Reality Check: Military Videogames and the Problem of Authenticity
Phil Hammond, London South Bank University

Abstract
This paper addresses the ideological meanings of military-themed videogames (such as the Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, and Battlefield series), and discusses their relationship to real-world militarism through considering the issue of authenticity. Whether a claim to authenticity is made in terms of scenarios, settings or other aspects of gameplay, it ultimately derives from proximity to the actual (primarily US) military. The close working relationship between game developers and the military is apparently a selling-point for players. It may also have benefits for the military itself, in terms of improving training/simulation programmes, encouraging recruitment (notably via America’s Army), and even developing a playable battle-space: DARPA’s ‘Squad X’ project envisions ‘digitized’ soldiers synthesising and sharing data in near real time as they undertake future operations (DARPA 2014).

Beyond the narrow institutional interests of the professional military, though, it is less obvious that this relationship has political or propaganda benefits for the US or other Western states (Schulzke 2013: 70). Indeed, the proximity or resemblance, in recent years, between real war and videogame war seems to work against the authenticity of actual military activity: insofar as war is ‘like a videogame’, it is not ‘proper’ war. If the relationship makes games appear more realistic, the effect on war seems to be to accentuate a sense of unreality or inauthenticity.

Such perceptions – that war has become like a videogame and lacks authenticity – began with the 1991 Gulf War: a conflict that Baudrillard (1995) famously found so lacking in reality that he could declare it ‘did not take place’. What is missing from contemporary (Western) war that makes it seem like a videogame? The realism of military videogames is of course limited in many ways, including the restricted portrayal of injury, death and suffering: aspects of war which also tend to be absent or reduced in other media representations of war, such as in TV news and film. To many commentators, the ubiquitous imagery of ‘surgical strikes’ by ‘smart’ munitions, usually filmed from the missile’s point-of-view, seemed to mask the reality of war in 1991, and again in the 2003 Iraq campaign.

In this context, we might understand the ideological meaning of videogames in terms of their reinforcing the idea that military force is a quick, clean and easy high-tech solution to problems (Thomson 2008). Military games ‘authentically’ resemble a particular form of contemporary warfare, or at least its manufactured image: risk-light and commitment-free. Baudrillard’s argument was fundamentally a political proposition: that the Gulf conflict lacked ‘reality’ in the sense that for Western societies war was no longer politically meaningful. Without a framework of meaning to make sense of the enterprise, war cannot inspire belief or enthusiasm, but becomes empty; a mere image or simulation of war. This ideological problem is only exacerbated by war’s resemblance to a videogame, as cosmopolitan interventionists have realised since the 1999 Kosovo conflict (Ignatieff 2000). Perhaps part of what critics have found politically objectionable about military videogames is that their militarism is generally rather old-fashioned, relying to a surprising degree on the uncontroversial black-and-white morality of World War II or the Cold War. Attempts to address more contemporary contexts in game scenarios may suffer from ‘tabloid geopolitics’ (Gagnon 2010), but that too is an authentic rendering of today’s inauthentic militarism.

References

Baudrillard, Jean (1995) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

DARPA (2014) ‘Squad X Infrastructure Study Seeks Innovative Ways To Improve Dismounted Squads’ Tactical Advantage’, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (News), 8 July, www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2014/07/08.aspx.

Gagnon, Frédérick (2010) ‘“Invading Your Hearts and Minds”: Call of Duty® and the (Re)Writing of Militarism in U.S. Digital Games and Popular Culture’, European Journal of American Studies, 5(3): http://ejas.revues.org/8831.

Ignatieff, Michael (2000) Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.

Schulzke, Marcus (2013) ‘Rethinking Military Gaming: America’s Army and Its Critics’, Games and Culture, 8(2): 59-76.

Thomson, Matthew (2008) What Computer Games Teach Us About War, PhD Diss., University of Nottingham.


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