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Game Name:  Gears of War
Developer:  Epic Games
Publisher:  Microsoft Game Studios
PC Release Year:  2007
Review Date:  January 7, 2018

Identifying oneself as a gamer comes with it a certain set of connotations that are not very flattering.  In a way, it has always been like this.  After all, the hobby was nurtured by those smelly, neck-bearded nerds who struggled as teenagers to find their footing in any place other than their digital playgrounds.  As this group attained adulthood, though, their collective economic footprint morphed our cultural landscape to the point where today, Game of Thrones dominates the Nielson ratings and a term like geek chic makes complete sense to just about everyone.  Video games may now be a ubiquitous part of everyday media consumption, thanks in large part to the stewardship of this original generation of gamers, but the mantle has since been passed to a group of hobbyists who are far less benign. 

Whether it is the racist, sexist fringe that blows up message boards with trollish commentary and causes violence in places like Charlottesville, or the urban poor who struggle with poverty, gangs, and drugs, today’s gamers are defined by a volatile form of masculinity that is anathema to family, civic duty, and compromise.  While this may seem like an odd preamble for a retrospective on Gears of War, the innocence and good nature of both my young son and nephew remind me that humans are not born this way.  Parents may ultimately be to blame, but it is hard to look past the complicity of industry heads who make profit by stoking these fires that are burning our national fabric.  So while Gears of War may be a mechanically solid gaming experience that is easy to enjoy, what fun and entertainment it provides cannot outweigh the damage that it has done to our culture and political discourse.

Fear of the other dominates this game’s narrative beats from start to finish, and with good reason.  Humanity is on the verge of collapse in this odd combination of horror game and military shooter; pushed to that state by the hyper-aggressive Locust Horde.  While this enemy army is accompanied by giant spiders and flying, bug-like piranhas, which would not be out of place in something like Resident Evil, scary creatures are the exception to the rule.  Most of the enemies that players will face through a roughly ten hour campaign are an ugly, mutated form of humanoid that look vaguely like the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings.  These creatures are just human enough to pull what would otherwise be a cheesy us-versus-them sci-fi romp for survival in a markedly darker direction with the subtle suggestion that someone who does not look and act like the player or his avatar is inherently bad.  This kind of subtext makes sense in Tolkien’s works where the men of the West stood tall against all manner of evil forces from the East, since it was grounded in the supposed racial superiority of late colonial British supremacy.  It makes no sense at all to deliver this same message today in a mass market piece of entertainment directed at young men.

Look past the xenophobia, though, and there is something darker still than the implication that Jews, Muslims, or any other outgroup can be used as a stand-in for the countless “grubs” and “drones” that get in the way of Marcus Fenix.  Verbiage like this only helps solidify the picture of an enemy hive society that is more akin to an ant colony, where collective burdens are shared and everyone works in service of the queen, than the myth of rugged individualism that Americans cling to.  That this kind of feminized socialism is humanity’s great bogeyman in Gears of War speaks volumes, but it is only when juxtaposed against the game’s protagonists that the message is truly driven home.  Our supposed heroes are hulking beasts in the mold of ‘80s action movie stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, only made more-so by giant suits of armor that suggest these knights-errant are on some kind of holy crusade.  Despite the imagery, do not expect to find Arthurian chivalry and honor in their code of conduct.  They are a foul-mouthed, transactional, and brutish group of mercenaries, ex-cons, and former pro athletes.  Based on the destruction that surrounds them, players tacitly acknowledge that society is in its final stages of collapse and Darwinism has left this motley crew as humanity’s last hope, long after the intellectuals and diplomats who would challenge these Neanderthals have been killed off.  On more than one occasion, a surviving civilian will pause to call Marcus a fascist, and the more one thinks about this, the more it makes sense in the context of the game’s world.  Could democracy withstand this kind of existential threat?  Gears of War suggests that it could not, and almost lionizes the strength of an authoritarian, right-wing regime that could lead the masses in their darkest hour.

If this game had been just a historical flash in the pan, perhaps it would not seem as insidious as it does in today’s hyperpolarized world.  But no, this was the must-have app for the Xbox 360 and its popularity among console fanboys would result in almost six million units of this entry chapter sold, and 27 million units sold for the franchise as a whole up until last year’s Gears of War 4 release.  Third person shooters may seem like a dime a dozen today, but the hook for the series as a whole was and continues to be a combination of satisfying gunplay and a clever cover system that sees Marcus dive, roll, and jump to whatever obstacle stands between him and the baddies.  Once “attached” to a wall, car, or kitchen counter, he can shimmy around, blindly fire over and around his protection, or pop his head and weapon out for a few carefully timed bursts until the player is ready to make him go running to the next piece of cover.  The tactical thrill of this positioning and movement is the digital sugar that makes the mechanics of this game such a success, and goes a long way towards explaining why such a dark and terrible message has graced so many family TV sets over the years.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Gears of War is the relatively vast amount of scholarly writing that is devoted to it, which only goes to show what a large cultural impact this franchise has had.  There is a certain segment of the gaming population that seems to always say, “Calm down; It’s just a game, bro.”  With them in mind as I finished up this post, I wondered to myself if I had been too harsh in my criticism.  Fortunately, many of those thought pieces mirror my own perspective, just in a far more articulate way.  At least in this one instance, the ever-present fear that being a dad has somehow clouded my judgement seems to have passed.  That, however, brings us back to figuring out exactly what this game is.  There is a small, but vocal minority in the game’s fan base who equate it to BioShock; coming up with all manner of rationalizations to explain away the faults by making it out to be a very clever indictment of modern masculinity.  Cynical eyes know better.  Even if that had been the developers’ intent, which gives them far too much credit, their audience was and continues to be an impressionable group of young men who would not have caught on.  Their collective insecurity and rage, which all Americans are now feeling, is the reason nobody but historians and sociologists should bother with Gears of War.

Verdict:  Not Recommended