One soldier in a war

[This post is part of January’s Blogs of the Round Table topic “Being Other.”]

If video games have taught me anything, it’s that my life matters. It worth is so great, in fact, that it outweighs everything and everyone around me. If I die, or are even wounded in some cases, the game comes to an end. The world stops when I do. My view, the camera that looks into this alien landscape, is all I have. It’s how I communicate with others in this world. But it’s more than a single point of view, it’s the only one that matters.

First-person perspective games fascinate me in this respect. With the third-person view, I can differentiate myself from the character. I am watching someone else. I might be helping them along or even outright controlling them, but there is always a separation between me, the player, and me, the character. I don’t have that with the first-person perspective. I’m not just controlling another person on the screen, I am the other person. I am the other and also me.

And we do not always agree.

This might be way I am so bad at games with first-person perspective. The role I am playing is one, in most games, of action. I should be running away or toward some objective. (And a gun is nearly always needed when running.) Not me though. I want to stop. I want to look at the trees. I want to ponder the bushes and the butterflies. I want to wonder at the world. Everything is new and different and I, the player, want to drink it all in and see the small stories that signs, people and even the subtle placements of objects might tell.

I know that, often unlike the real world, everything is placed for a reason. Games are a designed product. They are constructed, planned and produced from anywhere from a team of hundreds to just a single person. Everything has meaning, even if little overt thought was put into its placement. Everything is there to be read and I want, as an amateur writer and designer myself, to see if I can figure out the reasons why.

Screenshot from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
"Hello, little one. How did you get here?"

Today, instead of running-and-gunning, I watched a butterfly. And, as I did, another man died.

I would make a poor soldier. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare showed me that. Stepping away from the fact that I dislike guns, strict hierarchies and violence in most forms, I get distracted easily. I was supposed to be following my teammates. We were storming some village looking for… someone.

I wasn’t paying attention to the loading screens. I will admit that. We were trying to kill some people and I had a gun. Anything more than those simple facts didn’t matter a great deal. Some people were going to shoot at me and I was to shoot them before they shot us. My Duty didn’t extend to much more than that.

I followed them. I went where I was told. When called, I came over. I waited for them, despite being superior officers in nearly all cases, to open the various doors for me. We worked as a unit and moved from place to place together.

Then I saw the butterfly. A butterfly. Huh.

We diverged then. The soldier part of me was yelling to keep going, to follow the teammates and to not lose sight of the objective. I was to keep low and, above all else, to keep shooting at The Bad Guys. Yet, the player part of me intervened: “Look,” that part said, “think about why a butterfly would be in this game. It make no sense.”

I stood there, as the picture shows, with my gun pointed at the tree hoping the butterfly would come back out. I wanted to know why a butterfly would be in this game. I began to think about the bushes, the light and the arrangement. Was I supposed to ponder these things? Why would they be placed in this designed way unless for a reason? If the game was telling me, through dialogue, that I as to keep on going, yet had butterflies and moths around a light, was I to look and think about them too? Did they matter at all?

As I pondered all this over, my teammate died.

We fought about what to do next. The soldier part wanted to storm the field, to take out the bastards that dared to take down my friend. We were elite warriors standing in some god-forsaken country. Some common soldier took my comrade out? Oh, hell no! I was going to rain bullets down on all these fools. I was going to take them all out and then carry my buddy’s body to safety. If they wanted a battle, I was going to give them a war.

Yet, the player knew more. I knew what to do. It wasn’t about killing them, silencing their shots with my own. That was not the answer here. If I wanted to bring back this fallen warrior, I needed something different. I had to think outside the game world and to remember, above all else, that the player has a power that the characters do not have: only my life matters.

If I were to run out into the bullets, I could save him. If I willing put my life on the line for others, I could bring everything back and possibly save us all. All I needed to do was find some soldiers and shoot at them. They would turn, I would die and others would live again. When I stop, I knew, the world stops too. Only I matter.

We went through the battle a second time. I didn’t see the butterfly again. My team survived.