Category Archives: Military

I Talk Games and Conflict at Blogs of War


I appeared on Blogs of War’s Covert Contact Podcast to talk about games and warfare.

Discussion topics include:

  • How games (often erroneously) portray warfare
  • Call of Duty‘s strange evolution as the premier military series
  • The merging of video game tech and military hardware
  • How VR and gamification will change how we live–and how we fight

This was a great chat, and it looks like I’ll be returning to comment on games there from time-to-time, so keep watching my Twitter feed!

I’m at Playboy Discussing the Video Game Wars of the Future

I wrote an article for Playboy that included an interview with leading defense expert P.W. Singer.

Singer’s a brilliant guy, the type that you listen to when he talks. So when I found out his new novel, Ghost Fleet, predicts that video game technology will merge with military hardware, I thought it was worth asking him about it.

Military Expert P.W. Singer Predicts the Video Game Wars of the Future (NSFW, because Playboy. Do I really need to say that? I mean, there’s no nudity, but still, it’s Playboy.)

Wait, did you say you read it…for the articles?

Haha, so funny. You’re totally the first person to tell me that.

WARNING: This Update Includes Oceans, Podcasts and Soviets

Got a few updates here, a few personal and one big recommendation.

First, old business:

I wrote a piece for Mission Blue about what world leaders accomplished at The Economist World Ocean Summit.  You might not’ve heard about that because, you know, celebrities are getting divorced and stuff, but last month several governments sent representatives to meet in a Davos-like conference on how to fix the enormous damage we’re doing to the ocean (aka the thing that keeps all of us alive).

I also published a Critical Intel on how Tom Clancy used tabletop wargames to research Red Storm Rising.  That’ll be interesting to you author-types or anyone who’s fascinated by the Cold War with Russia.

Heh, sorry, the last Cold War with Russia.

Now for new business:

If you’re someone who writes words in exchange for government currency – or want to be one – check out THE FREELANCE GAME, a new podcast about freelance game journalism.  Hosts Nathan Meunier and Andrew Hayward are both veterans of the ink-for-money trade and dispense advice in a tone I can only describe as “water cooler casual.” The show’s helpful without being dictatorial – it’s emphasized early that every freelancer follows their own path – and provides pleasant shop talk in a profession that can occasionally feel isolating.  Discussions tend toward the frank and humorous, without the bombastic personality jousts so common in gaming podcasts. I’ve listened to one episode so far but there are three out now (including one with IGN editor Mitch Dyer).  Check it out.

One Month of Critical Intel

As you probably know, I’ve been hard at work recently on Critical Intel, my new weekly column at The Escapist.  It’s been a great month packed end-to-end with work that makes me really proud.  Frankly, having a dedicated space each week has made me understand what it’s like when dogs go to a leash-free park.  First they stand there staring at their owners, blinking, as if to say: “What?  I can go anywhere I want now?”  Then they’re off like a shot, tearing over the scenery as quickly as possible, making giant leaps and running circles.

I’ve always had enough ideas about games to write an article every week, the two things I didn’t have were the time and the dedicated venue.  Of the two, the venue was the most difficult part (I can make time) and I can’t thank the good people at Escapist enough for giving me my own little corner of the web.

So what, exactly, is Critical Intel?  Broadly, it’s a column that examines the overlap between videogames and the real world.  That covers a lot of territory – one week I might be talking about an historical event or legend featured in a game, another week I might be discussing military or medical uses of game technology, while I finish up the month with an in-depth look at the trouble games get into overseas.  It will be always intelligent, always well-researched, and often international.  My goal is to take you a level deeper.

Just to give you a sampler, of the three articles that have come out so far, the first was about game censorship in China, the second discussed how games misrepresent the Mexican Cartel War, and the third addressed whether Assassin’s Creed III‘s DLC pack passes muster historically.  The fourth, out this Thursday, is about something entirely different.

Writing an article every week – while holding a full-time job – has been a real challenge, but the warm response all of you have given Critical Intel makes all the long nights and sacrificed weekends worthwhile.  Thanks to everyone for sharing this new journey with me, and I’m looking forward to showing you interesting new stuff every week – bringing need-to-know information to the people who need to know everything.

Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies (Video)

At PAX Prime 2012, James Portnow, Steve Watts, Elisa Melendez and I hosted a panel on the many issues games run into by portraying real events – especially in an age where games are played around the world.

