Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 18/05/2011

Are video games “precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars” ?

Well, David Sirota thinks so in a recent piece at Salon:

Of late, the video game world has been making headlines with the release of two games — “Counter Strike” and “Kuma War” — themed to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Cue the now-standard debates over the effects of such a simulation on young childrens’ minds. “Is the bin Laden kill game cathartic, educational or just ghoulish?” asks Kokatu. “Are video game re-creations of bin Laden’s compound in poor taste?” wonders U.S. News and World Report. No doubt, we may soon see a rehash of the never-ending back-and-forth over whether such video games makes kids more violent (data suggests they don’t).

These are certainly important short-term questions — but they ignore a far deeper examination of the militarization of video games in general, how the Pentagon has embedded itself into the video game industry, and whether that means video games are selling a longer-term martial political ideology to the nation’s youth. They ignore, in short, the far more important video-game story of the last few weeks — the one briefly reported on this weekend by the Washington Post

He then goes on to cite this weekend’s Washington Post piece on MMOWGLI, suggesting that “Now we get the Navy’s maritime security game looking to crowdsource the ins and outs of counter-piracy tactics. Next month, it’ll inevitably be something else.” He goes on to conclude:

But as evidenced most recently by the Post, the military sees video games as serious business in shaping the larger politics and ideology of the national security state. That means along with questioning a certain game’s graphic nature or individual violence, we must also question whether we want video games being used by the Pentagon to promote the idea that society should deify, heroize and organize itself around the military — aka. the purveyor of institutional violence.

Maybe in the era of “USA! USA!” chants, that is something we want. Then again, maybe not, considering polls on military spending and saber-rattling suggest we aren’t nearly the militarist culture the media portrays us as. Either way, the ethics, morals and implications of the Pentagon-video-game nexus deserve far more attention than they’ve received.

In other words, it’s time to finally admit and then honestly address what video games have become — as much entertainment products as precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars.

Sirota raises some important points about the ways in which popular culture (militarized video games) and public policy (war and peace) may intersect, and the role of the state in potentially influencing that intersection. However, in attempting to make that point he casts his net far too wide, pulling together a range of issues in the hopes that they’ll somehow coalesce into the argument he wants to make. They don’t.

Take the initial reference in the article to games “themed to the killing of Osama bin Laden.” While there might be some broader commentary one could make on social attitudes to violence, terrorism and revenge, the examples don’t have anything to do with the Pentagon. Moreover, the fact that game developers and modders have been quick to develop scenarios based on Operation Neptune Spear is hardly surprising. It was big news, and one of the classic Special Forces operations of the past century. It would be peculiar indeed if game publishers didn’t jump on the bandwagon given that they are in the business of selling games and making money. It would also be odd if gamers didn’t mod an existing game to “play” the operation. Modifying games to address contemporary operations is not especially American and it certainly long predates video games. (I well remember gaming the abortive US Embassy rescue mission in Iran with members of my UK wargames club more than three decades ago using converted Airfix figures, and we’ve got an Iraq-themed home-made version of RISK kicking around the office at McGill at the moment —a place that is decidedly not a hotbed of political support for American military intervention.)

Somehow Sirota then transitions from violent video games to MMOWGLI and a broader Pentagon conspiracy. MMOWGLI, however, isn’t really much of a video-game. Rather, it is a crowd-sourcing platform for policy ideas. More important still, there isn’t the slightest indication that it will attempt to promote any particular values, let alone  “the ideology of the national security state.” Indeed, it is intended to do quite the opposite: to create an online space in which a multitude of ideas can be articulated and interact, including those that might emphasize non-military solutions to piracy and other hybrid threats. As far as I can see even pirates are welcome to participate, provided they have an internet connection.

In citing the relationship between the Pentagon and the Institute for Creative Technologies Sirota is slightly closer to the mark. ICT primarily develops simulations for (military) training purposes, but also developed the video game Full Spectrum Warrior in 2004 for the Xbox, PC, and PS2. FSW was intended as an exploration of whether commercial video games and video game techniques could be used for military training purposes too. Overall, the project doesn’t appear to have been hugely successful as either a game or a training platform.

The Army Experience Center  and America’s Army (both of which Sirota mentions) would be the best example of a Pentagon-video game nexxus. Both are explicitly designed as recruiting tools. As such, they seek to shape attitudes. It is doubtful that either has enjoyed the sort of market penetration or cultural impact to have significantly altered public attitudes to the military or the use of military force on a large scale, however. America’s Army, for example, shows up on Google some 2.8 million times—which sounds impressive until you realize that SpongeBob SquarePants shows up online 21.3 million times. (Perhaps the Navy should recruit him instead. Or perhaps he was already at Abbottabad with DevGru/SEAL Team Six. Now there’s a videogame waiting to be made.)

The issue of the “military-entertainment” complex is an interesting one. It extends well beyond video games to include the decades-old tradition of the military cooperating with Hollywood in the making of military-friendly movies, the US Air Force Thunderbirds, the Army sponsoring Nascar racing teams, military bands playing at major sporting events, and a host of other examples. What militaries do to modify public perceptions is important, and ought to be studied and discussed. So too the impact of militarized videogames should be explored. In examining all this, however, it would be helpful to town down the rhetoric and increase the analytical rigour. (Heck, the next thing you know some commentators will be drawing parallels with Nazi Germany).

Caricaturing MMOWGLI’s playtest as a paragon case of  “precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars” is just plain silly. Even SpongeBob knows that.

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