I’m lying prone on a hill overlooking one of the many ramshackle towns that dot the island map of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Nestled against a nearby tree, one of my squadmates scopes a couple of solitary houses sticking out of the hills to our East. We had heard gunfire recently from that direction and are waiting to see muzzle flashes or enemy movement. Time ticks down and silence blankets the scene. There’s not much to chat about—we’re a few games in so we’ve run through all the regular conversation topics. I glance over at my Twitter feed. A news story pops up about the astronomical increase in civilian deaths at the hands of the American military since Trump’s taken office. I return to the game. I swap out my M416 for my SKS with a 4x scope. I try not to think about it too much, about who exactly I am supposed to be role-playing in this scenario.
PUBG originally started off as a mod for ARMA 2, a popular, highly technical military simulator. It uses similar maps and tools to craft a distinct experience, one a lot more streamlined and approachable than the granular, sometimes overwrought experience of ARMA. In the game, and the mods that precede it, you are dropped on a desolate island and forced to fight 100 other players until only one is left standing. This particular aspect of PUBG’s design is inspired by Battle Royale, a Japanese film from 2000 about a group of high school students trapped by their teachers on a remote island and forced to murder each other.
Playing the game alone certainly lives up to Battle Royale’s premise. It’s a tense, solitary and highly risky form of play. Playing cooperatively, however, begins to encroach on the military simulator territory the game was originally built upon. When playing with a squad, I call out compass directions and estimate distance of enemy fire. My squad and I try our best to play the part of soldiers, dredging up some of the military-sounding vernacular we hear in movies and television. Though PUBG has no narrative context besides being dropped onto an island alongside other players you must fight and kill, many of the emergent mechanical trappings of squad mode add a distinctly militaristic flavor to the experience.
I’ve been reading Generation Kill, which follows a small marine regiment as they participate in the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was also made into a TV series on HBO. A lot of the same types of verbs and behavior I use when playing PUBG are employed by the Marines in the book. The author, Evan Wright, describes Marines who “chatter constantly, calling everything they see in the surrounding desert-a pipe 300 meters off that could be the barrel of a gun, a shepherd in the distance whose staff could be an AK…” He could just as easily be describing my own approach to the varied and often inscrutable landscape of PUBG’s island. My squadmates are beyond tired of me calling out human-looking bushes or ruined jeeps that I thought looked fresh off the lot from 100 yards away. The fear of falling within the sniper’s crosshairs, of being exposed—which is natural for a military unit invading a foreign country—is accurately replicated in this abstracted game about 100 people murdering each other for a virtual chicken dinner, the only “concrete” prize the game offers besides an endorphin rush from victory. But Generation Kill and documentaries like Restrepo, which follows an Army unit in Afghanistan, also serve to show the futility of war and the grotesque flexing of American military might with dubious results. That’s absent from PUBG, which follows the path set by ARMA, a simulation where the primary aim is to make everything perform as realistically as possible, without much concern for the wider moral implications of playing at war, and the kind of outlook that reinforces.
I’m always conflicted when playing military shooters. I hate war, and the way it has ballooned in prominence in America’s semi-recent history. I grew up in the shadow of Bush Sr.’s Iraq war and Clinton’s Kosovo intervention. I protested in vain against the invasion of Afghanistan during college. I’m not a pacifist, but am continually appalled at the way my country swings its weight around like a schoolyard bully, leaving thousands of casualties in our wake.
Despite feeling this way, I deeply enjoy playing games about war. I like the teamwork of PUBG. I get a rush out of a successfully executed maneuver, from calling out directions and hearing an affirmative response. To participate in the mechanisms of war is to borrow some of the excitement that soldiers feel in battle, without facing any of the risks or repercussions. Some of this surely drives the developers behind PUBG and ARMA, from Ireland/Korea and the Czech Republic respectively. Cameron Kunzleman over at Waypoint describes the phenomenon of overseas developers making problematic games about American policing fed by Hollywood iconography. “They are the aftershock of the cops of film and television that the United States exported around the world in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s,” he learns from his interviews with the developers. Kunzelman’s observation can arguably be applied to the makers of military simulators as well. Bohemia Interactive, the developers behind ARMA, sponsor a “Make ARMA Not War” contest (a modding contest which PUBG designer Brendan Greene once participated in), suggesting ARMA might serve as a replacement for actual war. But ARMA as a game and military simulators as a genre could not exist without the massive build up and presence of U.S. and NATO forces over the past few decades, nor the celebration of our military in the films we export around the world.
The experience of playing ARMA and its progeny—including the “Battle Royale” genre—in the US, as we engage in conflicts all across the Middle-East, as we drop bombs on villages and refugees, as we help Russia tear Syria to shreds, is an altogether different one from playing it anywhere else. While the bitter consequences of police valorization in the games Kunzeleman describes are at the forefront of American discussion and debate, actions by our military feel much more distant and detached. It’s happening to someone else, somewhere else, and is rarely covered in any depth by the mainstream news. But as an American, I am complicit and the guilt from that complicity is what prevents me from buying into an otherwise compelling and joyful experience like PUBG.
It’s difficult to present an alternative framework, as the formula that Greene arrived upon, beginning with his original mod, works so well. Moving away from the bombast of Michael Bay-esque shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield, slowing the pace and raising the stakes has created a refreshing experience that effectively forces the player to take their time and consider their decisions. The game also manages to refine and make approachable the same systems that often overwhelm in more serious military sims. As a game, PUBG succeeds brilliantly, but it’s instructive to compare the elements it borrows from ARMA’s repertoire and the elements it employs and discards from its filmic inspiration.
After all, Battle Royale is an intensely political piece. Its director, Kinji Fukasaku, based it off his experience working in a munitions factory as a teenager in World War II. He made Battle Royale as a comment on teenage aimlessness, the violence of social ties and the brittle nature of morality in life or death situations. While some of these themes do occur in PUBG, they feel more vestigial than central pillars of what the game is trying to say. The original mod came with a blurb describing the island as a form of punishment, which an ever-collapsing barrier, that forces players into tighter and tighter spaces, mechanically reinforces. But it seems unlikely that we’ll ever get a picture of the society that would dream up such punishment, as Greene’s vision ultimately ends at the borders of the island and travels no further.
As I continue to play the game and enjoy my time with it, the context from the outside world is ever-present, like light leaking onto a film projection. I pick up the military grade weapons that litter the map, slowly transforming myself over each match into the spitting image of a modern soldier. PUBG is a game that flirts between the dystopic anarchy of scrabbling for survival on one hand, and military discipline on the other. What does it say about the current state of the world, and my role in it, that I feel much less conflicted about the wild, anarchic parts than I do about the militarized ones?
Yussef Cole is a writer and visual artist from the Bronx, NY. His specialty is graphic design for television but he also deeply enjoys thinking and writing about games.