War Is Not a Video Game – Or Is It?

In this essay, Pat Romano examines the blurring of virtual war and real war for both civilians and soldiers, while some Dawson students look behind the façade of the games they play.

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“(Before) the weapon comes the image. We think others to death before we invent the battle-axe or ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them”

(Sam Keen; quoted in Stahl 2010: 5.)

During the 1991 Gulf War, US General Norman Schwarzkopf felt it was necessary to remind the American population that war was “not a video game”.  Since then, this comment has been  repeated by both defenders and critics of the  so-called “war on terror”.  For some, the concern is strictly limited to the possibility that democratic populations are no longer properly prepared for the sacrifices that are needed to win wars, while, for others, it points to the fear that we are at risk of losing our humanity.

The First Gulf War arguably represented a turning point in the western image of war.  War began to be covered in real-time, with 24-hour CNN coverage of high-tech weaponry being launched and aerial views of exploding bombs that was watched around the world.  It didn’t matter that so-called “smart bombs” or high-precision weaponry accounted for only 7% of the 88,5oo tons of US bombs dropped on Iraq (Kellner 1992: 163) or that a significant number of high precision bombs will necessarily miss their target or that many have such a powerful yield that their explosions will leave significant “collateral damage” — to use the popular euphemism that entered into our lexicon at the time; the notion of “clean war” had seeped into our consciousness. It was suggested by a number of critics that western populations had now become spectators and war a “spectacle” to be enjoyed (Kellner 1992; Stahl 2010).

The enormous expansion in video game technology since the last decade of the 20th century has arguably taken this trend further, leading Roger Stahl, author of Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture, to argue that we have become consumers of war, and not necessarily mere spectators, but also increasingly its interactive participants. All-day media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, provided too often by enthusiastic embedded reporters, gave us at home a feel of being “right in the action”, while video-games allowed us to conduct our own battles in the “war on terror”, or even, as the video game website KumaWar made possible, to re-play military events just weeks after they occurred in real-time.  Consuming war can be addictive as the opportunities for virtual war have provided citizens a way to cope with the fears and insecurities created by the post 9/11 discussions of dirty bombs and uncivilized opponents — both foreign and domestic (Huntemann 2010).  The empowering “fix” is temporary, but virtual war definitely gives the player a sense of having a real understanding of what is going on in the militarized real world, while victory remains always within reach.

The realism of the games is indeed stunning. War game scenarios are taken from or inspired by real wars. The player must “become familiar with sets of military knowledge (e.g., what weapons modifications are useful in certain conditions, or for certain tasks; military abbreviations and jargon) and modes of perception and action (e.g., particular ways of scanning an area and looking for enemies, or coordinating with teammates in clearing a room)” (Smicker 2010: 111).  The games produce “spectacles of military technological wizardly and gadgetry” (113), incorporating the perspective of the real soldier looking through infrared or night vision goggles, as well as the real feel of using the weaponry, whose destructive capacity is perfectly calibrated. But, the realism is, of course, deceptive as “the reality of corporeal violence and death, the ultimate defining characteristic of war, is foreclosed from the start” (112).  Your own death is a temporary setback, while the shattered bodies of those you kill, regardless of how graphically shown, disappear in a few seconds, leaving the battlefield pristine. Given that in today’s wars civilians make up the vast majority of casualties, it is particularly significant that they are almost completely absent from the playing fields of virtual war, which are typically devoid of “civilians, living cities or civilization” (King and Leonard 2010: 100).  Ironically, though, the very authenticity of some aspects of the war experience helps to hide the invisibility of others.

It is not, however, simply civilians far removed from the reality of war who come to know war only in this sanitized form;  soldiers in western militaries  are also experiencing war increasingly through the perspective of a video game as the military’s use of video games and virtual technologies expands.  For more and more soldiers, through recruitment, training and even deployment, much happens through a gaming lens. The US military’s relationship to the video game industry is one of mutual benefit and it has deepened considerably since 9-11, with their collaboration becoming increasingly seamless: video game simulations that are used in military training are resold to the consumer market;  games made for civilian society are used in combat training centers to teach soldiers strategic thinking and operational decision-making; video game technology that had its origin in military research is developed further by industry and then incorporated back into battlefield technologies (Huntemann and Payne 2010).  A key element is that both video game companies and the military target the same demographic, the young to mid-life adult (interestingly both are also committed to increasing their popularity with young women as well, and only time will tell whether this impacts on the representation or often complete absence of women in war games). This has led to what is perhaps the most significant collaborative effort, namely that of producing a war game with the main purpose of increasing recruitment for the US military and introducing potential recruits to the idea that their government’s violence is used solely to protect freedom and the “American way of life”.  Costing an estimated $16 million, but cost effective when compared to television advertising, the on-line game America’s Army, released in July 2002, has proven to be enormously successful with over 43 million downloads as of February 2009 (Smicker 111).  As a senior reporter for the Army Times put it, “What is happening right now is that a lot of people who are coming into the military service are thrilled by the idea of war” (quoted in Nichols 2010: 39)

While the statement “war is not a video game” appears a truism, with drone,  new visual and virtual reality technologies being developed for the twenty first century military, war itself is indeed beginning to resemble a video game – at least for those on one side.  Deployed soldiers can finish a day of combat duty and then relax by playing a war video game, as most soldiers are now doing, and increasingly it may be difficult to distinguish between where reality and play separated.  As military veteran and anthropologist Jose Vasquez writes, even something as common as night vision goggles enhance “soldiers’ ability to see through the darkness while looking past the human being right in front of them” (2009: 94).

