Battlefield 3's Multiplayer is Art - Even the biggest games have intellectual value.
If Braid can be a game about America's policy toward nuclear weapons in the forties and fifties, then Battlefield 3's multiplayer can be about the on-going war of attrition between the West and faceless foreign threats during the 21st century.
The game's online death-matches are between two sides, the US and the Russians and whereas the American boys sport clean shaven faces, the Rooskies are stripped of an identity by the balaclavas and gas masks that they wear:
See? Much in the way that America's foreign policy fritters between nebulous countries or organisations - the Soviet Union, Iraq; Al Qaeda, Iran - the OpFor in Battlefield 3 is made up of unidentifiable assorted people without a real face. They're called "Russian" but Russia is an enormous country comprising 83 federal subjects, which in turn, contain 21 republics that are autonomous of central Russian government.
In the vein of Western news and propaganda, Battlefield 3 tars all foreigners with the same brush.
And then there's the set-up of the multiplayer itself which mimics the top down "how high?" hierarchy of the military. Battlefield 3 players are repeatedly sent to their deaths by shadowy, unseen higher-ups who order them to capture a base or blow up a radio relay seemingly just...because. In the way that I imagine grunts in the field have only a small idea of the Grand Plan (a relationship explored by Evan Wright's superb Generation Kill) Battlefield 3 players follow dangerous, even suicidal orders to attack without any given context.
And aside from resembling the Sergeant-Corporal-Specialist pecking order of a military organisation, that baseless servility emulates, I think, the upright mentality of a professional soldier, to follow orders and do his job.
We aren't told why we need to kill the Russians, or the Americans, or why we need to capture their car park or blow up their computers - we just do it because we're playing soldiers. And that, to me at least, opens Battlefield 3's multiplayer up to much broader interpretation. It seems like a basic, knockabout, gun-loving game of sport, but a lot of the mechanics and visuals in Battlefield suggest the game laments rather than loves warfare.
Or something. I'm still not sure I haven't just gone mad this week. I think AAA games need close textual analysis if they're going to trundle forward; articles like this one, discussing Resident Evil 4 in comparison to Arthur Schopenhauer's rejection of logic principle are an essential, if slightly strained part of gaming's renaissance.
Back to Battlefield's multiplayer for one quick and final point. I feel that the narrative value of the early Call of Duty games was in jumping from one anonymous soldier to another, to express the cost to human life that war comes at. You saw how dozens of soldiers of several nationalities had their lives changed, affected or even ended by the Second World War, and that gave you real sense of scale, and loss, and bodycount.
Battlefield 3's multiplayer does the same thing, albeit more subtly, by having you play as a succession of nameless young men killed in the name of who knows? Minute after minute, game after game you respawn as another anonymous grunt only to run into the fighting and get killed. Each game mode's vague pretext is one thing, but when you consider how many individual troops are being shot in Battlefield each day, and how little impact each of their deaths has on the game, I think it, perhaps, if you kind of squint, suggests something about the futility of large-scale fighting.
In some Team Deathmatches, up to 750 "lives" are ended and then the game just resets and starts over. It's like trench warfare, where hundreds of people would die for the sake of inches of regained ground, except Battlefield doesn't even give you that; it's a never-ending Oceania vs. Eastasia kind of war that becomes less and less fruitful the longer it's fought.
This is only a brief summarisation of how I think Battlefield 3 and online games like it might be re-interpreted not as glorification or "sportification" of warfare, but as subversive little pokes at it. I think there's more to be written on this, but the point I want to make is that with the right kind of eyes, even the most corporate, blustering kinds of computer games can have artistic, or intellectual value.
It might mean making stuff up as you go along, stuff you doubt the developers were even thinking when they built the game, but unless games are held to high standards, unless there's a body of criticism that's searching for the artistic nutrients inside them, then I don't see why game makers should bother putting them there.
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