In an editorial that first ran in the October issue of Gamepro, veteran videogame journalist Leigh Alexander explained her aversion for first person shooters. On the heels of the launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops, we've reprinted her thoughts.
The biggest divide I find between myself and most gamers I know is that I just can't get into first person shooters. I play them, of course, even when it's just because I feel I "need" to; just to "say that I have," when I'm aiming to understand the experience of your garden variety core gamer. But I never feel part of it; I have always felt that these games are meant for someone who isn't me.
As perhaps the most established genre in gaming, designers have had a lot of time to refine the FPS and on the mechanics side, there are a number of conventions that stay the same because they just work. For instance, there are only a handful of health management systems such as health packs or the exposure based red reticule. How can you improve on "aiming down the sights" as it exists today? There are game mechanics extant in shooters that have been honed sharp as glass over the years, and while some games, like BioShock or Singularity, aim to innovate on first person gaming with a combo of new mechanics and a heavy focus on story, newness is always risky, let alone in a genre that ain't really broke.
If you're looking for something new under the sun, you're unlikely to find it in an FPS. The true fan can tell the difference between a SOCOM, a Call of Duty and a Medal of Honor, but the casual observer probably can't.
Speaking to developers in recent years, I've become increasingly aware of what a pressure cooker development cycle these games have. Sure, key personnel on Modern Warfare 2 can earn millions (perhaps not without a legal battle, as we're seeing), but not without ruthless 80- plus-hour weeks and thankless crunch. And even then, just a few actually get wealthy. Ever gotten a bad taste in your mouth after you find out one of your favorite clothing brands uses sweatshop labour? Yeah, it's kind of like that.
My gender is the elephant in the room. Most fans of these games are guys. Is there something about an FPS that is innately foreign to my female brain chemistry? I have no idea. Do ladies (with exceptions, of course) generally shy away from the FPS because it's a boys' club, or is the genre a boys' club because it just doesn't interest us? I just know I've witnessed enough of the culture around multiplayer FPS to want to stay well away from it: it's like I'm a little girl on the playground again, watching the boys mud-wrestle and worm dig and feeling like it isn't something in which I'm meant to be included.
Then there's the subject matter. Uncomfortable and yet unspecific renditions of real modern conflict, the type in which our friends and family members are actually dying, is treated as the sort of casual play to cheer over. You're watching your character's own blood-spattered, grenade concussed death again and again and impatiently hitting buttons just in anticipation to start again.
If I thought games were inherently "destructive," or that there was any sort of correlation to real world violence in avid gaming, I wouldn't do this job writing about the possibilities that interactive media and gaming offer us to create "art" and innovate on the human concept of "play." But all too often, especially as realism improves with technology, and the adjective "visceral", human blood and guts, is increasingly desirable in game descriptions, and this to me is starting to seem like a celebration of the ugliest parts of humanity.
People are psyched to see a launch trailer of bullet-addled and blood-drenched soldiers, aiming for one another's heads because the graphics look really sick, bro. For some elusive, "visceral" reason, call it a gut reaction, this makes me wildly uncomfortable. I understand that play has simulated armed conflict since we were children (Cops & Robbers, Cowboys & Indians) and this is just an extension of that. Perhaps it's even a way to process and participate in the human condition in an ongoing environment of global war. But it just doesn't seem like a fun "game" to me and that's really what it comes down to.
Leigh Alexander is news director at Gamasutra and author of the Sexy Videogameland weblog. Her work deals primarily with the business and culture surrounding games and gamers, and her columns and reviews have appeared in Kotaku, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Variety and other publications.