The aim of this paper is to examine the balance between notions of play and claims to the status of realism, of various kinds, in the tactical squad-based shooter Full Spectrum Warrior. I am starting here from a definition of ‘play’, generally, as a distinct mode of activity according to which games are marked off from other aspects of the external world, something I have said more about elsewhere. Some games are designed to blur markers of modality, however, in making claims to the status of ‘realism’ or ‘authenticity’. Full Spectrum Warrior is a useful example of this process, trading especially on its origins as a training aide designed for the US Army. These include assertions of realism at the level of graphical representation – but more importantly, in this case, claims to the status of a functional variety of realism, in which gameplay is said to be modelled on the embodiment of real-world military tactics.
I will be considering issues of realism and play in this paper in relation to the difficulty settings in the game, particularly the difference between the original army version and the standard settings of the commercial release. I will also be suggesting some potential clashes between different forms of realism, particularly the graphical and functional variants.
One way of complicating the question of modality is by setting a game in a context that has strong real-world reference. Full Spectrum Warrior (henceforth, FSW) is given a fictional setting, the imaginary republic of Zekistan, but one that is clearly established as an extrapolation from contemporary military/geopolitical events in the external world. The military action around which the game revolves, urban warfare against forces described as ‘ex-Taliban’ and displaced ‘Iraqi loyalist’ fighters, is explicitly situated as an adjunct to its equivalent in the real world. Fictional/game material is integrated very smoothly, effortlessly and almost in passing – so much is the process taken for granted – into the stuff of contemporary headline news, a process that raises many questions about the ideological implications of such games.
Qualities of audio-visual representation are another obvious dimension in which games can seek to make greater or lesser claims to the status of proximity to real-world equivalents. Like many other military-based games, FSW trades on levels of realism of this kind, particularly in relation to the perceived quality of graphics (hailed in reviews, generally, as ‘highly realistic’), although this issue is always more complex that it might at first seem; the resemblance according to which ‘realism’ is measured is often towards other representational forms such as film and television as much as to any unmediated notion of ‘reality’ itself. FSW is also marked particularly by claims to the status of functional realism, the dimension I will be considering in most detail in this paper.
The key respect in which FSW makes a bid for functional realism is at the level of military tactics. The ‘core mechanic’ of the game (Salen and Zimmerman), the central, repeated and defining feature of gameplay, is a basic pattern in which two squads of soldiers are manoeuvred through the game-world. The key lesson taught by the game is the need to move each squad from one source of cover to another. When enemy forces are engaged, one squad generally has the job of keeping them pinned down with fire while the other moves. Enemies also gain protection from cover, resulting in a gameplay pattern in which it is constantly necessary to find a way to manoeuvre one squad into a flanking position from which existing cover offers no protection. This is the basis of the original Army version of the game, designed as a learning tool for infantry squad leaders. As far as the core mechanic is concerned, there is little difference between its implementation in the Army version and the commercial release, although a number of other distinctions can be made, relating especially to the juncture between ‘difficulty’ settings and notions of greater or lesser ‘authenticity’ of gameplay.
The initial commercial release of FSW for the Xbox comes in two standard difficulty settings, ‘Sergeant’ and ‘Sergeant Major’, distinguished in the conventional manner by factors such as the provision of more ammunition to the player-characters in ‘Sergeant’ and the greater accuracy of enemy fire in ‘Sergeant Major’. A harder ‘Authentic’ setting is available as a hidden feature, accessible through the input of a ‘cheat’ code, although this is one of the standard settings available on the subsequent PC version. Also ‘hidden’ on the Xbox is the original ‘US Army’ version, which shares some features in common with the ‘Authentic’ setting such as the absence of ‘save’ points and the removal of many features from the game-screen’s head’s-up display (HUD).
‘Difficulty’ can be understood as a dimension of gameplay of direct relevance to the questions of realism and modality addressed in this paper. One of the defining features of ‘play’ in general is that, where it is modelled on real-world activities, it usually offers a version that is easier than engagement in the real-world activity itself. ‘Play’ versions of activities are usually less demanding, providing more scope for success than would usually be available to those not highly skilled in the original activity. The separation of play from other activities – a feature of most general definitions of play – includes a separation from much of the difficulty and/or stress of equivalent real-world experiences. This is, arguably, a key source of the pleasure offered by games: the ability to achieve, vicariously, feats unavailable to the player in any other realm (which is not to say that games do not have difficulties and frustrations of their own with which to contend). To play at driving a racing car is much easier (not to mention safer) than doing the real thing. Much the same goes for military games. Player-characters can usually achieve far more than would normally be the case in any non-play-world equivalent. It is no accident, then, that the label ‘Authentic’ has become common parlance for the more difficult settings of games, particularly those with military or other real-world related settings.
