A Gaming Education: Self-Esteem in Shooters

When I was at school there was this girl. You know how it is. She wrote a joke on my pencil-case once, I didn’t wash it for a week. Sometimes I’d see her on the walk home and she’d ask me if I’d done the maths homework, and I’d try to think of a funny reply, then say “no”.

She was a lot cooler than me. I used to try dead hard to be the kind of guy the kind of girl she was might like. I bought a Travis CD after I heard her talking about Fran Healy. I wore trainers the same as this guy she hung around with. I stopped bringing N64 Magazine to school with me after she said videogames were dumb.

Nothing ever worked though. And I’ll tell you why. It’s not because I played sports like an epileptic giraffe, had the hair of a scarecrow on crack, or sometimes wore a sweatshirt from Debenhams that said “Space Quest 3000” on the front.

… Well, the Space Quest sweatshirt probably didn’t help — but mainly, the problem was that I lacked self-confidence.

No one will love you if you don’t love yourself. And nothing gives that self-loathing away more than constantly attempting to be the kind of person you think other people will like.

Individuality isn’t something to be masked, it’s something to be proud of. Not overly proud, you understand. I’m not suggesting you stand on a rooftop and shout about how you have webbed feet and that’s just fantastic. No sir. What I am saying is that you should be content in your uniqueness, because nowhere in the universe is there anyone quite like you, and that’s pretty cool when you think about it.

Want to know what’s put this wisdom in my mind? No, not the fridge magnet of a messy middle-aged woman with too many cats. What’s put it in my mind is first-person shooter videogames.

Two games, to be precise. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. I’ve been playing both recently, thanks to the canny pricing strategy of that-Steam-that-they-have-now.

The two games — in their single-player campaigns, at least — are strikingly similar. They’re war simulators, or more accurately, teenage-fantasy-of-war simulators.

There are explosions and ambushes and slow-motion bits where bad guys are about to shoot your bessie mate and you have to pick up a knife and throw it at the bad guy in time. Occasionally, you leap into or out of a helicopter, and said helicopter is oftentimes on fire.

The games are theme park rides, with pop-up enemies and pre-rigged effects. A blast, as long as you don’t peer too closely at the track or the wires or the edges of the set.

Thing is, Modern Warfare has my blessing to be big and loud and dumb; Bad Company 2 does not. This is because Modern Warfare is big and loud and dumb; Bad Company 2, however, is just trying too hard to be liked.

Modern Warfare was an evolution of the Call of Duty brand, a move away from realism and towards high-octane Hollywood theatrics. It carved out an identity for itself within a genre not known for its originality, and spearheaded a new approach to men getting shot at. Whether or not that approach is for me (it’s not), I appreciate the fact it exists.

The Battlefield games, meanwhile, had their own identity. They were PC-centric, team-based multiplayer games where players arranged themselves into squads on two opposing sides and fought across large arenas. Some people would fly helicopters, others drive tanks, others still would hide in bushes and snipe passing infantry.

They were games that asked much of you — an online connection, friends to join a squad with, a joystick to pilot the aircraft, hours of practice to ensure you didn’t embarrass yourself — but your investment was rewarded with an experience unlike any other.

Then Battlefield gazed across the war-torn expanse at Modern Warfare, at the piles of gold it was sitting in, and had a crisis of confidence.

Thus the Bad Company games were born. They were aimed at the consoles, where all the trendy kids spent their time. Though multiplayer was a familiar, albeit stripped down, take on the old formula, the focus was now on campaign modes following a linear path, triggering set-pieces and watching cut-scenes that raised an eyebrow at American hegemony without denouncing it entirely.

Bad Company 2 borrows (steals) every aspect of its persona from Modern Warfare. From the overarching mechanics to the zooming-in radar loading-screen, from the weapons system to the box art, it is a game that refuses to take a step until it has checked which way Modern Warfare went, how heavily it trod, what colour boots it was wearing.

The follow-the-leader approach produces a competent game, for sure, but there’s nothing in it to love. It’s a reproduction, is all, a simulacrum of what some shitty publishing executive reckoned a shooter “should” be like.

Which is a shame. Battlefield’s take on a campaign could be really interesting, with AI squad co-operation, open levels, vehicular combat and perhaps an evolving, specialist class choice. But any attempt at individuality has presumably been nixed by money-men afraid of unknown directions, afraid of idiosyncratic exploration rather than proven hack work.

Battlefield 3 comes out later this year, going head to head with Modern Warfare 3 for the title of Big Dumb Shooter of 2011. Previews hint at Battlefield 3 being another linear shooting gallery, rich in earth-shattering set-pieces, bereft of originality. Maybe that won’t be true. I hope not.

The times in my life people have liked me the most, responded in the warmest ways to my personality, I haven’t been seeking approval at all. When you’re happy to just be yourself, when you want nothing from others because you’re already fulfilled, that sort of shines through, and you’re fun to have around.

I wish Battlefield knew this. I want to grab it by the shoulders and shake it. “Relax,” I’d say. “We like you a lot already.”

And as for that girl? I bumped into her recently, on my walk home from work. She asked how I was doing. I tried to think of a funny reply, then shrugged and said “alright”.

You can’t win them all, I guess.

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5 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

5 responses to “A Gaming Education: Self-Esteem in Shooters

  1. I love it. I absolutely love it, again.

    You can sense the desperation pouring out of games that look to their forefather of the sub-genre for guidance. Even seeing a similar font is a turn off. When you can sense all the little details the developer has had to check against the already popular template, it can be cringe-worthy. So lacking in charisma and needing of approval. No sense of adventure. They’ll always seem like an underling, and will come running when #Call of Duty# clicks its fingers.

    Some clones are just clones and they are unashamedly so. The sort of self-awareness in their ruthlessness and lack of shame is almost commendable. Makes them less cringe-worthy at least. It is when games or well, anything really, that had something original going for it, then jacks in all that originality and credibility due to a crisis of confidence and starts doing what the other guys do that it becomes difficult to swallow.

    An odd example would be the WWF. Its not really cool now but it kinda was in a way at one point. Its arse fell out years ago and now they’re constantly name dropping ‘Twitter’ and ‘I-Phones’ and drafting in celebs in a bid to remain hip and current. Its that need to turn to something else to be shown how it ought be done which obliterates the charisma. Nintendo are more than showing signs of that each year, the name ‘Wii U’ feels borderline pathetic, and the fact its all done out in pseudo-Apple designs gives you the sense that Nintendo feel their product is only going to sell if people think it has got something to do with Ipods and I-phones. So desperate to be associated with the cool dudes. Its a shame because the N64 was Bold. Extremely so. It just parked right up next to the Playstation and said “I’m better”, told the Saturn to pack its bags and take a fucking hike. N64 was King.

    It doesn’t matter where Boldness and charisma lurk, whatever they get their hands on, they take to the top – perceptually. Look at Ronnie O’Sullivan. A snooker player that oozes rock n’roll. It is almost ridiculous in a sense.

    For me this is the most reassuring thing for us shy negative thinking types, we just need to stick to our guns when challenged. You’ve gotta want to be that central column that others gravitate around.

    • Rob

      I can’t decide if the N64 was the ugliest or the most beautiful of consoles. You’re right that it was bold though. AND MORE POWERFUL THAN THE COMPUTER THAT PUT MAN ON THE MOON!!!1

  2. Collymilad

    Very true.

    I used to try and fit myself in with people when I was younger and it got me nowhere. Now I just act how I like (within decency, of course :P) and I have plenty of friends. I think it’s partly because people gravitate towards confident people, even if they’re not fully aware of it.

    Still not that great with women though 😛

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