The Military Entertainment Complex: are you a virtual soldier?

As the line between videogames and real war blur, are we losing sight of reality and our humanity, asks Simon Rowbotham

While many gamers may enjoy military war games such as Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battlefield and even Halo, it may escape the notice of many of them that they could be militarised by the games that they play. This does not mean that after a lazy Sunday’s round of Battlefield 3 you’ll be picking up your rifle and signing up for that impending war in Iran, but rather that a special relationship between the military and the videogames industry is shaping the very way citizens and soldiers alike think. Academics call this the ‘Military Entertainment Complex’.

This month has been an exciting month in the military shooter genre as Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 were released to great fanfare. Also, Medal of Honor: Warfighter was released. Could it be then that those playing these games as we speak are being in some way trained in a way that is favourable for military personnel and a recently belligerent America?

This is not an attempt to make some trumped-up tabloid-esque comment about videogames corrupting the young but is instead meant to provide a reasonable ground for discussion on the matter. It’s too easy to breezily dismiss Daily Mail slush about under 18s playing adult rated games by rightly pointing the finger to the parents, but what about adults who play these games? Is there not something worrying about the increasing number of us who seek our leisure carrying out virtual atrocities that become wrapped up in points and k/d (kill/death streaks). Can we really not expect these attitudes to begin to permeate the real-world army when real-world soldiers play these games? And most importantly, did you know that armed drones killing people in Pakistan are controlled using Xbox controllers?

The Military Entertainment Complex

There is a concept, mentioned earlier, which academics call the ‘Military Entertainment Complex’, and it details a mutually beneficial relationship between videogames and military industries. The military entertainment complex notes that in exchange for playable material the videogames industry gives the military positive presentations of war campaigns. The benefits also extend to training and hardware, with early Sega teams regularly switching between Sonic the Hedgehog projects and designing visual display units for attack helicopters. The military also pumps huge amounts of funding into training and simulation programs inspired by videogames; early training programs even included an adaptation of Doom.

The military entertainment complex extends to consumer videogames too, with the Defence Science Board in 2004 agreeing that the army should contract even more games for public dissemination after the creation of its America’s Army videogame/recruitment tool

Take the image above, a typical scene in Battlefield 3 and indeed most military shooters. What do we as a Western audience see? We see a barren wasteland with cracks in the infrastructure, we see destruction and we see cars on fire, but these settings seem so prevalent we never really question them. Often the playable space of war-torn Iraq, war-torn Iran, and war-torn ‘they’re all the same to me’ -istan is the same and the representation of the Middle East in these games never changes.

Instead, we as a Western audience see the dilapidated spaces we play through in these games, and regularly play through them accepting them as reality. I know I don’t regularly pause for thought. The answer to the problems we see is simple: these people need help and they need it now, so we play through the remainder of the levels until the conflict is neatly resolved through force with a high-five to cap it all off at the end.

Except for one thing. These aren’t real people, they’re pixels and this may be step one of the military entertainment complex. Let’s make a tactical retreat: how did the above thought process come to be? Videogame designer and critic Ian Bogost provides the terms “possibility space” and “procedural rhetoric” to understand how arguments in games are created. Like a novel or a film, a game has its own set of arguments that it can make using its form. What is key to the success of the videogame genre is that it is playable, and what Bogost terms the ‘possibility space’ is put simply the space that you are allowed to move within in a game. For example, if you cannot enter a room without a key, then the possibility space is the area you can traverse until you find that key. Taking this back to videogames and the military entertainment complex, a huge benefit that the military will see from users playing videogames is the pro-military arguments the games make. 

After a few hours of gameplay we wouldn’t think twice about pointing our crosshairs at the enemy and ‘neutralising’ (killing) them. It seems natural because the game’s possibility space allows it and the game mechanics encourage us to do it. When was the last time you headshot a terrorist in Animal Crossing? Exactly. In military war games the possibility space only opens if you shoot and kill the opponent, and from these virtual wounds bleed the very real pro-war argument that the only way to win the real-world war on terror is through force. Guardian games writer and critic Stephen Pool outlines this point clearly stating “the solution to conflict and the threat of terrorism within these games is always dependent on their shoot-and-destroy mechanics with no capacity to negotiate or use diplomacy” and this is an incredibly pro-war message. Embedded deeply in the military entertainment complex it is beneficial for both makers of war games and makers of war to have our ideas influenced through the way we play games.

Obama’s drones

With the subtlety of those arguments covered, there is no place, in my opinion, where the troubling effects of the military entertainment complex are more apparent than the increased zeal with which newly re-elected US president Barack Obama is silently relying on drone strikes to proceed with and initiate wars America can no longer afford. The significance to the issue of military videogames? These drones are controlled using Xbox controllers.

