Why Battlefield's dogtags are the most satisfying rewards in video games

I own you. That’s what you’re telling an enemy when you sneak up behind them, knife them in the back, and rip their dogtag from around their neck. I’m, er, talking about Battlefield here, in case you were wondering. Following several hefty sessions of Battlefield 4 multiplayer, I’ve been reminded how much I love collecting the dogtags of my opponents and--while several of my fellow GamesRadar editors find my opinion here rather terrifying--there’s little doubt in my mind that the humble dogtag is the most satisfying reward any game can offer its players.

Why? I’ve already said it: I own you. Battlefield’s dogtag system is one of the few ways to keep a permanent record of the enemies that you’ve taken down in a multiplayer game. Not only do you get to cycle through the tags you’ve collected, occasionally laughing at the Gamertag / PSN ID / Origin ID that someone has chosen for themselves (seriously, were there 3 other players called ‘xxJuStIcE_Lrdxx’, so you went for xxJuStIcE_Lrdxx4’. Individuality FTW, right?), but you also recall memories of a specific session. In other words: you remember how you got the tag.

One of my favourite tag steals was in Bad Company 2, Arica Harbour map. It was a game of Rush, I was defending the second phase (in the town) and I got picked off by the same camping asshole four times, as he sat in the rocks on the hillside, not helping his team win. I was furious. I was determined to claim his tag. So I spent ages sneaking around the bottom edge of town, keeping away from conflict, getting myself in a position to strike. Asshole Recon was being kept alive by a Medic, who I dispatched quietly before finally claiming my nemesis’ dogtag and the tag of his asshole friend, also camping in the same rocks. Triple dogtag get.

That’s the only time I killed this guy. He outscored me 4-1. But he never got my tag, and I claimed his, gloriously. It’s something I’ll remember long after he’s forgotten that match. While it’s no real achievement on my behalf, it’s a memory I still have from a game that gave me many happy hours of multiplayer carnage. It’s a lasting token of enjoyment from a moment of superiority. That’s the essence of the dogtag system.

Other online shooters, like Call of Duty, simply don’t offer that kind of recall. They’re impersonal experiences that ask you to constantly kill as you try to fill up a near-infinite XP progression system. To me, its just meaningless grind and other players are digital meat--they may as well be smart AI bots who occasionally fling blood-curdling racist / homophobic slurs at you. When you’re playing online the idea is that you’re pitting your skills either directly against (or in cooperation with) other human players. But you rarely get the sense of that, unless you’re in squads with real friends. Until, that is, you outsmart an opponent in Battlefield and get close enough to claim his or her ‘tags. If you’re really lucky, you’ll make them mad enough to seek revenge and that’s when the very human micro-battles begin. They come back for you, they seek you out on the battlefield. Can you think of any other in-game reward that triggers such strong human emotions? They’re few and far between.

In more recent iterations of Battlefield, DICE has added extra details to the dogtag system. You can add specialist tags to indicate where your skills and interests lie (are you a headshot expert, a tank killer, a provider of endless ammo?), and in BF4 that personalisation is even deeper. There’s even a more elaborate animation that sees you aggressively ripping the tag off your enemy’s neck as you end their life with a blade. I hope you’ll forgive me for skimming over the moral implications of this one--it’s just a game, and that’s definitely a separate editorial.

The Beta also shows off the ability to indicate what country you’re from, and there are loads more ‘skill’ tags to unlock too. The more information you choose to share only increases my desire to claim your tag. I want to know how you play, where you’re from, and if you’re better at Battlefield than me. Taking any dogtag is enjoyable… taking one from a player significantly higher ranked than you is a rare thrill.

While I’m no fan of the new knife counter-kill system, which allows you to counter a knife kill with the simple tap of a button, I can appreciate the added dimension it brings to dogtag collecting. If you don’t hit a player completely by surprise (essentially, from behind--so no random melee charging in BF4, folks), you could lose your tag to them. You feel stupid, clumsy. You may even lose the game by giving your life away cheaply at a key moment, instead of just hosing your enemy with a burst of carbine fire. Moreover, you have to really want to collect a player’s tag. Counter-kills have made it even more personal.

So keep your special golden guns and bizarre new character outfits--the only in-game collectable I really want is hanging around your neck, and somewhere out there I’m waiting to claim it. Again… only if you’re playing Battlefield.

You know that crazed dogtag collector at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that guy’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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