September 25, 2012

The War Games People Play

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Diamonds are hunks of carbon. They are not forever. They are not rare. They are not even a girl’s best friend. We think of them as a luxury item instead of common shiny rocks because De Beers, the company that holds the diamond monopoly, wages one of the most successful ad campaigns in history. Even if you knew all this, chances are you have or will have a wedding ring that has a diamond on it — because others still believe in the power of the diamond.De Beers is so successful because they can do two things that many others can’t: generate self-perpetuating consumer enthusiasm and silence critics. They can get every single romantic comedy to emphasize the importance of diamonds without having people feel guilty about buying diamonds from conflict-ridden places. A few companies have been able to replicate the first: Apple, for instance, gets product evangelists without even having to pay for them. But not even Apple can match De Beers in silencing critics: look at the debacle around Foxconn. De Beers handles criticism through obscurity (notice how Blood Diamond never mentions that there’s a diamond monopoly?), but one organization has bested De Beers in that field of silencing criticism by openly obscuring it instead of itself. The American military, not surprisingly, is also the only organization whose marketing strategy is more successful than De Beers’. I’m not talking about the cable news pundits arguing for the War in Iraq or Congress passing resolutions to honor the troops, but rather the permeation of the military into pop culture. Some of us played with little green soldiers and G.I. Joes when we were kids, but most of us jumped right into video games instead. Call of Duty, Battlefield, Counter Strike, and Medal of Honor are the most obviously “American” games, but Halo and Gears of  War are basically the same too — albeit with aliens. You are always in the heat of conflict. You are always in the right and strictly professional, occasionally giving off the cool one-liner. The enemy is always evil — and the remedy is always death in your hands. Some will argue that that’s the point — shooter video games should entertain, and using these tactics do a great job of entertaining. But think about the beginning to Call of Duty: Black Ops. It’s an adrenaline pumping gunfire fight where you command an operation to assassinate Fidel Castro, until you realize that you don’t even have to shoot in order to advance. A situation that was supposed to inflate egos was actually heavily scripted: it is a simulacra of assassinating Fidel Castro. As shooters get more realistic graphics and historical context, it ironically becomes harder to make war entertaining. In order to get the cinematic bravado and patriotism that characterizes these video games, it must be a replication of reality only in form, not substance. The game must become a selective simulation of war for a society that selectively loves it. Any more realistic, and it hits an uncanny valley where war becomes too real to be fun. Granted, everybody knows that the games we’re playing aren’t the real deal. In real life, ammo pickups aren’t everywhere, you don’t magically recover within seconds, and there is a lot more paperwork. But in the end we are still left in a nationalistic afterglow of how honorable they are, which help games sell and raise interest for potential recruits but do nothing other than harm the soldiers they glorify. Images of valor, honor, and patriotic duty prepare beginner soldiers for a hard fall in expectations. Soldiers already jaded with these ideals have to deal with living up to them when they go home.  They can’t honestly retell their experiences when they go back home. They can’t talk about lying in an uncomfortable position for hours shooting randomly at people they can’t see, or being forced to stay at their post per protocol even if they hear a fellow unit cry for help. A lot has been written defending such games by saying that they lose their entertainment value if they become more realistic. Nobody wants to buy a game where dead women and children are commonplace, much less have to kill them. But soldiers do have to deal with such horrors, and even more has been written about the desensitization, the PTSD, and the drug use that is rampant. It doesn’t only stem from soldiers’ own unrealistic expectations, but because they have to keep the traumas to themselves; they have to bottle it up and act like the stoic tough guys that we expect. Such nationalistic kitsch is unfair and selfish. It sanitizes war into something that it is not, while expecting soldiers to pick up and mask the parts we don’t want to see. It sends a mixed message that their job is both amazing and shameful at the same time. It ultimately tells them that we don’t want to listen to what they think.If we want to change anything, we have to demystify and devalorize the images of war that we see. Let’s stop making up scripted crap and treat the job of a soldier as a job, albeit a very dangerous and tiring, but yes, an honorable and appreciated job. Let’s talk about the existential fatigue and attrition in addition to the parts we see in video games. Let’s openly embrace all the jobs a serviceperson has, instead of making them lead double lives of loyalty and doubt. In the meantime, we should focus on all these things instead of whether we can make trees destructible. I’m looking at you, Battlefield 3.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng