While some fight real wars the rest of us play fake ones

The drums of war are beating but many people are too far removed to hear them. Many of us would rather play another round of Modern Warfare or Battlefield than pay attention to foreign affairs.  We attend to these fictionalized wars with our money and time, despite the relative boredom with which we regard the ones taking place in our real lives.  Last Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the President and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, but what he had to say will likely not register with those of us outside the Washington D.C. beltway.

The gravity of a war with Iran, a fourth overall in less than 12 years, seems not to have dawned on most Americans.  In political debates, public deliberation, and media interviews, America’s military conflicts are glossed over.  Since the early aughts, the nation has been engaged in two prolonged ground wars, provided air and naval support in a third, and executed airstrikes, covert raids, and training missions in several other countries.  None of this occurred with extensive oversight by Congress or energetic scrutiny from the public.

After 9/11, then President George W. Bush asked Americans for their, “Continued participation and confidence in the American economy,”  And when it comes to the purchase of ribbons, flags, and first-person military shooters, we Americans have been more than willing to serve our country.  But when it comes to paying higher taxes, enlisting in the military, advocating for and volunteering to provide greater support for veterans, or simply being more active and vigilant democratic citizens, most of us have been shamefully MIA.

Instead, as America’s political and military leaders discuss the potential for yet another war, its citizens learned earlier this month that EA is working on Medal of Honor: Warfighter to be released later this year. It will not be alone, however, because Activision will release its second Black Ops title around then as well. And just a couple of weeks ago, movie-goers blessed Act of Valor with a $24.7 million dollar opening weekend, which, even though it featured actual Navy Seals and was lauded for its realism, appears embarrassingly negligible when compared with the over $1 billion in sales that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’s digital warriors have been able to secure thus far.

The contrast is striking.  Even as interest in America’s wars abroad has waned, its desire to engage in individual virtual warfare across digital battlefields and online servers has not.  The result is a peculiar and troubling disconnect between the military shooters we play, and the real wars that we engage in, upon which the games are loosely based.

A friend of mine who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 described his own reservations about video game portrayals of recent wars.  Stating upfront that he too enjoys playing games like Modern Warfare and Battlefield, he explained the  potential drawbacks of their mass popularity, “I don’t think [playing these games] leads kids, teens, or adults to actually go out with a gun and shoot people.  But I think what it does do is reinforces negative stereotypes of foreigners, creates a rally-around-the-flag world view, and (perhaps most importantly) grossly oversimplifies combat and the politics of warfare.  Because who can be against killing jihadists and Russian criminals and what problem can’t be solved with a drone strike?”
“I shit you not I have heard my brothers friends while playing COD in their dorm room advocate various policies for the Middle East that involve preemptive nuclear strikes.  Now these could just be off the cuff remarks, but judging the frequency with which I’ve heard these comments from young people and old, something about the messiness and complexity of our current conflicts doesn’t mesh well with the quick solutions in our films and video games.”

For many years now, military service has become a more isolated and concentrated occurrence.  As a report from the Pew Research Center released last November made clear, service is becoming relegated to a dedicated few.  Military service is more likely than ever to run in families, with those lacking a family tradition of service much less likely to serve, or to know someone who has.  But the divide was more forcefully explained by Andrew Exum, who served on active duty in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2004.  In 2010 Chris Suellentrop recorded Exum’s reaction to the pending release of EA’s new Medal of Honor in the New York Times, “‘This is the thing,’ he told me. ‘Point 5 percent of this country actually fights in these conflicts.’ Nearly 80,000 Americans are deployed in Afghanistan, Exum said, while 2.2 million played Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox Live during a single day last fall. ‘There’s something annoying that most of America experiences the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are actually taking place, through a video game,’”

A smaller share of Americans serve in the military now than at any time since the era between World Wars I and II.  But more are playing games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, and vicariously experiencing war through those dubious virtualizations, than ever before.  Which begs the question: how do these games affect the way we interact with and conceive of war, and what is their responsibility, and ours, to those who take part in the real thing?

Despite their recent success, military shooters were not always so massively popular.  In fact, it was not until series like Medal of Honor, Battlefield, and Call of Duty broke out of their past settings that players began take to them in ever greater numbers.

In 2005, EA published the DICE developed Battlefield 2, the first Battlefield title to take place in the current century.  Activision soon followed when in 2007 it published Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Finally, by 2010, nine years after the Afghanistan war had started, the Medal of Honor series rebooted with a game that took place exclusively within the parameters of that conflict.

Although Call of Duty 3 sold an estimated 7 million copies, its successor, Modern Warfare, sold more than twice that with over 16 million copies making it into the hands of eager consumers.  The Battlefield series also achieved success when it moved into the present day, as well as from the PC to consoles.  And though the new Medal of Honor did not perform as well as EA had hoped, its moderate success in a genre full of other competitive titles was enough for EA to invest in a sequel.  There have been more flops than success stories, but the sheer number of attempts to create a game that could rival Call of Duty is a testament to consumers’ overwhelming appetite for military shooters.