There is thus a pressing need for us to find ways to separate the virtual from the real to ensure that the consequences of violence and war are not rendered invisible. Significantly, there is resistance coming from within the gaming community, such as the Dead-in-Iraq project where artist Joseph DeLappe periodically logs into the game America’s Army to type in the names of US soldiers killed in the war or a minority of games, like the popular Metal Gear Solid series, that question the utility of war, draw attention to its real consequences and explore the similarities between one’s enemies and allies. Even more provocative for westerners, but at the same time inevitable, are games which reverse the roles and challenge ideological truths; at least one, Under the Ash, made in the Arab world, a region where war’s reality is all too present, suggests that death is permanent and there is no “winning the game” (Stahl 137).

David Leonard, in “Unsettling the Military Entertainment Complex: Video Games and a Pedagogy of  Peace”, calls for a larger educational response, raising the disturbing prospect that video games are likely today more influential in shaping our students thinking about the world and such factors as race, class, and gender than are schools.

We need to start analyzing the efforts of blurring the lines between war and entertainment…. This is less a matter of simple military indoctrination than near immersion in a virtual world of war where armed conflict is not the last, but the first – and indeed the only – resort. The new military-entertainment complex’s games may help to produce great battlefield decision-makers. But they strike from debate the most crucial decisions young people can make in regard to the morality of a war – choosing whether or not to fight and for what cause” (N. Turse; quoted in Leonard 2004: 6)

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Taking up this challenge in my Humanities course, Violence and Nonviolence, I suggested to my students that they write an essay examining what they had typically not paid much attention to while playing a war-themed video game.  Here are some of their comments.

 Something often seen in games but never discussed… is the implications of the words “kill”, “die”, and “dead”. Often these words hold little weight when referring to the hordes of enemies these games throw at you; instead these emotions are generally reserved for the few comrades you get to (know) throughout the narrative and to some extent the primary antagonist. They often reduce the deaths of your enemies to nothing more that an obstacle to your success. The few games that do actually deal with this often portray the enemy (as) an entirely evil entity, giving no legitimate cause for their aggression.

Alexander Theofanopoulos; General Social Science

The point of playing Call of Duty is to kill as many people as you can so your team wins. The more people you kill, you get rewards. One reward…is to get to call in a drone to kill as many enemies (as possible)…. Call of Duty just focuses on the “fun” part of war. There is no real strategy or reason for why they are fighting this war. It’s basically just a kill or be killed scenario.

Brandon Weinmann; General Social Science

 My friends and I used to play these games almost every night as a pastime and it was fun. We would play for hours and hours, and when we saw each other the next day at school, all we would talk about is our kill streak or how we pulled off a 360 no-scope in the game, which is basically doing a full 360 without aiming your gun and killing the opponent with one shot – pretty impressive for a gamer.  However, the thought of killing another person never struck our minds….After you killed a certain amount of people, you were rewarded with “kill streaks”, which is basically the opportunity to use helicopters or other heavy weaponry….

Daniel Nowicka-Traczyk; General Social Science

According to the game’s story, violence is mandatory and it is totally accepted….The narrative only gives one choice to the player: killing all the main members of the (terrorist) group. …The player is offered around a hundred different small arms… (and) the main character can choose among more that twenty vehicles, including tanks, airplanes and helicopters. This variety of weapons and technologies offers the player a wide overall insight (into) today’s weapons. An interesting point concerning weapons is that the enemies have older and weaker weapon than (your) side. The enemy is depicted as (very barbaric people)….In Battlefield 3, the enemies are Russians or Iranians…. (and) Iranian soldiers are killing wounded American soldiers instead of arresting them, (as required by) the Geneva Convention.

Richard Babaiants; General Social Science

 First of all, from a narrative point of view, it is really well-written. You start off with a scene of a terrorist organization in the process of invading some nuclear base.  Already there you have a feeling of hate and authority to go and save the world….You are immersed in a wonderfully recreated jungle in South America…. As the missions follow, you are more and more revolted by what you see and feel disgusted by what the bad guys have done. But I have noticed that, if you don’t pay enough attention, the damage on both sides is equal. You and your allies kill as much, or even more…. The message in these games makes me feel as if war is the only solution. Not only that, but you get the sheer excitement of upgrading your weapons and making them so they suit you….You are encouraged to use these cool things…and like violence. They make killing fun. Otherwise the game wouldn’t sell.

