story has a simple moral: Soldiers are heroes; terrorists are villains; and good triumphs over evil.

But from its start, the Iraq War belied coherence. The US military's opening salvo on March 20, 2003 killed one civilian, injured 14 others, and missed its intended target—it would later be learned that Saddam Hussein was never at Dora Farms in the first place. Faced with such ambiguity, video game writers have all but given up on soldiers and war. They are more comfortable with superheroes.

Enter figures like the Navy SEALs, the SAS, and other "Tier One" operators. Just as No Easy Day dismisses ambiguity, these mythical figures are the closest war games can get to unambiguous superheroes, and the simple stories they entail. The special forces operative, as far as perception goes, is not dispatched to frontline war zones. He or she does not receive conflicting orders. They do not cause collateral damage. Based on hard intelligence, special forces operate behind enemy lines, far away from civilians and militiamen, to fight the Republican Guard, private armies, and the hardest of the hardcore terror cells—and these targets are always worthy.

Most conveniently of all, the special forces operative has total authority. They are sent on secret assignments, about which the public will never know. From politicians, he has carte blanche. At the end of Modern Warfare, it's revealed that the opening mission, whereby the SAS scuppered a boat in the Bering Strait, has been disavowed as a mere accident; halfway through Modern Warfare 2, General Shepherd, leader of the fictional "Task Force 141," is told by the American government he has a "blank check" when it comes to future operations. The special forces operative, enshrined by real-life events like the Iranian Embassy Siege and Operation Red Wings, exists in video games as an autonomous, unassailable military force—a one-man Allies fighting enemies which, by definition as his opponents, must be Axis.

The clear, uncomplicated storied preferred by video games are echoed by special forces units and operations themselves. Modern Warfare opens with the SAS, on base at Credenhill, repeatedly drilling their infiltration of a cargo ship. Throughout that series, and also Battlefield and Medal of Honor, the special forces characters can repeatedly call on satellite imagery, aerial bombardments, robots, and gadgets. They mark targets using lasers and destroy them entirely. They scan their surroundings using remote-controlled cameras and hack computers with automatic, unfailing devices. Their equipment, occasionally embellished by video games, makes these games' leading men, in comparison to regular infantry, appear superheroes. They possesses almost magical abilities—as veritable deities, it follows that the moral quests they follow are absolute. In fact, even the title Call of Duty: Ghosts connotes precision, silence, deftness on a supernatural level. These people do their jobs, perfectly and discretely, and their stories are similarly wonderful and unambiguous.

'Battlefield 1' screenshot courtesy of EA

If there's a single change to war games worth hoping for in light of this trend, in my opinion, it's their return to the everyday soldier. It's not as if these games are inherently ill-equipped for the political rigors of the front line. Call of Duty: World at War casts you as a Russian infantryman and, in one of its climactic levels, wherein you machine-gun a squad of Nazi soldiers trying to escape into a train station, encourages you to consider your moral high ground. Perhaps the forthcoming Battlefield 1, ostensibly a game about the First World War, will focus on the soldier as opposed to the special forces superhero. (Which it should, given the SAS wasn't founded until 1941, and the US Special Forces, a.k.a. the Green Berets, 1952, but video games based on real events are nothing if not historically opaque.) If that game centers on the trenches and eponymous battlefield, it'll present a challenge to decade-old shooter trends.

The special forces operative is a war games favorite fairytale, a gift to writers who desire credibility and relevance without having to engage with the real complexities of today's wars. When Bissonette repeatedly shoots Osama bin Laden's guard, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, "to make sure he was dead," he represents what special forces soldiers provide for video game writers: certainty. For both a Western public and a video game industry, each confused about the morality of war outside of World War II, that is a precious commodity.

Follow Ed Smith on Twitter.

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