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Ready to Do Violence: War Games or Simply Modern Warfare?

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 cgilbie@gmail.com


Ready to Do Violence: War Games or Simply Modern Warfare?


4 Responses

  1. gene lowinger says

    As Robert Duvall says in Apocalypse Now “I love the smell of cordite in the morning”. War is as much a part of human nature as is sex. Always has been, always will be. Long live killing the ‘enemy’, whoever that may be.

  2. Nate says

    It’s nice to see this issue starting to get some play. It seems COD4 has been the real impetus, but it’s been lingering around from time to time. I assume if you’re a graduate student writing this, you’re probably working on it for some kind of thesis, masters or PHD.

    I think the issue you bring up — the “cleanliness” of the experience of gamed war — is important. It’s been covered a little bit by Der Derian in Virtuous War, which I’m sure you’ve come across by now.

    But I wanted to suggest something that I haven’t seen covered quite as thoroughly as I’d like. That is, not so much the aesthetics of gamed warfare, but the mechanics themselves. Games imply a certain kind of omnipotence and submit themselves to a set of game mechanics that can be (and are encouraged to be) mastered. As much as the gaming industry touts the dynamic responsiveness of the AI (ie – that playing the same thing multiple times might result in different AI responses), games still rely on an understanding of how war is to be mastered.

    In a documentary on the Human Terrain system by Der Derian and others, there’s a scene where soldiers in training play through a scenario where they must enter a home, greet the family and ask for intelligence. It is scripted in such a way that the soldier gains points for the “correct” interactions and, if there are enough points, they will gain access to intelligence.

    This kind of game mechanic implies a) that Iraqis (in this case) are to behave in a certain way and to do so repeatedly over time and b) that the soldier can master his interaction by following a certain script.

    For teaching basic respect, the game might be improving the soldiers’ interactions. But I fear that it may also be reinforcing certain assumptions about warfare and otherness that is more damaging in the long term. If the soldiers (or in the case of COD4 and other video games, the kids and young adults playing) treat the game as an accurate representation, they may also suspect that combat and warfare is susceptible to control in the same way that game mechanics are (by default, since they must be designed and controlled by a set logic).

    In “real life”, of course, the rules of interaction are not set and the game mechanics can’t be mastered precisely because they exist on a plane of intersubjectivity that is shifting with every action. However much games try to replicate this instability, they are still dealing with the terrain as a set of changing variables, whereas in “real life” the terrain itself shifts along with these variables.

    This may seem like a lot of huff and puff over a rather abstract and uncertain effect, but as a part of the first generation raised on video games, I definitely felt a point in my life where I started to think that the world worked like games, that it was a matter of mastering the variables, and that society was susceptible in some way to this kind of authoritarian practice (for lack of a better term).

    Anyway, if you’re working on something, I would love to hear if it moves beyond the aesthetics of games. Not that I think this isn’t important, it’s very important. But I’ve been longing for a discussion about the mechanics to help me get my thinking straight. (And I will send the author an email now so he can contact me if working on something like this.)

  3. Bryan says

    Nice post, Chris. It seems like some of the themes you touch upon (e.g. distance and closeness, the role of media technology, and aestheticized politics) resonate with Walter Benjamin’s work. Remember that Miriam Hansen questions his relevance for contemporary (new) mediums and contexts. You might find it rewarding to examine the potential relationships between digitally-aestheticized war-games and Benjamin’s discussions on technology. One wonders what sorts of embodied activities such mediations produce. Is it merely man dominated nature with technology or is perhaps not simply a ‘one way street’?’

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