Have a look:

Beyond Borders Reading List

We are in the midst of a sea change in the way games are made, marketed, and consumed.  Previously a product that was made only by Western and Japanese studios, and consumed primarily in Japan and the West, videogames are now a worldwide form of media with a presence on every continent.

One of the results of game globalization has been a backlash against the countries and groups of people regularly depicted as “enemies,” as well as a greater — sometimes disturbingly greater — partnership between game development, the military, and arms manufacturers.

At this year’s PAX Prime, we’ll be exploring this in our panel Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies.  Come see us on Saturday, September 1st, at 5:00 PM in the Unicorn Theater.

After our previous PAX East panel, Borders, Bigotry, and Body Dumps: International Videogame Controversies, enough people requested extra resources that I put together a supplemental reading list on this blog.  Now that Beyond Borders is going live, I’ve updated the list to reflect new developments such as the Oliver North/Black Ops controversy as well as the links between EA and arms companies.

If you have any questions, I will gladly answer them in the comments.

Increasing Crossover Between Games and Real Life

The Trouble with Call of Duty‘s Scary New War of the Future — An exploration of the problematic nature of Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II advertising.  It is especially critical of Oliver North’s role in the campaign.

Partners In Arms — The editorial which first pointed out that EA’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter is not only partnering with arms companies, but actively advertising their products on its website.

Hotel Oasis in Modern Warfare 3 — featured as Makarov’s hideout in the mission “Ashes to Ashes” — displays a striking resemblance to the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai:


Representing Foreign Conflicts in Games

Ghosts of Juarez — My own article exploring the Mexican government’s reaction to Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 and anticipating the fallout from Call of Juarez: The Cartel.

Extra Credits: Call of Juarez: The Cartel — The Extra Credits episode I essentially wheedled/nagged/coerced James Portnow into making on the subject.  A well-done video on what’s wrong with the game, filled with quiet rage.

Guardian Article on The Castro Assassination Mission in CoD: Black Ops — Contains quotes from the Cuban government, including the best quote in the history of videogame controversies: “What the United States government did not achieve in more than 50 years, it now tries to do virtually.”

Red Cross Report on War Crimes in Videogames

You’re a War Criminal — This article by Steve Watts not only won him a spot on “Borders, Bigotry and Body Dumps,” but is the most clear-eyed discussion of the topic I’ve found anywhere.

Representation of Foreign People in Games

Muslims in My Monitor — Writer Saladin Ahmed discusses representation of Muslims in games.  Saladin is also the author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is an example of someone taking active part in re-framing a problematic representation of a group of people (in this case, Middle Eastern people in Fantasy).

Dangerous games people play — an opinion piece from the UAE about Middle Eastern stereotypes in games and media.

The Ugly Paulistano — a Brazilian writer living in São Paulo feels that Max Payne 3 is a fair representation of the crime in his city.

(Also see the EC episodes on Race in Games and Call of Juarez, linked above and below.)

Game Development Outside of North America, Europe, and Japan

Is the Arab World the next hot spot for gaming? — Excellent article about gaming in Yemen, and references the development of Unearthed: The Trail of Ibn Battuta.  The Reuters article it was sourced from is worth a read, and can be found here.

Argentina’s video gamers take on the world — CNN article about game development in Argentina which quotes our own panelist, James Portnow.

Hezbollah video game: War with Israel — A good example of an unhelpful response to these issues, this CNN article is about the Hezbollah propaganda game Special Force 2: The Truthful Pledge.


Extra Credits: Race in Games — The EC team tackles the difficult subject of how better to represent people in games.

A Renaissance Scholar Helps Build Virtual Rome — A profile of Italian historian Marcello Simonetta, who consulted on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

Extra Credits: Spec Ops: The LineSPOILERS, OH SO MANY SPOILERS… The EC team discusses a game that is itself a criticism of how games depict warfare.

GENRE ABUSE! Part I: Why Max Payne 3 Isn’t a Noir

I write books.  More specifically, I write historical fiction which agents usually classify as historical noir, a subgenre I didn’t know existed until I pitched my first novel.  As a result, I’m more than a little familiar with the signifiers, tropes, and idiosyncrasies of historical fiction and the hardboiled writing style of noir.

Recently, I’ve noticed that two of my favorite genres are getting a lot of attention in the videogame community.  Critics praised Max Payne 3 as the triumphant return of gaming’s best “noir” franchise, and the marketing of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has recently begun to refer to the game as “historical fiction.”

Here’s the problem: both labels are wrong.  Max Payne 3 doesn’t follow the conventions of noir and Black Ops 2 sure as hell isn’t historical fiction.

