With each new combat simulation game celebrated as the most realistic ever, and contemporary warfare increasingly like science fiction, people are bound to associate actual wars with shooter video games and cinematic warfare. With world leaders seemingly following the same script as the gun-slingers on television, true violence is keeping pace with the entertainment industry's explosive effects. Of course, death is not real in video games. Liberal arguments for freedom of expression have long asserted the difference between representing violent acts and really committing them. But in this age of embedded journalism the information war surrounding real conflicts encompasses more aspects of news and entertainment than ever before. In the cobwebs of mediated consciousness, the narrative threads that connect news and entertainment contribute to real end games, too. What follows is not a call for censorship. Rather it is a critical look at the construction of enemies and the myth of clean war; it is an effort to explore and understand the relationships between entertainment, violence, journalism, and war; and to consider ways that the counterculture might gain a foothold in reversing the trend toward a hopelessly violent world.
In 1961 Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex, shortly before that cocktail of political opportunism, influence peddling and inter-locking commercial interests led the US into Vietnam. Now the problem has expanded to include entertainment. The unfortunate synergy of media corporations and the military has opened a new stage in the theater of war. This new configuration is the military-industrial-entertainment complex, evident in
the close co-operation — and sharing — of ideas and resources: between computer games producers and the military, particularly on pre-training prospective candidates for the US armed forces; between Hollywood producers and the US government on language and concepts [after] September 11, 2001; and between the military's propaganda machine and the entertainment industry's thirst for manufactured and timely "reality" that precludes the possibility of the critical representation of the real. 1
The new world order has been accompanied by a transformation of military intervention into a cyclical economic engine, greased by an array of media products that share an uncritical tendency to endorse any war that can be made to appear necessary. While the tractable news networks channel glorified military propaganda, video games are being used to train and recruit prospective soldiers. On various fronts, and with the mind-numbing complicity of Hollywood, the entertainment industry has assumed a posture of cooperation toward a culture of perpetual war.
To begin to illustrate the dizzy war coverage that hawkish infotainment now provides, it may help to consider a promotional campaign featured on the Fox News website. On May 31st, 2004, the front page news described a bombing in Iraq. A large photo showed a US soldier carrying a machine gun in an urban setting, with a burned-out car in the background.
It may seem incongruous that the War on Terrorism should be "sponsored," but this was no problem for Fox News (Fig. 1). Those who followed the hyperlink from the sponsor's logo arrived at another site with images of American soldiers in urban combat. But this time it was entertainment rather than news. The company underwriting the War on Terrorism for Fox calls itself Kuma Reality Games. Kuma was promoting its urban combat action-adventure game, Kuma War, which features the American military battling against "militant followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the filthy slum that is Sadr City." With careful scrutiny one can make out that some of the photographic imagery on the Kuma War site is synthetic, though it has become difficult to perceive the difference. By mixing gaming and news, they claim to offer "the critical intel you need to understand a world in crisis" (promotional trailer). But Kuma's giddy enthusiasm for the war is hardly fair and balanced.
Through the ethical vacuum of the corporate media board room, war has become a spectacle that resembles entertainment. The news networks compete with each other in producing specialized war music, graphic design motifs, and play-by-play interviews with former generals. In this 'round the clock media circus, public impressions about war are increasingly a matter of story-telling, symbolism and misinformation. Given the vaunted freedom of the press in the United States, there would seem to be a lack of a coordinating mechanism that can drive effective propaganda. But the pro-war, flag-waving format has proven profitable. Fearing that they could be perceived as less patriotic than rival networks, brand conscious media corporations have been willing collaborators in the promotion of war.
The Tyndall Report by the media analyst Andrew Tyndall analyzed 414 stories on Iraq from [American nightly television newscasts] between September 2002 and February 2003 and found that all but thirty-four stories originated at three government agencies — The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department.2
With mainstream journalism embedded and cooperative toward military operations, the range of apparently reasonable debate collapses and political dialogue suffers. Politicians fear that they will be perceived as unpatriotic if they don't stick close enough to the framework of debate established by the major media institutions. This sort of self censorship contributes further to the exclusion of alternative viewpoints. Public opinion formed by these conditions leads to widespread reproduction of the fallacies and misconceptions that are actively promoted by the advocates of war.