David Lamothe; Environmental Science 

I will be focusing on the popular video game series Call of Duty. In this series, a player gets to control a character in the first person shooter style. (You) feel as if you are the character. …There isn’t any peace ever shown in the games. They simply put a player in the war zones where they must kill the enemy soldiers to end the war.  Another important thing that is never thought about is that…the games come out very often. The people who always buy these are getting used to the idea or concept of what war is according to the game. More and more wars become normal in their view. Even though the games are rated for ages 17 and up, kids as young as 12 can easily get a copy….

All of the characters are depicted as very tough guys, who don’t show sadness when allies die or aren’t mentally affected by torture. …The graphics of the game are advanced enough for you to see bodies get burned or lose limbs. There are even graphic scenes where (you) sneak up on enemies and kill them with a knife….

Call of Duty is very accurate on weapons technology. What it isn’t very accurate about are the casualties….There are very few parts where civilians are present. When they are there, most of them are running away to safety. What’s odd is that some parts of the war happen in major cities like New York. Even in the very crowded areas of New York. The missing thing is that there are no traces of civilians. None of them running away (and) no dead bodies….  

Enemies are always heard speaking another language so that we don’t feel any similarities. Their leaders are always evil and trying to take over the country or gain power. Some of them are seen as doing massacres of innocents in an airport. It’s always the foreign enemy who do the most horrible things in the game. Also, the games makes all the opposing soldiers look the same. That way people feel like they are only killing a bunch of unimportant clones.

Alvin Liwanag; General Social Science

 In the new versions of war video games, you feel that you are in a real mission, with an impressive weaponry arsenal, a mission to accomplish and a specific enemy. The most interesting thing is that I never looked at it as a way to recruit soldiers or legitimize government spending on armaments.

Elvis Torres Pereira; Civil Engineering Technology

 And a concluding thought for us all to consider:

 Despite all the technological advancements of this generation, society still shows reminiscences of the gladiator mentality: killing is an entertaining sport or spectacle. The media entertains the population by making war seem like a giant movie, weapons seem like strong and powerful toys and a battlefield seems extremely clean and distant. The lack of realization of these lies causes the population to forget the human suffering they are allowing.  Also, the focus of war as entertainment prevents the human interaction and empathy needed for peace to flourish….This film is very real and worst of all, it is rated G. Unfortunately, when the movie is over and the credits start rolling, there will be countless names of men, women and children who were sacrificed in the making.

Sabrina D’Aquila; Pure and Applied Science

 Works Cited

Huntemann, Nina. “Playing with Fear: Catharsis and Resistance in Military-Themed Video Games.” Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Eds. Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2010. 223-236.

Huntemann, Nina and Matthew Thomas Payne.  Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Kellner, Douglas. The Persian Gulf TV War. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.

King, Richard C. and David J. Leonard. “Wargames as a New Frontier: Securing American Empire in Virtual Space.” Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Eds. Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2010. 91-105.

Leonard, David J. “Unsettling the Military Entertainment Complex: Video Games and a Pedagogy of Peace.” Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 4.4 (2004). Web. 7 Jan. 2013.

Smicker, Josh. “Future Combat, Combating Futures: Temporalities of War Video Games and the Performance of Proleptic Histories.” Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Eds. Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne. New York: Routledge, 2010. 106-121.

Stahl, Roger. Militainment, Inc.: War, Media and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Vasquez, Jose N. “Seeing Green: Visual Technology, Virtual Reality, and the Experience of War.” An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline. Eds. Alisse Waterston. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009. 87-105.

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3 Responses to War Is Not a Video Game – Or Is It?

  1. The Ray Ban Mirror February 10, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    Thanks for the great work! Cool blog. There are a number of opinions on this topic and this blog states the issue extremely great.

  2. Matthew Côté May 14, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    I definitely agree that the realism of these new video games could start to cause a problem. When war video games had very bad graphics it was very easy to tell the difference between them and real war because of how different they look. Nowadays however they look unbelievably real, so much so that some cinematic scenes could almost be confused for a movie. Now, movies depicting war are not that bad, but the reason that these realistic games might cause a problem is because the player is immersed in the action. It is not like a movie where they watch people get shot, THEY are the ones doing the shooting. This could cause people to become desensitized to this type of violence. Now when they see war on television they might think “oh ya its bad but i have done worse” and not truly realize the severity of what is going on. This could lead to people being OK with war a whole bunch of other problems as well.

  3. Steven Philippas May 7, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    The use of video games blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. It helps develop the mentality of fighting for honour no matter what the cause, and using force as the first resort instead of the last. I agree with the author with respect to how video games highlight all the “good” parts of war such as victory, fighting against evil and the camaraderie between your fellow soldiers while simultaneously hiding all the bad aspects such as civilian deaths, destruction of cities and the use of guerrilla tactics. Video games give people who play them a lust for all the high tech gadgets the military gets to use in warfare, creating a desire to join up and use them in real life as well. The collaboration between the military complex and the video game industry is nothing but propaganda.

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