By guest correspondent Christopher Gilbert:
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” —George Orwell
On December 1, 2009, President Obama deployed 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Neither of the soldiers above is one of them. Indeed, neither is real, but rather digital representations found in the new video game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, released late last year, one day before Veteran’s Day. I wonder if, when you looked at the picture above, you thought it was an actual picture taken from the battlefield, as did I.
War has long been the shadow cast on the backdrop of American life, a part of us, varying in degrees of prominence the brighter or darker it becomes, so it chilled me to read a review of this game titled, “Modern Warfare 2 Kills Well With Others.” The implications of the title notwithstanding, the author of the review, Gus Mastrapa, reinforces an “us v. them” perversity, writing: “the game cribs its morality from post-Vietnam Hollywood: War is bad, except when it’s not. Soldiers who fight for freedom are good, except when they’re not.” At least he attempts to moralize the game. Yet a game itself has morals per se as much as war, capitalism, or even journalism, which is to say “not at all.” It is not the concept or pursuit or game that has the morality, but the human subjects who impel it, create it, and play it. And increasingly more individuals are playing these first-person shooter military simulations—whether for pleasure, recreation, catharsis, or even combat training—trying to “get a taste” of war. One commentator goes so far as to say that “[MW 2] makes you feel every ounce of [it]” as if “you are there, doing it all.” Not only is it violent and graphic, but “realistic,” capable of “building community,” while showing that “violence has a real cost.”
Modern Warfare 2 may be realistic, but it is absolutely not real. Indeed, as a genre video games are inherently detached from any obligation to represent reality. Despite the fact that digitized blood spatters across the screen when the gamer is shot, the game itself—and any violent game for that matter—is clean (as is much of our conception of real modern warfare, my own included). Thus, such virtual simulaitons can house the “perfect enemy,” since it is imaginary, and can be justified as such (especially against those who condemn it for its violence, realism, vulgarity, even pathology) insofar as it is “just a game.” Though it is graphic and realistic, it is merely a digital portrayal, a simulacrum—blips on a screen, pure fiction. As such, the only “real cost” that it incurs to the gamer is $59.99 paid to purchase it. In real-life images, too, we can see but a glimpse of the “costs of war,” of its materiality. Consider below:
As numerous NCN posts have reminded us, we generally see relatively clean images of war. We also experience war from a distance. In the video game, the imagery is dirty (though you can “turn off the blood”), but the player is unsoiled. The images are close, but the horror is at a remove. Indeed, in an important sense the problem is not the video game per se, but that war/violence is not clean, and attempts to make it appear otherwise are inherently dissimulating.
The fact is that the video game player really loses nothing. At the end of the game, his or her violence is not real. He or she can simply turn off the device, feeling only satisfaction, disappointment, excitement, perturbation, or some other virtually induced emotion. The real soldier, however, stands to lose much, much more. You or I can play a video game or look at photographed soldiers, but we can never truly know the horror that is war. All the more reason that we renew and review our collective senses of community, of humanity, of war, while remembering what Kenneth Burke said: that getting along with each other—and not fighting, defaming, victimizing, or killing each other—is the essence of the good life.
Photo Credit: www.broadbandgenie.co.uk and Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
Christopher Gilbert is a graduate student in rhetoric and public culture in the Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org