Over time such propaganda has the power to transform war into a way of life, into a seeming inevitability. Using a variety of media, each a specialized instrument, writes Jacques Ellul,
Propaganda tries to surround man by all possible routes, in the realm of feelings as well as ideas, by playing on his will or on his needs, through his conscious and his unconscious, assailing him in both his private and his public life. It furnishes him with a complete system for explaining the world, and provides immediate incentives to action. We are here in the presence of an organized myth that tries to take hold of the entire person. Through the myth it creates, propaganda imposes a complete range of intuitive knowledge, susceptible of only one interpretation, unique and one-sided, and precluding any divergence. This myth becomes so powerful that it invades every area of consciousness, leaving no faculty or motivation intact.3
Psychological operations are not just for the enemy anymore, and psychological warfare doesn't stop in peace-time. Information war means the maintenance of a "positive issue environment"4 for foreign occupations and massive expenditures. Not everyone is a soldier, but millions can be taught to react like soldiers. Ex-Marine Chris White explains that civilians who join the Marines are molded
through a logical, systematic process of intense mental and physical indoctrination. The goal of this is to produce troops capable of following orders with minimal agency of their own, efficiently enough to be utilized as a tool of the state, whether the Marine agrees with the orders or not. 5
Since few people actually participate directly in boot camps, selling militarism to the general public is achieved largely through media proxies. The psychological operations experts and political strategists who are called upon to market militarism can draw upon a range of support. The military cooperates with compliant film and television producers, providing access to military equipment, officers, and advisors. The Fox television series "Boot Camp", which was recorded at a military base in Florida, featured real Marine drill instructors. Likewise, the Marines contributed to the production of the John Woo film Windtalkers, but only after it was altered at the request of military censors who reviewed the script. In exchange for access to US military equipment, set locations, and other budget-saving assistance from the Pentagon, Hollywood producers allow the military to have extensive control over scripts, with the Pentagon routinely changing them to reflect their views of themselves and even world history. According to the Army's own manual on cooperation with filmmakers, this serves to "aid in the recruiting and retention of personnel."6
Compliant television networks. Dependable corporate media self-censorship. Academic regimentation, with emphasis on testing and obedience. Athletic Hurrah-Patriotismus. Heavy doses of action cinema. These all contribute to favorable impressions about war and the military. But because forming loyalty is best accomplished when a person is young, games are especially useful.
Blending training and misinformation
The emergence of gaming as a significant forum for military training and propaganda is a fairly recent development. For years games manufacturers have tried to push the envelope of what is socially acceptable. Consequently, with game marketing, 'adverse publicity' is practically an oxymoron. The industry is not afraid to aim low. Sony, for example, tried to register a trademark for 'Shock and Awe' as the Iraq War was still ongoing.7 Far from acknowledging any excess, the game industry would have us believe that it cultivates people. Promotional materials for the heavily advertised World Cyber Games 2004 declare that it is "the world's first and greatest video game cultural festival."8 Despite efforts in the US House of Representatives to criminalize the sale of violent and sexually explicit games to minors (Protect Children From Video Game Sex & Violence Act of 2003),9 it appears that it will take more than moral indignation to explode the industry's pretensions of cultural achievement.
Pentagon funding of game development marks a new phase in the culture wars, which have pitted moralistic Christian conservatives against nudity and foul language. With respect to military recruitment through combat-adventure games, the cultural conservatives are bound to be conflicted. Their authoritarian, xenophobic, and nationalistic leanings may help them to overlook violence in games that are designed by the US military. Meanwhile it's not altogether clear where civil libertarians ought to stand on American-supremacist combat training games, rated T for teens. Should such things be controlled the way that, for example, the propagandistic Voice of America is prohibited within the US?10 Or should all games be given all the protections traditionally accorded to creative works? The steady concentration of media ownership raises questions about the scope of the First Amendment. Instead of protecting individual freedom of speech, it has come to be used by corporations to protect the dubious right to express pornography and jingoism. Civil libertarians find themselves in the uncomfortable position of defending violent entertainment as they seek to avoid the adverse consequences of prohibiting the entartete kuenste (degenerate arts).
