I just looked at the website for Gunner Palace, an unfinished documentary about US soldiers stationed in Iraq. Mike Tucker, the filmmaker, spent several months with units in Baghdad. He describes the making of the documentary on the website:
The purpose of my visit was to embed myself with a unit for as long as they would have me. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, owing to the fact that I was briefly in the military and come from a military family, I found a unit that embraced my presence. The unit, 2/3 Field Artillery aka the “Gunner” Battalion was based in Uday Hussein’s Azimiya Palace-sitting in the middle of Adhamiya, the most volatile area in Baghdad.
This had become their movie, not mine-each person with their own reference. For the older officers and NCOs it was MASH. They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others it was Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. You could see it in the way they rode in their HUMVEES. One foot hanging out the door-helicopters with wheels. For the teenagers, it was Jackass Goes to War. This was a war unlike any other. They had Playstations, souped-up gaming laptops and Internet access-Paris Hilton and Amazon on demand. The emails and the Sat phones helped them stay in touch with family, but all the technology in the world couldn’t bring them home.
There’s a lot of postmodern surrealism there. It’s a powerful read.
And it makes me wonder: games are becoming more and more a part of global, everyday culture – something I occasionally try to document here. But is global, everyday culture becoming more and more part of games? Sure, we’re expanding beyond the hyper-hobbyist obsessions of the past, but is it enough? And are we expanding in enough ways?
There has been a glut of games based on real wars and real conflicts the last couple of years. But have they explored the full range of what can be said about wars? What is the button in Battlefield: Vietnam to watch your best friend die, get hooked on drugs, and then return to a country that hates you? I’m betting it’s not “Q”.
How big is the gap between current squad-based shooters set in contemporary conflict zones, and Gunner Palace?
I’m advocating more variation, exploring more of what can be done in interactive entertainment. I don’t want current war games to be abolished, I want them to be outweighed by other games which say different things about war and conflict. I want interactive to be a vibrant medium which can be used for the full range of artistic expression.
“Saying things about something” does not mean heavy-handed moralising. Again from Mike Tucker:
After seeing this war firsthand, I don’t have any easy answers. In fact, I may have no answers. You try to find good in something like this; you try to find a reason. You try to explain death. I asked soldiers what they thought and their answers were simple. After nearly a year, it wasn’t about Iraq, the Iraqis, democracy, Donald Rumsfeld or oil. It was about them. They just wanted to finish the job they were sent to do so they could go home.
Just because Gunner Palace doesn’t have an easy message to convey doesn’t mean it’s not about something, something relevant even.
Although I can think of many reasons why – generally speaking – we are not doing this in games, I can think of no reason why we couldn’t, or shouldn’t.