This past weekend, Scott and I had a chance to play Gears of War together. I know, we are a little late to the game, but we want to have a foundation before we approach its well acclaimed sequel. After grabbing some 'cold ones' and some strategic couch placement, we proceeded to unleash a world of hurt on the locust armies. Though we've yet to finish the game, there is a sensation from playing that I cannot shake. The entire experience felt like a combination of watching and playing the Superbowl.
More than any game that comes to mind, even sports games, Gears of War evokes a sense of team camaraderie, along with all the baggage that comes with masculine sports culture. Many of the game elements, visually, mechanically, and audible, support a design theme that intentionally evokes the passionate, and often ridiculous, behavior of sporting events.
Let's take a look at the most obvious, and ridiculed, aspect of the Gears of Wars cast: the guys are enormous. Their immense girth is just as unsettling as the locust army. The army Marcus and his teammates wear are equally imposing. Brighten up their COG regalia with splashes of color, and these men would fit well into any football team's defensive line. The average locust soldier, with their comparable size, could easily be imagined as the offensive team, and this is exactly how they are treated.
Dialogue in Gears of War is largely made up of insults, and self-congratulatory exclamations. Marcus frequently announces a successful 'active reload' with a gruff "sweet" or "nice," and taunts nearby locusts with "bring it" or "eat boot." Dom raucously joins these bits of running commentary with "in your face," " shit yeah" or "sup bitches?" None of these comments sound out of the ordinary, particularly when coupled with Augustus Cole's declaration of "that one's for the highlight real" or "the train is a smooth ride." Cole Train, as he calls himself, is voiced by Lester Speight of Office Linebacker fame, and like his in-game character, is also an ex-football player.
Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird's taunts and insults are just as frequently directed towards each other as they are towards their enemies. This creates relationships between these characters that are more similar to popular depictions of teammates than soldiers (though the two no doubt intertwine). Rank is seldom an issue, civilians are treated with indifference at best, and emotions are treated with a "get in the game" mentality, usually resulting in any remotely touching scene being quickly followed by "sup bitches." In popular depictions of masculinized sporting culture, this behavior is not out of character whatsoever.
As I am sure many of you know, even pick up games with family members or friends can become rife with otherwise inappropriate banter. This behavior is not restricted to real life events. Fantasy football leagues often encourage friendly player antagonism, and any Xbox Live participant has likely heard enough epithets to last them a lifetime. This highlights where the game succeeds. Gears of War creates the sensation of team based camaraderie, partly with clever game design that encourages cooperative behavior, but also by mimicking a sports culture gamers may rarely experience first hand, but are none the less familiar with.
Perhaps this is something to be concerned about. The encouragement of such behavior within gamer culture may just exacerbate what many consider to be a consistent problem with multiplayer experiences. Likewise, some may consider this game to be the ultimate trivialization of warfare. Both of these questions are interesting, and no doubt other writers have touched upon these very subjects, which are best reserved for another time and place.
It is not surprising that playing Gears with Scott is like watching the Superbowl. Backing up your team mate when separated, landing a grenade down a distant hole, and clashing with enemies along fortified lines all feel reminiscent of a sporting event. The art and dialogue support these elements in turn, by drawing upon pop-culture norms. Though I have never been a fan of masculinized sports culture, the sensation is appealing, partly because I know its a bounded simulation. Does this explain some of Gears of Wars success? Did Cliff Bleszinski play football in high school or did he envy the star quarterback? Maybe this is Cliff's way to make his brother, a sports blogger, proud. I can't be sure, but as I see it, the themes are undeniable.