Most people who wargame don't become real warriors — although the games have always been especially popular at military academies. Anyone who spends a few hundred hours playing wargames . . . will soon know more about the nuts and bolts of warfare than most journalists who cover the subject, and most politicians who vote on military matters . . . . 11
It is probably true that the games convey a technical familiarity. But it is doubtful that players learn about the essence of war from fun and escapist war games. These simulations, which embody the institutionalized conformity of the armed forces, don't address the meaning of war.
Recent American-led wars have been dubbed 'Nintendo wars.' Particularly when satellite guided bombing is involved, the detached instrumentation demands a new name because it is something other than conventional war. The shadowy specialists who manipulate the combat consoles have passed the Rubicon, entering into cyborg warfare, complete with pixelated surveillance and mechanized execution. Stealth bombers, night vision, depleted uranium, incendiary bombs, cluster bombs, bunker busters, cruise missile strikes, global positioning and mini-nukes. The battle zone is off limits to investigative journalists, who are targets. Still, the corpses of women and children are seen by soldiers, and sometimes documented: proof that the Nintendo metaphor only goes so far. There are reasons why soldiers return with psychological trauma from the front. All the hype used to sell the military life to young recruits falls away quickly when flesh begins to burn. Soldiers are forced to stifle their emotions, blocking out the inhumanity they witness and suppressing the compassion that civilians are expected to feel.
No such torment and alienation accompanies game play. In shooter combat video games, indiscriminate violence and human rights violations aren't of much concern. One must remain alive and retain adequate ammunition. Victory is not contingent upon public opinion. The news media's version of the war is not crucial. The pivotal question is not, as in Nintendo wars, whether the television viewers will accept the real costs of war. Rather, it is whether the excitement of the players will lead them to want to play — and buy — the game itself. Yet for all these differences, there is an important thing in common. Ultimately, public approval, whether of wars or games, is vetted in the commercial terrain of the mass media. Governments and game companies alike are hiring marketing firms to sell their programs.
The military and its game manufacturers are aware that the use of the video game as a recruiting tool is ethically controversial. Pandemic Studios claims its "Full Spectrum Warrior game is not sponsored or endorsed by the United States Army," yet it is clearly a recruitment and training tool. The Frequently Asked Questions section of the game's website sports this hair splitting explanation:
How does Full Spectrum Warrior differ from America's Army?
Elsewhere Pandemic admits that it is "based on a game commissioned by the U.S. Army." Moreover, it was created through the Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina Del Ray, California, a $45 million endeavor formed by the Army in 1998 to connect academics with local entertainment and video game industries.13 These weak distancing tactics do not conceal much. The Pentagon has developed a symbiotic relationship with game companies, which are expected to repackage for the entertainment market the games commissioned by the military. The Air Force is working on a game called "USAF: Air Dominance". Juvenile military recruitment games and combat-training games "based off" actual simulation programs rank among the most notable youth brainwashing campaigns ever devised. In the US, where the government has failed to contain soaring education costs, investing in the seduction of juveniles through fun propaganda is a remarkably cynical use of tax money.
Promotional material for Full Spectrum Warrior is peppered with glib quotations such as "Being in the Army is like being in the Boy Scouts, except that the Boy Scouts have adult supervision." Of course, there are other differences, such as that you can't quit the Army without being court-martialed, and you may be coerced into killing non-combatants. For amusement and profit, game producers avoid critical messages about the horror of war. In the end this amounts to deception, and mandates for truth in advertising ought to be invoked against these tainted products. They call forth a cult of ultra-patriotic xenophobes whose greatest joy is to destroy, regardless of how racist, imperialistic, and flimsy the rationale.
But then, it's not just the game industry. The truth is that gung-ho rhetorical bravado permeates the military itself, which sets sail for Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom amid Desert Storms with slogans like "Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement", "Shock and Awe", "Find, Exploit, Eliminate" (Iraq Survey Group), "Phantom Fury", and "Veil of the Dragon" (468th Chemical Battalion). The Air Force is developing a video game called "USAF: Air Dominance". 14 This epic nomenclature is mirrored in video games, where game titles like "Age of Empires" and "Infernal Crusade" abound.
The armed forces bring a crisis of judgment upon themselves by luring recruits with fantastic advertising campaigns picturing archaic body armor, swords, dragons, and majestic landscapes. The twin demands of volunteer enlistment and multiple-theater wars have squeezed all the sobriety out of military marketing. The fabrication ends up being so complete that even the top brass fall victim to delusional group-think. At times they seem to believe their statements about the preciseness of intelligence, and the surgical quality of bombings, even though these rhetorical flourishes clearly have gained currency for their strategic effect.
