Sometime in Spring 2010, the following conversation took place in an American university, somewhere on the North-eastern seaboard. The class discussion was about U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Student A: “The number of insurgents we killed are more than the number of our casualties.”
Student B: “Dude, this is not HALO!”
HALO is a bestselling video game, developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft Studios. How do video games and their portrayal of military culture affect or reflect discourse in universities and in politics?
The name of the game could be substituted with any number of similar games. With giant PR campaigns and fan bases, video game production has become a very important sector in the economy, pulling in enormous revenues. In 2012, the gaming industry’s overall revenues came to $67 billion (including retail/digital game and retail hardware sales).
As well as enjoying rising revenues in the global entertainment industry, video games have played a central role in several awareness campaigns. PeaceMaker, which simulates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aims to teach gamers about peaceful conflict resolution. Food Force, a UN release, seeks to inform gamers about how aid operations in war zones work, while The Great Flu was designed to raise awareness about the swine flu outbreak of 2009. There are other examples of such awareness-raising video games, with producers trying to emphasise their potential to educate, rather than focussing on the mindless euphoria brought on by virtual carnage. The impact of such games is limited, but any change wrought in the gamer’s mindset is nonetheless invaluable
However, most of the market is controlled by industry giants focussed on providing entertainment rather than on encouraging discussion of “serious” topics or on raising awareness. Furthermore, the games are designed and presented in in such a way as to match popular conceptions of the day.
Counter-Strike achieved success as a user-designed game modification for Half-Life. The modification quickly became very popular after its initial release and was sponsored by the producer of Half-Life, Valve. The game brings two unlikely “factions” together: anti-terrorist units from the U.S., Germany, the UK, and France, while the terrorist side consists of armed militants of post-Soviet, Middle Eastern and Swedish origin.
Discussions about this game mostly revolved around its highly violent content, which was linked to the occurrence of several school massacres in the U.S. Despite this controversy, a line of similar games soon followed. One example is Command & Conquer: Generals, a 2003 strategy game that draws heavily upon post-9/11 conceptions of terrorism and counter-terrorism. The factions in this game are the U.S, China, and the Middle Eastern/Central Asian Global Liberation Army. The game suggests that global leaders conduct diplomacy via missile strikes and other means of violence. Apparently the realist school of International Relations has made its way into the world of gaming.
What followed soon afterwards was a line of similarly themed games in the genre of shooters. America’s Army, which was developed by the US Army itself, was designed to encourage American youths to enlist. The Battlefield and Call of Duty franchises shifted their focus from World War II to “Modern Warfare” soon after the coalition force operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their gaming motifs matched the context of on-going politics: Terror-infested politics in the Middle East, “good Russians” and ”bad Russians”, and warlords who will do anything for victory. One thing missing from such games depicting “modern warfare” is the presence of non-combatants (who, according to Professor Martin Murray, are one of the key actors in modern insurgency/counterinsurgency). Programmers design games cleansed of the moral dilemmas and horrors of the urban battlefield: no war crimes, no rape, lots of adrenaline-packed action, and an abundance of intrigue. One exception worth mentioning is the level “No Russian” in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which puts the player in the realm of an undercover CIA operative, committing atrocities against unarmed civilians and armed airport security personnel. Still the games mentioned above were stripped of the crimes against humanity which are also devoid from most of our conceptualisations of modern warfare. History is written by the victors, the present is created by designers.
A Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one option is available to a person, who can either take it or leave it. Today’s multi-million dollar video game entertainment industry shares the film industry’s tendency to portray reality in a manner that affects the discourses surrounding real life events. The sheer size of the video game industry, as well as its ability to influence its consumers, make for ideal conditions under which to press gamers into certain desired mind-sets.
The portrayal of warfare and politics in video games is not controversial due to its violent nature. It is controversial because it portrays violence in a sanitised version of reality. These games are devoid of the horrors of the “new wars”, and politics are presented in a more “desirable” way. Still, the gamer has a choice. One genre-setting game, Bioshock, exemplifies the dilemma through its leading character, who speaks the axiom built upon Hobson’s choice that “A man chooses; a slave obeys”. Similarly, the gamer is presented with a set of choices: To buy the game, or not to buy the game; to play the game, or not to play the game; to believe subtext of game or not to believe it.