Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

NYT on modern military videogames

A few posts ago, we mentioned the controversy over the forthcoming first-person-shooter video game Medal of Honor, which is set in contemporary Afghanistan. You’ll find further thoughtful discussion of the topic in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which asks whether such games are exploitation or whether they somehow bring the reality of the war closer to the American public:

Medal of Honor does not aspire to capture the war in Afghanistan in a documentary sense, but like other shooters, it creates a visceral sensation of combat. In essence, it forgoes one kind of realism while embracing another. Are video games like this mere frivolities that dishonor the real soldiers who have fought in the wars depicted — as critics, including military families, have recently charged? Or does their popularity indicate that they are successfully conveying an experience of war to audiences in a way that is at least as effective and affecting as the war stories told in literature or film?

I’m doubtful that this game, and certainly not most others before it, accurately reflect the realities of war in any way. Then again, it’s rare that cinema does either. Like film, such games are cultural artifacts that embed self-understandings (and self-imposed blindspots) about the Afghan war. Anthropologists and future historians will use such game cultures and depictions as windows into American society. Perhaps political scientists ought to wonder too what effects such game representations of war, insurgency, counterinsurgency, and foreign societies might have on gaming publics who themselves are participants—as voters, and perhaps as soldiers—in shaping future US foreign policy. Dies it make war seem easy, and somehow more of an option? Does it make war seem like hell, and something to be avoided? Does it paint COIN operations as simply killing-the-enemy, and thereby mislead? Or is the effect marginal at best?

I suspect the effects are marginal at best among the general public, given that video games are but one of many ways in which messages and representations about war are carried in contemporary society. The effect on war-fighters may be more significant, however. Since 9/11, insurgency and counter-terrorism themes have grown in popularity, evidenced by such popular games as the Tom Clancy Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell series (over 52 million games sold worldwide), Call of Duty 4 (13 million), the SOCOM series (7 million), and Counterstrike (4.2 million). These sorts of games appear to be especially popular among teens and older males (that is, the primary potential recruitment demographic for the military).

There is some precedent for concerns as to how popular cultural depictions of war and terrorism may affect those who are professionally involved. In 2007 Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, then Dean of the US Military Academy at West Point, flew to California accompanied by US military and FBI interrogators, to meet the creators of the popular counter-terrorism TV series 24. Their purpose was to complain about the show’s frequent depiction of brutal interrogation techniques by its fictional hero, Jack Bauer. Such depictions, Finnegan argued, were having adverse effects on military recruits, suggesting to them that such methods were effective and appropriate and making them resistant to comments from military instructors that they were illegal, unethical, and counterproductive.

Of course, not everyone is convinced that popular culture representations via TV (or, by inference, video games) influence professional behaviour. To date, however, there has been little or no research into the issue of which I’m aware.

PhD students, a topic awaits you!

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