Youth-targeted military marketing programs should be defunded not defended, above all because children are the least prepared to sort out contradictory messages about violence. Training for young people should enable a better, more peaceful world rather than a better warrior. The Army-sponsored games focus on rules and obedience, even though their promotional literature emphasizes the development of leadership qualities and decision-making acumen. Game players may be expected to lead a squad of soldiers. But this limited form of responsibility pertains only to the tactical affairs of combat. It is not stressed, for example, that soldiers should learn history and foreign languages so that they could understand unfamiliar social situations better. The soldiers are not expected to understand foreign policy. They are taught some first aid. As such, the kind of leadership the Army encourages amounts to a very narrow ability to improvise in the field. Regardless of the empowering rhetoric about leadership skills, the Army remains committed to developing compliant bodies to operate the various parts of its industrial war engine. Independent thinking, morality, and ethical judgments are not wanted.
Where America's Army has "nuts and bolts" detail, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film, Battle For Algiers, has character development and thought-provoking dialogue. It comes nearer to conveying the human tensions of war than any video game has. It conveys the tragedy of war, the simmering hatred and determination. Audiences are confronted with the political complexities of the positions taken by the French and the Algerians. It is interesting to note that in the period leading up to the war in Iraq, Battle For Algiers was shown in the Pentagon. It was billed as a "rare screening." 15 At the eleventh hour, it was not enough to persuade the people who watched it at the Pentagon to avoid repeating the mistakes of the French. Nevertheless, if Battle For Algiers were the norm for introducing the concept of war to young people, prospects for peace would be a lot better. Instead of sponsoring subtle and cautionary depictions of war, the US government spends millions on promoting and developing biased, shallow scenarios filled with automaton killers and bad guys.
Military officials declare that game simulations are used to prepare troops for dangerous situations. Equally important, however, the games provide a means of desensitization. Enemies are targets. Dehumanized, uniform, and stereotypically evil. War demands that the enemy be dehumanized. When the president of the United States declares that he is leading a war between "the forces of good and the forces of evil," 16 and when both he and his secretary of state refer to the war against Islamic extremism as a "crusade," it is perhaps to be expected that American cultural products echo this lamentable idiocy. In the real-time of Fox News, and in video games, the simplification of cultures and history is itself a form of violence. The reality (or virtual reality) presented by official narratives and industrial entertainment does not adequately describe the experiences of the people who are caught in the real war zones. There, instant justice predominates. Proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" does not apply. Such humane standards of judgment are not applied when killing at a distance, by missile and remote control. The laser-guided judge and jury preside. Predator drones establish blurry video clues as a prelude to prejudiced executions. As a byproduct of the repetitious violence in video games, these acts begin to seem natural to the "people who wargame."
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.
American-made military action games convey diverse messages about America and the world. Misguided notions of war, history, and foreign cultures fuel costly misunderstandings. Anti-American attitudes have been on the rise. The US State Department spends millions of dollars on international advertising to counteract distrust and hatred. Whereas these campaigns to polish the American image have met with resistance, American-made mass-market video games and films are still, generally, welcomed. What special effects do they convey? Despite the widespread appeal of these high-tech games, many are apt to see the violent combat as a reminder of the shocking carnage, recklessness, and surreality of the modern American brand of war. After all, most combat games do not portray the streets of the US, but rather places that look like the most recent war zones visited by US troops.18 In its efforts to proselytize the youth of America, the Army inadvertently alienates those outside the magnetic pull of American patriotism, who may see, as Vonnegut does, "proud, grinning, jut-jawed, pitiless war lovers, with appallingly powerful weaponry." 19 Feeling good about the fiendish imagery of bloodshed and practically arbitrary destruction demands a lot of indoctrination.
