Lecture: Militarism and Video Games, Nina Huntemann

by Darius Kazemi on February 25, 2010

in culture,industry,transcript

I attended a talk today given by my friend Professor Nina Huntemann of Suffolk University. She is co-editor of the new book Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games, and she was invited to give a WPI IMGD Seminar on militarism and video games.

This is my best attempt at a transcription of what she said. Any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine and mine alone! My comments are in square brackets.


Opening remarks by Jon Sanbonmatsu: The context of the talk today is that the country is at war. We have been at war since before 9/11, and since 2002 when we invaded Afghanistan and in 2003 when we invaded Iraq we have had 100s of thousands of forces committed overseas. We have killed 600k people. How does killing happen? Policymakers send troops into action, but before that we need to have a culture of consent. The people need to consent to our government participating in war. To do that, we need a whole process of teaching us from childhood that killing is a legitimate mode of conflict resolution.

This talk is about one of the most powerful media, video games, and what is going on in the political sphere and how it is connected to video games.

Nina Huntemann:

What I’m going to talk about it how we reconcile or understand the video game in relation to things that are happening with our foreign policy.

In addition to being a professor, I have been a gamer since 1978 since my dad brought home an Atari 2600 when I was 8, had a TI-99, Colecovision, NES, SNES, and now I have all three major consoles. So while I have a critical perspective on video games, I love video games.

Questions of power around video games as cultural products influence my work today.

I want to talk about the relationship between the military and video games in my talk. I want to look at this question from several different entry points. First of all, we’re going to look at it as a semiotic phenomenon: what is the relation between the language of war and the language of play, and how does that set up a context for ideological messages?

Second, the concept of pedagogy. We have a very long history of teaching the art of war through play.

Third, we’ll look at political-economic relationship between military industries and entertainment industries.

Then we’ll look at the ideological relationships between culture and military action.

So interrogating signs and symbols is a way we can learn how our culture creates meaning. Signs and symbols create a cloud of meaning — there is not one sign or symbol to look at, it is a whole system of signs. One sign you can look at is 4th of July fireworks, which are simulated rockets and bombs that symbolize our freedom. The scouting movement was started by a British general who saw the value system of the military as helpful to youth, so being a Boy Scout or Girl Scout you participate in many military traditions: salutes, oaths, uniforms, etc. The marching band, which was a military development, has been adapted to the field of sports.

The language of war and sport has infiltrated our culture for years. We talk about sport as if it is war — a battle on the field, etc. Offensive and defensive lines, sudden death tie breakers, coach is the general, players are soldiers, long passes are called bombs, short passes are bullets, a blitz = blitzkrieg. These are a few examples of how semiotics can show us connections between war and play. Which sets the stage for video games.

It goes the other way too. Wars are often described in play metaphors. Vietnam War was called “Operation Linebacker.” Nuclear arms “race,” and Rumsfeld described the WMD mission as a “slam dunk.” The semiotic connections go both way. There is historical precedent for militarism and games.

The teaching of war through play is especially powerful in Asian history. Play spaces are places to train soldiers and teach the culture about what it means to go to war. Chess is an abstract, simulated battlefield. In the 6th century, the concept of chess was based on the 4 divisions of the military: infantry (pawn) cavalry (knight) elephants (bishop) chariotry (rook).

Go was used by generals to study war strategy. It’s a different kind of war than we fight today, but at the time it was a more accurate simuilation.

More modern examples, in Germany in 1812, the kriegspiel (war game) was developed by the Prussian army. It was required for leaders to learn strategy.

Even more contemporary: Risk and Axis & Allies. Far less abstract, and another example of playing out war as a precedent for video games.

There was a popular culture in the ’60s and ’70s of paper and pencil war games. Two companies, SPI and Avalon Hill published many paper war games. These were not only popular with consumer war enthusiasts, but also used by people in the military themselves. It is rumored that the Pentagon would play AH and SPI games as a way of thinking through potential cold war conflicts.

These games were popular until the computer came along. Many of these games were ported from tabletop to PC.

In terms of computer games and the military I’m going to look at the military-entertainment complex. Quick history, and an arguable history, is that video games came out of the Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare, funded by the Pentagon. The PDP-1 showed up and in 1962, and the Institute was told to do something with it. One of the students was Russell, who created the now infamous SpaceWar. The precedents of tabletop battle simulation led to a simulation of battle on the PDP-1. It was essentially a pretty good missile simulation. What Russell said of the game is that the most important feature of the program was that you could simulate a reasonably complex physical system. This was very interesting to the Pentagon at the time.

What happens after SpaceWar, over the next 10 years we have students stealing time on mainframes around the country — eventually we end up with Pong, which some consider to be the first commercial video game that launched the modern game industry. Not so much connected to war in theme, but in its industrial relations it IS connected to war.

