Subversive Play: Conscientious Objector in Battlefield 1
I remember subverting play when I was young and was an avid video game enthusiast, but my subversions were usually brought upon naturally, not premeditated before gameplay. Some of my memories include trapping people within Rollercoaster and Zoo Tycoon to feed them to the animals or send them to their death on a "Final Destination" rollercoaster, obeying the traffic laws in Crazy Taxi, or subverting co-op games such as Super Mario 3D World by throwing fellow players off the map. Something about doing what I was not supposed to do, and pushing the boundaries of my games was very thrilling to me as a child.
As I explored different ways to intentionally subvert games I already own, numerous possibilities appeared, yet many felt forced: I considered playing Need for Speed and follow the speed limits and traffic signals; I considered employing the "psychogeography" method we learned in Creative Techniques by following my route to school through the Witcher game map to see where I ended up; I considered disobeying stealth mode in The Evil Within and running through the level the entire time; I considered trying the trendy "floor is lava" game within Assassin's Creed. While I am still curious how these would impact my opinions and understandings of these games, as well as further develop my critical game making skills, I was more-so interested in figuring out a way to incorporate real life situations and scenarios into a popular video game. I have always gravitated towards historical fiction and the like.
In the end, I decided to play as a conscientious objector in Battlefield 1. The goal of my iteration of the game is to play in a team "death match", and transform it into a personal "life match". I decided to subvert the rules by following these guidelines:
I am not allowed to use a gun or hurt anyone
I must stay within the boundaries of the battle area
I must try and stay alive with only 1 life
This brought some interesting preparatory research into the difference between a "conscientious objector" and a "deserter". These terms are not only murky- they vary depending on their time in history, citizenship, the particular wars at play, and the reason for refusing service.
Conscientious objectors are defined as an "individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion" and are currently protected under the International standards on freedom of religion or belief (United Nations Human Rights). Conscientious objectors can be partitioned into two different realms: "absolute conscientious objectors" (those refusing to serve in any way) and "selective conscientious objectors"(those objecting specific wars, or those willing to serve in noncombatant roles, such as healthcare, education, etc). Regardless of the type of conscientious objector, all objectors are expected to perform some form of alternate service for their country.
Prior to the UN's Human Rights Declaration towards Conscientious objection, many individuals under this category were ignored, punished, imprisoned or executed. During World War 1 (where Battlefield 1 takes place), there were different standards for Conscientious Objection based on country. For instance, Canada endured the Conscription Crisis of 1917, whereas the United States persecuted conscientious objectors until the end of World War I (Francis). (While I have yet to see it, Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge (2016) tells the story of Desmond T. Doss, a World War II objector who was originally cast out, yet later received a Medal of Honor.)
Battlefield employs a strict boundary of the battlefield, making it quite impossible to be a "deserter". While you can stay on the border of the area, you are still likely to be discovered by other players (particularly on smaller maps). Therefore, I decided to strictly be a "conscientious objector" that remains on the battlefield.
During my subversive play of Battlefield 1, I did 3 rounds as a conscientious objector, and one round of active soldier. I decided to end with an "active soldier" round because I wanted to see how it would affect my gameplay, how my feelings would alter based on playing two different roles, and, to be honest, running around a map and not defending yourself drives you crazy after a while, and as seen in round 3, I eventually broke down and wanted to play the game as it was intended. While these rounds spanned a few hours, I edited and combined the 4 rounds into one 7-minute video of the highlights of my gameplay (there were many moments of hiding behind a crate: while this is an interesting detail to identify my subversion and change in gameplay, it isn't particularly engaging to watch over and over for 5+ minutes).
The breakdown of each round:
0 Kills, 4 Deaths
Total Score: 67
During this round, I realized how difficult it is to object to fighting back when someone is attacking you. There was a steep learning curve to this round, as I had to remind myself that I was not attacking back. I oftentimes put myself in places to0 difficult to escape. Luckily, I was able to use the large gameplay area to my advantage, as I hid in sparse areas until someone found me. The most difficult times were when I spawned next to a squad member that was in the middle of the battle. While I enjoyed running around and attempting to dodge bullets, I also felt a sense of guilt to my players, as I was not a helpful member to our team.