Whether blessed by the Pentagon or not, depictions of the military in American culture tend to lack depth and circumspection. War strategy games lack the complexity of real geopolitical, ethnic, and economic relations, which the Californian fantasy industry fails to appreciate or comprehend. With great regularity, regions, histories, cultures and peoples are misrepresented and neglected. The authoritarianism and trigger-happy intolerance that are evident in existing military simulation games does not bode well for the future preparation of soldiers trained with such tools. The failure of preparedness for the inevitable military victory in Iraq suggests that military-sponsored simulations should focus much more on peacekeeping, intelligence gathering, cultural understanding, and infrastructure reconstruction. Though the US military is very good at killing, it has failed at getting the electricity and sewer systems online. It appears that the Pentagon should subsidize games in which players do not carry guns. With so many look-alike game scenarios, unconventional ideas are as rich with potential as hackneyed attempts at combat realism.
There is a tendency to approach the shortcomings of existing simulations as technical problems that can be fixed with the increasing realism of next-generation technology. The US Army's division of Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) has recruited There, Inc. to create a "massively multiplayer" simulation, which the company's Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, describes as a "long-term R & D project."
We are building a prototype world [that] is fully Earth-sized, with a real-world terrain database. So if you were to view it from orbit (which we can do) you'd see...the Earth. And if your avatar were to walk from San Francisco to New York, it would take a very, very long time.... We've built a portion of the downtown area of a large Middle Eastern capital city where we (sic) have a significant presence today. And we can put pretty large numbers of people into that now, and even some synthetic characters (there are a group of women in abayas walking down the street talking and gesturing with each other). We've modified the avatars to be much higher resolution than the [current] avatars.... 20
Producing three-dimensional video games is a complicated business and many of the game companies are based in the US. Technical complexity and rapid obsolescence have limited competition from overseas, especially from countries that are minor players in the software industry. As the video games and immersive simulations become increasingly significant forms of representation, the predominance of American perspectives in the conceptualization of these games becomes problematic. Too often realism is conceived as a matter of pixel density and color accuracy. The moronic cult of optical simulation has insisted for forty years that fantastic virtuality will be possible soon. But optical illusions are only part of the picture. As compared to the millions of hours invested in mastering the computer graphics, social modeling has remained a complete afterthought. The capacity to inform people about life abroad is not necessarily enhanced by the three-dimensional modeling of advanced visualization technologies. The Army would do better to distribute dog-eared, decade-old travel guides. In approaching a simulation of such grandiose scope, the designers should recall the cautions of Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores with regard to artificial intelligence:
It is highly unlikely that any system we can build will be able to undergo the kind of evolutionary change (or learning) that would enable it to come close to the intelligence of even a small worm, much less that of a person.21
It is doubtful that the global simulations currently under development will effectively overcome the dehumanization and simplification that have marked efforts to date. Virtual worlds today lack qualities that historians, sociologists, artists, and writers could contribute if only their insights were valued as much as the physical accuracy of luminance. Better yet, the people being simulated should have significant input into how they are interpreted. But under the circumstances, with time pressures, ideology, and military orthodoxy guiding research and development, it seems unlikely that such changes will be sponsored by STRICOM.
In the contemporary feel-good land of market testing, blockbuster products are bled of historical and political nuances in the interest of profits. In times of war commercial culture wraps itself in the flag and media brands endorse belligerence partly out of fear that they might be labeled unpatriotic otherwise. Major audiences have, in other times, been reached by thoughtful authors, relatively unencumbered by the dictates of box office revenue. Occasionally this still happens. In the mass media culture as well as the marginal press, compelling counter-narratives are needed to bring about subtler views on conflict and patterns of conflict. Narratives that represent violence uncritically are the norm. New narratives and new voices could serve to undermine the gun-happy conventional wisdom. In turning attention to the narrative dimensions that are missing or atrophied in video games, and in comparing video games to other narrative forms, the servile creative trends are unmistakable. With few exceptions, fundamental decisions are governed by marketing calculations. While this primacy of commercialism can be a barrier to unproven alternatives, it is also true that the entertainment market demands fresh choices. Because change is inevitable, there exists a potential for innovative art and entertainment to change how people think about violence and war.
Tilting the game/war playground
The many ways that people currently rationalize violence are reflected in the stories that dominate film, television, literature, and video games. In the evening news as well as in fiction, storytelling plays a pivotal role in explaining why things happen. The superabundance of violence would be incomprehensible without the subtext, the narrative rationale. Whether one focuses on state violence, adventure cinema, or the nightly news, in each case mediated violence is contextualized in narrative ways. Consequently, the techniques employed by propagandists, game developers, writers, and filmmakers overlap.
