Thursday 27 November 2014

Gamers who play for 24 hours straight – all in the call of duty

For 12 hours I sat bow-legged on the floor, manically twiddling my thumbs. My legs were numb, my back knotted, my buttocks a dead zone without sensation.

I'd spent most of the day, plus a scarily large chunk of the evening, wrestling with a video game and, though aware of a world and responsibilities beyond the living room, could not put the Xbox controller down. Looking back, it was, I think, the one moment in my life when I had a sense of what hopeless addiction must feel like.

The curious thing is, that by the standards of the gaming industry, the title in question isn't even considered especially compelling. It was called Fable; in it you controlled a medieval warrior charging around a magic kingdom.

The twist was that you controlled the character's moral path. Commit a wicked deed and people feared you, leading – as in life, alas – to certain advantages. Rescue kittens from trees and babies from burning cottages, on the other hand, and you were widely admired. I was living someone else's life and it felt awesome.

Such are the quirks and quandaries that – along with mega budgets, gasp-inducing graphics and Hollywood-quality voice acting – separate modem video games from their quaint '70s forerunners.

In the gadzillion-selling Grand Theft Auto series you may follow the storyline and rise from street hoodlum to crime kingpin. Or you can wander the game's cartoonish versions of Los Angeles, Miami and New York, hijacking cars and leading the police on a merry rampage (wanton destruction is apparently rather more-ish – some GTA diehards boast of playing up to 24 hours or longer).

With the even more successful Call of Duty saga, meanwhile, the moral complexity is positively murky. In 2009's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II – a game which achieved first-day sales of $310m (€240m) in the US and Britain alone – the player is a CIA agent tasked with infiltrating a group of Russian fascists.

In one notorious scene, the bad guys carry out a massacre at an airport, handing you, the spy in their midst, the ultimate moral quandary. Do you blow your cover and protect the innocent? Or should you stay true to your mission and keep schtum as dozens of civilians are mowed down. We're not playing Pac-man anymore, Toto.

On a game of the scale and complexity of Call of Duty or next year's much anticipated Grand Theft Auto V, up to 500 people may be involved in taking the project from storyboard to the screen. Typically the team will include conceptual artists, scriptwriters, special effects units, software coders and voice artists (often famous actors such as Willem Dafoe, Ellen Page and Christopher Plummer). For the 2011 fantasy adventure Elder Scrolls Skyrim, more than 70 actors voiced the parts of 100 characters.

A super-sized production carries a super-sized price tag, of course. Development costs for the just released Halo 4 are estimated at in excess of $100m (to compare, the budget of the summer's big movie smash, Avengers, was around $150m). Naturally game publishers would not lavish that sort of money on projects if it wasn't worth their while. In the case of Halo 4, the $100m investment led to first-day sales of $220m.

Online gaming is booming too. The fantasy game World of Warcraft has 11 million subscribers (part of its administration is based in Cork). The emotion and cash fans invest in such activities can be frightening. After a 'hack and slash' title called Diablo 3 went live last summer, hardcore players were soon paying up to $250 in real money for in-game weapons like magic swords. In the Diablo universe itself, inflation of the gold coin currency was so runaway the publishers briefly considered pegging this virtual cash to the US dollar.

The wider impact of the modern video game is hard to overstate. The action films of today owe transparent debt to 'first-person shooters' such as Doom, Quake and Halo. When Transformers director Michael Bay, to pluck one random example, is accused of churning out movies that look like video games there is every reason to believe he takes the comparison as a compliment.

You can also advance the argument that it is through the medium of video games that the story of contemporary war, especially the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, is told. If World War Two was the newsreel war and the horrific reality of Vietnam trickled down to us via arty '70s movies, then it is games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield that have most powerfully conveyed what it feels like to be in a firefight in Mosul or Helmand Province.

Indeed, there is evidence that soldiers, raised on shoot 'em ups as teenagers, are applying their virtual experience to the real-life war zones. Before dispatching troops to Afghanistan, for instance, the UK military trains them with a simulation called Virtual Battlefield 2, a spin-off of a commercial video game of the same name.

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