0 Kills, 3 Deaths
Total Score: 175
This round was much more difficult to hide, because the gameplay area was much smaller. I think I managed to receive less deaths because I learned from my mistakes in the prior round, as I better understood how to hide, dodge, and plan my escape more thoroughly.
(Failed) Conscientious Objector
2 Kills, ? Deaths
(Forgot to look at personal stats)
In this round, I did an operation rather than a death match. This constituted longer playtime, more players, and a "capture the flag" mentality versus a "kill-only" match. As I continued along as a conscientious objector, I quickly became bored of hiding. I was also pressured by my squad leader to join the fight, rather than stay on the outskirts. After a mix of boredom and embarrassment and shame, I decided I wanted to be within the action more, yet still be a conscientious objector. I attempted to capture the A and B sectors by sacrificing myself and running towards the area. This failed many times. At one point, I successfully grabbed the A sector. In a mirage of excitement and rush of panic, I forgot my conscientious objection and began shooting the enemy running towards me (as seen in the video). Therefore, I failed my goal of subversive play, but in all honesty, I had a lot of fun running without attacking as I reached the sector, and then defending myself, knowing full well that I would quickly be annihilated. This led me to want to try one round as an active soldier, to see how my gameplay would change, how I would react to a change in strategy, and how well I could switch back to the original rules of Battlefield I.
1 Kill, 13 Deaths
Total Score: 384
In this round, I played as an active soldier. While I am no master at Battlefield, this is quite possibly the worst results I have ever received in a round: 1 kill, 13 deaths. After my objection, I was off my timing, my ability to spot out enemies, and I lost my ability to find good hiding spots where I could still reach opponents. Overall, the rush is more thrilling when you play as an active soldier, but I also noticed that I no longer cared about how many times I died - my focus was on the number of kills, rather than my own survival. I think this is a significant effect that arises from playing objector and soldier.
Change in Subversive Play Rules
After playing round 1, I quickly realized my rule of "only 1 life" was just not achievable whatsoever, and attempting to quit and restart the game after dying once would quickly prove to be an irritating experience. I promptly reiterated this rule into a scoring system, with 0 kills and 0 deaths being a perfect score.
Change in Strategy
It's interesting to note the difference in movements and strategy when playing as an objector versus a soldier. I quickly learned that hiding in corners, or hiding with walls behind me to guard my backside was inefficient as an objector. While this is beneficial for a soldier, so I can protect one side and fend off combatants in front of me, this strategy actually hurt me as an objector, because I was not giving myself a way out to escape. After round 2 I began looking for places to hide behind objects that were not enclosed nor restricting my ability to flee.
Change in Social Dynamics
I also learned that this made me quite unpopular on the online community. Squads continuously ejected me from their group. At one point, I had a group leader come find me on the outskirts of the battlefield and tell me to go defend the base. In all honesty, I felt slightly embarrassed as he stood there, so I ran in that direction for a bit, and then slowly slipped away. I wanted to tell him I was an objector, (via chatroom) but I had no opportunity, and I knew it would be lost on him regardless, in the end only making my squad more furious with me.
Subversive play themes:
Using Dan Cox's description of the various patterns of behavior within subversive play (taken from Mary Flanagan's book, Critical Play: Radical Game Design, I believe my subversion fell into 4 of the 5 categories: while my subversion was not "designed to be disturbing", it was: "rebellious"; "exploring boundaries"; "increasing the anxiety of control"; and "[taking] on cultural patterns" (Cox; Flanagan).