Story-telling (and fear) can lead people to support things they otherwise would not. Sometimes a protagonist does terrible things, and yet, by the way the story is constructed, one is led to forgive. Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise exemplifies this situation. Louise, played by Susan Sarandon, shoots a man who, although he is a brute, did not deserve to be killed. While the pair are on the run, even the policeman chasing them wants to believe the best about them. Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov is another such anti-hero. Despite his character flaws, readers tend to want him to get away with murder. In the end, forms of redemption operate in both stories that deemphasize the violent acts committed by the central characters.
Nourished for hundreds of years on a literature in which Right invariably triumphs in the last chapter, we believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. 22
Hollywood action-adventure cinema is filled with protagonists who break the law to save the day. So there is a customary tolerance for the vigilante type. People are conditioned to overlook violence when the person committing the acts is coded as a hero. Can there be any doubt that attitudes about real villains and enemies are formed, at least in part, by this fictional convention that goodness prevails? The simplistic division of good and evil that one finds in violent television dramas resonates beyond fictional boundaries. It appears in political speeches and polarizes discussions of world events on the news networks.
In games as well as news, heros and enemies are constructed to appeal to audiences. This intersection of the real and the imaginary is a potent staging ground for propaganda, which is most effective when it's least noticed. As game producers strive to make their combat adventures more realistic, arcade-era enemies like the space invader have been replaced by less abstract villains. Often the game developers have turned to the national enemy du jour for ideas. Almost as soon as a new rogue nation has been identified by Washington, there is a combat game fashioned to exploit the thrilling potential of slaughtering its people. Presently Islamic extremists are in vogue. Fresh military jargon like "blackhawk down" and "collateral damage" flows freely from the Pentagon to Hollywood and the game industry.
With information from the theater of war largely controlled by military spokespeople, the public is left to imagine the reality of the battlefield. In attempting to visualize war with the help of media, it may be that "human beings are not so able to compartmentalize their way of receiving information."23 Caught between the hyper-real bloodiness of the virtual battlefield and the sanitized cheerleading of broadcast news, the public's understanding of far away conflicts is apt to be impressionistic. Distinguishing fiction from non-fiction is a fairly basic interpretive faculty, one that most people — and even children — can manage. Even so, if fictional film did not have unconscious effects, there would be no such thing as product placement advertising. The marketing of everything from situation comedies to soap depends on the advertiser's ability to get people to identify with dramatic characters. As televised news becomes more sensational with each passing war, and game companies like Kuma Reality mingle news with their story lines, how will people adequately distinguish these domains of violence? This potential perceptual vertigo, which may already be shaping public opinions about war, suggests that the problem of extremely violent media extends beyond the effects it has on the troubled teens who imitate the violence that they see.
The abundance of violence in the media reinforces the idea that it's enjoyable to watch violent things. With immersive role-playing, players now act out aggression, too. While studies and warnings about media violence merit an occasional headline in American medialand, the academic debate over the influence of violent media is not likely to amount to much under the present regime of industrial self-regulation. There's little conviction among the inbred media conglomerates that change is necessary, since, after all, they covet the strong ratings that war coverage delivers. Criticism of media violence, led primarily by academic sociologists, has had limited success in part because games are more fun than research statistics and cautionary testimony. Any doctrine that stands in the way of the sizeable profits of video games (and movie adaptations) has little chance of success, especially if it proposes solutions that make consumers feel that they are losing their freedom to choose. This is particularly true in the US: a society that cannot respond effectively to the plain correlation of gun violence and legalized assault weapons 24 can hardly be expected, because of scholarly reports, to revolt against video-graphic entertainment, regardless of how bloody and hyper-realistic it becomes. After all, the video 'shooter' games are in many respects just an updated version of the carnival attractions of years ago. Although assembling statistical findings about acts of violence may lead to reforms of content ratings standards, the problems that arise when media corporations blend news and politics with entertainment will not be solved by labeling game cartridges differently. Interrupting the mesmerizing merger of warfare, propaganda, and entertainment will require a wider range of approaches to the media violence issue.
A group calling itself the "Velvet Strike Team" has produced a series of graphical interventions that can be inserted into the game Counter-Strike. The images, which are by turns too cute or too gay for the combat scenarios that contain them, are just one example of artists attempting to modify and subvert the uncritical experience of violence in the rigidly programmed spaces of shooter games. But exploiting modest wall-papering techniques does not change the overall logic of a game. A shooter is still a shooter. Recognizing the limits of the graphical détournement, the Velvet Strike Team also offers recipes for undermining the Counter-Strike game scenarios.
