“Just a Game” as Strategic Advantage

March 25, 2010

Often, it’s too easy for those of us who take gaming seriously as, yes, an art form to deride those who would declare that something is indeed “just a game”. We wish to see our games as more than entertainment; they are a window into our culture, one that often reveals painful truths about the ways in which we see ourselves and the world around us. We study our games’ stories, we analyze the play mechanics, and sometimes, we point out the ways in which gamer culture is lagging, particularly when it comes to stereotypical portrayals of prominent characters.

All of this is done under fire of those who would claim that so-called “art games” are rubbish, that games are meant to be fun above all else, and that deeper analysis is for pseudointellectuals trying to look for things that simply aren’t there. It is this group that continues to represent the vast majority of gamers, those whose only wish is to play.

On one hand, such a mindset can be frustrating, and it kills us when a rebuttal to a carefully thought-out piece amounts to “it’s just a game, lighten up”. On the other hand, there are times when just such a mindset can be useful.

Case in point:

The “Rush” multiplayer mode in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 asks players to either attack or defend M-COM stations in two buildings at a time. The easiest way to blow up one of these M-COM stations is to plant a charge and protect that charge until it explodes. You can also fire heavy weapons at it, or, if Red Faction: Guerrilla was your game of choice until Bad Company 2 came out, you might prefer to blow away the building it’s in until the roof collapses. While the latter two methods seem like the least complicated roads to victory, the deceptive near-invulnerability of the M-COM stations makes planting a charge the most popular ways to blow them up.

I often find myself trying to think “like a soldier” in these situations (yes, laugh if you must), and my first instinct when I was put on defense the first couple times I played this mode was to plant myself near the building and protect it at all costs. Imagine my frustration as the buildings housing the M-COM stations came down almost immediately, every single time, no matter how vigilant my patrol.

It didn’t take me too many matches to realize that the buildings were coming down so quickly because my teammates were demolishing them. My teammates! Why were they doing this? So they could quickly get a bead on any individual or squad coming in to plant a charge. No longer could a charge be planted in a place where lots of cover was freely available; anyone trying to destroy the station was a sitting duck. The only wins I ever managed as a member of the defense on Rush Mode were on teams that followed this strategy.

It’s a brilliant strategy, and one that runs counter to one that an actual military team would employ. It’s a game strategy. By removing immersion, by recognizing that this is, in fact, a game, players were able to employ a strategy that improved their chances of winning. The technique that is ultimately more fulfilling is open for debate, but if you like winning, the tendency runs toward game logic rather than world logic.

While I do wish that those who would disparage intellectual analysis would do the polite thing and say nothing at all if they can’t say something nice, it’s situations like this that I have to step back and realize: while I may not ever believe that a game is just a game, I shouldn’t necessarily point my nose in the air when I encounter those who do. After all, they might just be doing better at the thing (and maybe even having more fun) than I am.



  1. It’s game-think, sure. You say that the soldiers would never blow out the building all around their M-COM station so as to get a bead on any attackers. But the entire situation isn’t exactly realistic either. When the hell are a bunch of “defenders” guarding one random machine from waves of “attackers?” It’s a scenario, a wargame, much like any actual wargame in the military or reserves.

    What being somebody who takes game seriously means is going the extra step to ask what real world system this simulation maps onto. So you’re a defender. You’re not really told what it is you’re defending. You’re just supposed to defend it. So what you do is you destroy everything that you haven’t been explicitly told to defend, because it increases your likelihood of completing your mission. So what this game mode does is it operationalizes wreaking havoc to anonymous structures in order to protect something of interest. Focus on the mission, everything else is expendable.

    That doesn’t sound like how the military works in general to you? I mean, if you’re a cynic? It’s a pretty compelling model to me.

    • Absolutely, that sounds like how the military works – and I’m certainly not criticizing the game for allowing such an approach. You’re looking at it from a higher level. These are your orders, follow those orders, GO. I don’t even think you have to be a cynic to see it as a fairly accurate model for order-following.

      The point of view that my post is intended to portray, however, is my own – that is, someone who knows squat about how the military really works. I’ve seen movies, I’ve played video games, and I have a relative or two who have been there, but real world military operations are pretty much beyond my comprehension. So, my idea of a military operation in which I’m supposed to protect a piece of equipment inside a building comes with a reflex to protect the building itself, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. Maybe that’s a more limited point of view than I gave it credit for, especially in the population of people playing something like Bad Company 2.

      Alternately, maybe I just wouldn’t be a very good soldier.

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