Part of the process of turning FSW into a commercially-viable game, then, is a process of making it easier. Compared with the Army version, the standard ‘Sergeant’ and ‘Sergeant Major’ settings provide numerous aides. These include elements such as those cited above: the provision of ‘save’ points in the commercial release and numerous additional sources of information supplied via the HUD. In the army version, whole missions have to be completed successfully or started again from scratch. Extended periods of play have to be repeated if a mission is failed because of the death of squad members, a familiar feature of games in which save points are not included or are very few and far between. It could be argued, in one sense, that this is more ‘realistic’, a closer analogue of the real-world equivalent experience. In real-world military operations of the kind modelled in FSW, there is no option to ‘save’ progress up to a certain point, to guarantee only having to restart from a mid-way point should a mission subsequently end in failure. Even within the limited confines of a game, more is at stake in every moment of play in situations in which regular saving is not permitted; what exactly is ‘at stake’ is very different from its real-world counterpart, of course, but the experience might be understood as at least a degree closer to the real than would otherwise be the case.
Players of the game in other than ‘Army’ or ‘Authentic’ modes are also provided with much more information on the state of play. Helpful icon-shields, appearing over the heads of player-character squad members, indicate whether or not they are in cover, and what state the cover is in should it be a variety that is subject to degradation under fire. Icons above the heads of enemies tell the player when they are ‘engaged’ (in which case a enemies will not shoot at anyone other than the solider engaging them) or ‘pinned’ (under heavy fire and not able to return fire at all); useful information for the player wanting to know whether or not other player-characters can move safely out of cover. Key aspects of the gamescape are made explicitly legible through extra-diegetic devices, in other words, material that would not be visible to the characters inside the fictional world. In the more difficult modes of play, generally, the player has to work much harder to try to establish the status of the various actors or the environment at any time, a process described by the designers as ‘much more of an organic experience’ (Berghammer).
How significant are these differences, though? If we imagine a scale that starts with the real-world equivalent activity, at one end, how might the various versions of the game be located, at the other? There are significant differences between the different versions in terms of the balancing of operative modalities: how far different degrees of ‘play’ or of functional ‘realism’ are being implemented or foregrounded, whether in the game itself or the game as accompanied by its surrounding marketing, reviews and other discourses. It is useful to tease out these distinctions, as part of a broader process of mapping the various dimensions of gameplay in FSW or any other example. But these are all versions of play, and the gulf between these any kind of real-world equivalent is vastly greater than the differences between the alternative versions of the game. This might be an obvious point, but seems particularly in need of emphasis in the case of games such as these in which an overt sense of blurring is sometimes suggested between the realms of, if not real-world and play, those of real-world-training and play (any games, that is, that have direct associations with actual military training, in a wider context in which there have been significant overlaps between the entertainment- and military-centred developments of game, simulation or virtual world technologies [Der Derian 2001]).
Even in its most ‘Authentic’ or army-training-developed forms, FSW remains clearly identifiable as a game, even if it is a game from which lessons with real-world application might in some cases be drawn. The world of FSW is a very limited one. Options for the player and player-characters are tightly restricted. Limitations often seem arbitrary, as is necessarily the case in the demarcated space of any play-ground. By contemporary game standards, which can include relatively open game-worlds, FSW is quite restricted geographically, with player-characters unable to enter buildings or to follow other than what is usually a narrow range of exploratory options. The emphasis on a particular core mechanic is such that little breadth of in-game experience is possible (this might, for some, be a criticism, but my purpose here is to emphasize that arbitrary restrictions of one kind or another are in the essence of games, a central feature of translation into the simplified and abstracting realm of play).
In all gameplay, a tension exists between experience of the game-world in diegetic terms (an imaginary experience inside the game, in this case imagining oneself as engaged in particular military activities) and an experience of the game as a game (involving awareness of the process of play as an abstracted activity revolving around the performance of core game mechanics). It might be argued that both dimensions are often or usually in play, simultaneously or in variable combinations, during the process of gameplay. Awareness of the game as game is never likely to be far from the surface, however, despite all the efforts of designers to create compelling game-worlds, contexts or narrative structures of one kind or another. Explicit markers of arbitrary game-ness, such as the larger number of in-game icons provided in the commercial release of FSW on the ordinary settings, might increase this tendency, but only to a relative degree. In the Army version of FSW, for example, the attention of the player is unlikely to be devoted primarily to the supposedly ‘more organic’ experience of a less-cluttered game world. That has certainly not been my experience, one example being the process of moving the player-controlled squads around in the game-world.
