In the last few years, war simulation video games have enjoyed a boom. Marketed primarily to teenage boys and twentysomethings but played by gamers of all ages and sexes, they offer the thrill of the age-old battle against evil.
Particularly popular are semirealistic action games like "Rainbow Six," "Counter-Strike," "Battlefield 1942" and "Medal of Honor," allowing players to become supersoldiers in historical American battles or fight against the current bogeymen, Al-Qaida terrorists. They are obsessively detailed in replicating the experience of battle, minus the more troubling moral aspects of killing that are inherent in warfare. Unfortunately, they also fill the gamer's head with an idealized view of war.
These games are in a different league than your typical GI Joe cartoons. Military shooters provide a deceptive amount of detail, allowing you to literally see the battlefield through the eyes of a soldier. One can play with the exact weapons, vehicles, equipment and uniforms of the army in scenarios that replicate historical conflicts of Vietnam, the Gulf War and World War II, as well as fictional skirmishes against terrorists and guerrillas worldwide. The rush of adrenaline is overwhelming. How did the game designers develop such detailed games? In the answer lies the problem.
New frontier in military recruitment
At a time of falling military enlistment rates, it is becoming more difficult to reach the young. Slick advertisements with heavy metal music and shots of aircraft carriers are not enough to reverse the loss, and mothers are preventing recruiters from talking to their children. But the booming industry of video games provides convenient access to America's youth.
Video games as a whole have experienced a rapid growth in popularity. Seventy-five percent of American households play computer and video games. In 2005, 228 million computer and video games were sold: effectively two games for every American household. The earnings of blockbuster game titles often rival that of Hollywood films. "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" grossed an astonishing $236 million compared to the blockbuster movie "War of the Worlds," which grossed $234 million in the United States.
Consultants from the various branches of the armed forces are paying attention and have been involved in the production of these games. TomDispatch and USA Today reported that the officials from the Army's Infantry School in Fort Benning, in concert with a joint Army/USC project developed the Microsoft Xbox game "Full Spectrum Warrior."
The armed forces also employ simulators to train their soldiers, which according to National Defense Magazine can sometimes consist of modified versions of popular games. In the '80s, the tank simulation game "Battlezone" was altered by military programmers to train Bradley Fighting Vehicle drivers. In the mid-'90s, the military modified "Doom" for use in training Marines in squad combat. Since then, the Naval War College, in Newport, R.I., has worked with Sonalysts Inc. to create more than 500 games. Among them were three combat simulations that Sonalysts developed for commercial distribution by Electronic Arts of Redwood City, Calif., including "Jane's Fleet Command," "688(I)," "Hunter/Killer" and "Sub Command."
The Army has also developed its own video game, "America's Army." According to TomDispatch, it was developed with the assistance of such entertainment and gaming industry stalwarts as Epic Games, the THX Division of Lucasfilm Ltd., Dolby Laboratories, Lucasfilm Skywalker Sound, GameSpy Industries and others. It is a free game, available for download on their website after bypassing many ads for enlistment. By making it free, the Army opened a second front in the recruitment wars, a beachhead in the home of the American teenage male. It can be legally downloaded by those as young as 13; it has been downloaded 16 million times, and there are more than four million current registered players. It is bundled with gaming magazines and given away at NASCAR events and state fairs. The Army spent a total of $7 million designing it, and maintaining the online play option costs it around $5 million per year.
Commentators have frequently noted that the Pentagon's control of coverage during the Gulf War helped the U.S. military avoid the image problem it experienced during Vietnam. Instead of pictures of dead soldiers, crying peasants and severed limbs, the viewer saw laser-guided bombs cleanly hitting their targets in a high-tech spectacle that resembled something out of a video game. The war was portrayed as a conflict -- despite abundant evidence to the contrary -- in which no one died who did not deserve to, an extension of a Saturday morning action cartoon in which the good guys triumphed cleanly over a mustachioed villain. The message was that modern war was clean, efficient and fought by experts.