While these actions are antagonistic, and in most cases probably unwelcome, they may help to delineate the assumptions that are being coded into conflict situations. More fundamental and genre-bending reinvention of game logic may also come from outside the mainstream of game development.
Leading the culture of war in a less violent and destructive direction means developing different common sense attitudes. Challenging conventional representations of violence could diminish the public's appetite for loathsome enemies and conflict resolution by force. Despite widespread apathy, public opinion and behavior are not immovable when it comes to violence. While a cultural movement alone will not easily sweep away the military industrial complex, altering the role that mainstream culture plays in the cycle of violence could have constructive consequences. Formulaic representations of conflict resolution through violence are capable of revision. Already the counter-culture has mobilized huge rallies and deep resentment, against preemptive war in particular. But the negative tone of this activity — anti-war, anti-corporate globalization, anti-Bush, anti-Blair, anti-Berlusconi — has tended to cede entertainment to the affirmative culture of distraction. The power and popularity of ultra-violent cultural products cannot be reversed by unrelieved negativity.
Creating alternative content is therefore a strategy that deserves attention. New stories are always being formed. A viable counter-narrative would need to be as persuasive as the tales people tell each other to justify invading other countries. The counter-narrative would have to contend with the fear, and with the knee-jerk nationalistic and racist convictions that animate debates about terrorism. Yet it could appeal to universal desires for safety and freedom, and warn that individual freedoms are being eroded by the culture of violence, by constant war. Unfortunately, in fact, that is the case, so this story would have the added appeal of being true to life.
Michael Moore has made some interesting strides with his popular documentary films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911. With them he focused attention on subjects like juvenile military recruitment, militarism, and the American obsession with guns. Simply devoting more than the customary three minute news segment to violence issues advances the debate a little. Despite Moore's use of humor, Fahrenheit 911 resembles a feature-length negative campaign advertisement. He attempted to evoke an emotional response by presenting American women and children as sacrificial victims of an evil despot. Unfortunately, vengeful depictions like this, which emphasize primal injustices — like stealing a nation's treasure and killing its children — appear to be more influential than nuanced criticism in today's United States where nearly half of the people no longer read even one book each year.26
Some will lament rather than applaud this in the documentary. But given the failure of the massive war protest marches to forestall the Iraq War, the increasing politicization of the cultural sphere is not surprising. In Moore's defense, his attack on state violence adopts a tone that was established by the authorities he challenges. They delivered the Office of Strategic Influence for spreading disinformation. They spun the Jessica Lynch yarn. They landed the "Mission Accomplished" stunt on the aircraft carrier. In this context, Moore competes for the hearts and minds of the people against government led media campaigns that embrace nationalism, patriotism, and disinformation. Former advertising executive Charlotte Beers — the "most powerful woman in advertising" — was tapped by the US State Department to cleanse the US image. In her capacity as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Beers declared, "It's crucial that we learn how to use emotion in our communication."27 This was essentially a call for more creative propaganda: techniques that aim to evoke non-rational emotional impulses so that we will issue immediate judgment calls on the guilt or innocence of the program, idea, or person.28 To this end the evangelical speech writer, Michael Gerson, actively borrowed from the Bible in coining terms such as "axis of evil," "evil-doers," and "evil ones." It may be rousing rhetoric. But when powerful men speak vehemently of "infestations" and "draining the swamp," human rights violations cannot be far behind.