To move a squad, the player uses the left thumbstick on the Xbox controller. Circular icons appear on within the game-world to show the positions the soldiers would take up. At the same time, another icon appears on the surface of the HUD, taking on a different shape to indicate different cover formations when cover is available (a straight line to indicate a position where the squad would line up against a wall, an advantageous ‘corner’ icon for a position looking around a corner and other shapes depending on the nature of the object behind which the squad would be deployed). The positional icons are usually moved around until a suitable spot is chosen. When doing this, the player’s attention is pulled by two rival points of attention: the location within the diegetic universe (the actual place in the game-world to which the squad would be relocated) and the cover-formation icon, in the lower right-hand part of the screen (which gives a clear indication of the type of cover that would be provided). A ‘more organic’ experience would result from exclusive focus on the former, where what counts would be closer to what could directly be seen of the features of the game world from the current viewpoint of the squad in question. A more effective play strategy, however, requires at least as much attention to the cover-formation icon, if not more, as it is generally an easier and more certain way to establish that a safe cover position will be achieved, especially in anything more than a very short-distance redeployment. There are strong reasons, then, for a ‘shallower’ point of focus, at the screen-surface of the HUD and at what is clearly a game-specific imposition, rather than a relatively ‘deeper’ look into the game-world that seeks to establish itself as a ‘more organic’ diegetic entity.
If FSW can be understood as making several different kinds of claim to the status of ‘realism’, there are certain respects in which these clash, rather than being mutually reinforcing, another factor likely to draw attention to the nature of the game as an arbitrary construct. Graphical representation and functional realism are quite often at odds, for example. The figures of squad members might be rendered in detail that provides a reasonable level of (photo)realism, by game standards, but their positioning on screen often has the effect of undermining the functionally-realist impression sought by the game. Figures standing in a corner position and declared by the game to be safely in cover often appear to be standing quite clearly out in the open: interface icons declare a status contradicted by on-screen appearance. The same happens in some cases when squad members take cover behind objects such as burned-out cars. In one case a squad of four soldiers is declared to be in cover, and hence safe as far as the game mechanism is concerned, while standing upright along the side of a car situated between them and an enemy shooter. Visuals suggest otherwise: two stand behind the bonnet, clearly exposed in their upper halves, while the other two could clearly be seen and shot, from an in-game-world perspective, through the car’s empty windows.
How important clashes such as these might be is likely to depend, as is much else, on the particular context in which the game is played. Playing the original version of FSW unlocked on the commercial release is a very different experience from using the original as part of a training process within the military, a difference that has implications for the modality-nature of the experience that is likely to result. This is a point that can be made more generally in response to claims that certain kinds of games can have the effect of ‘training’ players to perform in-game-type activities in the real world.
Context is important. If the original version of FSW is played by military personnel, this is not an isolated activity, but part of a broader training context involving other forms of training and reinforcement and a context of military discipline. If the game offers a rather limited and abstract experience, this might be a positive virtue in the military context. A focus on a small number of key issues is likely to be of greater value, as part of a training procedure, than the more complex, open and multidimensional experience that might be sought by some gamers or game critics. Likewise, a clash between graphical and functional realism might be of little importance: the contradictory impression created by graphical representation might simply be bracketed-out in a pragmatic context in which the game is designed to perform certain, limited training functions, rather than to have any wider aspirations. The same can be said of another problem identified by some reviewers: the fact that enemies located behind cover are entirely inviolate, even when they pop their heads or entire bodies into view, whereas in the real world it would be possible to hit them with sufficiently accurate fire (as is the case, for example, in Brothers in Arms, which mixes the tactical-squad dimension of FSW with the direct character control of a third-person shooter). This might also be rationalized by the game’s focus on the pursuit of particular tactics (especially flanking manoeuvres) at the expense of attempting a more ‘rounded’ simulation of military action.
If these considerations are particular germane to the original military training incarnation of FSW, however, they might also apply more widely, all games being founded on an essential simplification and reduction in the number of parameters involved in the kinds of activities they model.
Two very different ways of understanding games might be involved in the difference between the experience of FSW as a training device used by military personnel or as a game supplied as a commercial entertainment product. Two very different usages are involved, although debates on these issues often blur what I would suggest are some important distinctions. In essence, this comes down to a distinction between notions such as ‘training’, ‘positioning’ or ‘interpellation’ (in the Althusserian sense) and the notion of ‘play’, something I focused on in a paper at the Playful Subjects symposium in Bristol earlier this year. I do not have time to get into that in detail here, but I would again, to conclude, want to stress the difference between the two, however much any individual game such as FSW might aspire to the status of some significant functional realism.
Berghammer, Billy (2004) ‘Full Spectrum Warrior Interview: Pandemic Studios’ William Henry Stahl’, Game Informer, 3 May, accessed 11 April 2005 at gameinformer.com/News/Story/200405/N04.0503.1843.05215.htm
Der Derian, James (2001) Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network. Boulder: Westview Press
Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman (2003) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge: MIT Press