Videogames and War

The intersection of new media and warfare has recently been a preoccupation of mine, and I was more than a little unsettled by Clive Thompson’s recent article in the August 22nd New York Times Magazine about so-called “X Box Warriors.”

The gist of the article is this: the U.S. military is training its forces using videogames as simulations. What unsettles me is not the military’s predictable turn toward new media as a cost-effective virtual battlefield, but that in the process entertainment and warfare become practically indistinguishable from each other. “Many of the military’s young soldiers [in Iraq], members of the PlayStation generation,” Thompson reports, “spend much of their downtime each week playing games.” These videogames include Full Spectrum Warrior and Full Spectrum Command. The latter is designed to train soldiers in urban warfare (like the kind American troops currently face in Iraq).

Videogames are not only used to recreate real world scenarios to help soldiers hone their teamworking and decision-making skills, however. The U.S. Army has gone into the consumer videogame business with America’s Army, “The Official U.S. Army Game” for Macs and PCs. As the America’s Army website announces, the game provides “civilians with an inside perspective and a virtual role in today’s premier land force: the U.S. Army.” But why would the army go to all this trouble to release of realistic game for free to American civilians. Because “it is part of the Army’s communications strategy.” In other words, it is a recruiting tool. Here is the army’s official gloss:

The game is designed to provide young adults and their influencers with virtual insights into entry level Soldier training, training in units and Army operations so as to provide insights into what the Army is like. As in the past, the Army’s success in attracting high-potential young adults is essential to building the world’s premier land force. With the passage of time, elimination of the draft and reductions in the size of the Army have resulted in a marked decrease in the number of Americans who have served in the Army and from whom young adults can gain vicarious insights into the challenges and rewards of Soldiering and national service. Therefore, the game is designed to substitute virtual experiences for vicarious insights. It does this in an engaging format that takes advantage of young adults’ broad use of the Internet for research and communication and their interest in games for entertainment and exploration.

So the game offers “insights” into “Soldiering” to “young adults”–i.e., teenagers. That the game is intended for children is made all the more clear by the Army’s insistence that the game “falls well within the parameters of a teen rating (age +13).” Make no mistake about it, while the game “does not include any dismemberment or disfigurement” like many popular videogames (Halo, Doom 3, and so on), it does portray death–government-sanctioned death in the name of the “defense of freedom.” The lack of gore is in some ways just as disturbing as too much gore. “When a Soldier is killed,” the America’s Army FAQ reads, “that Soldier simply falls to the ground and is no longer part of the ongoing mission.” Thus the 13+ young adults (in other words, boys) see violence but without the gutwrenching consequences of that violence. If only every wounded, dying, or dead American soldier “simply” fell to the ground in battle. If only the civilians caught in the crossfire “simply” fell too. If only war were so sanitary.