Pop Culture and International Relations Theory


Just about everyone plays video games now, and a sizable chunk model international relations in one way or another. Over the years, I have noticed that students have picked up ‘information’ from games – just as they do from film – which filters into the classroom. For example, I had a student once who insisted on basing his cyberterrorism paper on the scenario of Die Hard 4. Film, and increasingly now video games, are a shared language and pool of narratives among our undergraduates. They provide common stories and references, just as the transmission of Homer did among the Greeks. But the big films of the last 40 years are the stories they know now: my students are far more likely to know the Star Wars mythology than classical myth. Yoda has replaced Zeus, and Halo replaced the Iliad as a depiction of combat.

This raises all sorts of interesting pedagogical questions, and it places a burden on us as teachers to at least be mildly informed of what they watch and play. (If you don’t,  students think you are a hopelessly out of touch dork they can’t relate to, and hence, you are less likely to reach them.) The study of IR film is mature, but I have yet to see any serious treatment of video games as either depiction of international relations or as teaching tools. Duck of Minerva has touched on this a little bit. But this topic needs to be really worked on by someone in IR with an interest in communications. It doesn’t strike me as a well-organized enough topic for a dissertation, but definitely an MA. If Lord of the Rings can be discussed as an IR teaching tool, then so should gaming. Most of our students now game. Military games are hugely popular – including a bestseller released by the US Army itself originally designed as an in-house simulation and now used as a recruiting tool. Such games regularly include depictions of war, the normative concern behind IR’s very existence. At the very least we should think about how this impacts what they bring to class.

Sound ridiculous? Actually, in my experience in the classroom, it’s not at all. Whenever a big war or history movie shows up in theaters, we inevitably discuss it in class, because students ask questions about it or it otherwise creates such a stir in the larger society. So frequently did I notice this when I first started teaching, that I actually bought a few movies that I was asked about most, because I thought it was a good idea to know them well – including Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, JFK, and the Hurt Locker. This has been a constant experience in teaching undergrads. It may depress more mature readers and IR observers, but it is nonetheless a reliable element of teaching undergrads. In fact, so prevalent are references to Black Hawk Down especially, that I even read the book, because I fielded so many questions on it.

I don’t have the training in media studies for this, but two video games which I have played leap out to me as relevant in IR – the Civilization series and the Modern Warfare series. Civilization is essentially a state-building simulation, complete with interaction with other states, including warfare. But Modern Warfare is far more important given how much the games have sold and how directly they model the current GWoT. The sequel is basically  ‘Iraq War- the video game,’ which is pretty shocking the first time you see it. Sequences are ripped straight out of the documentary Generation Kill. The battle-realism of the violence is far beyond anything you have seen in a game before. The gunfire, killing, and destruction are extreme and amazingly graphic. There are no aliens that are morally easy to dispatch by the battalion (Halo, Quake, etc). Instead your character knifes people, shoots dogs (yes, that’s right), and fairly easily racks up ‘collateral damage.’ At one point, your character even participates in a terrorist massacre at an airport (video above), which generated a big controversy apparently. Quite honestly, it is a shocking sequence in the game – you are expected to participate in machine gunning hundreds of civilians! The sequence creeped my wife out so much she made me turn the game off. This is calling out for a serious treatment.

8 thoughts on “Pop Culture and International Relations Theory

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  8. Even over 6 years later, this post is as important as the day it was published.

    A bit of personal history. As a professional mariner I joined a ship in Singapore. During some liberty time, I learned to play Counter Strike at an internet café where I experienced the excitement and noise of LAN gaming. There were no shortages of players choosing the Terrorist side. As a former US Marine, I despised the thought of playing a terrorist and always opted for the Counter Terrorist team. Then I could pretend to be a Navy SEAL—as much of step down the experience might be. 😉

    Later, I sailed to Durban, South Africa and had another opportunity to play the same game in a similar internet café. The moral crisis hit a little closer when a young kid of a Middle East descent sitting next to me asked with a very inviting tone, “My friend, come join the terrorist side with me.” My befuddled heart just about stopped as I gazed emotionless into his young face. But, with a calm voice I assured him that it was not possible for me to do that.

    It gets better. Counter Strike is a modification of the game Half Life. Another modification of Half Life is called Day of Defeat which uses World War 2 as its genre. South Africans being as friendly as they are also invited me to try this new game. One of them politely told me that even though he wanted to play, it was impossible for him to play the German side. “It’s because I’m Jewish, and don’t want to play the same side as the Nazis. My family has personal history from this war.”

    It gets better than that. After a 7 month hitch on the same ship that I started in Singapore, worked in South Africa and the Indian Ocean, made a shipyard period in Singapore again, and finally home ported in Honolulu, HI, I flew to my home to the United States just in time to see 2 planes fly into the World Trade Center, 1 fly into the Pentagon, and 1 crash into a Pennsylvanian field.

    I don’t like the idea of children having the option of choosing the terrorist side. Iraq and Afghanistan has its own Special Forces and counter terrorist police. Why can’t these same games have young kids use avatars dressed up as today’s new crime fighters?

    Also, I think it’s quite possible that if you have two teams for a computer game, and the real players are all Jewish former US Marines, then shouldn’t it be possible that the opposing player only looks like “the bad guy” but when that opposing player looks in a Virtual Reality mirror, he sees himself as a Yarmulke covered Devil Dog. Essentially, the player doesn’t have the option to choose the terrorist. He must fight as a cop and counter terrorist. If he’s to set charges to destroy an objective, it’s to blow the enemy’s supply depot and not a bus full of school kids. But, to the opposing players, who are also Yarmulke wearing Jarheads, they see opposition avatars that appear as dressed up terrorist with all assorted boogeymen apparel.

    For this same reason, I don’t play Grand Theft Auto. Why chance bad habit forming from questionably moral/immoral game play? Why not enforce good moral habits from good crime fighting game play?

    For more reference on forming the young man into a fighting warrior, I recommend “On Combat” by Dr David Grossman (and his previous work “On Killing”). Also, if you liked Mark Bowden’s “Blackhawk Down,” I recommend “Killing Pablo” also written by the same author. If you’re short on time, then watching Netflix’s “Narcos” and the documentary “Cocaine Cowboys” will give details quicker. Also, “Public Enemies” by Bryan Burrough is an excellent read. The movie isn’t able to cover all of the details of the book.

    What free societies need is a better education that helps confront the moral crisis before criminals syndicates (like those we’ve seen through much of last century) take control of states’ apparatuses.

    This moral crisis is endemic to the human condition and should never be considered “solved” such that no further study be needed nor next generation no longer be concerned. Bad behavior from bad habits is as pervasive a threat as rust attacking a steal skinned ship plying a salty restless sea.


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