Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Aliens, robots, zombies, Nazis, and terrorists: An update on digital killing

By Jim Gourley Best Defense senior tactical shooter games reviewer For those who don’t have a video game system of some type in their houses or shop at a PX/BX, you might have missed the recent imbroglio between angry parents of service members in combat, the Army/Air Force Exchange Service, and video game developer Infinity ...

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense senior tactical shooter games reviewer

For those who don’t have a video game system of some type in their houses or shop at a PX/BX, you might have missed the recent imbroglio between angry parents of service members in combat, the Army/Air Force Exchange Service, and video game developer Infinity Ward Studios. The point of contention is the newest incarnation of Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare game series, titled Black Ops, in which players can select the role of Taliban insurgents. Alerted to the implication that the option allowed players to notionally participate in the killing of U.S. soldiers, AAFES recently decided not to sell the game at its stores. Giving way to additional pressure from activists, Infinity Ward announced just prior to the game’s release that it would drop the ‘Taliban’ designation from the enemy and re-dub them ‘insurgents.’ The rationale given by the game’s executive producer Greg Goodrich was that “because the heartbeat of Medal of Honor has always resided in the reverence for American and Allied soldiers, we have decided to rename the opposing team in Medal of Honor multiplayer from Taliban to Opposing Force.” It seems the Armed Forces and respect for the dead prevailed. Now if only the Armed Forces themselves could show the same respect.

It’s a running gag in the “gamer” community that there are exactly five things you can shoot on sight in a video game and maintain a clear conscience; aliens, robots, zombies, Nazis, and terrorists. There’s much truth in humor. While there have been radical departures from that convention such as Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series, which declared open season on just about every level of law enforcement authority imaginable, such entries have been lambasted as much as lauded for their novelty. Successful franchises such as Halo and Doom shy from rocking the boat, endeavoring instead to have a nice, uncontroversial game where people can kill everything in sight. Even Black Ops double-dips on the principle, offering four optional “zombie levels” in case you get tired of shooting terrorists.

Still, the convention itself isn’t without problems. 2008’s Resident Evil 5 ran into opposition because it changed the location of the gameplay from Western civilization to Africa. Protests and polemic ensued shortly after players remarked that the game’s white protagonists ran all over the place killing predominantly black zombies. No one bats an eye at games like Delta Force or Bad Company, though, in which the “terrorists” and “insurgents” are of homogenously Middle Eastern descent. These games are available in bulk at any AAFES location. Nor does anyone debate the racial distribution in shooters set in World War II. Arab, German and Japanese players have yet to log complaints about games in which their ethnicity or nationality binds them to the role of vanquished while Americans recoil from a game that provided the option to walk a mile in the enemy’s shoes.

All of this debate is part and parcel of a larger problem. The U.S. video game industry created a money making monster when it introduced the first-person shooter genre with 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D. But in its drive to satisfy gamers eager for an ever more realistic combat experience, the monster has evolved into something society isn’t altogether comfortable with. A ten-minute viewing of any of the thousands of videos made by Modern Warfare players on YouTube gives you an idea of just how vividly realistic the experience is (“live feed” from AC-130 s and UAVs is flawless in its replication), and consequently an understanding of why particular groups become so upset by the visual. The cultural context goes much deeper, though.

The U.S. Army has made great use of Lt. Col. (ret) David Grossman’s studies on the conduct of violent operations, and much of the current psychological “resiliency training” used by the Army is based on the principles Grossman set forth in his lecture series “The Bullet Proof Mind.” Ironically, the Army ignored Grossman’s warnings about overdoing it when they developed America’s Army, a video game meant to work as a recruiting tool. In multiple essays on his website, Killology, Grossman reviews volumes of research indicating the deleterious effects violent games like Black Ops and America’s Army have on the minds of their young players. Hoping the game would at least give a few prospective recruits a taste of Army life in a way they’d relate to, the Army got a crash course in the potency of the FPS genre when the game went viral. Within two years, it was a top selling game at retail stores for every platform from Apple to Xbox. Despite the Army’s vastly superior introduction of non-violent soldier skill training and an ‘honor system,’ Grossman still holds that the repeated act of simulating shooting another individual is exactly the kind of operant conditioning that makes people dangerously predisposed to the kind of misconduct we see coming from Afghanistan’s “Rogue Platoon.”

Now in its third evolution, America’s Army is played on every platform imaginable, pitting U.S. soldier avatars against insurgents and terrorists in conflicts across the world. To keep up with this realism, the preponderance of insurgents wear the characteristic garb of Iraqi fighters. However, for all its insistence that it strives to provide the most realistic Army experience possible, the game eschews stickier propositions like Special Operations incursions into Somalia and ambushes in markets crowded by civilians. The game developers avoided the issue of opposing force identification through a digital sleight of hand. Players aren’t given the option to choose “insurgent.” Everyone plays the good guy, and the game simply paints the world red or blue based on your perspective. To your teammates, you look like Specialist Jones in standard issue ACUs. To your opponents, you look like an Arab with a ski mask and shemagh. To be fair, players who complete “Special Forces training” can adopt the role of an allied Iraqi fighter. So not all Iraqis are bad, it’s just that the good ones are specially selected and trained.

It seems then that the trend of how we define the threshold isn’t so much by who dies, but by who does the killing. When everyone is a soldier in America’s Army, the obvious conclusion is that only soldiers ever get killed, but apparently the Army is okay with this. Nor does it stir our sensibilities that the killing is done by opponents that are presumably al Qaeda or Mahdi Army. In America’s Army, the identification is implied. It can only be assumed then that Infinity Ward’s crime was in explicitly naming the killers, making the context for their actions as realistic as the graphics, and then giving us the opportunity to act as our own enemies.

If that’s the case, AAFES needs to take a hard look at its inventory again. On the shelves it will find Delta Force: Blackhawk Down. The title says it all — the game is a direct recreation of the Battle of Mogadishu. The game’s storyline follows Mark Bowden’s
script, allows you to play as actual members of Task Force Ranger in their desperate attempts to save their comrades, and features a host of opponents of exclusively Somali ethnicity. Minus the graphics, it’s decidedly more realistic than Black Ops. As a personal aside, a friend once asked me to download the Delta Force game and play on his team. Knowing the game’s background and dealing with issues I’ve already referred to here, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. On the other side of the coin, I watched my troops in Iraq play Grand Theft Auto constantly during their free time, even on days we ran convoy escorts through Mosul. They used a game simulating swapping paint and threatening motorists with assault rifles as a way to unwind from a hard day of swapping paint and threatening motorists with assault rifles. Those are anecdotes, but if you know more than one soldier that’s been overseas, you probably know a soldier that took a video game system with them.

So if AAFES finally decided that there is a line that must not be crossed and that now is the time to draw it, the organization is left with the problematic revelation that they’ve been on the wrong side of it for at least a decade. The question now is how to resolve their moral stand with a history of fence-sitting. Gaming industry commentators and Time magazine’s “very influential people” Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik probably best tackled the subject in their online comic strip. Ultimately, the issue isn’t about who kills who, but the fact that people are killing in frighteningly realistic ways in the digital domain. The technology is already at hand such that game developers must decide just how much realism and violence go into a game. As the aforementioned demonstrations show, society doesn’t always agree with them. As the graphics and context push the envelope further, the lines between the digital and real worlds may become so blurred that people question the implications of killing, zombie or no, and that the genre has gone so far that it’s really not a game anymore. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1