Another Too-Realistic War Video Game: We Need a Book on this Topic…

I guess bloodbaths are fun…


A few months ago, after endless referrals by my students that it was ‘totally awesome’ and ‘the real war on terrorism,’ I finally played the controversial Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. While much of it is entertaining to be sure, it is also disturbingly realistic and sadistic.  In fact, parts of it aren’t really ‘enjoyable’ at all, particularly the notorious airport massacre, where they expect you to mow down (yes, mow) civilians as a terrorist. (What psycho put that sequence in?) At the time, I said we really need a serious treatment of video games in IR. (I admit to being a fan of the Halo series, but in part because the aliens are silly non-human targets, so the ethical questions raised by ‘playing’ Modern Warfare are muted.)

Here we are again. I haven’t played this game, but who are these guys at Activision that come up with this stuff? A hat-tip here must go to Jon Westen for sheer stupefaction on this. There is so much wrong here, yet it is so obviously campy, I don’t know what to think. The best part has to be 0.14, with the smiling, chunky pre-teen blowing down the door for an Iraq-style house-to-house sweep. I know we are supposed to laugh (one can’t help it; check 0.44 when the fat guy falls over from the RPG back-blast), but isn’t it supremely immoral to laugh at realistically portrayed combat, especially when the military of the game’s target audience is involved in exactly this sort of urban combat? (The commercial is clearly modeled on Black Hawk Down.) I asked a similar question once before: is it moral to laugh at North Korea?

This raises a million good questions for a dissertation, although an interdisciplinary one, because the writer needs training in both communications and ethics to really get a handle on these issues. Here are just a few thoughts:

1. Without advocating censorship, is it ethically proper to take entertainment pleasure from direct, first-person involvement in realistic war scenarios? This strikes me as different from watching a war film that is realistic. No one would say that Saving Private Ryan or Platoon are enjoyable in the same way that these sorts of games are intended to be. The former are exposes that are tragic, and learning experiences for the audience on the horror of violence while nonetheless recognizing the moral necessity of force sometimes. In that sense they are good, and I recommend them in class. By contrast, games like this entertain through adrenaline rush: war is exciting not tragic, in the vein of the film 300 or Starship Troopers.

2. In defense of the games, the literature on battlefield stress does in fact identify the thrill of combat as one possible reaction. This theme was (badly) explored in the Hurt Locker last year. And in the far better Generation Kill, this is a topic of regular conversation among the soldiers, and the colonel in the last episode openly admits that he enjoyed the combat. (Patton said the same thing, that ‘war is hell,’ but he ‘would miss it so.’) And I imagine that in a dim way, that is what the game makers had in mind above when they made this commercial, particularly when they show the ‘combatants’ smiling as they blow stuff up. So we are all tempted by the thrill of killing? But aren’t these the sorts of Freudian, primordial, bloodlust instincts we want to tamp down? I think that is the ultimate moral problem of the commercial. War is supposed to be something awful and tragic; isn’t it political incorrect to show it as a kick-a– high like Hurt Locker or Ernst Juenger suggested? But if it really is that kind of high, are the Activision game designers just showing us our true nature? Tough…

Whoever writes this dissertation/book faces the obvious credibility problem that the field might laugh at it. That is an unfortunate by-product of IR’s stubborn determination to be as irrelevant as possible. But here are a couple possible tropes:

1. Our students, and many others, play these games a lot more than they read the world politics textbooks we assign them. They function, however badly, to communicate information about international relations to the public, and ignoring that out of professional hauteur is just arrogance. This is one reason why ‘IR and film’ courses have taken off in the last decade or so: so many people watch them. So the gap in literature, however silly it might initially appear, is there.

2. A distinction can be drawn between strategy games and first-person shooters (FPS). In grad school, I knew lots of fellow students who enjoyed the Civilization video game series, and just about anyone with an interest in history played Risk or Axis and Allies as a kid. (Risk taught me where Kamchatka was when I was 11.) These sorts of games focus on cost-benefit analyses, resource mobilization, probability estimations, etc. – i.e., game theory. The blood and death of war disappears behind primitive plastic representations, and the challenge is really bureaucratic not adrenal. By contrast, the ‘fun’ of the FPS is precisely the bloodbath, which is why they sell so much better and provoke so much more discussion.

