Magic Nodes and Proleptic Warfare in the Multiplayer Component of Battlefield 3by Johan Höglund
This article examines the multiplayer environment that has become a central part of most competitive First Person Military Shooter (FMPS) franchises, including Battlefield and Call of Duty. While framed by a narrative, multiplayer games involve most directly a repeated negotiation of a particular space informed by certain rules. When narrative fades into the background the way that space is imagined and produced in the game becomes crucial. The ideological import of the game now relies on the nature of the ludic space where the gamer is placed and which he or she interacts with. With this in mind, the article explores the Battlefield 3 multiplayer map Grand Bazaar. Like some other Battlefield 3 maps, Grand Bazaar exists also as an actual place and is thus not only an imaginary ludic territory. To discuss the connection between this map, the real place and the way that the Middle East is often imagined in Western discourse, the investigation will make use of Sybille Lammes’ notion of “magic nodes” (Lammes, 2008) - a concept that stresses the ways in which ludic spaces are connected to the social and actual world - and Josh Smicker’s contention that First Person Military Shooter games increasingly produce “proleptic” or anticipatory warfare scenarios. The conclusion of the article is that the map Grand Bazaar is imagined as a permanent battleground and that the creation of such a ludic space is part of the “combat against futurity” that this genre of games often engages in.
Battlefield 3, First Person Military Shooter, Ludic Space, Magic nodes, Multiplayer, Orientalism
A decisive trend in game studies, that also comprises cultural and American studies, has been the investigation of the relationship that exists between US geopolitical ambition and the First Person Military Shooter (FPMS). In “Have you Played the War on Terror”, Roger Stahl has argued that training and recruitment games such as the FPMS America’s Army ”have cast video games as players themselves in the War on Terror” and that video games play an increasingly important role in the militarization of the US and the West (112). More recently, Fréderick Gagnon has claimed that the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games contain “narratives that resonate with and reinforce a tabloid imaginary of post-9/11 geopolitics”.3 In one of the contributions to the seminal collection Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games (2010), King and Leonard have observed that FMPS games serve to secure American empire in “virtual space” and provide “ideological, political, historical, and racial lessons that guide U.S. hegemony around the globe” (94). In the same collection, Josh Smicker argues that this genre has convened around the representation of “proleptic” warfare (107) - warfare that enacts future imagined or even desired war scenarios. In addition to this, research on the FMPS has also investigated the relationship between these games and external funders and producers; what James Der Derian has termed the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (2001).
When discussing how the FPMS represents war and connects with discourses connected to the War on Terror and US global dominance, the focus has been, implicitly or explicitly, on the narratives that carry the single-player campaigns of these games forward. These narratives are indeed crucial and have tended to focus on the exploits of Special Forces soldiers fighting wars against “rogue states” and terrorist groups in the Middle East. Thus, these games are understood to tell stories of how the US must fight present and future wars to preserve Western civilisation (see Smicker, 2010 and Mastrapa, 2009).
The question that this article probes is to what extent the political content identified by Smicker, King and Leonard, and Gagnon also resides outside the central narrative, in what can be termed the ludic space or geography of these games. Even when previous research has observed that the FPMS is not simply telling stories, but also “engenders spaces” as argued by King and Leonard, how these spaces are engendered and how the gamer interacts with them are not carefully theorized. Similarly, David B. Nieborg’s informative article “Training Recruits and Conditioning Youth: The Soft Power of Military Games” (2010), discusses America’s Army (2002), a freely downloadable game that focuses exclusively on the multi-player dimension, without specific reference to the way that the nature and rules of the game space structure the gaming experience.
This article turns away from the investigation of the single-player, story-driven game element and the production circumstances that have been the implicit or explicit focus of much previous research, to instead concentrate on the multiplayer environment that is an important part of most competitive FPMS franchises, including Battlefield and Call of Duty. While a narrative admittedly frames also the multiplayer environment, it should be noted that playing multi-player games involve most directly a repeated negotiation of a particular space informed by certain rules, not a single walk through a narrative. When narrative fades into the background the way that space is imagined and produced in the game becomes crucial. The ideological import of the game now relies on the nature of the ludic space where the gamer is placed and which he or she interacts with. With this in mind, the article explores the Battlefield 3 multiplayer map Grand Bazaar not as a narrative but as a ludic space. In doing so, I will discuss the relationship between this ludic space and the political dimension that previous research has identified.