However, though the burgeoning of military shooters has brought them into more and more American homes, it has occurred without any real change in the formula or tone developers employed in creating the games. While early Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games sought to capitalize on the gruesome bombast and massive size of Saving Private Ryan-esc portrayals of World War II, their recent iterations have marched into telling the stories of the 21st century without becoming deeper or more sophisticated.  It is one thing to extrapolate from well documented history and allow people to engage in historically romanticized reenactments.  It is entirely another to characterize and portray present conflicts with similar superficiality.

After the release of Medal of Honor in October of 2010, Andrew Exum’s frustrations were validated. Referring to the game as “just military porn,” Chris Kohler writing for Wired lamented that it “missed [an] opportunity to go a little deeper.”  This is also true of titles like Modern Warfare and Battlefield which focus on the exploits of small, elite forces fighting in sensationalized contexts that resemble Red Dawn more than Full Metal Jacket or Blackhawk Down.  But the problematic nature of military shooters is not just their inaccuracy.  It the silent policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that accompanies these games, which exploit the reality of present wars for fun and profit without ever entreating players to think more deeply about these conflicts, or the people most affected by them.

This is in part what led veteran video game writer, Jason Wilson, to stop playing military shooters for good. In a personal editorial published last December, Wilson wrote that his decision was the, “culmination of a number of thoughts: the loss of American troops in a war in Iraq that isn’t necessary; that we’re fighting two wars and paying for them not through taxes but through borrowing; that the military and their families have borne the brunt of these wars; and that the average citizen hasn’t been called upon to make sacrifices. And it’s the images of men and women in dress uniform that flash on the screen and run in the newspaper alongside their death notices.”

Wilson did not expect others to follow in his footsteps.  Rather his hope was that players would, “think about the soldiers [their] onscreen men of war represent. Think about those who have already lost their lives fighting for our country or who have come back from the wars–dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder, bearing traumatic head injuries (or missing a limb)–or who are simply unable to find a job.”

But while some players may have misgivings about engaging in virtual warfare, many veterans are outraged about how it’s marketed.  A former U.S. Army paratrooper and a veteran of Afghanistan, D. B. Grady wrote at the end of last year about Modern Warfare 3’s commercial featuring Jonah Hill.  “The advertisement trivializes combat and sanitizes war. If this were September 10, 2001, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so bad,” writes Grady, “But after ten years of constant war, of thousands of amputees and flag-draped coffins, of hundreds of grief-stricken communities, did nobody involved in this commercial raise a hand and say, ‘You know, this is probably a little crass. Maybe we could just show footage from the game.’”

In particular, Grady took issue with the commercial’s ending tag line, “THERE’S A SOLDIER IN ALL OF US,” noting emphatically in response, “No, there’s not.”  This kind of marketing doesn’t just romanticize military combat: it glamorizes it, turning a serious, dangerous, and potentially tragic event into something akin to the Jersey Shore, Baghdad edition.  However, game publishers are not alone in their tone-deaf marketing campaigns.  In the lead up to Battlefield 3’s release, video game retailer Gamestop put out an advertisement that trivialized warfare no less than the Modern Warfare 3 spot.  Opening to the voice of someone narrating a golf match, the commercial at one point refers to a sniper shot that kills what is presumably an enemy soldier as a “hole in one.”

What results from frivolous marketing like this is a general bannalization of war.  No longer are citizens simply made numb to ongoing war in far of lands by routinized news headlines and predictable nightly reporting, they are actually invited, for $60 dollars apiece, to re-engage with it on amusing terms.  It’s what Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute, calls “militainment.”

It happens when civilians play gamified military campaigns that have more in common with one of Michael Bay’s wet dreams than reality, but also when the United States military takes the virtual technologies developed in the private sector and uses them for recruitment and simulation.  Games commissioned by the military like America’s Army are designed to persuade young men to sign up and serve their country. And indeed, that particular recruiting tool carries a rating of “Teen,” and a level of violence and gore that reflect that, in order to be playable by boys much younger than 18.

But the military’s adoption of these virtual technologies involves other complications as well.  As Singer notes in a March 2010 report by NPR, few of them take into account the “fog of war.”  One mission in America’s Army lets players take part in an actual battle won by Green Berets during the initial invasion of Iraq.  But when players call in a virtual airstrike, the game departs from history.  Though the in-game airstrike saves the day, Singer explains that the real one “accidentally hit some of their own and also killed some of our Kurdish allies.”

