The Mechanics of Power Fantasy: two examples

I’m going to use two examples in this post, Call of Duty and Mario Kart, in order to further my continuing humanistic analysis of the shooting mechanic. In my last post I argued that the concept of “emersion” might be very useful as a way to describe variations of the mechanic, and the cultural effects of those variations.

I’ve chosen the two, of course, as good candidates for book-ends at either end of the shooting-mechanic spectrum: on the one hand, a game that focuses unapologetically on shooting bad guys; on the other, a game that incorporates shooting one’s friends carts with a magical blue helmet into a mechanic of, well, cart-racing.

Although subsequent installments of the series have not really displayed the same interest in manipulating the standard reticle-shooting mechanic (which seems at least a reasonable way to talk about the basic operation of shooting weapons across a great many genres, where the vast majority of the display is understood as being experienced through the sights of a weapon, even when the weapon–as, for example, a bow–doesn’t itself have that kind of targetting technology), the “No Russian” sequence from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 remains a signal example of both the emersive possibilities of manipulations of the shooting mechanic and, by contrast, of the immersive operation of the standard mechanic that prevails during the rest of the game.

Briefly, “No Russian” makes the player’s character complicit in the killing of hundreds of innocent people in an airport. The standard free-roaming reticle-shooter mechanics are replaced in the sequence, however, with a trip down a nightmarish set of rails: the player cannot stop the character’s forward motion, and the character cannot shoot the evil men in whose company he is committing the atrocity.

The effect is emersive: not to have the control one is supposed to have ironizes the cultural effect of the sequence, the game, and the genre. Whether that irony is effective in presenting the player with an ethical ambiguity that feels authentic is questionable in light of a) the rest of the very standard mechanics of the game, and b) the role of Call of Duty in shooter-culture as one of the most hardcore and characteristic shooting games in its multiplayer incarnation, but the simple shift of the mechanics in the sequence at least points the way to emersive possibilities that exist just outside the regularized immersion of this, and by strong implication, other well-worn and sometimes apparently hopeless mechanics.

The spiny blue shells of Mario Kart present an example of a shooting mechanic that in its contrast with the reticle-shooting of games like Call of Duty lets us see how inessential the reticle mechanic is, and how it differs from the most basic level of shooting play: in the blue-shell mechanice the fundamental layer of shooting play lets the player fantasize having a destructive effect on a metaphorized opponent. The typical blue-shell mechanic fires a shell that homes in on the cart currently leading the race. In its effect on the cart, and the player, in the lead, the blue shell may be analogized to a weapon in a more typical shooting game like a sniper-rifle or a rocket-launcher: the cart in the lead is overturned and thoroughly disabled for a lengthy period (by Mario Kart standards).

The difference, of course, is that the blue-shell mechanic is not the dominant mechanic of Mario Kart.The verb “shoot” has a place in the game’s affordances that makes it feel very different to visit a blue shell upon an opponent to how it feels to slay an opponent with a rocket-launcher. Most importantly for my argument, to compare the standard reticle-shooting mechanic with the blue-shell mechanic indicates very generally that mechanics, from a humanistic standpoint, derive their meaning from their context–they are metaphors and, like metaphors in any other art form, they capture our imaginations in relation to the rest of the web of signification that composes the performances in which they appear.

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