Today, we’ll deal with Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 3

Let me get one thing out of the way: Max Payne 3 is a great game.  It’s stylish, it’s good looking, it has well-written and directed cutscenes, and Max’s desperation is palpable.  Much to my delight, it makes the most of its setting and uses Brazil’s very real social problems as a backdrop to comment on the relationship between wealth and power.  I’m going to be high-fiving it big time if we do another Borders, Bigotry and Body Dumps panel, and you can put me squarely in the Pro-Max Payne camp.

However, being a good game doesn’t make it good noir.  The game contains elements of noir, no doubt about it, and takes a lot of its cues from neo-noir films like Collateral and Man on Fire, but it’s missing a true noir sensibility.  In fact, the Max Payne series has never been noir — and by playing the series straight for the third installment Rockstar created a sense of dissonance between the narrative and the gameplay.(1)

Consider the original Max Payne: it screamed spoofy mashup.  It had comic book panels for cutscenes, first-person narration cribbed from Raymond Chandler, and its gameplay mechanics were inspired by the Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled.  Sure, it’s visual cues were cut from film noir celluloid, but no one really took the game seriously.  Designers peppered the run time with in-jokes and hammy performances: mafia figure Jack Lupino prays to Cthulhu, hoods protect their hideout with the password “John Woo,” Max’s facial expressions are intentionally buffoonish, and multiple villains have an obsession with the fictional superhero Captain BaseballBat-Boy.  In the game’s most brilliant moment, Max has a bad drug trip and brakes the fourth wall, realizing he’s in a video game.

This gonzo mix-and-match sensibility, and acknowledgement that Max Payne was a game, was what held it together thematically.  Remedy understood that the core of the game was slow motion gunplay — that transcendent experience of diving over a balcony, dual Ingrams chattering, bad guys falling, and feeling so goddamn cool.  It was a style of gameplay that sacrificed realism for sheer overindulgent bullet-gasms, and the story was overindulgent to match.  Max Payne 2 tried to ground the plot in a love story (perhaps this is why it failed to connect with players) but the franchise still retained its wackiness to an extent.  Despite Max Panye 2 being billed as “A Film Noir Love Story,” the game didn’t so much embody noir as it borrowed some of the elements.

But when Rockstar took the helm, Max Payne 3 turned into an entirely different property.  Dev teams recontextualized the series’s memorable features as serious and gritty.  Max became an alcoholic.  His previously tongue-in-cheek use of painkillers morphed into a prescription drug addiction.  He went from cynical to actively self-destructive.  The comic book panels were replaced by compartmentalized cutscenes that portrayed his fragmented and fraying psyche.  Half the game Max is drunk, and the other half he’s got the DTs so bad he can barely see straight.  All cheekiness and sense of fun has been stripped from the dialogue.  It’s a strong new direction and well-executed.  Rockstar really gets the conventions of the genre, especially noir’s obsession with appetite, specifically, appetite for the forbidden.  In early film noir movies, these forbidden appetites usually had to do with lust, but now that the modern world is more open about sexuality, current noirs tend to focus on alcohol or drug abuse — and Max Payne 3 nails the theme of addiction better than any game I’ve ever seen.

In short, Max Payne 3 was a full-blown attempt at noir drama, and a successful one at that.

During the cutscenes, at least.  There’s the problem.

No matter how much Rockstar pickles Max in pathos during the cinematics, he’s still going to turn into a swan-diving superkiller as soon as the player takes control.  Suddenly his hands go steady and he can defy physics.  He can take bullets without flinching and snipe grenades in midair.  He’ll mow down armies.  His self-doubt and negativity is rendered absurd: He’s Superman with a large-caliber handgun.

All of which would be fine, except that such unbelievable talents fly in the face of what noir is supposed to be.  Noir is a genre that features the everyman.  Protagonists tend to be ordinary people who need to expose a conspiracy or escape a threat much bigger than themselves.  Often they’re cops, minor hoods, prostitutes or gumshoes, but whomever they are, they’re all alone in the big bad world, extremely vulnerable and woefully unprepared for the dangers and miseries they face.  They’re never rich.  They’re sometimes smart.  They’re always tough.  What keeps them alive is not the ability to do what others can’t, it’s the ability to do what others won’t.  A noir hero’s superpower is perseverance — he keeps going when any reasonable person would quit.  He may finish the story beaten down, shot up, and strung out, but goddamn it, he’ll get to the end.  Max Payne 3 forgets that noir is about emerging victorious despite your powerlessness.(2)

Max Payne 3‘s body count is a problem too.  Most noirs feature a fairly small number of killings.  Even the most violent examples — the film version of L.A. Confidential, for instance — contain only two or three dozen deaths, many of which may occur offscreen.  A good noir doesn’t need more than six bullets, if they’re used right.  Halfway through Max Payne 3 I had already killed over a thousand enemies and fired 15,000 rounds.

