John Martino -
The ongoing trial of Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik has generated a great deal of media coverage, public debate and analysis. Much of this has focused on claims made by Breivik that he used the “military shooter” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to prepare for his attacks. Critics of games and gaming very quickly pounced on his assertion to claim this was evidence of a causal link between game-playing and committing acts of violence. As Adam Ruch pointed out last week on The Conversation, there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other concerning the effects of playing violent videogames. Endlessly debating whether or not games contribute to an individual’s violent actions or thoughts misses the point. What has not been addressed in the debate generated by violent military games is the role these games play in the process of “militarisation”.
A military shooter is a military-themed version of the first-person shooter (FPS) genre. As you might imagine, a FPS is played from the first-person or subjective visual perspective, with the player’s weapon appearing to the right and in the foreground of the screen (see image below).
These games gained a wide audience in the early 1990s with the release of the World-War-II-based Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and the science-fiction-inspired Doom (1993). FPSs such as these often involve a lone hero armed to the teeth against hordes of enemies. The Doom franchise underwent a military makeover in the 1990s when the US military modified Doom II to create Marine Doom.
The modern military shooter differs from games such as Doom by using realistic plots, locations and weaponry. The technology behind today’s military shooters enables game designers to reproduce war settings complete with realistic sights and sounds.
Current gaming technology very much enables players to immerse themselves within a synthetic war zone.
In fact, games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are now so immersive, so accurate (with the right add-ons) that they’re more like training tools than simple games. Breivik has stated that he used a “holographic” gunsight to practice targeting while training with Call of Duty.
The sophistication of these games is the product of the close relationship between game designers and the military. The designers of military shooters often work with former (or current) military personnel to ensure the gameplay (including the look, feel and effect of in-game guns) is as realistic as possible – as was the case with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (see video below).
Such partnerships share the goal of working to enhance the training effectiveness of simulation technology.
Military shooters add to the already-potent cultural tools political systems have at their disposal for propaganda purposes. A recent report highlighted the almost US$500 million spent annually on propaganda or “information operations” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US military has also begun to actively engage with social media to promote American values and to generate support for the military.
Military-oriented games supplement the mass mediums of print, television, film, radio and the web in their promotion of “asymmetrical warfare” – that is, the capacity to engage in war with enemies that have different levels of military power. Games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 simulate asymmetrical warfare in great detail.
The militarisation of society
Any examination of the issues raised by the Breivik trial needs to go beyond the narrow debate about media effects – whether the experience had in one medium (such as videogames) has any measurable effect in real-life.
Both critics and supporters of games and gaming, it seems, are unable or unwilling to address the big picture: western societies are undergoing a process of militarisation.
Militarisation is the social process through which societies are organised in ways that allow for the production of violence. According to the feminist writer Cynthia Enloe, militarisation describes a process through which individuals come to view militaristic ideas and military needs as being significant and the norm.
Simply put, militarisation blurs the boundaries between military and civil society. Militarisation sees our institutions, social practices and societal aims taking on a military hue.
What do I mean by this? Well, let’s briefly consider a bit of history.
In Australia, nation-building and the military have long been linked. A recent paper produced by La Trobe Univeristy social scientist Marilyn Lake (archived) documents the extent to which the commemoration of war (think Anzac Day) has become integral to our view of Australian history and the place of Australia in the world.
According to Lake, millions of dollars have been spent in schools since 1996 to promote Australia’s war-fighting history and culture.
In her paper, Lake talks about how social practices such as the exploration of family history have been co-opted into the national obsession alongside military history. In particular, Lake argues, there’s a growing pressure to locate one’s family within the national war story and to visit battle-sites and engage in war tourism.
Recent data published by the Stockholm International Peace Institute indicates Australia is one of the largest military-spending nations in the world.
Indeed, in 2011 Australia was the fifth-largest military spender in the Asia and Oceania regions. We are second only to India in the world when it comes to arms importation.
The diversion of substantial levels of expenditure to the preparation for and waging of war, rather than to foreign aid and diplomacy, indicates the extent to which Australia’s societal aims have become militarised.
Computer and videogames, such as military shooters, act in a way which extends the process of boundary-weakening between military and regular society.
The language employed, head-shots, kill/death ratios and high-tech weapons and gear all extend and amplify the process of militarisation.
The role played by videogames and, in particular, military-themed games in popular culture and society is complex and at times contradictory.
Games are often highlighted in the popular imagination as harmless fun, or as potential breeding grounds for social misfits and future criminals. But a causal link between individual acts and this technology is unclear.
What is clear is that media accounts and public criticism of gaming never question the underpinning ideological and propaganda function of military-themed gaming.
Much work needs to be done to help us understand the social impact of these games.
John Martino is currently writing a book for Peter Lang Publishers about videogames and the militarisation of society.