On the evening of November 15 2015, in the middle of a concert by the American rock band “Eagles of Death Metal,” three men carrying AK-47s walked into the Bataclan theater in Paris and opened fire on the audience. For several minutes the gunmen shot indiscriminately into the crowd. After that, they rounded up the survivors, taking them as hostages.
The men made no demands, though they promised to decapitate a hostage every five minutes. By this time police had arrived outside the building, but entering a building filled with heavily armed attackers is monumentally dangerous, and without special training and equipment, would-be rescuers were likely to become part of the death toll. The police were only there to secure the area; RAID, an elite French counter-terrorism unit, was incoming. The attackers were dead within three minutes of RAID’s breach of the building. By the end of the night, 89 victims had died there, and many more were injured—and that’s not counting the attacks elsewhere in Paris that night.
In America, our social cancer of mass shootings has increasingly called for the use of the breach-and-clear units like RAID (and state-side, SWAT) employ to deal with hostage situations and active shooters. In the recent shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, the right-wing terrorist Robert Dear had barricaded himself inside with a number of hostages, and only after the police crashed an armored vehicle into the lobby of the clinic did Dear surrender.
A little more than two weeks after the Paris Attacks, and only four days after the Colorado Springs shooting, Rainbow Six: Siege, the latest installment in the popular Rainbow Six game series, was released. Based off the novels by Tom Clancy, the Rainbow Six games cast players as members of the eponymous team, which is comprised of the best operatives from counter terrorism units around the world. France’s RAID doesn’t make an appearance, but playable characters do include alumni from the SAS, SWAT, Spetsnaz, GIGN and GSG 9.
Tom Clancy’s books are usually set in the modern day, and concern geopolitical tensions familiar to audiences—they feel more “real” than many other works of military fiction. In a similar way, games under the Rainbow Six banner tend to model a more “realistic” combat than many shooters. Siege is no different there; one or two well-placed bullets from an enemy will kill you. From pistol to shotgun to assault rifle, almost all the weapons are meticulously sculpted copies of real guns. But considering its nearly simulation-level fidelity to “realism” in some areas, it’s interesting to examine how the game treats its narrative and contextual subject matter: terrorism and counterterrorism.
Rainbow Six: Siege gets one thing very right: it’s extremely nerve-wracking long before the bullets start flying. In the preparation phase of each round, the defending team makes their position as fortified as possible, laying down barbed wire, barricades and explosive traps. The attacking team tries to gather information about the defense using remote-controlled drones, which can be electronically disabled or shot by the defenders. Once the round starts in earnest, the attacking team tries their best to crack open the fortified position without getting shot.
Mastery of Siege comes with a mastery of physical space. Anything short of concrete walls can be shot through, and most can also be breached by explosive charges, creating new entryways for attack. When I started playing, my own sense of game logic fooled me; I assumed that because I knew the level layout and the locations of choke points, I could predict where the enemy would come from. I died a lot. In my first two hours playing the game, I was shot through floors, through ceilings, through windows. Death can come quickly, from any angle.
And in Siege, death matters. The Call of Duty series, much more popular, often has a gladiatorial feel to combat, with players reaping mid-match rewards like supply drops or air strikes for killing other players without being killed. After death in a CoD game, you usually respawn in three measly seconds. In Rainbow Six: Siege, your reward for killing another player is nothing more than an immediate, lasting advantage for your team—the game has no respawns, so you really feel each subtraction from your five-man squad. Together, the high stakes and sudden nature of death in Siege make each moment feel truly dangerous, as you’d hope a game casting you as a counterterrorist would.
Bizarrely, though, there are no terrorists in this game—at least not in the competitive player versus player mode, which Ubisoft clearly devoted the lion’s share of resources toward. In competitive play, players on both teams play members of the titular special forces unit, Rainbow Six. Unlike in the classic competitive game Counter-Strike, where you have teams of terrorists battling with teams of counter-terrorists, here you have two teams of counter-terrorists trying to counter counterterrorism. Why those counter-terrorists are defending bombs, keeping hostages and protecting biochemical hazards is never addressed.
And there’s a sterility to the missions in Rainbow Six: Siege that real counter-terrorism operations rarely have, even in the alternative “Terrorist Hunt” mode, where computer-controlled men in white balaclavas are your enemy. It’s unclear why they’ve planted a bomb in a conspicuously empty building, because there are no civilians anywhere to be found. Occasionally a mission will revolve around a hostage, but far from being fragile and vulnerable, hostages are actually hardier than your tactically armored soldier, and can soak up bullets and grenade blasts without going down. And they won’t try to escape, fight back or even move—they are goal-posts, objects waiting to be interacted with.
In Rainbow Six: Siege, if you see a silhouette in a doorway, you can open fire with no moment of hesitation; you can toss a grenade through a window where you hear voices. The only people walking around in these maps are your team, who are highlighted to avoid friendly fire, and the enemy. But when the operatives of RAID breached and entered the Bataclan hotel, they didn’t have the luxury of certainty. There were several hundred people still inside that they were trying to help.
In the real world, operatives involved in high-risk breach and clear operations are trained not just in tactics but in judgment, because the consequences of poor judgement can be disastrous. Recall the incident of the Georgia SWAT team that accidentally tossed a flashbang grenade into the crib of a toddler during a police raid. The judgment calls of Siege are entirely eclipsed by the competitive nature of the experience; where the enemy is, and how to best destroy them, are the relevant tactical decisions. The absence of actual innocent civilians who are more than simply unmoving objective markers is a choice that strips almost all contemporary relevance from the game.
I’m not trying to make the case that all games must act as simulations of what they portray. All fictional media, from books to television to film, omits things in the name of storytelling or aesthetic quality. Cooking Mama does not need to pull back the curtain on the many stresses of running a kitchen. But when you choose something as gravely significant as terrorism and counterterrorism for your central conceit, you invite a close study—especially when you place so much focus on rendering a faithful, true-to-life experience that the hardest difficulty setting is named “Realistic Mode.”
The firefights of Rainbow Six are tense and terrifying, but ultimately that direly important subject matter is subsumed and simplified in the interest of elegant design. If a game wants so badly to model realism, as Rainbow Six: Siege certainly seems to, what it chooses to leave out matters. Rainbow Six: Siege is a tightly designed experience, but the counter-terrorism it portrays more closely resembles paintball than the real world.
Roy Graham is a writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Indiewire and upcoming short story collections. He lives in Brooklyn and thinks about fight scenes. Follow him on Twitter @Grayhaem
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