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A History of Violence

The evolution of the first-person-shooter video game, from ‘Maze War’ to ‘Overwatch’

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

With the successful release of Overwatch in May, the first-person-shooter video game is once again at the forefront of popular culture, this time with a move away from the militaristic aesthetic that’s dominated the genre for nearly a decade. This is a survey of FPS games, their popularity, and the cultural debate surrounding them, one that often links virtual and real-life violence.

Level I: Maze War (1974)

The pursuit of happiness is timeless. Aristotle brooded over its nature in the third century B.C.; Thomas Jefferson wrote it into the Declaration of Independence; and every day tens of millions of gamers pursue happiness (or something approximating that) through virtual streets, subterranean corridors, and Nepalese temples found in first-person-shooter video games.

My pursuit began with GoldenEye: 007. Released in 1997 on the Nintendo 64 console two years after the premiere of the James Bond film on which it’s based, GoldenEye was crack in a cartridge. The graphics were mind-blowing. The panoply of weapons (assault rifles, wall mines, Bond’s PP7 pistol, the Moonraker laser, the all-powerful Golden Gun) and ripped-from-the-films character models (“WAIT … I CAN PLAY AS GRACE JONES OR ODDJOB?”) meant I could deal out beatdowns with a personal flair. The real fun, though, was in the four-player split-screen multiplayer.

There were two problems: I was terrible at GoldenEye, and I didn’t actually own a Nintendo 64. The game belonged to a friend of a friend. The former problem was obviously related to the latter. But it didn’t dim my enjoyment of the game; if you played GoldenEye once, you wanted to play it forever. The latter problem, like the mechanics of a first-person shooter, was merely a problem to be solved.

Level II: Doom (1993)

Since it first appeared in the early ’90s, the first-person shooter has been important to the gaming market and popular culture at large. The genre is enduringly popular — a Call of Duty game has been the best-selling title in the world three out of the last five years — and frequently maligned.

When a gun tragedy involving a young person happens, people often wonder whether first-person-shooter games are the cause. The science isn’t settled, but the evidence points toward no, though it must be said that they probably aren’t great for young kids or people with mental health issues.

An explicit power fantasy, the FPS transforms the most serious and morally destructive act a human being can undertake into endlessly repeatable entertainment — an action movie in which you are the amoral hero.

Predictable, kind of played out, but also disturbingly fun when you’re in a bad enough head space, the military FPS has become gaming’s classic rock. Fans expect a certain experience (realistic weapons, player models, and locations; a satisfying shooting mechanic; lots of explosions) from a military FPS. And those expectations limit the genre’s potential to innovate.

Not that fans really want innovation. When Activision recently announced that a remastered version of 2007’s Modern Warfare would be available only as a paid add-on to the franchise’s latest release, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, fans of the series howled. Call of Duty heads prefer a remastered nine-year-old game to Infinite Warfare’s New Coke vibes (now with 80 percent more war in space!).

“In some ways, what makes genre fiction good is [when] it’s the same as other genre fiction,” says Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at Georgia Tech and a game designer and writer. “And I feel like that’s what the FPS is. It’s the ultimate genre fiction of games. The ultimately self-sustaining genre. You get these little twists and changes that respond to current trends.”

Level III: Quake (1996)

Two of the most popular FPS games on the streaming platform Twitch are illustrative of these little twists. One is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the latest iteration of the long-running terrorists-vs.-counterterrorists franchise that began in 1999. The other is Overwatch, an exercise in mixing stylized fantasy with FPS released this spring by Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind World of Warcraft.

Level IV: Counter-Strike I (1999)

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward) signaled realism’s ascendance in the first-person-shooter genre. “With modern times and international affairs becoming more and more, shall we say, interesting in recent years,” said Gamespot in its review of Modern Warfare, “the 1940s just don’t carry as much weight as they used to.”

Released in 2007, the game combined a hyper-responsive feel with real-world weaponry and graphics to create a particular frisson. At the time, the Iraq War was in its fourth interminable year. And here was a game that let you shoot it out on streets that looked very much like they could be found in Baghdad, Najaf, or Fallujah, all from the safety of your home.

Level V: Halo (2001), Halo 2 (2004)

Before CoD4, the dominant console shooter franchise was Halo. The sci-fi shooter, developed by Bungie, was built on an ethos of balance — power weapons like sniper rifles and rocket launchers were placed on the game map and players were made to fight for control of them. Communication between teammates was necessary for cutting through the regenerating energy shields of the opposition.

