Playing With Gunfire: A Report on the Military-Video-Game Complex
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From chess to Halo, games about war are as old as war itself. Paste examines the history, benefits, costs and ramifications of the massively popular world of virtual war.
In Capcom’s 1985 coin-op smash, Commando, you fire white pellets at endless streams of generic enemies. When hit, they simply vanish, leaving no trace on the stylized tropical environments behind them. In real war, the cost of a human life is inestimable. But in Commando, life’s value is both measurable and dirt cheap: dropping a quarter in the glowing slot bought you three lives. That’s a little more than eight cents per.
War’s strategic, competitive nature makes it ideally suited to
games in all media. Long before the digital revolution, games like
chess, capture the flag, football and Risk used the concept of warring
nations and their resources as frameworks for play. But
digital-simulation technology has been especially conducive to martial
What it means to digitally recreate war for fun is an important question, especially now that video games have attained mainstream popularity rivaling music and movies. The Entertainment Software Association reported over nine billion dollars in total sales (including consoles, console games and PC games) in 2007. And the top-selling game of that year was Activision/Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which, as of January 2008, had sold more than seven million copies since its release in November 2007. Video games are no longer a niche market; they’re a cultural bellwether.
From Commando onward, war games have tended toward greater intimacy and realism. Like so many culturally significant stories, this one involves technology gradually catching up with our fantasies. Chess places the player in the role of a general and imagines war as purely tactical, equalizing infantry fodder and military infrastructure as carved icons constrained by elegant, inviolable rules. While many real-time war-strategy games still employ this abstract approach, the real innovation of war video games has been to privilege the visceral over the cerebral, casting players not as generals, but as pawns immersed in the chaos of the battlefield.
As video games become more immersive, plunging headlong toward true holodeck-style virtual reality, and as war itself becomes increasingly virtual, waged via satellites and computer screens, the relationship between the two becomes more entangled. But this is nothing new. Going as far back as the early ’60s when several MIT students created a game called Spacewar! by hacking a simulation program in a university lab funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), video games have been inextricably linked to the military.
America’s Army, a first-person shooter owned and developed by the U.S. government, is a far cry from the cartoon sprites of yore. You move through a lush 3-D environment with realistic textures and touches of natural beauty. In the tutorial phase, wisecracking officers teach you how to fire various authentic weapons, use a bipod, and climb rope bridges. As you learn where you’re allowed to walk and where you aren’t, and what you have to do to advance the game, you might feel a familiar sense of diminishing options.
Playing America’s Army illuminates how all video games— even the so-called “open world” or “sandbox” ones (which supposedly provide players with a higher degree of freedom than traditional, linear games)—are good at indoctrinating players with values prized by the military: discipline, conformity, obedience and a willingness to repeatedly perform arcane tasks to minute specifications. Pace-setting open-world franchise Grand Theft Auto grants players superficial freedoms while teaching them the algorithms required to eventually win.
As such, America’s Army, openly acknowledged to be a recruitment tool, scarcely needed to tamper with extant first-person shooter protocols in order to give players a realistic idea of military life (with some conspicuous PR-related omissions, including civilian casualties and excessive gore). It simply replaces bossy wizards with uniformed officers, and fantasy realms with military bases. Tony Ng, a cadet at Valley Forge Military Academy & College, characterizes America’s Army as “very realistic” compared to his real-world military training.
By channeling players into the game world via their own embodied perspective (instead of an avatar), the first-person shooter has been pivotal in war games’ shift toward greater player immersion. The format was popularized by 1992 PC game Wolfenstein 3D, where the player explored a faux 3-D castle, blasting monstrous Nazis, culminating in a final boss fight with Hitler himself. Many of the most popular modern first-person shooters—Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms, to name just a few—have also adopted World War II as their setting.
“In terms of pure gameplay,” explains one of Call of Duty 4’s lead designers, Zied Rieke, “World War II has an enormous amount to offer: massive forces using a huge variety of weapons; fighting in diverse locales; militaries that are both uniquely equipped and equally matched; unambiguous conflict between good and evil, democracy and tyranny; historical and cultural relevance to most of the world.” The widely accepted moral clarity of WWII ultimately makes it more appealing to game designers than, say, Vietnam. “The idea of playing a game that tries to emulate the complexity of Vietnam is a little insulting,” says Seargent First Class Patrick McDougal, discussing the game Conflict: Vietnam. “I can’t imagine playing it in front of my Vietnam vet uncles.”
But even at a distance of more than 60 years, WWII games have occasionally found themselves in hot water. In 2000, Medal of Honor was added to Germany’s index of youth-endangering media for its use of the swastika, which under German law can only be used for historical, educational and artistic references. Whether war video games can refer meaningfully to history, or only transform it into a playground, is at the heart of their embattled morality. Rieke believes that war games can shed light on history. “[In Call of Duty 4], our take on modern warfare is definitely dark and gritty,” he explains. “I think it would feel wrong to try to portray it in any other way. Especially in a rah-rah ‘America, fuck yeah!’ kind of way. We aren’t trying to make a documentary, but we definitely try to show the good and the bad aspects of war in equal measure.”
Besides its massive sales, Call of Duty 4 is a benchmark because it finally discards WWII in favor of modern combat, with contemporary arms technology and Middle Eastern battlefields. All three of the soldiers who commented for this article named CoD4 as a favorite. Sergeant McDougal says that CoD 4 is “cathartic, but not necessarily in a good way. It scares the hell out of me to see eerily accurate Middle Eastern environments, U.S. equipment and guys going down left and right. My wife thinks that games like this serve as therapy, and I’ve got to say that they trigger emotions entirely different from, say, NHL  or MotorStorm.”