We have a whole selection of current platforms that the military is using that is borrowed from video games. PEO STRI is the place in the US Army that is where video games and the military meet. (“All But War is Simulation” is their motto!) [Short video with someone from that office talks about how being near theme parks in Orlando helps them with military simulation. "We employ entertainment principles and technology, but what we make is meant to train soldiers."] From his language you can see how there is a formalized relationship with the military and entertainment. They literally moved to Orlando to be near Universal and Disney. The needs of the Army has direct correlations to laser tag, FPS games, and strategy games. Entertainment principle are correlated to military objections.

Some games that are being developed: Asymmetrical Warfare Environment (AWE) based on MMO tech. DARWARS: Ambush! is based on Operation Flashpoint. Virtual Iraq, a PTSD therapy game, is based on Full Spectrum Warrior.

Virtual Iraq: the US Army and its units work with THQ and Pandemic Studios, and then the ICT at Univ of Southern California to make Virtual Iraq. ICT is funded by entertainment and the Pentagon for two purposes: to create products that fulfil both the needs of the US military and can potentially be sold at retail.

Lockheed Martin is working on air attack simulators with SEGA, and they also manufacture SEGA’s arcade board for games like Virtua Fighter! [I did not know that. Crazy.]

So we have a history of industrial relationships and pedagogical strain along with this cloud of meaning and symbols.

[some Q&A]

Question from audience: your parallels are strong but it’s not just the entertainment industry. Car makers work with the military too (Hummer, Jeep). Your focus on video games comes across as pretty narrow. It’s not uncommon to dual-use a lot of things. NASA develops tech that goes back and forth between military and consumers.

Nina: a lot of advances in tech would not have come about without the military. The military-industrial complex is much larger than video games — games aren’t doing anything new and are following a strong history of this worldwide. I am not thinking that games are doing something new or radical, what I hope as we move forward is that this provides a context for things like CoD4.

Jon Sanbonmatsu: the analogy isn’t quite right. If you use styrofoam, it’s an artifact that was created to house a fusion weapon. But the function of styrofoam doesn’t normalize and legitimize violence. Video games DO normalize military action.

Nina: the Hummer is interesting. It came out of armored vehicles, and by driving it on the street, you are participating in the M-I Complex. The styrofoam cup is very divorced from the military in terms of its meaning, but the Hummer was marketed as a patriotic/militaristic vehicle. Where I’m headed with this is the difference between developing products out of the military and products that set up consent around the militaristic culture.

Audience member: the difference in the action involved in driving a Jeep and playing a game is that I’m not being trained to kill efficiently by driving a Jeep, but playing a game you are actually being trained to some extent.

[back to lecture]

There is a long history of entertainment, like films, being created in conjunction with military personnel. Some movies were specifically created to legitimize use of force (like the old “Why We Fight” films). Some say John Wayne’s military movies were some of the best persuasive tools for the millitary.

New militarism (Andrew Bacevich) is a marriage of militarism and utopian ideology. In ’02/’03 there was a flood of games about counterterrorism and I was encouraged by Bacevich to think about this.

“Strategic culture” (google it) is the overstated confidence in the efficacy of our force and our strategy. That our technological might means we will always prevail, a culture of technological fetishism. There is no better moment in recent history to describe this than the concept of “shock and awe.” The idea that we are so superior in our technology that we will just shock our enemies into surrender. That bravado about our superiority and technology points to strategic culture.

How do games fit into this? First we’ll look at historic video games.

Medal of Honor is a great series because there’s so much research that goes into creating historically accurate battles. The designers are to be commended for the amount of detail put into recreating the battles as accurately as possible. Airborne was developed with a historical advisor to ensure accuracy. The audio was recorded from hundreds of real WWII era weapons and tanks. One of the last remaining C-47s in the world was used to create sound for the game. It’s gripping and enthralling in its audio. They even recorded two sets of soldier’s feet so German and American boots sounded different!

But what does the detail entail? Most of the attention to detail is attention to technological and environmental detail (weapons and terrain). And also strategies employed at the time. [Shows us the trailer for MoH: Airborne. Montage of people reloading weapons, then mini-trailers for each realistically simulated weapon. Panzerschrek, Mauser, etc. It's a lot of gun porn! Rock music plays in the background. "Stand up for rock and roll!" the singer screams at the end of the trailer.] This demonstrates that what they are pushing through marketing is historical accuracy through the concept of strategic culture.

Question from audience: curious about earlier versions of MoH, which had a reverence for World War II, that we are going to show what our ancestors went through. Whereas Call of Duty was more like the Holywood version of things. CoD sold more than MoH and now MoH is following the CoD model more. That trailer is actually pretty unrealistic and the abandoned the reverence for rock and roll marketing with Airborne. It’s no longer like Saving Private Ryan. This is something different.

