War play isn’t some creepy idea coming from the fringes of our culture. Games and simulations are increasingly woven into the strategies by which the U.S. government prepares us for armed conflict. The ICT emerged as a site of industry and government collaboration in the design and deployment of games in the service of national security following the 1991 Gulf War, which Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf had characterized as the first “Nintendo war.” War critics argue that modern warfare distances participants from human loss and makes it fun to blast away villages. The military command, on the other hand, has embraced computer games as the ideal means of preparing the next generation of soldiers to deal with the high tech interfaces of modern fighting equipment. Kuma Games surely has the ICT in mind when it promises players access to “the same immersive, first- and third-person views used by the military in their own planning, training and analysis.”One of my graduate students, Zhan Li, has done a thesis on the communities that have sprung up around America’s Army, even interviewing players as the first bombs were dropped on Baghdad. Most of the player said they went online to escape real world news, some said they could no longer take pleasure in the game while real soldiers were dying. A few saw playing the game as a way of mourning the losses of comrades. Veterans and current GIs are often critical of the casual and, well, playful attitude with which nonmilitary people play the game. Li’s research suggests that America’s Army may be less effective as a propaganda tool than as a vehicle through which civilians and service folk could discuss the serious experience of real life war.
The antiwar movement has found computer games to be an effective agitprop tool. Games may be to the Iraq War what underground comics were to Vietnam-a way to popularize countercultural messages by tapping into the popular culture. Frasca, in fact, is the primary architect for a game-entitled September 12-that challenges players to respond to a terrorist attack. You can target any of the buildings in an Arab village and blast them away with your warheads, but when you do, Moslem women weep over their dead children and more terrorists grab guns to defend their homes. Frasca built a game you can’t win; indeed, that is the message that it quickly communicates.
Another game, Blood of bin Laden, developed by artist Jason Huddy, plays upon the fact that in Afghanistan, land mines and food drops were wrapped in the same yellow paper. In this game, you have to move across a series of yellow squares, never certain whether they will blow you to bits or restore you to health. Huddy’s Web site explains that Blood of bin Laden “comes with an INSTANT gratification level that allows you to skip the war and head on into a room of defenseless Osamas.”
Or consider the case of Velvet-Strike, a hack developed by experimental artist Anne-Marie Schleiner, which involves spay painting virtual antiwar graffiti on the computer-generated walls, ceiling, and floors of a networked counter-terrorism themed game called Counter-Strike. The goal of Velvet-Strike is to protest the ways that war is trivialized in such spaces. Schleiner argues that while Counter-Strike promises graphical realism, it isn’t realistic enough in that it does not depict refugee camps, bombed hospitals, or maimed children. Some Counter-Strike players have accused Schleiner of being a digital terrorist for trespassing upon their game play.
Each game reflects different understandings of this war and its moral consequences. And each explores the potential of digital games as a vehicle for shaping public opinion. Given the divisiveness of current sentiments toward the war and the newness of games as a rhetorical medium, it is hardly surprising that these games offend some and disappoint others. Can you really make a kickass game about what has been a less than kickass war?