This article contains significant spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line .
For years I have reflexively closed my mind to the question of whether or not playing violent videogames can have negative effects on the player. I've told myself it was ridiculous, that videogames are fantasy and the psychological effects of violence are a real-world phenomena. The truth is I have a personal motivation for dismissing these ideas without first considering them. I've devoured violent videogames like candy since I got my first taste of Doom in 1993 and have specifically been hooked on military shooters ever since the original Medal of Honor series. When someone talks about the potential effects of playing violent videogames I'm the person they're thinking about, so I've never wanted to take the idea seriously. Spec Ops: The Line has finally convinced me to do so.
Spec Ops is the story of Captain Martin Walker and his mission to make contact with Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion, United States Army who were lost in the city of Dubai while on assignment to help evacuate the city. It's six months later, and the giant dust storm that enveloped Dubai has made communication with the outside world impossible, so Walker and his two Delta Force operators are sent in to investigate. They discover a city that has degenerated into a horrific war between the 33rd and the armed citizens of Dubai. Spec Ops tries to make us feel the insanity of the situation with passive techniques like disturbing graffiti on the walls, audio recordings that describe deranged interrogation techniques and the disintegrating minds of the soldiers of the 33rd Battalion, and a crazy journalist turned radio DJ who broadcasts throughout the city, but the player's actions best convey the theme.
We see white phosphorus, one of the most horrific incendiary agents used by the United States military, dropped on insurgents. We witness their deaths and hear their screams as they're burned alive. Not long afterward we have to fight our way to a heavily-guarded gate in the middle of the city. A company of the 33rd sits between us and the gate, and the only way through them is to use white phosphorus. When we investigate the results of our attack we discover the charred remains of dozens of civilians, including the gory, smoking corpses of a mother and the child she was cradling when they died. The soldiers we've killed had been keeping the civilians there for their protection.
A CIA agent named Riggs orchestrates a raid to steal Dubai's water supply and thus undercut the power of Colonel Konrad. When the raid gets botched Riggs winds up trapped beneath a burning tanker truck, and he tells us that the purpose of the raid was actually to make sure no one in the city survived to tell the tale of the atrocities committed by Konrad and the 33rd. Riggs asks us to shoot him rather than let him burn to death.
Towards the end of the game a member of the Delta squad, Sergeant Lugo, is captured by a crowd of angry Dubai residents. We fight through members of the 33rd to get to Lugo but he's already been hanged. Walker and his remaining companion, Lieutenant Adams, manage to get Lugo down but it's too late to revive him. In the moment that follows, the player is tempted to avenge Lugo's death by opening fire on the crowd of civilians. If we try to walk through them, they just push us back.
When I found the dead civilians after dropping the white phosphorus I was mostly pissed off at the idiots of the 33rd who kept the civilians there when they knew I was coming. I let Riggs burn and felt good about it, and damned straight I shot those civilians when they hung Lugo because fuck them, they had just hung my squadmate. I could say that none of this was real, anyway, and that because I've been playing shooters for so long the idea that I see all of this as just another collection of pixels on a screen and thus feel none of the horror I'm probably supposed to feel makes sense, but consider the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, the Invasion of Normandy.