While there is an argument to be made that drones keep more Western troops safe, they are widely criticised for being inaccurate, indiscriminate and downright messy in terms of clean kills. Infowars.com reports that 336 drone strikes have been carried out in Pakistan in which 2,300 people were killed. Good work; were they all terrorists? Nope. Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik claimed that only 20% of those killed were identified terrorists. These attacks are being carried out in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and most worryingly of all they are carried out using gaming peripherals. The ostensible reason for this is simple: why spend millions on research and development when Microsoft already has, and of course the men playing these games may have spent a lot of time using these controllers to manipulate war simulators such as Call of Duty. The third - and unspoken - reason could be that to the people controlling these armed drones, it may be just like playing a game.

This is, of course, a problem because the very boundaries between virtual killings in games such as Call of Duty and real killings using Xbox controller manipulated drones become blurred. In a YouTube video showing a Lockheed drone in flight, one commentator jokes “must of [sic] got a 3 kill streak to get the UAV”, but the reality is that these kinds of attitudes are not far from reality. Using a controller, which is so physically and mentally connected to the familiar act of controlling videogames goes hand in hand with the arguments war games themselves make perfectly. The extraneous benefits of using an Xbox controller then include a greater capacity to kill due to association with familiar videogame hardware, and presumably less mental and physical repercussions to the act of killing fellow human beings. I charge that soldiers killing people using these technologies would find it much more difficult emotionally to go up close and plant a bomb in a room full of human beings. But are they human beings any more or avatars to be shot at and points to be scored?

Yet another military benefit of having Xbox controllers as Drone manipulators is that it makes it incredibly easy to directly recruit young boys with whom these games are popular. For an example we have to look no further than the 19-year-old boy who, as a result of military war games, was found to be so skilled in drone piloting that he was made the instructor of a training academy. The problems come when associations with videogames and a gung-ho attitude give drone piloting the sheen of a good quality videogame, and like a videogame all reference points to human existence are lost. The act of taking another man’s life is repeatedly shown to not be treated with the gravitas it deserves by these technologies, In a blog titled ‘Portrait of a Drone Killer’, one drone pilot is quoted as saying “It’s like a videogame. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s f***cking cool.”

It’s in this way that the military entertainment complex is showing the true extent of its powers in society. Not only does it enable great levels of physical destruction to be wielded by young boys who have been training for drone warfare without even knowing it; it also holds huge influence over those who play the games. In a recent Xbox survey posited during the election debate, it was found that 72% of Xbox gamers would approve more military drone strikes. The alarmingly high rate of those in agreement with drone policies and further implementation is no surprise when it taking into account the people answering the questions were using the very same hardware that would control a drone. It is here that the conditioning effect of military videogames is most readily seen.

Wikileaks

The problem is not just with the messages military videogames convey and the hardware used to control drones. Just as one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, Wikileaks put in plain sight what vague political language such as ‘insurgent’ can cover and the fallacies of using technology to drop bombs from afar.

In a Wikileaks video released in 2010, an airstrike was detailed which, at the time, claimed to target insurgents with weapons, but actually targeted Reuters journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saeed Chmagh. The video shows the true extent of the problems with scopic technologies and killing from afar when Namir’s camera is mistaken for an assault rifle. Bearing in mind the reported figures at which drones are hitting actual proven terrorists, the leaked video shows how removal from the battlefield can cause huge amounts of civilian casualties.

The two soldiers in the video bombing are not only physically removed from their destruction, but they seem emotionally removed remarking “Hahaha, I hit ‘em”, later laughing when US tanks roll over the bodies of the deceased and remarking “Look at those dead bastards …nice”. Their military triumphalism did not end there; upon hearing of two young girls critically injured in the bombing, they remarked mechanically, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battlefield” instead of showing any signs of empathy. The hallmarks of the military entertainment complex are not far from this case; the exchanges between the soldiers is framed in a good guys/bad guys dialect we can readily recognise from films and war games. The men seem to bait Namir as he crawls on the floor stating, “Come on buddy, all you’ve got to do is pick up a weapon.” In the videogames, we are heroes and we bomb monsters, but in the cruel reality of this leaked clip we just see monsters. These representations, or any alternative to the dominant pro-war view, we will never see in the videogames as long as the ME complex exists.

Wrapping up

As much as I love Battlefield 3, I can’t help but feel a creeping dread after each satisfying headshot achieved ever since I saw the leaked Wikileaks tape. What truly separates me from any other member of the public becoming decreasingly attached from civilian casualties that are a result of these games? This is not a call to disarm but instead an observation of the state of play. These games, as entertaining as they are, are undeniably pro-war, and their pro-war messages resonate out from our videogames consoles, into our living rooms and into our politics that land as bombs in the front rooms of innocent Middle Eastern civillians.