And indeed the “fog of war” problem points to one of the most troubling developments in military technology in the 21st century: drone warfare, whose proliferation has been as sudden and robust as military shooters themselves.  Novelist Teju Cole, the author of Open Cityrecently tweeted “Each age has its presiding metaphor. Ours is aerial bombing.”  To the extent that this is true, it might be said by extension that the presiding game of our time is the online shooter.  As Patricia Hernandez explored in a recent interview with video game developer, Paolo Pedercini, the use of drones has dramatically increased over the past few years and with it the digital separation that that kind of technology brings.  Pedercini’s Unmanned allows players to experience the life of an aerial drone pilot, from the unexceptional moments like shaving in the morning, to the almost god-like responsibility that accompanies firing missiles with acute precision from the other side of the globe.

This kind of dissonance can take its toll on the men and women who take on these roles.  As Reuters reported a few months back, “America’s insatiable demand for drone technology is taking a heavy toll on Air Force crews, with just under a third of active duty pilots of drones like the Predator reporting symptoms of burnout and 17 percent showing signs of ‘clinical distress.’”  Shifting from war to a child’s soccer game can pose unique challenges, even more so for those who have previously seen combat.

For these reasons, and others, drone warfare is extremely complex and problematic, with many rewards but also many drawbacks, both logistically and morally.  Their continued use should be an important topic of public debate.  But so far it hasn’t been.  And Unmanned’s way of confronting the issue through the interactive benefits of a video game makes it a valuable example for future military shooters.  It provides a creative template for how these financially lucrative but otherwise unfertile games can move beyond their arrested development toward providing more inspired human experiences that are still compelling but also cause for self-reflection.

The probability of an armed conflict between the United States and Iran is as big as ever.  But so is the rift between most Americans and the men and women who serve our country abroad.  In his book Kaboom: Embracing the suck in a savage little war, Matt Gallagher, who joined the U.S. Army in 2005 and left in 2009 following a fifteen-month deployment in Iraq, describes the phenomenon firsthand, “As I watch the platoon joke, clown, and ramble their way through the holiday dinner, I couldn’t help but think about the country that had produced them.  These were the men in the flesh that society only celebrates in the abstract.  The NCOs had served in the army long enough to stop caring about the whims of the American culture they protected so effectively; the Joes were just removed enough to not fully recognize how the same society that reared us had detached itself from us the day we signed our enlistment papers.  In a volunteer military, we fought for the nation, not with it.”

The relationship between video games and society is an ever evolving and genuinely complicated one.  And the degree to which the military shooters have come to dominate the industry only intensifies this.  Unless the current cultural trends change, the disconnect between those who fight and those who play will continue to deepen, with troubling consequences for everyone involved.  But if the debut trailer for Medal of Honor: Warfighter is any indication, this won’t be happening anytime soon.


  1. Pingback: Real War and Video Game Wars, While they fight wars we play games | Modern Warfare 3 blog

  2. Pingback: Matt Gallagher author of Iraq war memoir: “Kaboom” (Interview) « Arts & Business Merge

  3. RokkerBaz

    This was a really good article.

  4. RokkerBaz

    This was a very good article.
    I just have a few thoughts.
    I’m a huge fan of FPS, everything from hyper-realistic, to run and gun arcade like games.
    When I play these games, even though they may mirror, or parody, actual war, I know that they are just forms of entertainment. Playing a FPS doesn’t make me believe that, by simply spending 8 hours in a campaign, I will suddenly be able to take on the might of a nations army, with a rifle and a couple mags of ammo. Much in the same way, watching a couple of martial arts movies, is suddenly going to make me Bruce Lee.
    I like to think of FPS, as interactive movies. The plot may not make sense, or the capabilities of the protagonist grossly exaggerated, but they are just means of shutting off from the world for a bit.
    But you do have to come to the realization that this is sensationalized violence. You are taking the most vile of mankind’s actions – war – and making a game of it.
    I have wanted to enlist in my country’s armed forces for a while now. It is something I have thought about extensively. I have been told I am crazy to want to do it. They say things like, “you know, if you die, you can’t respawn…” 
    For some reason, people like to draw parallels with FPS and war. 
    The reason I want to enlist, is not because of the chance to shoot shit without question, or to take someone’s life. Nor is it to act all Rambo, and go Lone Wolf on a bunch of baddies, with my huge rippling muscles and hot lead spraying from an LMG, as I shout in the face of gods that be. 
    No, I want to enlist, because I want to be that 1% that try’s to make a difference. One of the few who stand head held high, protecting the sovereignty of his nation, the rights of his people, and the wellbeing of his friends and family.  Plus, my father, who has both served and fought in a war, says that the camaraderie and trust between squad mates is without equal. 
    As I said, video games are just entertainment. They are for people who want to shut off for a while. As Marie Antoinette said, “let them eat cake.”
    But a serviceman will always, always, have my utmost admiration and respect.