Explosions of violence can and will happen in noir, but generally these are momentous events that either kick off the story or serve as the payoff after a large buildup.  Noir is closely related to the thriller in its use of tension.  Both genres rely on the fact that an unfired gun is a more powerful storytelling tool than a fired gun, since it’s potential for violence is much more frightening than the violence itself.  When a character gets shot at, we barely blink an eye, but if that same character is standing there with a pistol against her head, we begin to sweat.  Tension gives us time to wonder what happens next.  It allows our anxieties to eat at us.  We try and figure out the motives of the man behind the trigger, try to plot his next move, try to guess what’s going to happen next because, oh God, the wait is just unbearable.  Live or die, we feel relieved when the gun fires.  Gunshots don’t create suspense, they dispel it when the tension comes to a boil — they’re the whistle on the tea kettle.

Perhaps Max Payne 3‘s dissonance stands out so much because Rockstar’s last game, L.A. Noire, so nicely fulfilled the tenants of the genre.  Sure, there were still more shootouts than a Film Noir or hardboiled novel would feature, but these were paced in a way that they punctuated the game rather than defined it and Cole Phelps never came off as an Übermensch.   I have no issue with calling L.A. Noire a noir, in fact I’d probably hold it up as the gold standard for noir storytelling in an interactive environment.  Heavy Rain is another game that could stand alongside it in that pantheon.

Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience call Max Payne 3 a noir.  Though the cutscenes fit the genre perfectly, the actual gameplay undermines the themes of the genre and pulls you out of the narrative.  While I can understand how someone might argue that the narrative is driven by the cutscenes, and therefore the gameplay should be considered separately from the narrative, this answer doesn’t satisfy me.  In an interactive storytelling medium, shouldn’t the gameplay support and define the narrative tone?  Isn’t that the point of a story-driven game?

Max Payne 3 isn’t a bad game, but it’s an instructive example of how mechanics can undermine the genre a game attempts to emulate.  As we continue to push the envelope in interactive storytelling, we will gradually discover which mechanics best support the conventions and tones of genre narratives, or else redefine those conventions to fit the new medium the same way theatre has different conventions than film, which has different conventions than a novel.  Max Payne 3 is an action game told in the style of a noir, and there’s nothing wrong with that — provided we recognize the difference between visual presentation and theme.

Next time in Part II of GENRE ABUSE!: why Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 isn’t historical fiction.  Here’s a hint: it’s set in the future.


  1. Rockstar has had this problem before, and usually it happens about when they’re trying to update older franchises by making them more realistic.  Take Grand Theft Auto IV for instance.  I was having a great time as Nico Bellic, playing out a story of crime and intrigue, feeling the pathos, balancing my desire for revenge with my thirst for the American dream…then I passed a billboard for a beer called Piswasser, which seemed to depict a woman peeing into a beer bottle.  Buzzkill.  It’s like I was zooming along in an F-1 when someone deployed the chute.  I got pulled out of the experience because this billboard, a relic of the earlier, sillier, GTA titles which peddled rude jokes and satire of American consumerism, didn’t seem thematically consistent with the world.  There’s a lot to be said for the more freewheeling aspects of the early GTA games, but forcing those aspects to exist cheek-by-jowl with the new, realist face of GTA IV triggered a jarring shift in tone.  Rockstar isn’t the only studio who has this issue, either.  For years, Naughty Dog has struggled with the fact that Nathan Drake, despite being a lovable rogue in the cutscenes, transforms into an F-5 tornado of homicide whenever the player takes control of him.
  2. Max Payne writer Sam Lake has said that “there is no concept of a happy ending in Film Noir,” but that’s not exactly true.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre.  In noir, happiness is never given, it’s earned and earned hard.  Characters have to go the distance for what they want, they have to suffer hardship and loss before they reemerge to claim their prize.  They’ll win battles, fall in love, avenge partners, and find peace, but there’s always the question of whether the things they’ve done in pursuit of happiness will ultimately undermine the happiness they find.  It’s a constant push-pull between the ends and the means.  They can find pleasure and contentment, but if they do it’s always a refuge, a happiness earned despite the rotten callousness of the world.