3. The moral discomfort lies in the evolution of games from identifiably unreal entertainment into real-life simulations. Barnett makes the astute observation that unmanned drones used in combat are miniaturizing in such a way that they increasingly resemble the model planes people can build in their backyards. Gaming is similarly blurring these sorts of lines. I recall reading that race car drivers were practicing on the Gran Turismo video game, as were pilots on Microsoft’s Flight Simulator game. When I visited Ft. Jackson, SC once on an educator’s tour, they showed us how FPS video game technology was adapted for training simulations, and, of course, the Army has come in for all kinds of criticism with its America’s Army game, which, its detractors claim, is a shameless recruitment tool that militarizes high school. My point is that the more video games are like virtual reality, rather than a playful pause or break from reality, the more criticism will grow of disturbing content. It is the simulation of reality, not the violence itself, that so worries people (that is why Halo-style alien-invasion games are never so controversial).

So if you are a closet video junky, here is your excuse to intellectualize your couch-potato-ness. It could be a very interesting book.

11 thoughts on “Another Too-Realistic War Video Game: We Need a Book on this Topic…

  1. I actually play quite a few video games, my most recent being the Left 4 Dead and Fallout series. Without really thinking about it too much, I started picking titles that involved a greater suspension of disbelief than say, the Medal of Honor series. I played the first Modern Warfare, and was only comfortable it because, with the exception of Russia, it took place in fictitious countries.

    Where I draw the line is, as you mentioned, gunning down civilians in airports and playing in actual wars. I would have at least have given game designers credit if you could make a decision whether or not to participate in the airport massacre, or somehow influencing events that make it unnecessary. (The Fallout series is a great example of this, where averting violence is still as deeply satisfying as setting off a tactical nuclear weapon.) But to trap the player in a situation that all but makes the massacre a fait accompli strikes me at best as poor storytelling and at worst sadism.

    I’ll admit that if you pull back the lens far enough I do enjoy games like Axis and Allies and Hearts of Iron, but like you said, the pleasure in those games is in application of game theory, unlike Modern Warfare 2, where the pleasure is pulling the trigger and making people fall down.


    • I am not sure myself. It does strike me as sadism, but if I shoot aliens in Halo, does that allow me to pretend I am not a sadist by saying, ‘well, they’re just silly aliens’? That is something of a moral dodge. It is a tough issue, and one the merits some real trreatment I think.


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  3. Seeing that we already happen to be discussing points regarding Another Too-Realistic War Video Game: We Need a Book on this Topic… Asian Security Blog, People have been trying to play games on computers almost since the days of the very first computer. As early as 1950, Claude Shannon, a mathematician and engineer, believed that computers could be programmed to play chess in competition with humans. He became intrigued with the concept of artificial intelligence. In pursuit of this idea researchers and scientists designed crude games that could be played on the huge and clumsy computers of the 1950s and 1960s.


    • Interesting. I didn’t know that. My concern is not game theoretic challenges like chess or tetris, but the gratuity of violence in sequences like the Modern Warfare 2 airport massacre. In movies you just watch that stuff, but shooters up the moral ante by asking you to more directly participate. That is a new level of moral engagement I think.


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  6. Ok so I see and understand what you’re getting at. First off let me remind you that this is a video game, incase you’ve forgotten. I have played a lot of video games in my life. Now, keep in mind the game strictly states when you first play it that there is graphic mature content (meaning the airport level) and if you arent comfortable with it turn it off. The push in first person shooter video games from 2007-present has been all about adding realism. With the graphic improvements over the years, the only road to follow would be.. adding as much realistic detail as possible. Again I’ll remind you this is a video game, not real life, incase you’d once again forgotten. In a world where all you see on tv is “terrorist this, terrorist that, attack here, suicide bomber here, blank number of u.s. soldiers killed in iraq” following this path was a no brainer for game developers.

    All video games that have to do with war have been designed to make it feel like a rush, and like its not tragic. Why? Well I believe in a lot of reasons, but the main one may be because you “respawn” in a video game. If you want to teach how bad war is by using a video as your prop, I’d suggest finding a game where you get one life. You play this war, and if you die, the game is done. Forever. You can never play it again. I wonder how many people would play that game and learn from it?

    Get off your high horse, if you tried the game and were bad at it, don’t play it, or be patient and practice. You have a lot of research and learning on the subject of video games to participate in before you write another mis-leading article like this again.


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