Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I don't own a Xbox 360, but lucky I go to a college where the library owns one for me. Between classes on Friday I discovered a hidden gem: a shiny Xbox 360 that was connected to a big screen HDTV. I decided it was time to use my well spent tuition money and booted it up. They had a large selection of two games consisting of Table Tennis and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. I picked Ghost Recon so that I could discuss and examine the "myth" behind the game. I also wanted to look at a phenomenon that occurs regularly in video games: the creation of a well designed and fun game, that features content that boils down to propaganda. Games that sway minds to support the war, and love the patriarchy that exploits women, the poor and the underprivileged. A game that turns war into just a game, completely overlooking war's true nature. I know that as I play this game I'm taking in these messages, but I'm having a blast.

The myth behind the war game's text is that war is an acceptable option. War is clean, swift, and only eliminates those that wish to do harm to the innocent. Specifically, the United States fights wars in this way, and that it has the right to conduct war in any country that we see fit. We bring justice to the world. This has been a part of our culture for generations. The game puts forth this idea through normal game conventions: shoot the enemy, move to the next location and shoot more, reach end of the stage, watch the cut scene congratulating you. The game hooks us in by placing itself in realistic settings that remind us of current world issues, like the war in Iraq. War games have pushed to be more and more realistic; to represent real world conflicts. The game world, however, is a world without consequences. If a team member dies you can revive them with the Y button, and of course you can retry from the nearest save point if you happen to be killed. The enemies are reduced in this game as nothing more that red diamonds which indicate their location in the game screen, and when they die the diamonds turn white. In game play terms this is useful in that it keeps the game easily accessible, but in turn, it completely dehumanizes the NPCs. And speaking of white, the only choice for the main character is a white male, who leads a squad of culturally diverse troops through the battlefield. No big deal if your African American gunner gets killed--you can just revive them, but if the white commander gets shot, it's game over. The enemies are also non-white, and the action takes place in a Mexican-influenced third world country. This defines the myth that America can do what it wants in poor countries.

To get back to a previous point, even after knowing all of this I still have fun with it. Overall, it is a well designed video game, with pretty graphics, interesting situations, and good controls. But herein lies the rub. Too often people play these good games, and get caught up in the game play, not grasping what they are saying to them. It's perfect propaganda: the player gets to have a great time, while imperialism feeds them messages of war. Why would advertisers be making games, and why would the actual army make a game, if it's not a strong form of suggestion? It's the power of simulation. Being able to act out in a simulated environment and make mistakes, to explore and hop into the role of soldier, allows a person to understand what it is like. It fills them with the mentality needed to act in the situation. If you have played a shooter on X-Box Live it is clear to see this soldier mentality in action. It's creating people that will support war. If the design of the game is to further reinforce this fairly tale notion of war, then it only serves those that benefit from war. I think it to be possible to reflect on war in a way that would leave the player not siding with it. Or to at least start a debate. A perfect example would be Shadow of the Colossus, a fun game that examines themes of violence and the exploitation of nature. Playing GRAW and other games like it reminds me of imperative it is that we be aware of the messages within our media.


Jacob said...

Interesting post, Shions. I do agree that a lot of gamers get involved simply in the gameplay of the game, taking for granted the messages affirmed throughout.

I recently read an article about GTA: San Andreas and how that game affirms fixed notions of race and segregation. Of course that issue wasn't addressed when, a year or two ago, Congress initiated legislation making it more difficult for minors to purchase M-rated games, which I'm not entirely against. It was all about the violence and sex of the game. At the same, as the article pointed out, despite all of the war games that are out on the market now, and have been for years critical and commercial successes, it takes a game like GTA:San Andreas to cause furor. Is that due to the main character being black and the environment of the game being an exaggerated notion of "the hood" or "the ghetto"? Why were the two previous GTA installments, which had white main characters and were just as violent, not causing a furor in Congress?

It seems to me that if video games are not affirming fixed notions of race or war or patriotism, then a backlash is created. But so long as war games, at least, continue to fight the good fight against those "others" then there's no reason to get upset, no matter how bloody a battle it may be.

Guilded Lily said...

Nice thoughtful post - There is indeed a great deal of power in simulation. Interestingly enough, a sharp line has always been drawn between games and simulations (such as those used for specific training) but it is a pretty fuzzy concept in reality as it works itself out inside our heads. It is nice to see you looking into those implications here with Ghost Recon, but still being able to enjoy yourself playing the game.

Shions_Glasses said...

Thanks for the comments. That's a really interesting take on the controversy surounding vgs Jacob. Nobody cares about violence if its promoting American values. Look at history class. And I think its silly to separate game and simulation. They both allow a user to represent themselves in a fictional situation, in which they can explore and make choices. We shouldn't downplay games just because they were created for entertainment.

Nick said...

I found myself agreeing with you about the power of video games as propaganda. I find myself playing games like Battlefield 2 that encourage players to kill in the most efficient and devious ways to emerge superior to the opponent.

It really is propaganda - all the glory and glamor of war in digestible portions without the truth and suffering.

One of my biggest fears comes from watching my thirteen-year-old brother and his friends get engrossed in GRAW and Gears of War and the way they discuss fighting. The dialogue on Xbox Live is very nationalistic and judgmental - such that it gives me pause to consider what sort of mentality online gaming like that breeds.