Nina: there’s a chapter in Joystick Soldiers about MoH enthusiasts vs. more rock and roll war enthusiasts. The author found that the historical accuracy is THE reason why historical enthusiasts play. As the games have moved away from that for a bigger market, one thing that is fascinating is the tension between realism and the demands of the market. Audiences are attracted to “realism” (MoH is still being sold based on its weapon accuracy), but it’s a pedestrian understanding of history rather than a deep understanding. That’s the tension between marketability and realism. Realism in games is a certain kind of realism, not necessarily historical realism.

George Phillies: I served in the armed forces. That trailer is not realistic. You can’t actually see your enemies in real war. The Panzerschrek was mostly given to 12 and 13 year old boys by the Nazis. The young kids thought they were indestructable, but the effective range of the weapon was about 25 yards and using it was essentially suicide.

Nina: yes, games and movies are the militarism that most consumers engage with. Real militarism is grossly missing from this depiction.

Moving forward, if we look at contemporary warfare games, we see similar themes. But there’s something else going on here. Tactical strategy is a term that is its own genre. Games grapple with the post-9/11 world. Counter-terrorism is the mission whether it’s a single soldier or group of soldiers, covert ops is a big part of this. The concept of the “rogue soldier” or the “rogue squadron” operating outside of the rules of engagement is popular. The idea that terrorism is so horrible it can only be dealt with outside of the rules of engagement. You violate the Geneva convention in these games. We do know that this kind of stuff happens in real world (Jon: recently it was made known that we have operations overseas to murder American citizens if necessary).

The rock-and-roll type modern warfare games that we see right now are doing something kind of interesting that I hadn’t seen directly following 9/11 as such. There is an underlying critique emerging. Army of Two is essentially a critique of the Blackwater scandal. In Army of Two you play one of two people in a similar mercenary organization where you are paid money to do off-grid activities. Events in the game don’t always go well and the Army is mess. But at the end of the day, although the critique is there, the weapons and the action and the money and the slickness is what is in the front of the game, and of course it has to be in order to sell it. The critique gets lost in the noise of entertainment.

Then we have proleptic war games: games about future wars. The assumption remains that there are fears we have currently that will be big problems in the future, but US or US/EU/UN coalition will use hypertechnology to passify the problems. This is strategic culture enacted through future war. [Trailer for Tom Clancy's EndWar. Shows high-tech military base, giving a tutorial about what tactics to use to help your infantry units inflict more damage. More rock music, this time with a little techno.]

So to conclude, military themed video games have a socializing power. They do train soldiers, but they also train society to accept a particular form of militarism. Video games are the “Why We Fight” films of our generation. These films were created in WWII, before the US was involved in the war. The Dept of War hired Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) to create films to garner support for US participation in conflict. He made 7 films that were shown before features in theaters, and were also used to train draftees. It was a propaganda piece and understood as such.

Actually video games may not be like “Why We Fight” because there is not much discussion of “why.” Video games are the “how we fight” films of this generation. Entertainment media all the way back to go has served to teach people about the ideological reasoning for warfare. By showing people HOW we fight, and understanding warfare through tech fetishism, is becomes more acceptable as a response to global conflict because the representations are often sanitized. The problem is that often contemporary games lack historical context for understanding perhaps why the Taliban is in Afghanistan to begin with. We’re not getting a full education: should we expect that of games? That’s something we should discuss. Civilian casualties are not often discussed either: modern weapons are incredibly effective, but if used on the wrong people cause even more civilian casualties.

Video games normalize the use of force. It is impossible to progress through a military game without using force. In CoD4:MW2, the scene where you enter Moscow Airport covertly as the member of a terrorist cell and open fire on civilians, you had a choice for the only time in the game to not fire. Because the targets are civilians and you could choose not to fire. But it didn’t change the outcome at all. Your comrades didn’t seem to notice if you fired or not, and you’re still found out by your colleagues that you’re spy no matter what. So the only moment where you can choose to fire doesn’t have any consequence.

We are in an era of “the long war.” We’ll be fighting terrorism for a long time. It requires civlians to be accustomed to constantly being in conflict. Video games are used technologically to train our soldiers, but the same technology and ideology is being used to socialize us into the comfortableness of our weapons and military might.


Frank Benedict February 26, 2010 at 12:54 pm

The reference to Andrew Bacevich is obscure and, I suspect, confused. He is the leading critic of the militarism that infects the us like a virus. See his superb “The New American Militarism.”
Moreover, in “The Limits of Power,” he gives a powerful argument for the futility of military power to solve any of our real problems, and in particular the problem of terrorism.
“Utopian” has become a synonym for: “Doesn’t think we should continue to act like fools.”

Darius Kazemi February 26, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Thanks for the comment, but I don’t know why you think the reference is confused. Nina is criticizing games through the lens of Bacevich’s work. If my notes failed to convey that, please take it as my own fault and not hers!

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