My investigation will make use of Sybille Lammes’ notion of “magic nodes” (Lammes, 2008) and it also seeks to further explore Josh Smicker’s observation that the FPMS games that produce “proleptic” or anticipatory warfare scenarios do not simply depict warfare in the future, they “combat against futurity” (117). My investigation begins with a discussion and definition of the central concepts ludic space and magic nodes. In the following section, the article suggests a framework for exploring ludic spaces in FPMS multiplayer games that will then be applied to the Battlefield 3 map Grand Bazaar. In terms of method, I have played the multiplayer map Grand Bazaar a number of times, recording the action of the game using screen recording software. The observations that are the core of my argument were based on the experience of playing the game and on a review of my games in recorded form. As Battlefield 3 has a demanding multiplayer component, I have also watched the game being played by more skilled players who have posted films depicting their success on YouTube and other Internet sites.
Ludic Spaces and Magic Nodes
In Henri Lefebvre’s pioneering The Production of Space (1974), ludic space is defined as an actual space that is used for games or game-like activities. These spaces can be football pitches or places devoted to religious dancing and music (35). In other words, Lefebvre understands the concept as a space informed by certain rules that defines what can and what cannot take place there. There is an important difference between actual, non-virtual spaces and digital spaces here. The actual space remains a space even when its ludic properties are dismissed. Similarly, it is ludic only as long as the people that inhabit this space agree on the rules that govern this space. A grass lawn becomes a ludic space the moment a football game spontaneously starts, but it also remains a lawn even as this game is being conducted. Even places specifically designed as ludic spaces, such as a football stadium, can transform into a concert arena, a site for political rallying, or into a temporary prison and interrogation locale.
This discussion can be related to Huizinga’s seminal observation in Homo Ludens (1930), that games constitute a form of magic circle. Within the magic circle that demarcates the ludic space, the game participant can distance herself from every day life and, at the same time, devote herself to the rules and rituals that structure this space. The ludic space can thus serve as a form of temporary contrast or antidote to an often chaotic world. The ludic space becomes a site where identity can be established and the world temporarily structured according to certain norms. Again, in the real world, the magic circle can be broken or the rules that govern the space within it changed, but while it holds, the space within the circle follows a certain paradigm.
With this in mind, it has been assumed that the computer-generated ludic space is also a form of magic circle that provides human subjects with an ordered world (see Zimmerman and Salen (2004). Sybille Lammes has argued with this point, and observed that games should not be understood as simply creating spaces that exist outside the social world and which offer release from it. Rather, games are “sociospatial practices” (265); not magic circles that separate the ludic space from the actual worlds, but magic nodes that form part of a social network (263). This is a useful observation, and it has bearing on the argument that I will put forward. Like the magic circle, the node demarcates the boundaries of a ludic space that operates according to certain rules, but at the same time, the node connects the subject to a social reality that transcends and surrounds the ludic space.
This is true for ludic spaces such as football pitches, and also for computer-generated game spaces. An observation here is that in comparison to the real-world ludic space, the computer generated ludic space is, on the surface, more static. The digital ludic space as such is not surrounded by the multitude of people and practices that makes it possible for it to exist in many ways at the same time, and transform in response to the needs of human agents. When the console is turned off, the space disappears until activated again. When it does, it immediately assumes its ludic dimension.1
In short, the digital ludic space is essentially and precisely a space governed by a set of rules that defines what can be done in this space, which kind of game that can be played and which kind that cannot. The relationship between ludic spaces and the socio-political environment within which they exist is different from game to game. In other words, the network that games, as magic nodes, connect to (and, I would argue, help explain and construct) is also characterized by a form of bounded ideological context and the narratives that this context helps explain or gives rise to. From this perspective, it is important to understand the organisation of the ludic space in relation to both the actual spaces they sometimes resemble and the ideologies that inform the gamer.2 When looking at the multiplayer maps Grand Bazaar - located in Tehran - and Seine Crossing - located in Paris - understanding them as magic nodes rather than magic circles highlights their connection to the their real-world counterparts, and the ways in which these are constructed by various discourses.