Part of CoD4’s appeal was that its realism-based aesthetic made the action more efficient. You would aim at an opponent and squeeze the right trigger on the controller, and your opponent would go down instead of run away to let their shield recharge. Those mechanics meant a great solo player could carry a team to victory. There was no longer a need to turn on your mic and suffer racists, homophobes, shrieking children coked up on Red Bull, plain vanilla assholes, or some combination thereof in order to win games online.

From 2008 to last year, the Call of Duty franchise was the best-selling console shooter in the world.

But perhaps things are changing. The early success of Overwatch (the game made $269 million via digital downloads alone in May, and its player base recently passed the 10 million player mark) suggests that, after nearly a decade of Call of Duty–style hegemony, the FPS audience is ready to move beyond military realism.

“We wanted to explore the FPS space because it was a genre we enjoyed,” Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan tells me. “But we also wanted to make sure that if we stepped into the genre that we were doing something that wasn’t being done by others. What we had seen was a lot of really fantastic modern military shooters, which we loved and we were playing ourselves, but we kind of felt like, if we’re going to make an FPS, it needs to be something different.”

Overwatch is certainly different; colorful where Call of Duty is grim, accessible rather than daunting, the game is structured on a character-based format — “heroes” in Blizzard Entertainment’s parlance — instead of the standard guns-à-la-carte arrangement of the military-style FPS. Overwatch players can pick from 22 radically diverse heroes, depicted in an appealing Pixaresque aesthetic.

“There’s a visual house style here at Blizzard,” Kaplan says. “We wanted to make sure that not only did we do something that was cool to us — different for the FPS genre — but also stayed true to the Blizzard house style, which is bold shapes and color, bright and hopeful, epic, trying to evoke heroism in our players whenever possible.”

This is the first FPS that I can recall that has numerous playable characters who are Asian. Overwatch’s inclusion of two Middle Eastern heroes (Pharah and her mother, Ana) is quietly revolutionary for a genre that, for the past 10 years or so, has primarily depicted Arabs as bloodthirsty, kaffiyeh-clad fedayeens. Then there’s Zarya, a pink-haired Russian body builder who has quickly become the rare gay icon of the first-person shooter genre.

Those familiar with the FPS genre (or gamers whose fast-twitch shooter skills have not yet been blunted by age and the burdens of having a career) will probably gravitate to characters such as Soldier: 76, a gruff, battle-scarred field operator who carries an assault rifle and whose default character skin — a mask and a futuristic tac-suit — is obviously a nod to the nameless, faceless soldier models of the Call of Duty franchise. But newcomers (or, really, any player who prefers to think through the game rather than just run-and-gun) could pick a support hero like Lúcio, a DJ who glides around the map on in-line skates, carries a gun made out of a speaker, and has the ability to increase players’ health or boost the speed of teammates in his immediate area.

“We knew that, being an FPS, we would naturally attract a lot of FPS veterans who had natural aiming skills, were used to more traditional weapon types, and just sort of [had] that raw instinct required to play an FPS at a very fast pace,” Kaplan says. “But we also wanted to introduce the genre to people who weren’t playing FPS. And we felt that there were a lot of tactical and strategic players out there who maybe didn’t have the greatest twitch-aiming skill. … So we tried to borrow elements from other genres that we knew would speak to different player types, that would act as a bridge for them to start getting into FPS, so they felt that there was a safe space to get into the game.”

The heroes’ powers work together in interesting ways. Many act as counters to others. Every match invariably turns on the timely use of a series of ultimates. Overwatch is a young game, but already you can see the outlines of strategy underneath all the explosions and action.

For me, the downside to this interlinked play has been adjusting to needing my teammates again. The worst feeling in video games right now is when a person on your Overwatch team picks the wrong hero and refuses to change. (The raised stakes of the game’s newly unleashed competitive mode has caused an emergence of “toxic” player communication that Blizzard is trying to get a handle on.)

Level VI: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)

The move away from military realism in FPS has been gestating for a while. The popular Destiny (Bungie) is set in a far-flung future Earth and surrounding solar system and employs a space-Jedi aesthetic. The Team Fortress series (Valve), in many ways the precursor to Overwatch, introduced cartoon-style characters and a class-based structure to FPS beginning with 1999’s Team Fortress Classic. The Borderlands franchise (Gearbox) combined humor, team play, and a cartoon-like cell-shaded art direction. The last several Call of Duty games introduced sci-fi elements and futuristic settings, but they were still depicted with their traditional “this is what an M4 assault rifle would look like in 2050” verisimilitude.

