Playing With Gunfire: A Report on the Military-Video-Game Complex

Games Features

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

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
, to name just a few—have also adopted World War II as their

“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 [08] or

As war games continue to gain popularity, and the electronic gaming
industry as a whole becomes more powerful, it’s likely that we’ll see
more war games venturing into modern contexts, with results that might
be edifying, as described by Sergeant McDougal, or absurd. The
forthcoming game starring rapper 50 Cent, Blood on the Sand  (a sequel
to 2005’s roundly panned urban brawler 50 Cent: Bulletproof) will find
him wreaking havoc in the Middle East. The mind boggles at the idea of
pretending to be a superstar rapper running amok in a fictionalized
war-torn country as the daily fatalities roll down the wire.

The soldiers I spoke with agreed that there are still certain lines
these games shouldn’t cross. “The moment you’re rewarded for performing
as our enemy, or you piss on the guys who do this stuff for real,” says
Sergeant McDougal, imagining a game from the perspective of al-Qaeda,
“that’s when I’m marching in the streets.” And Sergeant Stoney
Archambault, an MP in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg,
believes that “production companies should never put America’s army or
any of the allied armies in a bad light.”

The limits of what Western war games can tastefully convey aren’t
just patriotic, they’re pragmatic, and it’s practical concerns that
ultimately hamper the realism of war games. Games will probably never
include the long stretches of tedium that real war involves, let alone
actual injury or death. Sergeant Archambault puts it bluntly: “Fear is
the one thing that games could never recreate.” Rieke compares war
games to reality television: “We still don’t have shows about brushing
your teeth and taking out the garbage,” he says. “The same thing
applies to video games. Realism is great as long as it’s still fun. At
Infinity Ward, in the cases where fun and realism come into conflict,
fun always wins.”

To believe that Americans of enlistment age are naive enough to
take war’s portrayal in games at face value is to believe that
Internet-generation Americans are much less media-savvy than they are.
In Call of Duty 4, Cadet Ng jokes, “Who knew that carrying 50 pounds on
your back and running around all day would actually get you tired?
That’s something video games can’t get too realistic about, it just
wouldn’t be fun.” The transaction is more complex and goes far beyond
games, which are part of a cumulative, media-driven portrayal of war
that affects young Americans on a subconscious level: something less
believed than felt. We learn awful truths about war pretty early in our
lives, but the heroic aura the concept accrues in childhood lingers on.

“I was heartbroken,” Sergeant McDougal says about G.I. Joe, “when I
realized that the Armed Forces didn’t have massive two-way
communication screens inside secret compounds built all in steel, and
unrated sailors who try to take off in F-16s on a whim get
court-martialed, not applauded. I would be an idiot if I thought the
‘Real American Hero’ didn’t influence my worldview.” Whether you regard
this media-driven war boosterism as insidious (for misleading young
Americans about the nature of military life) or admirable (for
inculcating them with a sense of duty and selflessness) obviously
depends on your ideology. But the effect is real, and it’s worth
considering whether video games and other entertainment media influence
or simply reflect culture.

Cadet Ng believes that “if gamers enjoy playing war video games so
much, then they wouldn’t have a problem doing it in real life.” This is
difficult to empirically verify. Enlistees who are influenced by war
video games are also likely to be influenced by a vast array of other
factors: social, economic and familial. Sergeant McDougal has a
different take than Cadet Ng. “I am somewhat disturbed by all war
games,” he explains, “primarily because they’ve gotten into the uncanny
valley of combat patrol while ignoring the rest of military existence.
It’s dismaying to think that a game that accurately emulates a raid is
being played by some guy who would never voluntarily enlist and is
waving a CODEPINK sign as his day job…. [It] grates and galls me to
think that some guy is playing these games and thinking he’s accurately
emulating the reality of a GWOT engagement.”

On the surface, the military’s relationship with games looks like one
of co-option.
Video-game magazines almost always include recruitment
ads for the military, which emphasize the same qualities that ads for
games do: access to bleeding-edge tech, adventure and heroism,
comradeship and community, purpose and fun. And the military has long
provided consultants and aid to entertainment media of all stripes
(sometimes, in hilariously wrong-headed ways: in 1979, the U.S. Navy
provided an aircraft carrier and uniformed personnel for The Village
People’s “In the Navy” video; one doubts this had the desired effect on
recruitment rolls). But the relationship is actually more about
reclamation than co-option, as the military invented the technology
that makes modern gaming possible.

In a 1997 Wired article, Fred Hapgood told the story of Air Force
Captain Jack Thorpe, who—from the late ‘70s to early ‘80s—led the team
that developed SIMNET, an application for linking simulators to teach
group maneuvers via the proto-Internet network: ARPANET. SIMNET
employed avatars, “toy” models and force feedback (akin to the rumble
technology in many modern console controllers), setting the
technological template for first-person, online, multiplayer war gaming
as we know it. The use of simulation technology for training purposes
became widespread in the Department of Defense, and remains so today.

Because of their status as commercial products designed to entertain,
video games are compelled to skirt the more tedious and grim realities
of war, but industrious players are finding ways to inject reality, or
at least countervailing opinion, into these fantasies.
Since 2006,
online activist Joseph DeLappe says on his website, “I have been
entering the America’s Army recruiting game as ‘dead-in-iraq’ and
utilizing the in-game text-messaging system to type in the names, age,
service branch, and date of death of each American casualty” in the
current conflict in Iraq. “Think of me as a participant in the game,”
DeLappe told Radar’s Matt Peckham, “only I’m choosing to be a
conscientious objector.”

And the Jenkins Collaboratory (whose project leadership includes
Timothy Lenoir, a Duke University professor who has extensively
researched and written about the “military-entertainment complex”),
recently received a MacArthur Grant for its project “Virtual Peace: The
Humanitarian Assistance Training Seminar,” a “digital humanitarian
assistance game that creates a learning environment for young people
studying public policy and interaction relations,” according to the
official announcement.

But will it be fun? It’s hard to imagine gamers rallying around the
dissemination of relief as ardently as they drive machine-gun mounted
Hummers through enemy terrain: The humanitarian urge, perhaps
thankfully, tends more toward the real world than the virtual one.
Gaming technology will continue to be used as propaganda, by hawks and
doves alike, for as long as it’s profitable and effective—or until
games blur into the truly immersive cyberspace imagined in sci-fi
classics like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow
, and hinted at by Second Life: virtual worlds with all the free
will, complexity and moral ambiguity of the one we actually live in.

But Second Life isn’t even a game according to stricter
definitions, which dictate that a proper game must have an ultimate
end, an angle or slant. Games demand winners and losers, and as such
they are perfect reflections of militaristic culture. As long as our
way of life is suspended in a tense web of opposing military powers, to
argue that war games shouldn’t exist is naive at best, and hypocritical
at worst. In the end, it should be left to gamers to decide what they
deem acceptable and rewarding in their virtual play.

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