The multiplayer maps that are a part of many FPMS games constitute an interesting example of how ludic spaces housed within magic nodes interact with both gamer and society. If ludic spaces in general tend to be carefully regulated, digital multiplayer maps are even more severely disciplined.3 As spaces, the multiplayer maps are utterly static. Even when the architecture can be destroyed, the urban landscape instantly regenerates before the beginning of a new session.
In terms of ludic interaction, FPMS multiplayer games typically allow only the exchange of gunfire, the demolition of buildings and vehicles and the destruction, occasional revivification and respawning of bodies. There is little narrative except, perhaps, a short briefing, and the objectives are typically tactical and strategic rather than political. The rationale of the game is to kill as many of your opponents as possible, holding on to a territory for a certain amount of time, capturing a flag and dying and respawning as seldom as possible.
Single player and Co-op in Battlefield 3
Battlefield 3 is a 2011 instalment of a franchise that began in 2002 with Battlefield 1942. The game is produced by Electronic Arts and developed by Swedish-based Digital Illusions CE. Like the second major instalment in the series, Battlefield 2, the original game focused exclusively on the multiplayer aspect and does not contain a single player campaign. Following the release of Battlefield: Bad Company in 2008, the Battlefield series was equipped with the single-player campaign that franchises such as Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six came with. Today, Battlefield 3 is one of the biggest first person military shooter games4 and, like its competitors, it allows the gamer to interact with the game space in three different ways. In the single player mission, the gamer plays her way through a narrative in the form of an already closely scripted game story. In the co-op mode, the gamer can be joined by one more human players, allowing the two gamers to make their way through an alternative set of missions together. The final and arguably central game element is however the multiplayer experience where gamers compete alongside other players against another team of human players.
The single player campaign is very much like an interactive film where the gamer’s input consists mainly of strategically negotiating a number of enemy encounters to keep his character alive as he (and in military shooters the gamer’s avatar is almost invariably male) makes it to the next stage and onto the next game map. The single player campaign of Battlefield 3 concerns the rise of a jihadist political/military force in Iran called People's Liberation and Resistance (PLR) and an obscure plan by an ex Russian, ex CIA agent to cause a new World War. The task of the gamer is to prevent the Russian nuclear weapons, which the PLR has acquired, from being transported and exploded in Paris, London and New York. From this perspective, Battlefield 3 obviously, and predictably, charts current American geopolitical anxieties about Iran, Islamic extremism, terrorism, the rise of new Russia and the spreading of WMDs.
Ludic space is obviously also important when considering the impact of the single player component of Battlefield 3. The exceptionally realistic game geography that this very advanced game is capable of rendering on a modern computer is of significance when considering how the single player campaign legitimizes the program of organized political violence known as the War on Terror (these days referred to by the Obama administration as Overseas Contingency Operations (Wilson and Kamen 2009)). The photo-realistic urban landscapes, the attention to light and sound, and the physics of the game draw the gamer’s attention away from the game as an ideological construct deeply informed by the discourse on the War on Terror.
Image 1: Caption: In the single player component of Battlefield 3, the gamer, in the role of a US soldier, steps off an armoured vehicle and onto the streets of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq. In this briefing area, the gamer’s avatar encounters handcuffed suspects. When the fighting begins, all non-US soldiers carry guns and try to kill you.
However, as I have argued, it is not space but narrative that is most often brought to the fore when understanding how games such as this one negotiate post-9/11 ideological territory and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is in the narrative that the political stakes of the single player campaign become apparent and thus, this is the aspect of the game that is most easily mined for ideological content. It should be noted here that this narrative participates in the construction of a new form of Orientalism. In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said makes the crucial and very influential observation that the “Orient” as it appears in European nineteenth-century writing is an imagined place. Thus, the creation of an imaginary Orient has helped define “Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (1-2). This argument relies heavily on Michel Foucault’s definition of discourse and Said contends that “without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (3).
