October 3, 2010

Hey, it's just a game: Virtual War, Violence, and Real War

Have you seen some of the new commercials for the US military, by chance? One thing that I have noticed with some of these is that they often look a lot like video games. Here's a slightly older ad that has the video game feel to it:

And here is an ad about a video game that the US Army supposedly developed (from 2007):

A new post by Max Forte over at Zero Anthropology got me thinking about all of this. Apparently, there was some controversy about a new video game that allowed users to play the part of the Taleban:

So what are these video games for? What purpose(s) can they serve, if any, besides entertainment? How seriously do users take them? How seriously should we think about these sorts of questions? For me this brings up questions about the relationship between violence, realistic video games like this, and desensitization. I was pretty young during Gulf War I, but one thing I remember clearly is how much the TV news coverage looked like a video game. It was all so detached, clean, and put together. But the video games today--like Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor--aren't exactly detached. These games are realistic, close-up, and bloody. Still, they generate detachment because they are "just games" and fall under the "entertainment" category. All of this makes me think of the Wikileaks release of footage from Iraq earlier this year, and how the soldiers sounded like they were just playing another game. Do video games cause violence? I doubt it. But can they help generate a kind of systematic, dehumanized detachment? Good question.

UPDATE 10/5: I found one of the new commercials that I talked about at the opening of this post. This one is a USAF commercial that looks a lot like a video game. Interesting to think about why they choose to present recruiting commercials in this way. Check it out:


B.Wintersteen said...

Not all gamers play for the same reasons. While ostensibly 'entertainment' covers most motivations, the subcategories such as competition, immersion, and socialization, can drastically change what they put, and get out of, a game regardless of conflict.

Technically, all games represent conflict, some more abstract than others. American football shares many traits with tribalism and chess is the nobility's answer to dehumanizing agents in war, but I am unconvinced of a causal relationship between observing violence and wishing to replicate it outside of the narrative environment.

Ryan Anderson said...

B. Wintersteen,

Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree with you that gamers play for some very different reasons. This case with EA's Medal of Honor though, has brought up some interesting questions--at least for me. Less about whether or not playing these games leads to violence, and more about the political effects that are possible. I mean, if there are no political effects or implications, then why would anyone care about changing the name of the "opposing team"?

You wrote:

"...but I am unconvinced of a causal relationship between observing violence and wishing to replicate it outside of the narrative environment."

I have always been unconvinced about any causal relationship here as well. This would be like blaming violence on TV or whatever. Maybe I didn't make it clear in the main post, but what I am most interested in here are some of the possible political issues that this particular issue brings up. What kinds of effects can be created when real wars and games are conflated? Do you think that games can be used to further particular political agendas? Or do they simply reinforce ideas/stances that are already in place?

Anyway, thanks again for the comment.

Ben said...

I beleive EA's decision has two main considerations: 1 - These games are heavily marketed to DoD personnel, soldiers deployed play a lot of games (HALO was a favorite) and losing that market would severly hurt sales. 2- In the case of any war narrative you run the risk of "sanitizing" or "glorifying" war, which is a no-win situation.

My beleif is that narratives reflect, not create, reality. We need war stories and games are one way to immerse people in something they otherwise have no contact with.

yes, they can support one side or another, but it is dangerous to imply collusion for what simply be an artistic, expressive, or market decision.

Ryan Anderson said...

Hey Ben,

Thanks for the comment. Ya, I agree with you that EA is basically making decisions mostly for marketing purposes--but that doesn't really preclude the political implications and issues these kinds of decisions bring up.

"My beleif is that narratives reflect, not create, reality."

Hmmm. Seems to me that certain ideas/discourses/narratives can both reflect and create reality in a certain sense. What we see or experience can of course influence what we think. I mean, TV news narratives affect/influence decisions and actions all the time. Not necessarily in a direct way, but think about voting. The way people vote is definitely shaped and influenced by the kinds of media and information people are exposed to.

"We need war stories and games are one way to immerse people in something they otherwise have no contact with."

Interesting. So if we need "war" stories, what other kinds of stories do we need? Do we need stories that talk about the political, social, economic, and cultural histories of the places that we are at "war" with? Why aren't there "peace corps" video games? What aren't there highly realistic video games about diplomacy?

"yes, they can support one side or another, but it is dangerous to imply collusion for what simply be an artistic, expressive, or market decision."

I think that if the US military is making these kinds of games, and if they are making commercials that LOOK LIKE video games, this issue is about something more than just marketing and artistic expression. Just my opinion.

B. Wintersteen said...


I see your point. I should perhaps revise my original claim: I think narratives BEGIN with society, but they can become iterative. News channels report the news through a filter, which then leaves the viewers with less to filter for themselves. They then turn around make more news based on what they know.

I also agree we need more of other kinds of stories. Narrative structure requires conflict, however, and the simplest and most visceral way to portray conflict is violence. There are games that minimize the violence (games like Civilization that use abstract “records” to reflect armed conflict instead of FPS perspective) and many that have none at all but are equally popular (Farmville, Animal Crossing). Board games do a great job of representing economics (Puerto Rico), diplomatic (Diplomacy), and even medical (Epidemic) narratives with no violence whatsoever. There is a clear dearth of culturally accurate video games, but then, how many consumers would buy a CSPAN video game? I am saddened (as are most of my military colleagues and counterparts) that MoH removed the Taliban as a player. We should see through their eyes, even if only basest part of the conflict.

Thinking of the use of video game imagery in military recruiting, I think it is important to remember that recruiting follows the laws of marketing just as much as sales does. The generation that is most physically able (obesity epidemic aside) to survive the conditions of war are those who also play video games. It is a comforting medium for the 16-25 year olds in the U.S., and increases the likelihood of interest.

I do believe the ads represent a sterile view of what war can be, but some companies have made a clear effort to change that. Concerns of gore and glorifying violence are valid, but are they better or worse than bloodless, faceless enemies (I think back to most of the Star Wars games)?