Gamers, Gamers, & Gaming | Theater of War

One complaint often levied against video games is that they glorify violence, making a life of crime seem glamorous and exciting and presenting a vision of warfare that is all faceless enemies and daring heroics. Rarely, say those who present this argument, do video games show the cruel and disturbing reality that is violence in all of its forms.

Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, do a fantastic job of portraying the criminal lifestyle as far more unnerving and taxing than a crime-free existence, with the constant threat of danger and no guarantees of riches and fame. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that most games do ignore the grim realities of armed conflict in favor of presenting cinematic action-adventure, especially when warfare is ­concerned.

While no gamer will ever be able to share in the experience of an armed forces professional simply by playing, video games have the potential to provide some insight into the intensity of a real-life, live-fire armed attack.

Setting up operations

Spec Ops: The Line is such a game. It thrusts the player into a fictional armed conflict, and it only gets more challenging (in terms of both game play and moral entanglement) as the game progresses. It takes typical contemporary shooters such as the “Battlefield” and “Call of Duty” series and inverts them, presenting warfare not as exhilarating and satisfying but as something gritty and raw and life-altering in all the wrong ways.

Players take on the role of Capt. Martin Walker, the leader of a three-man Delta Force squad that’s been sent into Dubai to investigate the source of a looped radio signal bearing a cryptic message. Prior to the events of the game, Dubai was hit by a devastating sandstorm and its people left to fend for themselves. Against orders, Colonel Konrad, leader of the fictional 33rd Infantry Battalion stays in Dubai to assist in the relief efforts. The battalion established martial law and later attempted to lead a caravan out of the city. When this proved unsuccessful, the city was shut off and declared a no-man’s land, while the men of the 33rd were disavowed for treason. The signal Walker is sent to investigate appears to carry a message from Konrad claiming a death toll of “too many.”

Walker’s mission is to look for survivors from Konrad’s battalion, but soon after entering the ruins of Dubai his men are fired upon—first by insurgents and then by U.S. Army personnel. It soon becomes apparent that the 33rd has gone rogue and is no longer simply in defiance of orders but its members have committed atrocities.

The narrative setup allows for many themes, especially conflicts between one’s orders and the mandates of morality and decency. The well-written and -performed dialog makes it clear that these people are shaken and disturbed by killing men wearing their own country’s uniform, even in a case of self-defense. Furthermore, there are many moments throughout the game where the player must make moral choices, prioritizing one life over another, and these choices are never obvious.

Designed for success

In a rare example of game design merging flawlessly with narrative design, the action here is neither cinematic nor forgiving. While Spec Ops does indulge in the eye roll–inducing tactic of recovering from gunshot wounds by ducking behind cover, the player-character is usually dead after one or two shots anyway, leaving limited time to take advantage of the otherwise out-of-place recovery system. There is an ­elegant and functional squad command mechanic in place: with the touch of a button, players can order their in-game squadmates to snipe at targets, clear rooms with flashbangs, or use the environment to their advantage. Ammo for the many weapons is plentiful, but it is not a flaw in logic for this game since the player is engaged against active armed personnel with full facilities at hand throughout.

Contemporary military-based shooters are often drab and uninspired when it comes to environmental design. That is not the case here. While the game’s fictional vision of Dubai is covered in sand, there are still plenty of magnificent hotels, high-rise office buildings, and imaginatively rendered public spaces to be found. As in most modern shooter games, the use of cover during combat is a key mechanic; the developers have designed the spaces so that the cover offered to the player feels natural and cohesive.

If there is any fault to be found with this game, it’s that it’s a little too straightforward; there’s no striving for original game play ideas. However, what is here is solidly executed and serves its ultimate purpose: to drive the game’s narrative. The combat is never fun, except in the challenge to overcome—it’s a stressful experience that demands focus and quick reflexes. The enemies are not foreign agents or nameless entities but the player-­character’s own allies. The protagonists show emotional and mental strain in response to what they must see and do, with one especially somber scene taking place late in the game that could have been played for shock; instead, this game uses it to ask questions about justifiable force.

Spec Ops: The Line is not a fun game, necessarily, but it is a rewarding experience that does not ignore the heroics of war—there are, indeed, true heroes in the game—but it also doesn’t ignore the humanity of those who engage in real-life war.

M. Brandon Robbins is Media Coordinator, Goldsboro High School, NC, and a member of the 2011 class of the American Library Association’s Emerging Leaders

M. Brandon Robbins About M. Brandon Robbins

M. Brandon Robbins ( is the Media Coordinator at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, NC. He's a member of the 2011 class of ALA Emerging Leaders.