War Games

New Media Finds Its Place in the New World Order

The relationship between cinema, gaming, and the military goes deeper than positive images of soldier life. As French cultural critic Paul Virilio has argued, the histories of warfare, optical sciences, and visual entertainments have long been interconnected through a common goal: the artificial extension of human sight, driven by an unquestioning faith in technology he terms "techno-fundamentalism." In the 20th century, as Regal's recent foray suggests, this has led to the film industry and the military frequently feeding off each others' innovations. Virilio also pegs the modern obsession with the goal of "pure war," a dream of clean, surgical war between disembodied technologies that seeks to remove human casualty from the equation. He likens it to the absurd image of a conversation between two answering machines, and sees this utopian ideal of absolute safety as a rationale for more extreme systems of control.

War as a game is an ancient metaphor. Chess and Go may have had their roots as early stabs at virtual battle. Strategy board games like Risk and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons evolved from the early-19th-century Kriegsspiel, which was used as an aid for Prussian officers. In the 1930s, the Army Air Corps purchased the first mechanical flight simulator from aviation pioneer Edwin Link, whose "Blue Box" trainer had previously been used as a mere Coney Island midway attraction. The first home video game system, the 1972 Magnavox Odyssey, was developed at Sanders Associates, a military contracting firm. Later, the army collaborated with Atari to retool its 1980 arcade game Battlezone for training use. The marines followed suit in 1994 with id Software's gory shooter Doom. Today, numerous commercial games like Electronic Arts' Jane's Fleet Command and MacSoft's Tom Clancy's Rogue Spear are used throughout the armed forces as training aids, supplementing the scores of computerized systems developed purely for use within the armed forces.

America's Army isn't the only military-funded game available to the public. A sexy-sounding but clunky set of PC games called Real War and Real War: Rogue States are modified versions of Joint Force Employment, a trainer developed for the Department of Defense that pits U.S. forces against a global terrorist threat. A more glamorous project is underway at the Institute for Creative Technologies, a USC-based think tank created in 1999 with a $45 million investment from the army to bring together Hollywood, the gaming industry, and academia to develop advanced military training systems. Consultants include directors Randal Kleiser (Grease) and John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), as well as several members of The Sims' support team.

"No Diplomats. No Negotiation. No Surrender"?from Conflict: Desert Storm
illustration: Gotham Games
"No Diplomats. No Negotiation. No Surrender"?from Conflict: Desert Storm

Developed with Sony Pictures Imageworks and other partners, the ICT Games Project plans a 2003 launch for a pair of games set in an Eastern European urban setting in which American troops battle "unconventional" and "asymmetrical" threats. The first, Full Spectrum Command, will be released for PCs; a variant, Full Spectrum Warrior, will be made for commercial console systems like Sony's Playstation 2. While the army will help develop and use the games, it tries to distance itself from their commercialization. ICT creative director Jim Korris says Full Spectrum "is not intended as a recruiting tool. There is a stipulation from the army that packaging and advertising for a commercial version does not express or imply any kind of U.S. Army endorsement." The games, say Korris, "could be a particularly effective way for people in the U.S. Army to develop and hone their skills . . . particularly for soldiers who grew up playing computer games. There is no guarantee that these products can be successfully adapted for commercial audiences."

But commercial software developers are already testing the market for a new breed of let's-roll-playing games. One of the most strikingly opportunistic is Gotham Games' Conflict: Desert Storm for Playstation 2, XBox, and GameCube, released in October to coincide with Bush's own upgraded call for a new war on Iraq. Marketed with the tagline "No Diplomats. No Negotiation. No Surrender," Conflict lets participants play as either U.S. Special Forces or British SAS to pursue a series of missions based loosely on real events in the Gulf War. In one mission, soldiers employ C4 explosive to disable Scud missiles intended for Israel; in another, gamers can use a sniper rifle to take down "General Aziz," a mustachioed Saddam Hussein lookalike (no relation, Gotham reps claim, to Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz).

Conflict: Desert Storm isn't alone in reworking historical battles for modern-day playtime. A number of games, including Electronic Arts' recent Medal of Honor: Frontline, have recreated WWII battles, while upcoming games like Gathering of Developers' Viet-cong and NovaLogic's Delta Force: Black Hawk Down will allow players to seek virtual revenge for American losses in Vietnam and Somalia. The neo-patriotic Conflict: Desert Storm and Vietcong are both distributed by Take 2 Interactive, the same umbrella corporation that owns Rockstar Games, maker of notoriously ultraviolent anarchy fests Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and State of Emergency. All these war-based games are rated T, for Teen, while Rockstar's products are strictly adults-only. Apparently violence is fine for kids if they're learning the right version of history to go with it.

But used for recruitment or not, these military games partake in the same nerd-friendly ideology of technological reassurance seen in Enduring Freedom, and encourage fantasies of super-clean pure war. Whether players think this is any more plausible than, say, Grand Theft Auto's carnage carnival is tough to say. But even savvy cultural commentators can be duped into thinking that war should be just like a video game. In a recent feature about America's Army, Salon game columnist Wagner James Au naively waxed poetic on the utopian capabilities of joystick warriors:

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