Hugo Montembeault, a graduate student at the University of Montreal who is researching the aesthetics and history of the first-person shooter, thinks the influence of the console platform on the FPS is part of the reason for the shift away from realism. “Console FPS is not really suited for realism because of the relative inaccuracy of the controller,” he says. “Many FPS gameplay mechanics that try to re-create realism, like the gun recoil, the bullet drop — that was really explored in the Battlefield series, for example — all those mechanics have to be compensated for to reach a level of playability on the console.”

This traditional need for realism can also create unforeseen constraints in gameplay. The more “real” a game feels, the more reality the player expects from the game. “If I am in a realistic setup like Call of Duty,” Montembeault explains, “but I can’t jump over a small wall — in realistic terms, as a person, I can jump over that little wall. But in the ludic convention [the story elements derived purely from gameplay] of the game, it’s a barrier, it’s a frontier to keep the experience in a certain area.”

Those constraints can create glaring dissonance in gameplay. “Back in the day, realism was a goal,” Montembeault says. “Now it’s more of a choice.”

It’s also tempting to wonder if a trend away from military realism is a reaction to the political ramifications of real-world gun violence. 2015’s Battlefield Hardline embedded players in “the war on crime,” pitting player-controlled cops against player-controlled criminals. It made for a disconcerting piece of entertainment against the backdrop of that summer’s anti-police-violence protests and images of National Guard Humvees on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Now, after the shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas, the game just feels unnecessary. The last three games in the Battlefield series put its players in virtual depictions of modern-day Tehran, Paris, New York, and Shanghai among others. The upcoming Battlefield I is set in the relatively controversy-free environment of World War I.

And it’s hard to imagine the infamous “No Russian” level from 2009’s Modern Warfare 2, in which the player has virtually no choice but to take part in an airport massacre, making it to the marketplace today. (You don’t necessarily have to shoot civilians in “No Russian,” because the computer-controlled characters can do it all for you, but you do have to shoot the state security forces who show up as your group tries to make its escape.)

Ironically, “No Russian” was an attempt to give the wanton violence of the series emotional heft. “Watching the airport massacre wouldn’t have had the same impact as participating (or not participating) in it,” explained Mohammad Alavi, one of the game’s designers, to PC Gamer. “Being a civilian doesn’t offer you a choice or make you feel anything other than the fear of dying in a video game, which is so normal it’s not even a feeling gamers feel anymore.”

Level VII: Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)

People don’t play first-person shooters to feel anything, except, possibly, empowerment. The last thing you want to do is think about what you’re doing when you’re playing an FPS. Empathy, necessary for building characters and telling stories, only complicates first-person shooter narratives.

And the differing angles that FPS games come from can lead to inconsistent moral stances. “No Russian” was fairly called out for how it desensitizes players to gun violence. But America’s Army, a first-person shooter developed by the Army primarily to familiarize prospective recruits with the mechanics of shooting in the hopes that they might one day sign up and do it for real, skates by relatively unremarked upon.

“I think that’s much less likely than, ‘Wow, this is just not interesting,’” Georgia Tech’s Bogost tells me when I ask if the shift toward more fantastical elements in FPS is a reaction to real-world violence. “It’s not an experience that’s producing any kind of sensation whatsoever. Not even a sensation of power, which is what it was originally intended to do. These are the games that you play with your friends online in the evening. I don’t even know that it matters that there’s violence or guns in them. It’s just like, this is an activity that we can do together. Like D&D [Dungeons & Dragons]. It didn’t really matter that there were orcs and elves and stuff. It’s sort of more about being in a context with a group of people. The darkness, the grittiness, it’s not so much that it became undesirable as it became boring. And there’s an appetite for some variety in what amounts to a very, very narrow gameplay.”

Level VIII: Battlefield 4 (2013)

The interactivity of video games, though, adds a different dimension to that diversion. I do not believe that video games inspire real-life violence. At the same time, the Marine version of Doom and America’s Army show that no less than the United States military thinks that FPS has utility as a training tool.

Thinking back to GoldenEye, what made the game fun wasn’t necessarily the feel or look of the game, it was that, in the virtual space represented by the four quadrants of a CRT television screen, the unspoken social hierarchies of friendship could be reconfigured. The military shooter genre might be on the wane, but it will never go away. In a 2013 story in The New Yorker, Simon Parkin spoke to one of the top Battlefield 3 players in the world, an 18-year-old Iraqi named Yousif. Yousif’s parents, though wary of a game that portrays warfare in the very town they live in, came to support his hobby because gaming was safer than going outside.