The (War)Games We Play

October 16, 2013

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s call for military-themed games to observe the laws of war (and punish in-game player infractions) has attracted substantial attention and mockery. To be fair, the ICRC’s position is not as ridiculous as it might sound—there is anecdotal evidence that Jack Bauer’s torturous antics on 24 have made it more difficult for the U.S. military to train recruits in proper interrogation procedures. While blaming video games for gun violence is often unfounded, there is at least some plausibility in the idea that a generation of youth getting an education in jus in bello from Battlefield 4 merits some sustained attention. However, the ICRC fundamentally misunderstands military-themed video games—posing problems for their campaign to bring Geneva rules to console gaming.

In a recent War on the Rocks post, Thomas Gibbons-Neff wrote eloquently about his frustration over civilians asking him if his military experiences resembled the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Where the ICRC goes wrong can be summed up by the following sentence from Gibbons-Neff’s post:

A film or a book might be less participatory than a video game, but they still contain the human element. You grow attached to characters and mourn their departures and tribulations. A video game in 2013, no matter how sexed up and cinematic it is, is just some iteration of Doom for DOS. You walk around and shoot people.

While this may be true of a good war film, the vast majority of military-themed action films involve emotionally barren heroes that are projected as proxies for the viewer. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, Sylvester Stallone allowed a nation traumatized by defeat in Vietnam, and societal disdain for returning veterans, to live vicariously through him as he blasted hordes of Vietnamese soldiers and their Russian advisors into red mist and intimidated a mealy mouthed government bureaucrat who deceived and undermined his mission.

Action films are intended to stimulate Walter Mitty-like viewing experiences. That is why a previous generation of veterans complained about idiotic civilians who thought that Hollywood wars and Tom Clancy books—not videogames—were a sufficient means of understanding the soldier’s trials.

Most war games are not war simulators. War simulators appeal to those with a true yen for technical details, but there’s a catch: they are also much more difficult to play. Take this description of popular first person shooter game ArmA:

Death comes almost instantly and often without any prior warning, with everything from fatigue to non-fatal limb injuries simulated in exacting detail. There’s no taking a few seconds out to regenerate here, just the stark realism of what really happens when someone fires high calibre bullets at your fragile human body…Guns have serious recoil and are difficult to aim if you’re out of breath or not crouched down.

In contrast, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games are very lenient on the player. I recall a 2010 MW2 tournament that I organized in which a Marine veteran player complained that equivalent buildings his unit had to painstakingly clear could be easily taken in-game with little risk or resistance. Not so in Fallujah.

War games instead extend the experience of the average guns and glory action film. Gaming companies realized that they could make even a well-made action film as static and unappealing as watching over your friend’s shoulder as he slogged through yet another campaign level. Indeed, the military game has replaced the big budget 1980s action film as cultural event and an attractor for resources and talent.  Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriters are summoned to write for first-person shooter games. Hollywood-esque trailers promote Call of Duty and Battlefield games. Prominent screen actors like The Wire, Pacific Rim, and Prometheus‘ Idris Elba line up to provide voices for in-game characters.

In other words, playing a good, high-budget action video game feels a lot like watching Predator, Rambo, Patriot Games, or Die Hard on opening night. To complete the passing of the cinematic torch, Call of Duty: Black Ops even has several Vietnam levels that pay both indirect and explicit tribute to scenes from Apocalypse Now and First Blood Part II. When you are fighting Soviet helicopters over a Vietnamese landscape after springing American POWs, Black Ops’ writers are proverbially smacking you in the face yelling “see, it’s just like Rambo!!” until you get it and move on.

How successful has the ICRC been, then, at making the vast majority of action films incorporate a consciousness of the laws of war? The answer does not bode well for their quest to make video games respect war law. Unless it involved a critical plot point, situations that touch on war law or international humanitarian law did not figure into say, your average Chuck Norris flick. Screenwriters usually and thoroughly insulate the hero from the Law of Land Warfare, just as they insulate him from having to reload the crew-served weapons and rocket launchers he carries as easily as a fashionable young woman carries Zara shopping bags. Audiences want frictionless fantasy, and Hollywood and the studios that produce military games will gladly sell it to them.

This is not to say heroes violate war law with abandon. Rather, they are almost never given opportunities to do so. There will be no civilians in the levels you shoot your way through. Every soldier you encounter—like an Imperial Japanese Army trooper in Iwo Jima—will fight to the end in suicidal fashion. In contrast, it is always the villain who encounters (and transgresses) war law.

Don’t like it? Make your own games—because waiting for your average gamer (or movie gamer) to demand that level of realism is just as likely as gamers wanting to repair trucks, write paperwork, or wait in a FOB for orders.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence