I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks using Gulag theming or even just the name as part of a game mechanic like that is distasteful. The lack of self-awareness seems a bit surreal. I also get that it’s just a game and that the crew here or the game’s designers can’t be universally sensitive to the history of all people, but it struck a nerve — just personally speaking.
After sleeping on it, my feelings haven’t changed much. Often, I will lighten up a bit as the wave of my first impressions subsides, but it hasn’t now. One of the great tragedies of modernity reduced to a base fight club mechanic, absent of critique or introspection, and intstrumentalized for the violent imagery it conjures up even among people far-removed from this history.
It isn’t unique to CoD to do this, of course. That doesn’t need pointing out. It has more to do with myself being sensitive to the subject, and people of different backgrounds will have different things that strike a raw nerve like this has for me. I tried to think of other examples that are perhaps not scrutinized enough. FC2’s Malaria mechanic comes to mind. I haven’t played the game all that much, but it, too, seems to use the illness as an associative tool (Malaria bad; fix if get), a tragic problem to justify a banal survival mechanic. Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes to mind. Dia Lacina wrote an excellent piece on how it struggles to balance game mechanics and their (British) colonialist implications, a perspective that tries to depict native peoples in a human way but, at times, nonetheless has twinklings of the type of thinking behind Orientalist art. I’m confident there are countless examples that I can’t recollect right now.
I reread the interview by Tamoor Hussain and Michael Higham of Gamespot with Taylor Kurosaki, narrative director of Modern Warfare. This was after people took note of the way this game portrayed the “Highway of Death”.
Higham asks Kurosaki about pulling from real-world events while also changing the way certain things played out in reality for the game’s narrative purposes. Kurosaki responds:
This is not some kind of propaganda or anything like that. This is reporting on what is happening in these conflict zones. […] And the biggest victims of these proxy wars are the local people on the ground. I think that when you finish the campaign and look at it in its totality, that’s really what we’re trying to say here. I think that for people who are from a more privileged background or don’t live in close proximity to these conflict zones, they don’t think about the cost or the locals in these areas.
I think that this is a thing that we’re really building awareness for. When I was a kid, I learned a lot about stuff through things like Schoolhouse Rock, you know what I mean? I was singing songs and I was learning about real-world things, but in an entertaining fashion. And so I think that for people today, if we learn about some of these things, even while we’re engaged in an interactive experience, I think that it’s still valuable.
People far-removed from the historical context. Thinking about the cost or the locals in these areas. Building awareness. Learning about real-world things through interactive experiences.
What is there to learn from shooting each other in a vaguely decrepid prison? What does this tell us about the history of the Gulag? What awareness does it raise other than associative violence? How does it get us to think about the human cost of the Gulag, the families and psyches that it tore apart? Perhaps I’m too blinded by this nerve being laid bare that I can’t see it.
More broadly, at what point do real-world histories, illnesses, concepts become too real to be treated so lightly? To become mere devices for “grounding” game mechanics without really exploring them. I haven’t really given it much thought until now apart from the odd flash of disapproval when something obvious comes up, to be entirely honest. That’s my mistake, no doubt.
People interested the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus “The Gulag Archipelago” is a must-read. It’s lengthy. But worth the time. Though even the abridged edition paints an image so vivid and so shocking that it cannot be forgotten.