As a conscientious objector in a military game, one is obviously rebelling against the game designer's intentions. Yet, as Cox describes, rebellion is "against the system but within the rules of play" (Cox). My role as an objector did not "break" the game, rather I played against the intentions. While this was exceedingly difficult and wildly unpopular by my teammates, I was still able to play within the Battlefield Universe without destroying gameplay for other players.
As I ran away from enemies, as well as my squad leads, I found a new appreciation for Battlefield. Unlike ever before, I continuously ran into the boundaries of the combat area, I examined new assets to hide underneath, and I explored new nooks and crannies to contort my character into, in hopes that my character would not get stuck between colliders. As my focus was pushed away from killing other players, I became more fixated on my own brutal version of "hide and seek," with a new appreciation and attention to the details of Battlefield.
Increasing the Anxiety of Control
As stated before, I quickly found that I could not possibly be a "deserter" in this version of World War 1. As the character leaves the combat area, they are given 10 seconds to retreat back to the area, or they die and will re-spawn within the game area. This somehow increased my anxiety, because unlike other games that put up a fence, or make the world literally drop off, I could view the land far beyond the boundaries of my area. This almost gave me a claustrophobic feeling, to be forced in an area when there is more to explore, rather than seeing a cliff's edge beneath me.
I also realized my lack of control when I could not figure out how to put my gun away. (I am still unsure if this is a possibility, or if you must always have a weapon in hand.) There were a few times I was in a panic and accidentally shot the gun or threw a grenade- it felt that I had cheated in these moments. I was worried this would happen, which is why I wanted to preemptively restrict my ability to accidentally shoot. (This also would have been helpful in round 3, where I accidentally switched from objector to soldier).
I feel that my subversion brought various cultural patterns to the surface. The most obvious cultural element that I came into the game exploring was that of a pacifist/objector/deserter. I wanted to see the level of difficulty I would succumb if I refused to partake, as I put myself into the position of someone against military aggression, instead fighting for their life. It personally brought me a fresh perspective on this outlook; it also gave me a moment to reflect that this was, in fact, the way many people struggled in World War 1.
It also forced me to see the inclination towards violence within these games, and how there is a scoring bias to promote kills versus survival. While I would assume it would be a 1 to 1 ratio ( 1 kill = 1 death), my score when I had 1 kill and 13 deaths (which, to my mind, would be a score equal to -12) was over double my score when I had 0 kills and 3 deaths (which I would equate to -3). Therefore, I realized that this game follows a common FPS pattern: it is not about survival, but rather about killing. While it is expected that a military game would rely on the assassination aspect, I can't help but notice that there is less need to strategize for a survival, particularly since, in the real world, you only get one chance.
The other cultural pattern I noticed was the immediate aversion to not-so-good players. I got kicked out of two separate squads. While we like to think that players will help us along, and take care of the novices and beginners, this is truly a case of the "picked last" player, or in this case, the kicked out player who floats from squad to squad.
Bibliography / References
Battlefield 1. Video Game, EA DICE: Electronic Arts, 2016.
Cox, Dan. "Subversive Play." Digital Ephemera, 26 Aug. 2011, videlais.com/2011/08/26/ subversive-play/. Accessed 25 Jan. 2018.
EA Dice/ Electronic Arts. Battlefield 1. Polygon, 17 Oct. 2016, Gies, Arthur. "Battlefield 1 Review." Polygon, 17 Oct. 2016, www.polygon.com/2016/10/17/13303292/battlefield-1-review-xbox-one-ps4-playstation-4-pc-windows. Accessed 25 Jan. 2018. Accessed 25 Jan. 2018.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2009.
Gies, Arthur. "Battlefield 1 Review." Polygon, 17 Oct. 2016, www.polygon.com/2016/10/17/13303292/battlefield-1-review-xbox-one-ps4-playstation-4-pc-windows. Accessed 25 Jan. 2018.
"International Standards - I3k." United Nations Human Rights, www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/ FreedomReligion/Pages/IstandardsI3k.aspx. Accessed 25 Jan. 2018.