The relatively non-partisan condemnation of the torture at Abu Ghraib prison reinforces the idea that digging deep for an emotional response is instrumental in influencing public opinion. In the contentious atmosphere of post-9/11 politics, circumstances that inspire consensus are rare and illuminating. Many see Abu Ghraib as a tipping point for American public opinion about the Iraq War, so it is worth considering the anatomy of this conversion experience. The prison photos, with their provocative sexual content, seem to have triggered more empathy (in the US and UK) than the stunning aerial bombardment of Iraq. They provided graphic evidence that the impression of irreproachable American military conduct offered by the Pentagon, the news media, and Hollywood, was exaggerated, to say the least. Suddenly, suppressed doubts reasserted themselves in the public imagination. As the Abu Ghraib prison scandal unfolded, Pentagon spin managers were clearly unable to explain the situation satisfactorily. As they failed to provide an adequate story, the laboriously constructed myths of the war began to crumble. The public's willing suspension of disbelief was disrupted by this unforeseen chapter, in which American villains played essentially the same sadistic role as the Evil One they displaced. It is difficult to tell whether the power of the scandal stemmed from this interruption of the dominant, positive characterization of the conduct of the war, or whether its impact was due more to revulsion from the torture, murder, and sexual abuse. In any case, in the period of diminished trust that followed the incident, as the public evaluated competing claims about what happened, the Pentagon struggled to reshape the meaning of the images by conjuring a face-saving account of the circumstances.
The premise that freedom from terror requires preemptive war, torture, secret detentions, and abundant propaganda is reminiscent of the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four. In it Orwell analyzes the psychology of totalitarianism and perpetual war. He develops the idea of Doublethink: that getting people to hold contradictory opinions makes them easy to control.
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. 29
Many who are told that a military siege is clean and accurate will ignore their skeptical thoughts about the rationales given for the conflict. Call it 'giving the benefit of the doubt.' Nonetheless the behavior depends on the willful denial that Orwell describes. Denial of the humanity of the other. Denial of the aggressiveness of power. Many are reluctant to face such realizations because of closely held patriotic feelings and irrational faith in their leaders. Faced with war, and fear, a reflexive unanimity seizes the imagination. As Herman Goering described it,
The people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. 30
This formula for coercion sounds familiar to peace activists and intellectuals who knew that the months leading up the Iraq War were more of a marketing campaign than a period of deliberation. Diversified propaganda activities, making ample use of the cooperative corporate media, insured that the folly of the war would only be reported when it was too late. As the bombs fell on Baghdad during "Shock and Awe", military spokesmen for the invasion said that the weaponry being used was precise and smart. Far away from the awesome explosive repercussions, in Florida, people at CENTCOM coordinated tactical bombing decisions. Regardless of the accuracy of those far off targets, Americans would soon learn that the facts used to justify the war were themselves inaccurate. A 2004 senate intelligence report revealed that most of the pre-war intelligence about Iraq had been "mischaracterized." 31
War narratives in American pop culture do not, typically, focus on pre-war intelligence and deception. Themes of heroism and valor predominate. The interactive logic of the war game is devoted to evasion, targeting, and resource management. Survival is paramount. If something moves, shoot it. Choose targets from among those presented. Fire. War games — also known as "real-time strategy" games — seldom deal with causes of war. The games focus on what happens after war has been declared. Perhaps the period of peace preceding the fire is the unreal time. To the extent that peacetime is represented, it is devoted to preparation for more war. Unfortunately this appears, more and more, to be the reality that everyone inhabits.
Articulating a causal relationship between games and militarism, racism, violence, and torture is not a simple matter. Undoubtedly a lot of people who are basically non-violent enjoy the competitive mock violence of video games. Still, the emerging importance of interactive, game-like experiences in popular culture demands attention, particularly since the military has already begun to exploit games. A movement to counteract the war spectacle should not lose sight of the ways that warfare has changed in the information age. The confluence of ignorance, concentrated ownership of media, coordinated opinion management, and an enormous military industrial complex have established a very dangerous bias. It shouldn't matter whether it can be proven statistically that imaginative engagement in acts of violence condition people's understanding of real violence. A careful reading of the interplay between geo-politics, warfare, religious fundamentalism, and propaganda provides plenty of warning signals.
Changing attitudes toward violence can begin with many different personal acts: acts of resistance, media choices, creativity. Space for dialogue based on history and on personal experiences can be opened up by people from all walks of life. But art and entertainment have a special role in inspiring the imagination. The practices of writers and artists can help to portray a future in which the inhabitants of oil-rich regions are something more than victims of power, circumstance, and propaganda. A healthy culture must relate the memories and experiences of people who have faced first-hand the pain and brutality of war. A culture of pure distraction is a dangerous instrument of the war industry. In the name of total security, the sad fugue of forceful domination carries far and wide. For some the playground has already become a killing field. Still, efforts to counteract the spectacularization of war may yet awaken the war-loving axis of entertainment as it dreams about wars in space.