Frasca is not the only skeptic in this debate. Many feel that videogame depictions of war trivialize the real loss of life-though we celebrate films like Saving Private Ryan for immersing us in the experience of war. Do games like the World War II-themed Medal of Honor give us an equally powerful impression of what the battlefield is like? Perhaps this distaste merely reflects games’ recent invention and their low ranking on the cultural hierarchy.If the idea of turning war into games is so intrinsically offensive, why has there been so little public outrage over the use of playing cards as a way of representing the search for and capture of Iraqi leaders? Is it right to deal with regime change the same way kids approach Pokemon-“gotta collect ‘em all”? The playing card interface suggests some of the deep historical links between war and games. Consider, for example, the ways that chess embodies the struggle between two warring kingdoms or the use of martial and gladiatorial imagery when we talk about football. We have used games to represent struggles over space and power for thousands of years.
As such examples suggest, it is not playing war per se that offends most of us. Three key variables shape our gut reactions to this concept: the mode of representation (the relative abstraction of the chess board as compared to the graphic realism of most games); temporality (historic simulations vs. the rawness of current events); and motive (a military training exercise, an antiwar statement, or a commercial exploitation).
All of this explains the public outrage that arises each time such games are proposed, but it doesn’t explain why such efforts keep re-emerging. For one thing, we use games to work through the intense anxieties surrounding modern warfare, to bring it at least momentarily under our symbolic control. This view was widely shared among child psychologists in the World War II era who encouraged kids to enact military conflicts and even sanctioned playing the role of the enemy as a way of feeling more control over their lives. (At the same time, governments often encourage role-play as a means of building public support for their war efforts-and there, timeliness is key. Many of the classic war movies (such as Air Force, Action in the North Atlantic, and Bataan) were released during WWII through a cooperation between the federal government and the film industry, often depicting sanitized versions of events that had occurred overseas only months earlier.
This sense of war play as a recruitment tool inspires America’s Army, an online first person shooter game produced by the U.S. military last year and distributed free to game players around the world; there is even some talk that the game will come bundled on many new computers, suggesting that the Pentagon has been taking lessons from Bill Gates. One controversial aspect of the game has been its effort to reduce the explicit representation of violence in order to earn the game a rating low enough to get it into the hands of most teens-a choice that critics argue distorts the actual consequences of modern warfare. The Pentagon worked hard to insure the game communicates military values, including mechanisms that reward players for honorable conduct and that impose severe punishment if you shoot your own troops.