Today's video games present a similar worldview -- you, the brave marine, armed with high-tech weapons, fight against evil villains who want to kill you. The battle lines are drawn cleanly. No moral questions are posed, and nowhere is the psychological reality of taking a life even remotely considered. No innocent civilians die. The weapons always work like a dream. Your enemies are evil, but they are stupid and will wait for you to attack and kill them. When you die, you can return to the Game Over screen.
There is more to war than strategy and calculated violence. Would a Vietnam simulator game show the countless villages napalmed by American pilots? The infamous photo of a naked girl running down the road, screaming for help? The Buddhists burning themselves to protest the Diem government? The terror of American soldiers as they are cut to pieces in a foreign land by guerillas that melt back into the populace? Mothers crying as their sons come home in caskets? Would a simulator ever show a legless and armless veteran in a VA hospital?
It is difficult to answer the question of what could truly bring to life the horrors of war for those who have not experienced them, but video games are certainly not the answer. No artistic medium has ever come close to replicating the true sensations of combat, though in film and art there are many notable attempts. And, in many ways, even violence designed to be horrific is still completely riveting. Though an antiwar director might want you to be so shocked that you will turn your head away from the screen, you will not. In fact, soldiers in the Gulf War, according to Anthony Swofford's best-selling memoir, Jarhead, used scenes from antiwar movie "Apocalypse Now" to hype themselves up for combat.
With historical war simulators, the military also has the opportunity to rewrite history. The teenage gamers pay more attention to simulators than a boring textbook or teacher. If they play a Vietnam simulator with its flash and sound effects, the conflict's enormous complexity will not register. They will remember military conflicts as pure contests of strategy and force, with none of the external political, moral, historical, ideological and humanitarian factors involved.
Ends justify any means
For all the talk of violence in shooting games, the real danger is the semifascist themes inherent in many of them, and the attitudes that they instill in players. With the notable exception of "Grand Theft Auto," the player usually plays a figure of authority that must snuff out some undesirable. For example, one can get the impression from playing the mid-90s coin-op shooter "Virtua Cop" that being a police officer entirely involves pumping lead into endless waves of dark-suited mobsters. To use a modern example, in "Splinter Cell," the game tells you that, as agent Sam Fisher, "You alone have the Fifth Freedom: the right to spy, steal, destroy and assassinate to ensure that American freedoms are protected." A better slogan for George W. Bush's "War on Terror" could not have been devised. Sam Fisher clearly would not have any problem torturing an adversary, so why should you? The message is clear -- the ends justify any means.
The myriad abuses of the "War on Terror" may be a reflection of a combat force raised on violent video games. According to Gulf War veteran Mary Spio, now the pop culture editor of One2One Magazine, "What we saw in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was the tip of the iceberg -- it was a glimpse of a generation of war gamers coming of age. [V]ideo games that allow players to kill real human beings are desensitizing generations of American society." Douglas Gentile, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University and director of research for the National Institute of Media and Family, agrees with Spio's sentiments: "It is probably more likely to be a vicious circle, where increased interest in war leads to playing these games, which leads to more aggressive feelings and increased negative stereotypes of other cultures, which just fuels more interest in war."
We can look to the past to see the ultimate effects of this kind of subtle brainwashing. At the start of World War I, the impressionable young men of Europe believed that the most noble thing they could do was go to war. They, along with their parents, believed that wars were clean, and the coming conflict would only last a few months or a year at most. They eagerly lined up to do battle with little idea of the reality of war. Then an entire generation of European men perished in the muddy fields of France. They perished in brutal warfare that bore no resemblance to the cherished fantasy of their societies, a fantasy that centered around notions of noble cavalry charges and pistols at ten paces. Through games like "America's Army" and its commercial cousins, the Pentagon is attempting to create a modern version of the noble war fantasy. But right now American soldiers are dying in Iraq, in a conflict they barely understand. For them, there is no Game Over screen and no extra life.