This postcolonial approach to culture has also made a mark on game studies. Sybille Lammes (2010), building on work by Catherine Nash (2002), has observed that “players are invited to be a dominating and warmongering colonizer” (2) when entering the ludic universes of such games as Age of Empires or Civilization. Lammes then suggests that game maps in games such as Age of Empires “acquire hybridized and personalized qualities, quite dissimilar from how colonial cultures would like to represent their power relations”, but I would argue that even if we accept this point in the case of Age of Empires, recent proleptic FPMS games are more usefully understood as relying on a paradigm that is effectively colonial, rather than postcolonial. Vit Sisler (2008) has discussed the representation of the Middle Eastern subject in digital games, making the observation that Orientalism is still a highly influential discourse that continues to inform even digital games. With this in mind, I want to suggest that Battlefield 3 produces the Middle East in ways that make it possible for the West to manage this region, as it did during the nineteenth century.
As a way into the ludic space that the multiplayer maps render, this may be a useful first observation. These multiplayer maps effectively produce a particular image of the Middle East (as well as of other spaces, as will be discussed below). It should be noted here that Battlefield 3 has been praised not primarily for its single player component but for its well-balanced and realistic multiplayer experience (see Eykemans, 2011 and Houghton 2011). Multiplayer is importantly different from single or co-op gaming. Instead of closely following the trajectory of a carefully pre-fabricated game narrative, where the gamer must overcome hoards of digital enemies controlled by the computer, the multiplayer component takes place on relatively open maps where the gamer instead fights other human players.5
Winning is not necessarily a matter of resolving a particular task, although it can be, or even of vanquishing the enemy team, but instead a stacking up of a series of kills, so called “kill streaks”. In Battlefield 3, you can also gain points for suppressing or helping to target an enemy, and for a number of other feats within the game. These points translate into a score that allows all gamers to be ranked and displayed on a leaderboard. Whereas most gamers would play through the single-player campaign only once or twice, the end of a multiplayer battle is typically the beginning of a new one. In other words, the multiplayer component is more like a series of football games than the participatory film that the single player campaign resembles. This may not change the game’s politics, but it does change the way these politics are disseminated by the game and, arguably, the relationship between them and the individual gamer. As will be discussed in more detail below, gamers need experience no political urgency in relation to a multiplayer map. Because the gamer does not follow a story, the focus here is not on resolving a narrative but on dominating space through the dispensation of repetitive military violence.
The multiplayer component of the first and most basic release of the game consists of a total of 9 maps. Of these, five are located in Iran, one on the border between Iran and Turkmenistan, one in the Persian Gulf and the remaining two in Paris, France. All maps are modelled on actual geographical locales and resemble them to some extent. In other words, these are actual geographical territories that, within the game, transform into ludic spaces. As such these territories become governed by a certain set of rules that determine what can be performed in them. Furthermore, as magic nodes, they connect to the world outside the game, to ideas, discourses, and practices and to the actual spaces that the virtual spaces they generate represent.
In addition to this, the fact that five of the maps are located in Iran, two more in the Middle East, and two in Paris, emphases the point made by Smicker that the modern FPMS tends towards the representation not of actual war (in Iraq or Afghanistan), but of proleptic, anticipatory conflict. The predominance of Iran suggests that this nation is at the centre of such conflict. The inclusion of two maps set in Paris, France indicates that these conflicts may involve also iconic and civilian Western spaces. The fact that none of the nine maps that the two teams can enter are placed in America or the US suggests a reluctance in this particular game to move proleptic warfare into this region.6 In this way, the single-player and multiplayer components both refashion actual locales into ludic spaces.
