Spec Ops: The Line is unusual in that it encourages you to shoot at American soldiers.
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Why is it so appealing to play as a terrorist in video games?

In real life, we abhor terrorism and everything associated with it. So why do so many games manage to convince us that playing at it is fun?

The scene in the trailer for the upcoming game Homefront: The Revolution paints a somewhat familiar scenario in modern warfare: the attack by armed civilians on a military checkpoint. From Ulster to Afghanistan this is a situation that soldiers have faced countless times. When it happens we very often call the perpetrators terrorists, and such attacks are considered cowardly and criminal. So why would somebody want to play a character who carries out such attacks in a game?

It is tempting to say that video game fans simply love explosions and violence in games just for the sake of it, but in practice this is seldom enough. You can’t just give a player a character and expect them to enjoy using that character to slaughter non-player characters. To get a player into a position where they are not only comfortable with violence but actually enjoying it takes some doing.

The first thing to do is dehumanise the victims so that nobody feels bad about their being destroyed, and there are plenty of ways to do that. We can see the most overt in the Homefront trailer above: you hide their faces. The aesthetic of Homefront is very similar with regards to the soldiers as seen in Half Life 2 and also Wolfenstein: The New Order. Make the enemy look like machines, computerise up their voices a little bit and suddenly stabbing them, blowing them up or feeding them to giant alien insects is no problem. Other elements can make enemies appear less human too, such as their behaviour. Enemies that don’t express fear or pain or other emotions likely to create sympathy are more comfortable victims. Lastly the art style can make a big difference. Hotline Miami, for example, was a game that featured some incredibly violent scenes, but the art style gave proceedings a marked sense of unreality.

The next thing is to make sure that the people who are going to be killed are of a suitably expendable nationality or ideology. Nazis are a good shout, as evidenced by Wolfenstein or The Saboteur, but Russians will do at a pinch, especially in a Cold War setting. Another of the current favourites is North Koreans, appearing as villains in both Homefront games and also Crysis. Very few games will actually risk putting the player into a situation of killing NATO soldiers as part of a single-player campaign (one notable exception being Spec Ops: The Line).

Spec Ops: The Line demonstrated the difference that the nationality of fictional victims of violence can make, because shooting at American soldiers in the game, hearing their voices as they get gunned down or blown up, was unsettling. It was unsettling because it is just not the done thing to shoot American soldiers. It’s jarring. Spec Ops: The Line was invoking Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. It aims to unsettle players, and it works. For games that don’t want you to worry, for games that don’t want you to be uncomfortable, the victims can just be from some other country.

While most games will typically say that one set of characters are perfectly fair game based on their nationality or being a bit robotic, or just being Nazis, another justification that is often used is geographic. In The Saboteur you are killing German soldiers in France, in Homefront you are killing North Koreans in the USA. Players are invited to accept that the presence of a foreign soldier as an occupying element in another country legitimises his being targeted. In this instance the act of killing soldiers in cold blood becomes instead an act of liberation.

In some ways it could be argued that the way games try to legitimise acts of great violence by players are similar to the propaganda sometimes used to motivate soldiers in war time. Paint the enemy as less than human and stress how different they are to us and our allies. Make them the other. Rationalise any violence by saying that it is their choice to be where they are and by not going home they are really bringing this upon themselves. This kind of thinking is not limited to any one culture or even one period in history and even in a digital world tribalism can be used as a shield against sympathy.

All this work to make acts of violence more palatable isn’t necessarily going to make them fun of course, empathy is powerful, even collections of pixels on a computer screen can provoke it. You don’t want empathy towards the people you’re blowing up in a video game. So instead to really glory in their annihilation we need more than just being told that they are bad pixels who have it coming, we need to be told that it is fine to enjoy the moment when ‘it’ happens. This is where tone comes into play.

Getting the tone of the game right is vital when you’re encouraging players to commit acts of wanton destruction. Game series like Just Cause or Mercenaries essentially cast you as a terrorist. You are dropped into countries, often fictional though not always, and you are tasked with blowing up infrastructure, killing soldiers, assassinating people, stealing things and toppling the regime. But those series managed to make it work because they kept the tone light. Instead of coming at the audience with pomposity and a firm belief in their own ineffable seriousness, they are both very silly. The full titles for the Mercenaries games spell it out: Playground of Destruction and World In Flames. In these games you can play acts of violence for laughs and it works. In Just Cause 2 your character has a grappling hook which you can attach enemy soldiers to things, all kinds of things. It allows for moments of broad physical comedy in the middle of a ferocious gun battle.

Games with a more serious tone don’t often make playing the part of the mass-murdering guerrilla particularly enjoyable. For example, when you make the life of one person mean something in such a game you can break the games internal logic by killing other people. You start to wonder who else’s life might have value in the world. For example, Watch_Dogs has your character wrapped up in a revenge quest over his dead niece, but in pursuing that revenge he causes absolute havoc across the city. Is it terrorism? Of course it is, he’s chucking explosives around and shooting people. Chicago is like Baghdad with Wi-Fi when he’s around. All that violence makes the initial loss at the start of the story seem insignificant and makes the hero appear self-indulgent and hypocritical.

Ultimately what we can say is that much of the design of games is deliberately manipulative. We are manipulated into thinking that the bad guys are bad, we are manipulated into enjoying fighting against them. We are manipulated into thinking it is perfectly fine to shoot them in the back or blow them up with hidden bombs. Manipulation of this sort isn’t inherently wrong; enjoyment of any creative work will usually demand a certain willingness to go along with what the creator is trying to get you to feel, but if it is done too overtly or if it is misjudged then it can be abrasive and objectionable. The best-designed games will control you without you even knowing that it is your buttons being pushed just as much as the game pad’s.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era