Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Returning Fire: video gaming and war-fighting

The Media Education Foundation has recently released a new documentary, Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture, that explores the possibly blurring lines between ever-more-realistic military-themed videogames, and the technological content of war:

Video games like Modern WarfareAmerica’s ArmyMedal of Honor, and Battlefield are part of an exploding market of war games whose revenues now far outpace even the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. The sophistication of these games is undeniable, offering users a stunningly realistic experience of ground combat and a glimpse into the increasingly virtual world of long-distance, push-button warfare. Far less clear, though, is what these games are doing to users, our political culture, and our capacity to empathize with people directly affected by the actual trauma of war. For the culture-jamming activists featured in this film, these uncertainties were a call to action. In three separate vignettes, we see how Anne-Marie Schleiner, Wafaa Bilal, and Joseph Delappe moved dissent from the streets to our screens, infiltrating war games in an attempt to break the hypnotic spell of “militainment.” Their work forces all of us — gamers and non-gamers alike — to think critically about what it means when the clinical tools of real-world killing become forms of consumer play.

The trailer is posted below. On the Media Education Foundation website you’ll also find a low-res preview version of the entire film, as well as a transcript, and study guide.

There are two very interesting issues here. The first of these concerns the possible social and political consequences of immersive military entertainment gaming, especially first-person shooter (FPS) games. Might they make war look more fun, more acceptable, than it really is? Might they skew perceptions of conflict among gamers in ways that affect their behaviour as individuals, citizens, voters, and potential warfighters? The glorification and gamification of war is hardly a new thing, of course: chess, toy guns, and tin soldiers are all earlier examples of this. Are video games more of the same, or does the technology alter the effects?

A second issue concerns the use of games, an in particular massive multiplayer online games, as a vehicle or venue for social and political protest. Two of the three activists interviewed in the film use this approach, finding ways of inserting their politics (or performance art) into game play in America’s Army and Counter-Strike. The third uses the internet to enable people to remotely fire a paintball gun at a person, thereby exploring issues of violence.

Ironically, as fascinating as both of these issues are, I found that the particular intersection of them in the film rather unsatisfying. After 45 minutes, neither topic seemed to be adequately explored.


When I wrote the comments above, I hadn’t noticed this particular gem from the “study guide” for Returning Fire:

In 1930s Germany, Nazi youth were raised on war games. Research these games, and compare them to the war games currently played by American youth. According to historians, what sort of effect did war games have on young Germans? Do you see any parallels with the influence of war games on kids today?

Leading (study) questions, anyone?

There is, of course, a long and sometimes sophisticated debate in the psychology literature as to whether violent video games encourage violence. At the moment, the preponderant opinion seems to be that they can increase the likelihood of violence in those with other risk factors predisposing them to violence, but have little negative effect on the majority of the population. Indeed, there may also be some positive effects. As Christopher J. Ferguson (Texas A&M International University) has put it “Violent video games are like peanut butter. They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems.”

What of the possible political effects of the “military entertainment complex”? It is an interesting and important area to explore, but really folks—let’s spare the rhetorical excess, Nazi parallels, and exaggerated scare-mongering, and engage in actual research, with… you know, actual evidence?

Oh, and in the interests of full disclosure: I play wargames. I’ve never been a Nazi. I’m allergic to peanut butter.

2 responses to “Returning Fire: video gaming and war-fighting

  1. Roger 21/08/2011 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks for the review. I made this film. It was designed to curate three high-profile instances of social protest / culture jamming in war games. The goal was not to visit the behavioral research on games/violence nor to give a particularly didactic account of all of the tensions of this genre. There is, of course, much more to say about the issue. The film had modest goals but a clear focus: it examined closely the mechanics of each intervention and the way that public discourse dealt with the challenges. In this way, it was designed to be provocative, to pose questions rather than answer them, just like the artists/activist featured in the film. As a classroom tool to spur discussion, the film is useful. As a comprehensive treatment of the issue, I think I too would be “unsatisfied” with the video. I do know that the Media Education is at this instant working on at least one more film approaching the issues of games, violence, and militarism. It will have a different, and more comprehensive, focus. So for those of us who see this as an enduring issue worthy of examination, keep an eye out.

  2. Brant 10/04/2011 at 11:48 am

    “a stunningly realistic experience of ground combat ”

    I’ve got a problem with this line… “Realism” comes in many flavors that need further definition. In this case, I think they are referring to “realism” as comparison of the digitally-created visual content with the photo/video content from live action. However, simply making the photos look ‘real’ doesn’t mean it’s “realistic”.
    How many videogames have photo-realistic imagery but feature characters leaping tall buildings in a single bound? How often to the player reload? How physically encumbered are they based on the weight of their gear? How much more situational awareness do they have that soldiers in the field do not, though the use of things like an on-screen radar? What role does fatigue play in the gameplay?
    Making a stunning visual and proclaiming it “realistic” is horribly inaccurate and limited, while simultaneously over-reaching for the inevitable headlines.

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