The Grand Bazaar Multiplayer Map
The Grand Bazaar map can be played through four different modes: Conquest, Rush, Squad Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch. Depending of which mode you chose, the action unfolds in different stages. For instance, the Rush mode features a three-stage confrontation between the Russian and the US teams, all of which require the completion of a number of strategic objectives. It should be added that the multiplayer component in the original release of the game makes it possible for the gamer to join either a Russian or a US team of soldiers.7
Before looking at the Grand Bazaar map in more detail, it must be said that it is, obviously, indirectly connected to the narrative of the single player campaign. The background of the conflict enacted is the same as the “global war of 2014” explored by the single player campaign and the gamer who has played through it will be aware of this. The game thus has a distinct and highly political framework. However, as previously argued, there is no real need for the gamer to consider this narrative when playing the map. No cut scenes emphasize the urgency of the mission, no NPC asks loudly, for the gamer’s benefit, why the Middle East “gets so fucked up all the time”, as happens in the single player version, and there is little sense here that you are around to set the world straight. All in all, there is little incentive to directly contemplate the political reasons behind the fighting you become involved with. In none of the game videos that I have accessed when researching this particular map did gamers comment on the political framework of the game.8 Instead, all pre- or in-game comments concerned the strategic challenges that the gamer faced when playing the map as a member of a team, or consisted in status updates or commands to team members as the fighting on the map unfolded.
Before entering the map, the gamer must join a team, pick a class of soldier and, if he or she wants to, customize this soldier through choosing certain weapons. This done, the gamer enters the ludic space of the game by spawning in a bleak, wet and windy urban landscape. A short countdown during which the gamer’s avatar is kept still ensues, and then the avatar is let loose in a landscape that is strangely devoid of actual life, but which still contains numerous traces of civilian inhabitants. Empty food crates abound. Newspaper and rubble litter the street. Advertisement signs, Arabic graffiti and PLR propaganda posters cover the walls. Obviously, this space is essentially civilian, yet there are no actual civilians around. The architecture is pockmarked by bullets and explosions and before moving far into this urban territory, there is a sense that while this may once have been a civilian locale, it is now essentially a battleground. The only people moving are the gamer, the fellow team members and the opposing team. This marks the beginning of the exchange of military violence which is the paradigm or regime that permeates the map. In other words, military-grade violence is the only form of exchange possible in this ludic space.9
This military violence as such is arguably sophisticated from a technological point of view and can be dispensed with the aid of a large and perfectly authentic arsenal of weapons that comprises not only guns of various types, but also armoured vehicles such as tanks and Humvees. Battlefield 3’s game engine, referred to as “Frostbite”, makes it possible to interact militarily not only with the gamer’s opponents, but with the very architecture of the city. Houses, streets, bridges and all other objects in the world are destructible. Bullets and grenades tear large chunks off walls and blow crates and wooden structures to pieces. It is possible to reduce large parts of this cityscape to rubble with powerful weaponry.
Image 2: Caption: The Grand Bazaar in Tehran as depopulated warzone. The action is framed by the empty city, the abandoned market stalls, and by constantly wailing sirens and gunplay.
Within the confines of this ludic space, food containers, garbage, urban art, religious signs, places of worship, and sites of trade or rest, have meaning only as shelters, hiding places and targets. The paradigm that informs the ludic dimension that governs what can and what cannot be done within this space thus enforces a ritual of intense gunplay where you seek to repeatedly kill the opponents that keep coming back to life, spawning shortly after having been shot dead. The repeated destruction of the other team members’ and of the vehicles and architecture that protect them becomes not just a possibility but the only option.10
Grand Bazaar as Magic Node
To recapitulate, the map Grand Bazaar in Battlefield 3 takes place in a space where war is the only possible practice - the rule of the game. The ludic parameters also encourage, even enforce, a ritual engagement with the military conflict that takes place within this space. At the end of the battle, the architecture assumes its original dilapidated state. Destroyed vehicles disappear and the death toll is reduced to zero. The stage is set for yet another battle that will proceed in a similar way. There are many similarities between this ritual and the aforementioned football match.
Perceived as simply a Huizingian “magic circle”, this repeated engagement between nominally Russian and US forces in the Middle East may be understood as a form of contained competition where guns and soldiers have taken the place of footballs and football players. However, the understanding of Grand Bazaar as a magic node, the location of a sociospatial practice, complicates this understanding of the map’s ludic space. As defined above, Lammes has argued that the image of the node makes it possible to think of games as “producing cultural meanings of space while at the same time being connected to a wide range of spatial conceptions that are also part of the social” (264). To Lammes, this view of games is potentially liberating as it allows gamers to ”find an intensified space to express, and give meaning to, spatial regimes and spatial confusions that are part of our daily life” (264). At the same time, the view of games as interconnected ”magic nodes” rather than as isolated circles, also highlights their connection to, on the one hand, actual physical spaces, and, on the other, the way that discourse represents these actual spaces and the people that inhabit them.
