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Gen. Petraeus with a Video Game Cameo Appearance? War Games Are Almost Indistinguishable from America's Imperial Wars

How war games and other forms of "militainment" anesthetically normalize war in American society.

Photo Credit: Property


David Petraeus may be out of the military and Central Intelligence Agency but he’s found a new role elsewhere — in the game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” Well, his likeness, that is. Set in the year 2025, the first-person shooter  features Petraeus as the Secretary of Defense serving under a female President resembling Hillary Clinton. Gamers first see Petraeus on board an aircraft carrier named the “USS Barack Obama” greeting an apprehended terrorist in an orange jumpsuit. While Petraeus was uninvolved in the game’s production, his “Call of Duty” cameo reveals the symbiotic relationship between video games and U.S. militarism.

“Militainment”, which military expert P.W. Singer  describes as the “blurring of the line between entertainment and war” is not a new phenomenon. Interacting with pop culture helps the military polish its image and gain recruits. There is an entertainment media division at the Pentagon  devoted to advising production on films, television shows, documentaries, advertisements, computer games, and other forms of entertainment.

Directors who wish to shoot films with scenes featuring the military request access to equipment and bases from the Pentagon, and in return, the Pentagon “assists” film production. This  comes down to reviewing film scripts and advising the film’s portrayal of the military. This helps filmmakers add realism to their films at a cheap price. However, it also tames filmmakers’ vision by pressuring them to ensure that their films do not offend the military or risk receiving no Pentagon support.

A similar relationship exists between the U.S. military and video game industry. According to an employee in the video game industry (who declined to be named for professional reasons), game companies commonly hire military advisors, who are either still in or left the military, to help with “authenticity.”

In “Black Ops II,” Lt. Col. Oliver North, who is infamous for his  role in the Iran-Contra scandal, not only  advisedproduction but also  appeared in the game’s multi-part documentary. Some gamers  criticized the fact that North advised the game’s production because of his record. “Call of Duty” creators  told Kotaku that North’s consulting helped make the game more realistic. Most military advisors are less high profile. Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey, a retired Army officer, is also a  lead military consultant for the “Call of Duty” series. Seven U.S. Navy SEALs advised production for Electronic Arts’ “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.” However, they were later reprimanded for revealing “classified information connected to their tradecraft,” CNN  reported.

While very different from actual war, there are certainly elements of realism in war games such as “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor.” Players can shoot people with realistic-looking weapons, like rifles and pistols, call in airstrikes, shoot from  drones, fire AC-130 gunships, and  torture people. Some of the  video footage from AC-130s in “Call of Duty” look  strikingly similar to real AC-130s and even the “Collateral Murder”  video released by WikiLeaks, in which a U.S. Apache helicopter  killed a dozen Iraqis civilians and two Reuters journalists. In fact, Al-Jazeera English  pointed out that a level in “Call of Duty” portrays an “eerily accurate version” of its newsroom. Other levels include locales in  YemenPakistanAfghanistan, and  Somalia, countries where the U.S. is waging conventional and covert wars.

“Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor,” in particular,  immerse players in the world of special operations. The games’ stories put gamers in the  role of elite commandos fighting terrorists around the world. In an advertisement for “Medal of Honor: Warfighter” a narrator says, “Who are we? Ask the Somali pirates. Ask the men who hide in Pakistani compounds. They’ll tell you. We’re the ones hunting the hunters,” amidst game footage of the game’s Tier-1 operators fighting terrorists in multiple dangerous hotspots. While there are some instances in these games where players can play enemy forces, the stories are driven by U.S. soldier or commando protagonists. This mimics America’s  growing use of special operations forces to execute lethal actions against suspected terrorists around the world.