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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 July, 2004, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
Playing war with the US army
As military-style video games become more lifelike, are they blurring the line between fantasy and reality, asks Daniel Etherington of BBC Collective in his weekly games column.

Screenshot from Full Spectrum Warrior
Full Spectrum Warrior takes based in a fictional Middle Eastern country
Running around pretending to be a soldier has long been a mainstay of video games.

Whether they are first and third-person shooters, squad-based or real-time strategy games, militaristic activities arguably dominate games culture.

It feels like an adult version of the endless fun of "playing war" as a child. And it does feel like playing, an innocent leisure activity, despite the endless arguments about how psychologically questionable it may be.

Games like World War Zero on the PlayStation 2 and Soldner: Secret Wars on PC are very much about perpetuating game fantasies of warfare.

The former is built almost entirely from familiar elements. You can carry a large array of weapons while you battle in trenches and underground bases.

It is good fun, set in a 1964 when the war that started in 1914 is still being fought, but largely undemanding.

Soldner is another entry in the ever-expanding sub-genre of games with the potential for large-scale online combat.

Given my ongoing obsession with the mighty PlanetSide, though, I found it hard to get into.

Political context

Something that is easy to get into, however, is Full Spectrum Warrior for the Xbox.

Screenshot from Full Spectrum Warrior
But for those of us in the UK not entirely convinced by the virtues of going to war with Iraq, it is mildly perturbing to enjoy the experience as just a game

It offers gamers a refreshingly different take on warfare but it is also somewhat disconcerting as this is a game developed for the US Army.

The game places you in a lightly fictionalised take on the War On Terror, replete with a Saddam-cum-Bin-Laden-like foe and a conflict in the Middle East.

It is tricky to talk about Full Spectrum Warrior, or the US army first-person shooter America's Army, without considering its political context.

But Full Spectrum Warrior is fascinating even when considered simply as a game. It involves taking command of two four-man teams, which make up a light infantry squad.

Through assigning them orders, you undertake a series of missions in war-torn Zekistan.

One reason the experience is interesting in gaming terms is that there is no "you". Players do not control a specific character like in other squad-based games, nor do you have a first-person perspective.

Rather than distancing you, however, this removal of a distinct avatar actually gives the experience a compelling intimacy.

Playing for real

The game ostensibly offers a level of realism in excess of earlier soldiering games. But does it really?

World War Zero screenshot
World War Zero is good fun but undemanding
Despite its origins with the US army, it retains the legacy of gaming conventions.

Sure you have to be extra vigilant about your team members here, as a few shots will incapacitate them.

But carry them back to an aid station and they can be fixed up.

It is similar to the more traditional picking up of randomly placed health-ups, just more labour intensive, encouraging you to consider your moves more seriously.

The game even has save points, something, I believe, the army does not.

Criticism aside, Full Spectrum Warrior is yet another quality game to come to Xbox, featuring a nifty online co-op mode.

But for those of us in the UK not entirely convinced by the virtues of going to war with Iraq, it is mildly perturbing to enjoy the experience as just a game.

This "playing war" does not feel quite so innocent.

Full Spectrum Warrior is out now for the Xbox

Full Spectrum Warrior hits its target
02 Jul 04  |  Technology
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13 Sep 03  |  Technology


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