From this perspective, it is important to consider the fact that the Grand Bazaar is, like the Seine crossing that serves as the scene for another map, also an actual geographical area. This real space, located in Tehran in Iran, is essentially a market place but it also fulfils many other functions in the area and it is typically teeming with both locals and tourists. Situated in South Central Tehran, it consists of open spaces and a maze of narrow corridors that house different market stalls, mosques, money changers, banks, jewellers, traders of all sorts, coffee and tea houses, and so on. The bazaar was important as a site of dissent that helped produce the 1979 Iranian revolution, when the Shah of Iran was ousted and an Islamic government, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, installed (see Harris). In late 2012, as reported by the BBC (see Asgari, 2012), unhappiness with President Ahmadinejad's efforts to keep the Iranian currency afloat, led to criticism from religious leaders in the bazaar area. Many traders pay for their imported goods in dollars, and the weak Iranian rial made it difficult for them to pay their ways (Asgari 2012). In an expression of this unhappiness, bazaar shops closed for a brief period to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the poor state of the Iranian economy. This caused the Iranian government to send in a large number of uniformed but unarmed police. While the intention was certainly to intimidate shop owners and to dissuade possible civil unrest, no violent confrontations between bazaar owners and the police were reported at this time. The point of this is to observe that the Grand Bazaar in Tehran is an actual and civilian space; a place of commercial and religious exchange, of government support and resistance, and of human interaction.
Image 3: Caption: The Grand Bazaar in Tehran, essentially a civilian market place. Picture by Hansueli Krapf and provided under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Like 2.5 Generic license.
This, then, is one important connection to consider when understanding the map as a node connected to the social world. The Grand Bazaar is not simply an imaginary locale in an FPMS game, but also a real-world, civilian space. Whereas the actual space of the Grand Bazaar is a place where civilian exchange (commercial, religious, emotional, epistemological) is not only possible but normality, the Grand Bazaar in Battlefield 3 is a space where only violence can take place, and the gamer’s job is to continually practice this violence.
Of course, many players will not be aware that the Grand Bazaar is this type of actual space, or even that it exists as a real site.11 What most gamers will be aware of, however, is arguably the construction of Iran as a “rogue nation” that is part of what George W. Bush termed the “Axis of Evil” in 2002 (see Bush 2002) and Condoleezza Rice an “outpost of tyranny” in 2005 (see “Rice Targets”, 2005). It is this discourse that informs the narrative of the single player campaign. As argued, this portion of the game describes Iran as a part of the world that gets “fucked up all the time”. With this in mind, the single player campaign constitutes a fictional attempt to “unfuck” it. The multiplayer map is informed by the same discourse. However, the analysis conducted does not suggest that the multiplayer map offers a narrative closure, or a narrative at all. If played to the very end, the single player campaign ends with the gamer’s avatar averting the disaster to US soil that the game has threatened. The multiplayer map offers no such closure to the gaming experience. Instead, the end of one battle is the beginning of another and very similar one. To again emphasize the difference between these two game elements, the multiplayer map is not involved in the creation of narrative but in the representation of space.
Conclusion: Perpetual and Proleptic Warfare
Previous research on the FPMS has noted that civilian Middle Eastern spaces such as the Grand Bazaar often are represented as depopulated battlefields. A general point made by King and Leonard in “Wargames as a New Frontier: Securing American Empire in Virtual Space” is that
Video games play a fundamental role in solidifying the spatial mapping of the Middle East as an outpost, a marginal space, a frontier in need of saving, and without moral, legal, or political obstacles of intervention. Not only do games engender spaces where you are able only to kill soldiers, they do so by constructing scenes where there are virtually no civilians present ... In a virtual reality where civilians are absent, the allied war effort does not hurt civilians; in fact, as the U.S. brings freedom without any threat of violence and danger, these games serve to counter those who would criticize American foreign policy in this regard. (100)
This becomes even more apparent when considering the way in which the end of one battle becomes the beginning of a new virtual confrontation in Battlefield 3 multiplayer. Unlike the single player campaign, multiplayer maps have been designed for repeated and ritual warfare. Since narrative is significantly secondary, there is no sense of closure at the end of a battle. Furthermore, to compete effectively on any multiplayer map you have to know it well so that each session is also a training session that makes you more proficient the next time you enter the ludic space of the map. It is impossible to put your name on the leaderboards that record individual gamers’ success without repeatedly entering the multiplayer maps.
