The Problem with War Video Games

On Monday night I attended a Modern Warfare 3 launch party at a national video game retailer. I was particularly pleased with the diversity of the crowd. I was not the only lady in the house! I spoke with students, an investment banker, a librarian, a building manager, moms, dads, kids, etc.

As Kotaku readers know well, everyone plays video games. The medium has finally, at long last for people like me who have been playing since the 1970's, pervaded our culture and brought some measured level of respect, admiration and thoughtful criticism. And thank goodness for thoughtful criticism, which not only marks the cultural significance video games has achieved (after years locked in the basement), it also plays a vital role in advancing the medium.

The Problem with War Video Games

Video games-–like film, television, theater, dance, music, news, literature, comic books, etc.—are persuasive rhetorical forms. By this I mean, video games tell stories (in both single-player and multiplayer mode) about the world in which we currently live (Kuma War), have lived (COD: World at War) or might some day live (Battlefield 3). These stories, along with all the others that circulate in our media, are expressions of who we are and what we value. The fact that war video games sell so well, tells us these stories are compelling to many millions of people.

So what are the stories of war that generally–though not solely–circulate among the most popular video games? As I said in comments posted to Kotaku on Monday, military-themed video games simplify, glamorize and fetishize global conflict. The narrative possibilities offered players are exclusively militaristic and indiscriminately destructive.

If the response to my critique is to say, "Hey, movies do it too", then we might as well let Jerry Bruckheimer make all the games.

These action-packed blockbusters reduce the complex world of counter-terrorism to an array of advanced weapons systems and precision-guided munitions in a lock-and-load shoot fest. Blind faith is placed in the technologies of war, and the photo-realistic graphics capabilities of contemporary video game consoles create breathtaking, heart-pumping explosions. However, the cost and consequences of these shock-and-awe machines are largely missing.

And yes, this does concern me.

It concerns me at a time when unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are now flying over U.S. borders. When the U.S. Congressional super committee is debating national budget priorities, which includes critical decisions about defense spending. When the fear and anxiety caused by the attacks of September 11, 2001 has been used to elect politicians, justify war in Iraq, misrepresent an entire religious faith, and sell entertainment.

I am not scapegoating video games as the first and only medium to appropriate a seductive, simplistic and techno-fetishistic rhetoric of war. Films have a much longer history of this than games. But, if the response to my critique is to say, "Hey, movies do it too", then we might as well let Jerry Bruckheimer make all the games. Furthermore, video games are not movies or television. We play video games because they offer us opportunities to engage with media and each other in more active ways than film or television.

My interest in taking video games seriously and posing challenging questions about the fictional and half-real stories they tell is because video games matter. Our attitudes and actions about war, conflict, death and the use of weapons certainly matter. We cannot afford to be seduced by the technologies of war, hypnotized by the glow of explosions on our screens and silenced by this claim that "it's only a game."

Nina Huntemann, coeditor of the book Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Suffolk University. She can be reached at nhuntemann@suffolk.edu.