As has been argued, one of the most important differences between multiplayer games and single player games is that where single player campaigns centre around a (single) completion of a linear narrative, multiplayer games rest on repeated pacification of a given space. Such space refers to an actual civilian space in Grand Bazaar. The result is a game map that repeatedly puts the gamer into a civilian space turned warzone. In ludic terms, this game defines the Grand Bazaar as a territory that must be perpetually pacified by two invading forces. After each battle, the urban landscape regenerates, the burnt-out husks of tanks disappear and the demolished architecture is restored to its previous dilapidated state. This regeneration is not the end of the battle, but the beginning of a new conflict.
In this way, the game constructs the Grand Bazaar as a space where old Cold War enemies Russia and the US enact what Josh Smicker has referred to as “proleptic” military conflict. In “Future Combat, Combating Futures: Temporalities of War Video Games and the Performance of Proleptic History”, Smicker discusses a number of military games that all have the premise of as yet unrealised confrontations between the US and various unfriendly organisations or nation states. The proleptic or anticipatory military games thus enact future conflicts and Smicker’s argument is that proleptic war games essentially represent an effort to “contain and manage the futurity of the future” (116).
Making use of theory from Elizabeth Grosz and Jacques Derrida, Smicker argues that this “futurity” is perceived as a danger to dominant power structures because it cannot be known and thus acknowledges a time when these structures may no longer be in place. Thus, in the words of Derrida, futurity is “only anticipated in the form of absolute danger” and perceived as “a form of monstrosity” (116). Proleptic war games attempt to contain this monstrous futurity by replacing it with a specific, known and combative future paradoxically characterized by military conflict. This attempt at producing a military future can be perceived as an effort to realise a particular, imagined historical trajectory. From this perspective, Smicker argues, proleptic war games not only enact war in the future, they “combat against future itself, combat against futurity” (117).
The absence of an overtly politicized narrative that the gamer must resolve does not sever the connection between the game as magic node and the discourse of a war against futurity that Smicker discusses. In fact, it can be argued that the closure provided by a successful completion of the single player campaign to some extent allows the gamer to put this war behind him or her. The plot to cast the world into chaos by exploding a nuclear device inside US borders is eventually thwarted by the gamer during the single player campaign. No other end to this game is possible. The Islamic fundamentalists that have seized control of Iran can be ousted and hostilities between the US and Russia can end. This does not mean that the game does not condone an aggressive War on Terror or that it is not informed by a general Islamophobia, but it does allow the Middle East to be imagined as something other than a perpetual battleground, even if this future is never represented by the game or visited by the gamer.
By contrast, the multiplayer maps of Battlefield 3 enact a perpetual proleptic and ritualistic war. Every time the gamer enters the ludic space of the game, the proleptic war is again enacted; the city is once again, as ever, empty of its civilian inhabitants, the urban landscape is once again, as ever, a site for military violence. In other words, the Grand Bazaar is always a battlefield and the only action possible within this space is perpetual military violence accomplished with the aid of one of the guns that the gamer’s avatar constantly clutches to his chest, and the only result of this interaction is destruction.
This highlights the importance of understanding not just narrative but also space in computer games as importantly political; as a crucial part of the way in which certain games negotiate the current world order. Games do not always tell stories; they are also capable of imposing spatial regimes. These regimes limit the way that space can be experienced and understood. When considering ludic space as being bounded by interconnected nodes rather than by “magic circles”, it is possible to understand these regimes as part of a wider political context that feeds and is fed by this ludic space.
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